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Colorado lottery official retires amid controversy

Jan 31, 2004, 6:37 pm

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Turner leaves post after questions about his conduct

A week after facing questions about whether he had offered immunity from prosecution to three gambling regulators who worked under him, a senior state Department of Revenue official abruptly retired.

George Turner, one of the most powerful bureaucrats at the department, who for years oversaw the state's lottery and casino industry, had been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 6 while officials investigated.

He gave his notice to retire from his $116,760-a-year job late Thursday, a day before he was to meet a second time with his boss, M. Michael Cooke, executive director of the department.

One of Cooke's inquiries dealt with whether Turner promised gaming officials apparently caught up in a casino-chip scheme last year that no criminal charges would be filed against them if they quietly resigned.

Cooke said her questions about Turner's conduct were left "largely unanswered."

"George opted to retire," Cooke said.

Turner did not return a call seeking comment. His office telephone already had been disconnected.

Turner had no authority to make such an offer. If he did, it could complicate a state criminal case against one of those gaming regulators.

Steve Barber, former chief investigator of the Gaming Division's Cripple Creek office, resigned in May 2003 during an investigation into whether he was selling chips from the casinos he regulated. Two other employees resigned around the same time.

Less than three months later, a Jefferson County grand jury charged Barber with one felony count of embezzlement of public property and five misdemeanor counts of official misconduct.

Last week Barber's attorney filed a motion to dismiss all of those charges against his client, saying that Barber was told more than once by gaming officials, as well as those in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, that if Barber left, "the investigation against him ... would stop, and no criminal charges would be filed."

The motion is scheduled to be heard in court Feb. 9.

"We don't know what the final outcome of this will be, but it could be very unfortunate for our side - the guys in the white hats," Jefferson County district attorney's spokeswoman Pam Russell said.

The casino-chip case made headlines last year when Barber and two others resigned.

As chief investigator, Barber was in charge of approving designs for new casino chips. A grand jury investigation found that Barber rejected a chip design in October 2000.

Barber then took the rejected $25 chip, a rare gem in the collecting world because of its rejected status, and sold it for $300 to a collector, investigators said.

Additional counts of misconduct include allegations that Barber sold 99 casino chips on the Internet auction house eBay, along with other items. From 1999 through 2003, Barber listed 3,000 items on eBay and sold 1,714 items, earning $96,700.

But Cooke's inquiries of Turner on the criminal case were only a piece of her investigation.

Turner also faced questions about his "improper communication with a vendor" while vendors were bidding on a state contract, as well as management issues concerning his oversight over gaming and lottery, records show.

Cooke declined to comment on those concerns, saying only that they, too were left largely unanswered.

Turner's departure is just the latest result of Cooke's investigations into a vast state department she took over last year.

Lottery director Mark Zamarripa abruptly quit in November, just hours before he was to meet with Cooke to talk about expenses he incurred on a trip to New Orleans. In Cooke's view, it was impossible to tell what the state was to pay Zamarripa for and what was provided by the national lottery organization sponsoring his trip.

A criminal investigation into the lottery launched soon after Zamarripa's departure continues.

Cooke has launched an investigation into gifts accepted by lottery employees from companies that did business with the agency.

Lottery workers reported almost 600 meals, rounds of golf and other gifts over the past 4 ½ years.

This month, the Lottery Commission and the Revenue Department declared a ban on all gifts for its state workers. The department also oversees gaming, motor vehicle licenses and the collection of state taxes.

Lottery Post Staff, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News

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Crime pays, always has.