May 26, 2001 1:18 AM

The gaming industry's national lobbying arm has officially come out against Internet gaming, saying there is no means currently available to properly regulate and safeguard the games.

In a statement released earlier this week, the American Gaming Association moved off its former neutrality on the issue and said its board of directors has decided "that appropriate regulatory and law enforcement oversight does not presently exist" to keep online games and financial transactions honest and secure and guarantee that minors and problem gamblers do not access casino sites.

The statement may be an attempt at damage control in the wake of a story in The New York Times this week which gave the impression that U.S. gaming executives have embraced Internet betting even though no online casinos operate legally in the U.S. and federal law is far from clear on whether such sites would be legal.

On the heels of the Times report and the AGA's statement, two AGA directors, Thomas Gallagher, president of Park Place Entertainment, and Phil Satre, chairman of Harrah's Entertainment, echoed the board's stand with exhortations to proceed cautiously on Internet gaming. Both were featured speakers at an industry conference held this week in Atlantic City.

The industry's dominant Nevada companies, meanwhile, are quietly supporting a bill in that state authorizing gaming regulators to set up exactly what the AGA said does not exist ”” a workable regulatory and technological framework for Internet casinos that would pass legal muster and ensure the safety and integrity of the games.

The bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate, which is expected to pass it before the end of the legislative session on June 4 and send it to Gov. Kenny Guinn for his signature. The Assembly passed the bill last month.

New Jersey lawmakers are considering similar legislation on behalf of that state's casinos.