Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

From Philadelphia Weekly November 4, 2000
Cover Story

Compulsive Gambling's Unlikely Poster Boy
South Philly native Gary DiBartolomeo worked his way up from craps dealer to Atlantic City casino president. Along the way, he really rolled the dice.


It tends to start innocently. A $5 football pool becomes 20 bucks on the Monday night tilt. A casual evening surfing the Net leads to a nightlong visit to an online casino. A weekend getaway to Atlantic City moves from the Boardwalk to a low-stakes blackjack table where pretty soon a $40 victory isn't enough.

The festival atmosphere of the craps tables and the roulette wheels calls like a carnival barker. Zeros are added to the end of double-digit bets. Small wins become big losses. ATM machines spin like revolving cash doors that soon get jammed shut. Credit card cash advances feed the fix ... for a while. Debts mount, but not to worry: You can win it back and square those bills with one roll of the dice.

No need to tell the spouse where the money went. Come up with a story. An airtight story. Borrow from a friend. Tap the 401(k) account. Pawn something.

Stiff upper lip, hide those guilty feelings. Borrow from another friend. Do whatever. Just get back to the table, to the bright lights and incessant jackpot bells, to the adrenaline rush, to the excitement.

Soon no football game passes without a wager. No trip to Atlantic City is short, let alone profitable. The phone can't ring without the thought that it's those blood-sucking bill collectors again. How to tell them all the money's gone?

All gone.

Now what? Keep denying the addiction?

Gambling's fun. An escape. It can get you back on your feet again and fill up the savings account. One more try.

But the options have already dwindled to the point of no return: hit the elusive jackpot and walk away (and what are the odds of that?), lose what little is left and ponder whether life's worth living (like a gambler who plunged from a parking garage roof last year) or hope that Lady Luck finally arrives in the form of a moment of clarity.

This time, though, she won't scream of potential jackpots and quick fixes. She'll whisper, right into your ear, "You're out of control. You need help--now."

Gary DiBartolomeo was lucky. He heard the whisper.

He heard it from New Jersey's Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE), the state's gambling watchdog, which put his name in front-page headlines and sent him seeking psychological help and antidepressant medication this past summer.

The damage to his career may already have been done. He must now face the New Jersey Casino Control Commission (CCC) monitors and tell them why he gambled repeatedly when he said he wouldn't.

Then five political appointees will decide within three months whether they'll let DiBartolomeo walk back into his office at Caesars Atlantic City.

The one that says "Casino President" on the door.

Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Gary DiBartolomeo graduated from Bishop John Neumann High School in the early '70s, then enrolled at Temple. But college didn't suit this product of his working-class 20th and Mifflin neighborhood, so he dropped out. He took some restaurant jobs, but those didn't do it for him either.

Twenty-three and looking for a chance, he turned eastward. Eastward down the highway to a reinvented Atlantic City, the playground by the sea where casino gambling was being hailed as the dying city's savior.

He strolled into Resorts International Casino Hotel--the only gaming house in town at the time--and was immediately captivated by the lights, the money and the people. He knew this was the place for him. He applied for, and received, a casino dealer's license a year later and took his first job at a newly opened Caesars Atlantic City craps table. From there, it didn't take long for DiBartolomeo to climb the ladder up the city's wagering hierarchy.

He jumped from dealer to supervisor. Then, in 1989, he became an executive host at the Showboat Casino Hotel. A year later, he moved down Pacific Avenue to the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, where he was put in charge of high-roller recruitment.

DiBartolomeo, whose friends call him Gary DiBart, joined the executive ranks in 1992 when he was granted a key license as a junket representative, which meant he escorted wealthy gamblers from all over the country to Atlantic City. In 1994, he returned to Caesars as vice president of national marketing.

His time had arrived.

Traveling the world in pursuit of players with bulging billfolds, he established a reputation as one of the best in a tricky business. He was a schmoozer, pure and simple. A player's player, a high-stakes gambler's yes-man--a people person who made folks want to play at his casino. But what everyone else soon found out is that the 45-year-old father of three who resided in neighboring Margate was quite the player himself.

Unfortunately for him, the higher a casino worker climbs the ladder, the deeper state officials dig into his background during the licensing process. So when DiBartolomeo went to the CCC to get his key license renewed in 1994, red flags started flapping.

The CCC found a history of outstanding gambling debts, a penchant for signing on to high-interest loans and inaccuracies on his application. Investigators recommended that DiBartolomeo's license not be renewed because he "failed to establish good character, honesty and integrity" and didn't have the proper "financial integrity and responsibility and business ability" to hold such a position.

