In the tiny Needville school district in Fort Bend County, administrators became concerned when they noticed huge discrepancies in their food services budget. As they examined records, their probe started to focus on a district secretary who was in charge of lunchroom receipts. That employee is now awaiting sentencing on theft charges, after prosecutors say she stole over 100-thousand dollars in school money over a two year period, using much of that money to gamble at Louisiana casinos.
Her case isn’t unique, as prosecutors all over the country report numerous cases in which employees ranging from administrative assistants to executives have been caught embezzling large sums of money for the purpose of feeding a gambling habit.
“Well typically when somebody finally gets caught with this amount of theft, they will come forward and say the reason why I’m doing this is because I have a gambling problem, at which point they can produce documentation showing where they’ve been and where they’ve been spending the money.”
Harris County financial crimes prosecutor Beth Shipley sees lots of cases involving suspected embezzlers who were once trusted employees. Shipley says the thefts usually start out small.
“But then when they don’t get caught, and see that they’re able to control the flow of information to the boss, the thefts get larger and larger and larger, and that might feed their gambling habit because they know they can get away with it.”
And easy access to cash can fuel the problem, according to University of Texas Psychiatry professor Dr. Prashant Gajwani. He says many compulsive gamblers tell themselves they can easily repay the money, until the problem spirals out of control. And he adds it’s not an issue of whether a problem gambler is winning or losing.
“A human brain does respond to positive reinforcement. And the best way to create a habit is to give them imitative reinforcement. That’s also a proven fact. So in gambling there’s imitative reinforcement. Nobody wins every time but people do win occasionally. And that tends to reinforce gambling behavior.”
Gajwani says the signs of problem gambling in the workplace are often easy to spot. Someone may disappear for long periods, they may be secretive about matters, or become confrontational. Others though find a way to hide the problem, similar to many alcoholics and drug abusers.
“People are able to function. It’s just that on the open time or after hours that they will start making these bets bigger and bigger.”
And similar to substance abuse, that person keeps up his gambling habit until it goes too far. And by that time a person could also face serious legal issues, such as long felony prison terms and thousands of dollars in restitution.