Navy warns against March Madness office pools
By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 15, 2016
NORFOLK (Tribune News Service) — It's a rite of spring.
Employees in workplaces throughout Hampton Roads are filling out NCAA men's basketball tournament brackets with dreams of winning large cash prizes funded by relatively modest entry fees. And the Navy, for one, is renewing its warnings against it.
Paying to play in an office pool is typically illegal in most states. Yet those laws are openly flouted in offices, factories and dormitories around the country every year as March Madness comes around.
Of the $9.2 billion that will be wagered on the tournament this year, only about $262 million will be bet legally at Nevada sports books, according to the American Gaming Association, which represents the U.S. casino industry. Those wagers typically come without consequence.
"Laws on office pools vary by state, but even where it’s illegal, it’s hardly ever prosecuted," AGA spokesman Chris Moyer said in an email.
Virginia's gambling law doesn't specifically mention office pools, but it does prevent betting on a game or contest where the outcome is uncertain. Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring, said how that law is interpreted is up to each local commonwealth's attorney, but he's not aware of anyone ever being prosecuted in Virginia for participating in an office pool.
The issue becomes more complicated for members of the military. They may be stationed in a state where office pools are legal, but they're still off-limits on federal facilities, including naval vessels. Navy officials this year are warning sailors of the consequences of filling out a bracket and paying an entry fee in the workplace regardless of where they're based or where their ship may be.
"As service members, we are prohibited from engaging in most gambling activities, which could include a March Madness office pool, while on federal property or onboard naval units," Lt. Kathy Paradis, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, wrote on an official Navy blog.
"Violations of the regulation could result in adverse administrative action, or even disciplinary action under the" Uniform Code of Military Justice.
But even in the Navy, such disciplinary action appears to be rare. Jennifer Zeldis, a JAG spokeswoman, said her office is not aware of anyone who has been prosecuted in military court for entering an office pool.
Sailors who pay to participate in such pools could be prosecuted in a variety of ways, she said.
They could be charged with violation of a lawful general order, conduct unbecoming an officer, or fraternization if enlisted personnel were involved. The maximum penalties for those charges range from one to two years confinement along with dismissal and forfeiture of pay.
She said her office would not know if someone was disciplined administratively for running or participating in an office pool.
Officials at U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Submarine Force Atlantic and Navy Expeditionary Combat Command said Monday they were not aware of any sailors who had received punishment for participating in an office pool for cash prizes.
"So now you’re probably thinking, 'But we always do March Madness brackets at work!' As long as it doesn’t violate your office policy on the use of government computers, filling out a March Madness bracket and following along to see who wins is not a problem on its own," Paradis wrote.
"It becomes a problem, however, once people start putting money into a pool or otherwise betting on who wins in hopes of winning the pool (and the cash) at the end of the tournament. If the winner of your office pool only gets 'bragging rights,' that is okay."
The first tournament games tip off Tuesday.
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