Gambling in High Places

By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli 09/03/14

Addiction to gambling is not exactly the same as an addiction to a substance, but the compulsion it inspires and the wreckage it creates are on the same level.


When the parishioners of St. Mary’s and St. Mark’s, two small western New York Roman Catholic churches, dropped their dollar-filled envelopes into the collection plate each Sunday, they entrusted Sister Mary Ann Rapp with their donations. After all, the gray-haired nun had devoted 50 years to serving others. So the unquestioning donated, and the nun pilfered, diverting nearly $130,000 into slot machines at various western NY casinos. Sister Mary Ann Rapp was sentenced last year to 90 days in jail, five years of probation, 100 hours of community service, and restitution of stolen funds. 

In a similar scenario, Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe, referred to as Father Kevin by his parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a parish in the Las Vegas Roman Catholic Diocese, tapped $650,000 from votive candle offerings and gift shop funds to finance a video poker and casino gambling obsession. Father Kevin was sentenced in 2012 to three years and one month in prison, plus three years of supervised release and $650,000 in restitution. 

And what about Maureen O’Connor, the former San Diego mayor who devoted years to serving the city? A political phenom, O’Connor secured a city council seat just three years out of college and later a two-term run as the first female mayor of California’s second-largest city. But her swift and honored ascent collided with a nine-year gambling obsession which she described in a CBS-interview as heroin-like. 

Her wagers at San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos burgeoned along with her video poker obsession and daily losses easily topped $100,000. As O’Connor’s debts grew, she initially liquidated her inherited $50 million personal fortune. But like Father Kevin and Sister Mary Ann Rapp, O’Connor eventually plundered reserves allocated for those less fortunate, bankrupting the charitable foundation of her late husband—Robert Peterson, Jack-in-the-Box founder—the R.P. Foundation. 

But unlike the nun and the priest, O’Connor was able to make a deal with the court to avoid prison time if she is able to repay the foundation in two years; something she says she always intended doing.

“I think they may rationalize that they are borrowing the money,” says Carole Lieberman, MD, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who treats gambling addicts. “But it rarely gets paid back.” 

It is not uncommon for public officials to also be compulsive gamblers, because for both types, the aphrodisiac is power. It is essentially a gamble for someone to run for public office, investing a lot of money and time on the chance that they might win. Then, once elected, their access to public coffers makes it very tempting to steal, in order to feel another powerful high by gambling at the usual games of chance. 

Addiction to Gambling differs from alcohol or other drugs


Gambling connected to fantasy 

Gamblers favor suicide, alcoholics helpless and hopeless 

Fully functional until hitting bottom 

Money seen as drug and power 

Gambling disease model harder to accept 

Cannot measure gambling through blood, urine, or hair 

Gambling sponsored by religion and government 

Bailout or big win temporarily can stop self-destructive cycle 

Gambling win seen as solution to problems 

Gamblers tend to do it alone 

More difficult to define gambling 

No saturation point for gamblers 

Gambling recovery often requires significant financial restitution 

No hangover 

No preventative medication 

Often overlooked by professionals until late stages

Source: National Council on Problem Gambling


What makes one person become a gambling addict and another a politician? “Both may come from the same place, past traumatic or painful experience. The child who grows up with nothing may compensate for that as an adult by going into public service so that s/he is never at the bottom again,” says Constance Scharff, PhD, senior addiction research fellow and Director of Addiction Research, Cliffside Malibu. “S/he may bring others up at the same time as a fighter for social justice. Another person may respond to the same situation by trying to make fast money; one way is through gambling. In other words, the same past can drive different behaviors.”

Experts suggest a prevalent belief that they will not get caught. “I would imagine that this comes from a sense of entitlement and feeling above the rules, as some leaders can feel, or even be,” says Scharff.  “As far as gambling away the public coffers, people with gambling addiction gamble any money they can get their hands on – from public coffers, private corporations, charities, family members – you name it, if they can gamble with it, they will. That is the peculiarity of the gambler. The gambler, like the politician, always believes s/he’s going to win, even if the odds are against you.”

In recent years scientists have debated the origins of gambling addiction, with some pointing to neurological pathways and others linking it to a behavior addiction. Johns Hopkins’ neuroscientist David Linden, PhD, says that neural signals regulate how and why we feel pleasure, calling it the pleasure path. In Linden’s book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, he says that the dark side of pleasure is addiction. “It is now becom­ing clear that addiction is associated with long-lasting changes in the electrical, morphological, and biochemical functions of neu­rons and synaptic connections within the medial forebrain plea­sure circuit,” he says. “Per­haps, most important, analysis of the molecular basis of enduring changes in the brain's pleasure circuitry holds great promise for developing drugs and other therapies to help people break free of addictions of many sorts, to both substances and experiences.”

Conversely, others look to certain behaviors. According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers from the Ontario Problem Gaming Centre studied 1,171 pathological slot machine gamblers identifying four gambling subtypes.

