Gambling industry’s luck running out

  • 2011-02-02
  • From wire reports

RIGA - State Police Riga Region Administration Chief Ints Kuzis has been told to submit his proposals on special police unit Alfa’s future competence, its tasks and structure, by Feb. 9, in a major shake-up expected to sweep through law enforcement in Latvia, reports news agency LETA. Alfa’s name will also be changed.

Kuzis’ orders are part of the crack-down facing Latvia’s police force following the Jan. 25 armed robbery at a Fenikss gambling hall in Jekabpils, in which one on-duty police officer was shot dead and another six individuals were injured, including two police officers, three robbers and a gambling hall employee. Two of the five robbers caught are members of the Alfa police unit; two others are members of the State Police’s Tukums force.

Controls within the police force will now be improved. One change will mean the State Police will assess the possible corruption risks among its employees, their liabilities, vehicles and luxury items, as well as the information provided in their declarations.
Kuzis pleaded in an interview on Latvian Radio on Feb. 1 that he has “done everything possible to stabilize the situation and does not consider himself the guilty party for the tragic events in Jekabpils.” Kuzis believes that the tragedy was most likely caused by the “human factor,” since “every person has a choice whether to do something or not,” he says.

Kuzis added that the other policemen, who must carry on with their duties, have been hurt and shocked and do not understand how these tragic events could have happened. Currently, it is very important to stabilize the situation within the police and the relations between the police and the populace, said Kuzis.

The administration chief said that it is necessary to find out why the policemen “decided to become criminals, whether it was just a coincidence or was it really caused by their comparatively small wages.” Internal security and personnel policy are also very important for a police officer. During the last two years, the police employed more people; however, their suitability for the job was never assessed, said Kuzis.

Interior Minister Linda Murniece (Unity) reinstated Kuzis after suspending him from his job following the robbery.
 A car chase and shoot-out ensued as police caught up with the gang of robbers. Once captured, 104,500 lats (149,200 euros) was found inside the escape vehicle. This happened to be the exact amount that was reported missing by Fenikss. Dace Konrade, finance director at Alfor Ltd., which owns and operates the Fenikss gambling hall chain, said “We carried out an inventory, and came to the conclusion that 104,500 lats was missing.”

According to unofficial information, the amount of cash in the small Fenikss gambling hall in Jekabpils could have been up to 500,000 lats, which is significantly more than allowed even at bank branch offices. Publicly available data for Alfor shows that turnover in 2009 was 29.2 million lats. Up to one-fifth of the company’s monthly turnover could have been stored in the gambling hall when the robbery occurred.

The gambling industry has a powerful lobby in Latvia, evident because no additional taxes have been applied to gambling during the past few years, the former owner of Admiralu klubs, Janis Davis, said to the daily Neatkariga. “Gambling fever burns bright throughout Latvia, but no additional taxes have been introduced in the last three years. It means that someone is lobbying for them, and the tragedy in Jekabpils is a consequence of this. The Finance Ministry and the Lotteries and Gambling Supervision Inspection must take responsibility for this tragedy,” said Davis.

He pointed out that there currently is no law which would control cash collection at gambling halls. “Obviously, due to austerity measures, gambling halls gather their cash in one place where it is then collected by the owners. We still have not developed a proper cash collection system here in Latvia,” said Davis.

Davis goes on to say that excise tax has been increased on alcoholic beverages, salaries for medical workers, teachers and police officers have been cut, but the gambling business has not been touched. For instance, the tax on one slot machine in Latvia is 145 lats a month, 200 lats in Estonia and even 700 lats in Austria.

Lotteries and Gambling Supervision Inspection’s Control Department Director Edvins Priede points out that a new system for controlling the gambling business is being worked upon now, and the work should be completed by July 1. “I do not think that taxes will be raised, though; we will discuss this yet. Everything is just in the initial stages,” he said.
The ‘Order of Viesturs’ will be awarded posthumously to Jekabpils police officer Andris Znotins, who was tragically shot down in a shootout during the robbery. The Chapter of Orders took the decision on Jan. 27 to make the award to Znotins for “maintaining and strengthening national security and public order.”

The accused bandits are Tukums Police officers (and brothers) Deniss and Pavels Hristoforidi, private individual Stanislavs Babelis, and Alfa unit officers Arvo Zagars and Leonids Konuhovs. Social networking site shows the robbers to be good friends, with each linking onto the others’ homepage.