Jun 9, 2001 7:57 PM

Gambling foes are taking their case directly to the Justice Department, demanding the federal government crack down on illegal Internet wagering by Americans.

In the wake of the Nevada Legislature's passage of a bill to prepare regulations for the state's casinos to go online, the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling has appealed publicly to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to organize a task force of investigators and prosecutors to check the spread of an industry that is handling an estimated $1.5 billion in annual wagers worldwide, most of that from Americans.

The Justice Department has not yet responded to the appeal, according to published reports, although in past speeches, Ashcroft has made clear his opposition to gambling.

The problem from an enforcement standpoint is that Internet gaming exists in a sort of legal netherworld in the U.S. The Justice Department considers the business illegal under the 1961 Wire Act, which bars betting over interstate phone lines or other wire communications apparatus. The courts, however, have rendered differing interpretations. So far, only one U.S. citizen has been successfully prosecuted and convicted in federal court for online bookmaking. That case is under appeal.

One bill is pending in Congress and a second is expected to be introduced in this session to formally outlaw online casino sites.

The American Gaming Association, the casino industry's national lobbying arm, has also come out against Internet gambling on the grounds that the technology does not yet exist to properly regulate it.

Nevada officials say they will not proceed with online casinos unless they are satisfied such technology does exist and that the sites can be operated in compliance with state and federal laws.