Attorney General asked to probe alleged shark tournament betting
The Humane Society of the Unites States has taken its campaign against the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament to the state's attorney general, asking her to investigate whether the controversial tournament is "largely a platform for illegal gambling activities, involving bets totaling in excess of $1 million."
But local officials, including one staunch opponent of the tournament, are incensed over a video posted on the Humane Society's website, hsus.org, that implies that Oak Bluffs police are complicit in illegal betting and states unequivocally that a percentage of the cash is paid out to Oak Bluffs police and harbor patrol.
In a letter to Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, dated September 10, the Humane Society outlined its allegations of illegal gambling. The attorney general's office, as a matter of policy, would not confirm or deny that any investigation is underway. The attorney general's office sent the Humane Society a letter acknowledging receipt of its complaint, but that letter indicates the attorney general has made no decision about whether to investigate.
The Humane Society wants state investigators to look into the tournament's added entry divisions, which it claims are illegal betting pools. In the optional, added entry divisions, boat captains and their crews can pay into four separate divisions, with entry fees ranging from $600 to $5,000. The first, second, and third, place entries in each of the four divisions split up most of the prize money, according to the printed entry form used by tournament participants to enter the added divisions. According to the Humane Society, entries in the added divisions totaled $366,000 during this year's tournament in July. The organization also charges that the Lampost Tavern broke the law by hosting the captain's meeting where the added entry fees were collected and recorded.
"It's our contention that the amount of money and the amount of money in the added entry division contribute to driving the ferocity of this tournament and the ferocity with which people try to kill sharks to win the prize," said John Grandy, senior vice-president of the Humane Society, in a phone conversation on Tuesday.
In its letter to the attorney general, the Humane Society also charges that the tournament itself is an illegal lottery, fitting the state law's definition of a raffle as payment for a chance to win a prize. It says mandatory entry fees are collected, and cash prizes are offered to the team that "lucked into" catching the biggest shark.
Messages from The Martha's Vineyard Times seeking comment from Steven James, organizer of the annual shark tournament, were not returned, but on Monday he told the Cape Cod Times that the added money divisions are not illicit gambling, because no one is allowed to bet on another boat. He said similar contests are part of every large fishing tournament he knows. The practice is also common in golf tournaments and other competitions.
Furious over tactics
Selectman Ron DiOrio, who is actively and vocally opposed to the tournament, said he is furious about the tactics of the Humane Society. In a video produced like a news report, a narrator says, "The betting took place under the close watch of a local police officer," while the video shows grainy, dark pictures of a police officer who is unrecognizable. The video then shows someone counting cash, followed by close-ups of part of the added entry division form, while the narrator says that "a percentage of that cash will be paid out to Oak Bluffs police and harbor patrol."
The full text of the form is not shown in the video. The form says that each added entry division will pay out 95 percent of the total money collected, and that "the remaining five percent will be allocated approximately as follows; one percent to support the Oak Bluffs Harbor Patrol boat, two percent to purchase pop-up archival satellite tags, two percent for administration (including police details, insurance, and banking fees.)"
Police require the tournament to hire a paid detail, under guidelines that apply to all organizations that hold large events, and the details are paid at the same hourly rate for the shark tournament as any other event, according to Oak Bluffs police Lieutenant Tim Williamson. He said tournament organizers have traditionally made a payment to the town to cover part of the cost of operating the town's harbor patrol boat.
"They've tried to defray the cost of fuel," said Lieutenant Williamson. "We put the patrol boat out for that event. It's a very large scale event. We have to staff a lot of overtime that weekend."
He said the department was not concerned about the Humane Society's allegations. "We're pretty much ignoring it, not too concerned about it, that's for sure. Everything has been above board," said Lieutenant Williamson.
The Humane Society's actions are not being ignored by selectmen, however.
"This is outrageous, when people make comments by inference and innuendo against town employees," said Mr. DiOrio. "I think we need to act fast on it. I feel that the accusations are totally unfounded and that our town employees have behaved in a very reasonable, forthright and ethical manor."
At Tuesday's selectmen's meeting, Mr. DiOrio won unanimous support to consult town counsel about the possibility of legal action against the Humane Society. Mr. Grandy stood by the Humane Society's video and news release.
"The officials (police) involved seem to be taking care of an activity which appears to be unseemly and inappropriate," said Mr. Grandy. "It would be inappropriate for law enforcement officers to be looking out for it. Whatever legalities or illegalities are eventually determined to exist are not the fault of the police department."