He was in a major jam.

But in a free-wheeling, glitzy town like Atlantic City, he was able to strike a deal that left him holding the key-employee license as long as he attended weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings and didn't show his face as a casino guest anywhere in the world.

That, he said, he could handle.

He signed forms stating he hadn't gambled or lost money in the time since the initial license-renewal hearing. Putting the ink to the paper, he rolled the dice again and lied.

Caesars' higher-ups, unaware of his deception, rewarded him with a promotion to vice president of customer development. He was now a bigwig with a paycheck to match.

Two seemingly uneventful years passed and his license-renewal process went without so much as a glitch, leaving DiBartolomeo no longer subject to those no-gambling edicts.

Ten days into 2000, Gary DiBartolomeo reached his career pinnacle when he was named president of the casino that sits right at the end of the highway he traveled 22 years earlier.

He was making $325,000 and had a nice big office. He was given major responsibilities and sported a higher profile than ever.

Life was good.

With prototypical Atlantic City-style pomp and circumstance, Wallace Barr, executive vice president of Park Place Entertainment (the corporation that owns Caesars), said he looked forward to having the widely respected Gary DiBartolomeo "lead Caesars into the 21st century."

But five months later the company put DiBartolomeo on paid medical leave so he could get treatment for a compulsive-gambling disorder.

DiBartolomeo, it said, suffered from a psychiatric disorder. His gambling was the result of a disease. He needed serious help, not punishment.

Gary DiBartolomeo was sick.

Gary DiBartolomeo's rise to the top and parallel path to self-destruction was unprecedented by anyone so high up in casino management. At least that's what the Division of Gaming Enforcement alleged this past summer when it said DiBartolomeo's temporary leave of absence should become permanent. A 65-page report signed by DGE Director John Peter Suarez and Deputy State Attorney General James C. Fogarty spells out a pattern of unchecked gambling that resulted in nearly $400,000 in losses.

The report states that DiBartolomeo borrowed $90,000 from former casino president Mark Juliano; that he associated with a known bookmaker and changed the rules at Caesars craps tables to suit his gambling style; that he hocked two pricey watches to pay off mounting debts; and that he hired a fellow employee to play blackjack for him at the adjacent Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino as he watched.

It lists dozens of instances in which, during the time he was prohibited from gambling and swore he wasn't, DiBartolomeo hit casinos in Las Vegas, Connecticut, Monaco and the Bahamas--losing more often than not.

Sometimes, he said in response, you just have to gamble with potential customers to earn their business.

The report also says he didn't attend 29 Gamblers Anonymous meetings and circumvented federal currency-transaction laws by traveling to New York City five separate days to pay off a $40,000 MGM Grand debt. And, oh yeah, he didn't report his gambling on his tax returns.

In short, the report paints the picture of a man trapped in the depths of an addiction he desperately wanted to hide.

"Temptations become reality all too easily in such a climate," reads the report, which goes on to question where DiBartolomeo would have turned for money had he not been able to secure those loans from friends and co-workers.

Though they don't imply he ever did anything illegal--he never even went bankrupt, as many compulsive gamblers do--the regulators worried that he could have had his behavior gone unchecked much longer.

The news was a bombshell in Atlantic City.

DiBartolomeo held a press conference at his attorney Mark Sandson's office during which he admitted the facts were, for the most part, accurate--but that the DGE was "trying to color a picture of me as a bad guy" and that "they're twisting the truth."

This was not a criminal matter, he continued, but a question of sickness. His lawyer jumped to his defense, calling the report sensational, "a nuclear bomb" designed to destroy DiBartolomeo. Even Park Place management got into the fallen leader's corner, issuing a written statement to the media in which it said the company was "concerned that Mr. DiBartolomeo's unique human condition is being handled as a law- enforcement issue rather than a serious health issue."

Though the state--which maintains the issue is DiBartolomeo's deceit, not his gambling addiction--responded that he deceived them and shouldn't be permitted to work in the gaming industry, DiBartolomeo's camp countered with a truce: remove him from the job so he can get treatment and let him come back when he feels capable.

Now the state faces a decision that will not only affect the leadership of one casino but could also change the way the world looks at compulsive gambling. It could also open the door for people who lost their earnings to strike back at the casino industry--much in the way the tobacco companies were hit for profiting from addiction and illness.

Nobody's quite sure what to make of compulsive gambling these days. And with casino gaming in the midst of a nationwide explosion, it's a bad time for uncertainty.

