Jury awards $1M to former Harrah's security employee

Dec. 18--A Clay County jury has awarded a woman $1 million in actual and punitive damages after she claimed Harrah's North Kansas City Casino and Hotel wrongfully terminated her.

Former security employee Michele Chambers of Kansas City said she was fired after she alerted the Missouri Gaming Commission that she was instructed by supervisors not to investigate, intervene or report to the commission gamblers who use multiple player cards in violation of state law.

Jacqueline Peterson, a spokeswoman for Las Vegas-based Harrah's, said the company would appeal but declined to comment further.

Violation of Missouri's player-card rules could aid high rollers or compulsive gamblers seeking to exceed the state's $500 buy-in limit every two hours and wager more than the law allows.

"The fact it was a unanimous verdict speaks to the severity of this case," said Kevin Baldwin, one of the attorneys for Chambers. "They heard all of the evidence and listened to the argument put on by the casino, and they did not believe them."

Baldwin said the jury rejected Harrah's defense that Chambers was fired for other reasons, including gossiping.

The verdict contrasts sharply with Harrah's reputation as one of the national gaming industry's earliest and strongest backers of programs to help problem gamblers.

Harrah's was one of a handful of casino companies that co-founded the National Center for Responsible Gaming in Kansas City in 1996.

It provided the initial funding to establish a 24-hour toll-free help line operated by the National Council on Problem Gambling Inc.

Bevelio Silvera, executive director at Casino Watch, a St. Louis-based anti-gambling citizens group in Missouri, was dismayed by the jury's findings.

"This is an example becoming public of what we had suspected and hadn't hoped was common practice -- skirting the laws of Missouri," he said.

"I applaud this woman for what she's gone through, the loss of her job ... intimidation," Silvera said.

He said he hoped her victory in court would encourage other casino workers to more readily report wrongdoing by casinos.

According to the lawsuit filed in June 2005, Chambers began working for the casino in August 2002 in a security position that required her to monitor gaming activities and report any improper or illegal activity to authorities.

In November 2004, Chambers said, she and other security workers were instructed in a staff briefing not to investigate, intervene or report to the state whenever gamblers were observed using multiple cards to gamble.

Also, they were told not to identify players exchanging cards.

Both are violations of state gaming regulations.

Chambers said that after the meeting she questioned the directive but said she was told to do as instructed.

After reporting the matter to the Gaming Commission, Chambers was terminated on grounds of speaking to state officials and co-workers about topics that the casino said should have been addressed through its internal chain of command.

Chambers appealed, but she claimed that the casino halted an internal hearing process before a review panel could issue its preliminary decision to return her to work.

The casino convened a second review panel of workers outside Kansas City that upheld the firing, the lawsuit alleged.

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-5908 or send e-mail to grice@kcstar.com. To reach Rick Alm, call 816-234-4785 or send e-mail to ralm@kcstar.com.

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