When the Illinois Gaming Board first proposed checking IDs of patrons to keep problem gamblers out of casinos, the Illinois casino industry objected with high-minded concerns that police might start looking for more than just problem gamblers.
Anti-gambling advocates guffawed at the objection, calling the possibility far-fetched.
Turns out, the gambling industry was right.
The Illinois State Police and gambling board acknowledged this week that in addition to checking gamblers for being on the casino self-exclusion list, they also are "randomly" checking patrons for outstanding criminal warrants and for being unregistered sex offenders.
And they've been quietly doing it for some time -- unbeknown even to the Illinois Gaming Board chairman himself.
"I have no knowledge of that, and I personally would be very contrary to that," said Aaron Jaffe when reached at home Wednesday.
The gaming board voted in June 2003 to begin cross-referencing the IDs of anyone who looked 30 and under. The IDs were supposed to be referenced with the board's self-exclusion list -- a list of people who believe their gambling was so out of control they need to be legally barred from the casinos. So far, more than 5,000 people have signed up.
But until 2006, there was no effective way of policing that list except on the off chance that a casino worker would recognize a self-excluded gambler or that a self-excluded gambler would try to cash a check or take home big winnings -- something that requires an ID.
So the gaming board decided in June 2006 to card those 30 and under -- a move widely viewed as a way to later ease into universal ID checks for all patrons. Late last year, the board took up a proposal to expand the checks to everyone. The move is still under consideration.
But at December's board meeting, Tom Swoik, director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, objected and said he had information that state police already were using the ID checks for more than just the self-exclusion list.
Swoik said he attended a test run of an ID check for all patrons at Aurora's riverboat and noticed officials there had another list besides the self-exclusion list that they were checking. He asked what it was for but couldn't get a straight answer, he said.
This week, gaming board spokesman Eugene O'Shea said police officers were checking for sex offenders who have not registered with police as required by law and for patrons who may have outstanding criminal warrants. On Wednesday, Illinois State Police spokesman Master Sgt. Luis Gutierrez confirmed that.
Both said not every patron whose ID is checked is cross-referenced against the unregistered sex offender list and warrants databases. Instead, a certain portion of those carded patrons are "randomly" checked, both said.
Neither could say what proportion of patrons was checked -- whether one out of every two patrons carded, one out of 10 or one out of 100,000.
Nor could the Illinois State Police say how many unregistered sex offenders or criminals with arrest warrants had been arrested attempting to board the gambling boats. Neither agency could say under whose initiative the criminal checks began to be performed.
"It's been done for quite a while now, and it's done for public safety issues," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez declined to respond to the casino industry's concern about invasion of privacy and would not say what specific public safety risks are being addressed.
Swoik said it's not that the casino industry has any objection to keeping sex offenders or wanted criminals off the boats, but rather that the casino industry is facing an unfair burden of identifying its patrons that other industries don't have to shoulder.
No one at the liquor store, for instance, runs patrons' IDs through a database when they buy a fifth of whiskey, he said.
If patrons become aware that they are being scrutinized to that degree, many may go to Indiana boats, he said.
Many gamblers eschew giving out personal information, even if it would mean getting more complimentary gifts or casino perks.
"Over 30 percent of our patrons are unrated, which means they don't want a player's card for whatever reason. … It's just for their own privacy," Swoik said.
Jaffe, a former Cook County judge, said his objection is more fundamental. He's not sure it's even constitutional to check patrons for warrants or being unregistered sex offenders.
"(The check) shouldn't exceed just checking for people on the self-exclusion list," said Jaffe, who vowed to look further into the matter.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general's office said the office has no role in performing the checks but supports the effort to find unregistered sex offenders.
Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Churches Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, said she hoped the criminal checks don't derail the effort to check everyone for being on the self-exclusion list.
"There's so few people on the self-exclusion list that are under 30 years old that it's really not a deterrent," Bedell said.