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State screens gambling winners for debt

An “intercept program” that cross-checks big gambling winnings against a database of debtors expanded its reach this week when Ohio casinos began screening for overdue child support.

The casinos are partnering with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to identify those who owe. The program has recouped nearly $3 million since 2001 from lottery and racino winners; it debuted Monday at the state’s four casinos.

“It’s hard to argue if you owe child support and you happen to go to the casino and hit it big. You have obligations that you need to take care of,” said state Rep. Ross McGregor (R-Springfield), one of 16 sponsors of House Bill 483, which included the casino provision.

The thresholds at casinos that trigger a database check are $1,200 for slot machine jackpots, $5,000 for table games or $600 on high-stakes games.

“We built the system so it fits with what the casinos were already doing, because they would be doing the same financial checks at these thresholds for the IRS,” said Job and Family Services spokesman Ben Johnson. “We think we’ll be able to collect a significant amount of money for children around the state.”

The Ohio Lottery, which regulates the state’s seven racinos, also works with JFS on the initiative. Its prize threshold to sweep for child support is $600. Additionally, it partners with the Attorney General’s office to screen winnings of $5,000 or more for such things as back taxes and student loans.

“We sweep for all state debts,” said Danielle Frizzi-Babb, spokesperson for the Ohio Lottery. “If you owe any money, if you have back taxes, it will show up when they run this report and that money is taken out of your prize.”

That wider sweep has helped regain $8.4 million since 2003. The casinos only sweep for child support, but that could change.

“The whole gambling industry is still rather young in Ohio, so as we become more developed I can see that day coming where any number of debts owed will be scanned for on casino winnings,” McGregor said. “It makes sense, but right now this is a good start and the beneficiaries are the people who really need it.”

Millions recovered

The Ohio Lottery has screened for child support since 2001 and it has used the Attorney General’s more thorough check since 2003. Together, the programs have netted more than $11 million.

The programs intercepted $877,000 in winnings from racino customers in fiscal year 2014, which ended in June, most coming through the Attorney General’s sweep. Lottery winners who owed money forfeited $1.1 million last year, an increase of more than $200,000 from FY 2013.

“The largest income is through taxes,” said Dan Tierney, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “If there is a (gambling) payment owed to somebody that does have a debt to the state, that payment instead is applied to the debt owed to the state.”

The Attorney General has 59 clients who use the intercept program. Area entities include the city of Dayton, Fairborn Municipal Court, Greene County Adult Probation, Kettering Municipal Court and Warren County Career Center.

Fairborn Municipal Court was the first court of its kind to sign up. Clerk of Court Susan Anderson inquired about the intercept program and the court began using it in April 2012. Anderson says the Fairborn court has received more than $222,000 in fines and court costs.

“I’ve been happy with it,”she said. “(The Attorney General’s office) is easy to work with. Tax season is the best time because they can seize tax refunds for the state. It tapers off a little after that, but we still do OK.”

The Attorney General’s cut of the regained money is about 10 percent.

Jackpot lost

Not everyone is a fan of the intercept program. Stephen Moore, who lives in Huber Heights, said he won a $5,000 jackpot at Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway on Aug. 30. Because the amount exceeded the threshold that requires tax paperwork, he was given a form to fill out.

He said the form only asked if he owed child support; he says he does not. It also asked for his Social Security Number.

A racino employee returned about 45 minutes later and told Moore he would not get his money because his name was on the Attorney General’s list.

“It wasn’t a question if I owed a student loan or state tax; I knew I owed that stuff,” Moore said. “If I knew they were going to run that database I never would’ve been playing a $25 slot machine.

“It’s a way for them to collect some tax money they haven’t been able to collect. But it’s only fair we know they’re going to run our ‘social’ through the database.”

Tierney did not apologize for the state’s role in taking Moore’s jackpot.

“If it’s certified to us for collection, it’s subject to intercept,” he said. “It’s probably a good thing that somebody was able to pay their debt without having it come out of their regular income.”

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