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One Man Makes a Huge Difference!!!

Published Tuesday, November 9, 1999, in The State.
People like Richard Gergel make lawyer jokes fall flat
By CINDI ROSS SCOPPE, Editorial Writer

If you are convinced that lawyers are the scum of the earth and nothing in the world is ever going to change your mind, then you're not going to like this column. This column is about a lawyer who has worked tirelessly against his own personal interests for what he believed -- correctly, I am certain -- was in the best interests of the state of South Carolina.

And when I say he worked against his own personal interests, I don't mean in a small way: His actions over the past year could easily end up costing him millions of dollars. For those of you who have figured out where this is going, I know what you're thinking: Cindi is addicted to writing about video poker, and she'll look for any excuse to keep doing so. While there may be some truth to that, that's not why I'm writing this column. I'm writing this column because, once the dust had settled, it occurred to me that not enough attention had been paid to Richard Gergel, who I am convinced made the greatest sacrifice of anyone to rid South Carolina of the plague of video poker. Plus, I do seek out opportunities to point out that lawyers don't deserve the rap they get.

Mr. Gergel, a successful Columbia attorney and lifelong Democrat, filed suit in June 1997 against the video poker industry. (Mr. Gergel likes to point out that he is one of several attorneys who filed the suit on behalf of addicted gamblers.) The lawsuit alleged, among other things, that South Carolina's video poker industry had systematically violated state law, particularly the law that limited payouts to $125 per day. These violations subjected the industry to punishment under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the suit alleged. Mr. Gergel's lawsuit eventually so threatened the industry that it was forced to negotiate the legislative deal that led to its demise. But his role in the end of video poker went way beyond that.

Poker magnate Fred Collins came out swinging, calling the suit a crass attempt by some of the state's biggest lawyers to enrich themselves. (How's that for irony?) "These lawyers are working together to rape the business community," Mr. Collins told The State shortly after the suit was filed. "They're manipulating the media to further their extortion. They don't have any law on their side." U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson and the S.C. Supreme Court would demonstrate quite ably that Mr. Collins was wrong on the law. But the attacks on the lawyers, particularly on Mr. Gergel, would continue, with poker bosses making the absurd charge as recently as last month that his efforts to ensure a "no" vote were somehow self-serving. No one ever explained how Mr. Gergel -- who is almost certain to win a multi-million dollar judgment against Mr. Collins and other poker bosses -- was serving his personal interests by bankrupting the very people who will be handed the bill.

You see, every dollar that video poker doesn't have when Judge Anderson awards damages is a dollar that Mr. Gergel and his clients won't get. (Mr. Gergel and the other attorneys in the case have sunk about a half- million dollars of their own money into the case so far.) And yet Mr. Gergel has worked nearly as hard this year to win the political war as the legal war. His political efforts to render video poker incapable of paying its judgment so consumed him that he found himself living the life of a just-out-of-law-school attorney, working nights and weekends, with no time for personal interests. Hardly what you would expect from a lawyer of Mr. Gergel's standing, a lawyer who has taken a leading role in the campaign nationally to improve safety standards for school vans, who is routinely called in by other attorneys who need his expertise to handle complex litigation. When self-interest would have demanded that he stick to practicing law, Mr. Gergel combed through every version of every poker bill that the Legislature considered. He wrote exhaustive legal memos, at anti-poker legislators' request, detailing the shortcomings of the bills and the landmines the poker industry's high-paid lobbyists had hidden within them. When pro-poker representatives almost snookered the House into approving poker-friendly language, it was Mr. Gergel whom House Speaker David Wilkins summoned to the State House to fix things. When House and Senate conferees needed advice on strategy or legal points, it was Mr. Gergel whom they called for help.

While several brilliant attorneys share credit for the outcome of this year's poker battle, Mr. Gergel played perhaps the most significant role. Unlike the other poker foes, he understood how the industry operates. He had the expertise to navigate through amazingly complex technicalities that would make or break every sentence of the legislation -- expertise that in all the Legislature's other attempts to rein in the industry had rested entirely on the pro-poker side. (The poker industry was practically apoplectic over Mr. Gergel's assistance. Their lobbyists tried frantically to convince reporters and lawmakers that Mr. Gergel was breaking the law by not registering as a lobbyist. Of course, he wasn't required to register, because he didn't meet a single criterion of a lobbyist: he wasn't working for anyone but himself, he was only offering advice when asked to by legislators, and he wasn't getting paid.)

Mr. Gergel's work didn't end when the Legislature passed the bill that he was instrumental in writing. When the public campaign heated up, he traveled the state speaking to groups on behalf of the "vote no" effort. He debated the poker lobbyists and the poker operators. He prepped other anti-poker leaders for debates. He was instrumental in plotting strategy for the campaign and pulling influential people into the effort. When the Supreme Court called off the referendum, it was his idea to launch the "Pledge No" campaign. Not for self interest. For public interest. In the finest traditions of our legal profession.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571.


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(posted: 10 Nov. 1999)