Scores of depressed areas, like Atlantic City in the '70s, want to build their own casino industry in an attempt to rejuvenate themselves and jump-start the local economy. Even Philadelphia pondered the idea of riverboat gambling during the Rendell administration.

Las Vegas continues to reinvent itself as a family-friendly gaming town, an extended-stay destination. Indian tribes are in on the action as well, both independently and with the hoped-for backing of casino companies that see building on tribal lands with little federal oversight as a potential moneymaker.

Thirty-seven states have lotteries and 28 have commercial or Indian casinos. In 1997 alone, Americans spent $47 billion on gambling. Comparing that to the $6 billion the nation spent on movie tickets puts the extent of gambling's impact into a little better perspective.

That doesn't even include the growth of Internet gambling, into which Americans are pumping billions of dollars without leaving the comfort of their homes and offices.

Ed Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey (it runs the 1-800-GAMBLER help line), estimates there are between 7 million and 10 million compulsive gamblers in the country--156,000 in New Jersey alone. He calls these figures conservative.

This trend forced the American Medical Association to pass a resolution in 1994, encouraging doctors to tell patients that "gambling can become compulsive behavior." The AMA also recommended that gambling states provide a fixed percentage of their revenue for education and treatment while putting the compulsive gambling warnings on the backs of lottery tickets.

Two years later, Congress created the National Gambling Impact Study Commission to conduct a comprehensive survey of gambling's social and economic impact. Last year, it revealed its 76 recommendations, which included a ban on betting on collegiate and amateur events, a moratorium on widespread gambling expansion, the requirement that warnings and odds be posted prominently at casinos and that gaming companies not be permitted to employ aggressive advertising strategies.

Until recently, though, most of those efforts have focused on the industry and not the individual. Gary DiBartolomeo's case could change that. As one Las Vegas newspaper put it, he's "sure to win the Compulsive Gambling Poster Boy Contest."

As early as 1980, the American Psychological Association deemed compulsive or pathological gambling an "impulse control disorder." Three doctors evaluated DiBartolomeo before he went on medical leave. One of those doctors was from the University of Pennsylvania; another was the director of Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions.

The doctors later claimed not to know the true extent of DiBartolomeo's gambling, as he had hid it from them. All three concurred that DiBartolomeo suffered from that disorder and that he needed help, not career-ending punishment.

"He was in the desperation phase at that point," Looney later explained. "He would have promised the world, promised everything, to keep going."

At the same time, they labeled him pathological and recommended strictly monitored treatment programs. Supporters are using those diagnoses to paint DiBartolomeo's problem as a disease.

"All treatment professionals will tell you it's a treatable illness," said Looney, who is also a friend of DiBartolomeo's. "He is a compulsive gambler who is receiving treatment after a relapse."

Gamblers Anonymous, which holds eight weekly meetings in Philadelphia, also supports that stance. It calls compulsive gambling a progressive illness that leaves sufferers with growing and continuing problems in many areas of their lives. Their lives have, after all, spun out of control.

The National Center for Responsible Gaming, which co-sponsored a problem-gaming conference in Philadelphia last month, deems it a "multidimensional problem composed of biological, psychological and sociological factors."

All treatment advocates say gamblers need professional help and that if they're lucky and committed to doing so, they can beat their dice-rolling demons with a strong support system.

But not everybody in the field and industry thinks gambling addiction should be on the same page as alcoholism, drug abuse and smoking. That doesn't even consider the strongly divided opinions on calling it a bona fide illness.

Jeffrey A. Schaler, an American University School of Public Affairs adjunct law professor who is also on the psychology staff at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is among the doubters. "The people who think gambling is a disease who are in the treatment profession have an obvious economic interest in asserting this. They cannot get paid by insurance companies unless they argue that gambling is a disease," says the author of Addiction Is a Choice. "Gambling is considered a disease in order to achieve certain economic and legal purposes.

"Today just about everyone believes, or says they believe, that addicts--including regular smokers, heavy drinkers, frequent gamblers, presidents who seduce interns and people who run up credit card debts--can't help themselves. There is, however, one exception: those people who actually know something about the subject ... The idea that addiction is a disease is the greatest medical hoax since the idea that masturbation will make you go blind."

Schaler says gambling cannot be considered a disease in the traditional sense because it doesn't have real physical symptoms like lesions or high fevers. It's not a disease, he says, but a dependence. But public opinion doesn't seem to be with him, as gambling organizations and much of the psychiatric field are leaning toward calling the behavior part of that legitimate emotional disorder.

It's that very theory upon which DiBartolomeo's defense will be based.