  • Type I pathological gamblers had poor impulse control, were uncooperative, and held mystical or spiritual beliefs. This group had the most severe gambling behavior, the highest level of other psychological disorders, and the highest level of substance abuse.  
  • Type II pathological gamblers were characterized by materialistic, controlled, avoidant behavior and aloofness. They had the highest level of alcohol abuse. 
  • Type III pathological gamblers started gambling as teens, sought high sensations, and were impulsive and overspending. This group was highly sensitive to reward and tended to persist on tasks. They showed no other psychological issues. 
  • Type IV pathological gamblers were considered high-functioning. They began gambling later in life, showed low levels of impulsiveness and sensation seeking, and they had responsible and goal-directed behavior. Few had other psychological and substance use disorders.

Some may recall the 2003 film, Owning Mahowny, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the true life Canadian banker, Brian Molony, a self-admitted compulsive gambler who embezzled millions from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Molony was arrested in 1982, the day after he lost $1 million at Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. Interestingly, Molony placed his first bet at the race track when he was 10 and acted as a bookie for friends in school.

In the film, Hoffman offers an excellent portrayal of the intensity of purpose, power and a sense of oneness with the cards. According to Scharff, the question is really about what gives some people drive that is far above and beyond the average person. 

“Think about what it takes to become a state governor or President of the USA. It’s more than ambition. It’s almost a type of quest. On a path like that, you’ve got to be a risk taker. You’ve got to be bold and empowered and think a great deal of yourself. You have to believe in yourself despite the odds,” she says. “We’re talking about people who desire power. These are all traits you’ll find in a problem gambler. Again, I don’t want to draw a link; there is no data at this point to suggest that politicians are more likely to become gambling addicts than anyone else, but you can see the parallels between the personality types. I think gamblers would understand politicians very well, and vice versa.”

The nun, the priest, the mayor and the banker are not alone in their gambling crimes: 

  • A Dallas-based firm, Affiliated Computer Services, hired Thomas H. Koch in 2001 to pursue medical insurance cases for the company’s clients. But the Wisconsin attorney, over several years, duped the firm out of $2.5 million to fund his slot machine wagers at Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee. According to court records, the judge sentenced Koch to two years in prison, followed by four years of extended supervision. Koch must continue with Gamblers Anonymous and psychiatric treatment. He has been banned from entering any kind of gambling establishment anywhere and prohibited from gambling online.  Koch must pay $2,421,768.57 in restitution, even though Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley said Koch has no assets and likely will never pay the money back. 
  • Keith Soderquist, mayor of Lake Station, Indiana, was indicted on three counts this spring, following an extensive FBI, IRS and ISP investigation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice release, Soderquist, 44, and his wife, Deborah Soderquist, 55, who was employed as the administrative assistant to the mayor allegedly used funds from the Lake Station Food Pantry account to finance gambling at casinos in Indiana and Michigan, among other charges. Their trial is slated for October. United States Attorney David Capp said, “These indictments are part of this office’s ongoing public corruption investigation.”
  • Casino surveillance footage shows former Braddock, PA Manager Ella Jones withdrawing more than $40,000 stolen from taxpayers to feed her gambling addiction. Braddock fired Jones from her $45,000-a-year job after she pleaded guilty to stealing $178,000 from 2008 to 2009 from taxpayer-fed accounts. A judge this month sentenced her to nine years of probation, and she must pay restitution.
  • Anne Elizabeth Dalton, 65, manager at the Family and Youth Services in Australia was found guilty of 271 counts of deception. She stole $100,000 from emergency funds applications for bogus victims of domestic violence, supposedly to help them find alternative accommodation. She was sentenced to five and a half years in prison and must pay restitution.
  • Cheri A. Logue, 42, Claysville, PA received a 22-month federal prison sentence for embezzling $90,000 in government money provided to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services Corp. She used an ATM card registered to the corporation to withdraw more than $12,000 at or near casinos on 56 occasions, investigators said. 
  • Nancy J. Brown, 62, is awaiting trial on charges of stealing nearly $389,000 from payroll accounts in Springfield Township, PA where she worked as township secretary. Her lawyer said she lost most of the money at Presque Isle Downs & Casino near Erie and other casinos.

Treatment for these high-powered addicts can be a challenge, according to recent research. “Yes, our experience shows that 'smarter' people are harder to treat. All addicts try to work the system at one point or another,” says Scharff. “Those who are smarter can work the system better, and this works to their disadvantage when it comes to getting healthy. “

“Research shows all addicts (substance abuse or process disorders – like gambling) need highly individualized, evidence-based care,” Scharff added. “The residential phase of treatment generally lasts 90-120 days with the remainder of a year being spent in intensive, non-residential aftercare. Twelve- step programs, while certainly a good adjunct to treatment or prong of an after-care plan, are not treatment. They are support groups and while they have definite advantages, they cannot take the place of quality, evidence-based care. “

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli has written for the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today and American Medical News, among other publications. She last wrote about the state of addiction funding research.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is an artist, writer, and award-winning documentary photographer and journalist. You can find her on Linkedin or check out her blog,here.