Legal experts are keeping a close eye on this case, since the casino industry is so squarely in DiBartolomeo's corner. For the first time, it's come out vehemently saying the people upon which it makes most of its money suffer from an illness. That it's profiting on disease. That its customers are hooked. Desperately hooked.

Back in the early 1990s, former Eagles owner Leonard Tose sued the Sands Casino Hotel, saying that dealers, pit bosses and other employees allowed him to gamble away upward of $40 million even though they knew he was stinking drunk at the tables as he did it.

He said the casino was at fault for "serving" him and that it should make some sort of restitution. But he lost. The court ruled that casinos aren't responsible for making sure drunk patrons really want to make the bets they plunk down on the table.

Somers Point, N.J., attorney Robert Beakley says DiBartolomeo's case is different, though, and concedes that it could ultimately land the casinos in court. The Tose decision set down the groundwork that can be equated to the bar industry: that a gambler, like a drunken patron, has to set off obvious signs in order to get flagged. DiBartolomeo wasn't intoxicated by booze, but seduced by the gambling rush.

Beakley unsuccessfully represented a Pennsylvania woman whose gambling addiction took her from millionaire status to a penniless death after countless Atlantic City trips. He also defended a casino food-and-beverage employee who lost his job after stealing from the gaming house to gamble.

Cases of people beating the casinos in court, he says, are "few and far between."

Seeing parallels to the $206 billion Multi-State Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement, Schaler, the law professor, says "it's only a matter of time" before the company's defense of DiBartolomeo backfires in the form of a large-scale lawsuit against the industry.

"This is a developing area," Beakley says. "Calling gambling an illness doesn't take care of the indebtedness. How can people in a casino see if someone suffers from a gambling illness? Should they be expected to know? What do you do with a fellow in there who's gambling away his life savings? They can say that they wouldn't have been gambling had they not been on the casino floor. But people are able to hide it pretty well."

On Nov. 14, Gary DiBartolomeo will arrive at the Casino Control Comm-ission's Tennessee Avenue headquarters for a hearing in front of its commissioners. There, the Division of Gaming Enforcement will read its litany of allegations against him and likely recommend that his license to work inside a casino be revoked.

One commissioner, who has yet to be selected, will serve as the hearing examiner and prepare a report on the hearing for the others to review within 45 days. The group will then have that same timeline to make recommendations.

"We'll be able to prove every allegation we have in there," the DGE's John Peter Suarez says. "The hearing will not be about the credibility of the report but a cry for leniency ... The only time he stopped gambling was when he got caught. Only when he got caught did he say 'Mea culpa.'"

Gambling opponents are also against returning DiBartolomeo to his job.

Dianne Berlin, vice chair of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, says putting him back in that den of temptation will only make things worse.

"He needs to recover, to change his playground and playmates. The casinos want to come out smelling like a rose here by downplaying the importance of compulsive gambling," she says. "They are the pushers and providers of this product. Gambling is not a necessity of life. It's robbery with permission."

Looney, a certified gambling counselor, and attorney Mark Sandson will propose a plan to land DiBartolomeo back atop Caesars. Their plan includes daily medicine, weekly compulsive gambling sessions, monthly family counseling sessions with his wife, weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings and 10 hours of monthly service to Looney's organization with a quick return to work.

They say stripping him of his license will scare other casino workers, preventing them from seeking help for problems of their own. In fact, DiBartolomeo said he planned on starting a GA meeting in his hometown to become "a lighthouse" for others with gambling problems.

"I've done a lot of good in this town, but you'd never know it in that report," says DiBartolomeo. "They've been very hurtful."

Maintaining that he didn't gamble once after being named Caesars president, DiBartolomeo is now seeing University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Joseph Volpicelli regularly and is involved in a treatment program. He's making amends to those he hurt in the past, says Looney, and that's a good sign.

"He has a terrific attitude about it now. He knows where he went wrong and doesn't want to go down that road again. He admitted his problems to himself and is happy he found himself. He thinks whatever comes of this, so be it, since he's in a better place than he was before.

"We really don't want to make him a poster boy, though, parading him around to speaking engagements. That wouldn't be good for his recovery or for us at all. He can help in much quieter ways."

After the hearing, it will be up to the CCC commissioners to decide whether the well-liked DiBartolomeo can return to the job he loves.

"They have a chance to do something very important here," says Looney. "I have a feeling there will be some sort of punishment but that there will hopefully be a door open at the end for him. We just want the CCC to show some compassion. This is a high-profile case, a landmark case." *

Brian Hickey (bhickey@philadelphiaweekly. com) last wrote about new developments in Joey Merlino's racketeering trial.