Two days after Christmas, Cedar Rapids attorney Susan L. Hense sent her clients a letter.
“I write to inform you that Hense Law Firm will be closed by the time you receive this letter,” it began, on her law firm’s letterhead. “I am leaving the practice of law voluntarily and have consented to disbarment. I recently came to understand that I have developed a debilitating gambling addiction over the past few years. My addiction has affected my life in catastrophic ways, not the least of which is that I harmed you.
“You are receiving this letter as notice that I have committed criminal theft by using funds entrusted to me — some of which belonged to you — for my gambling activities. There remain no funds in trust — nor do I have any personal assets — to distribute to you as part of the matter which you entrusted to me.
“By the time you receive this letter, I will not only have reported these thefts to the Iowa State Bar Association Client Securities Commission and the Iowa State Bar Association, but also will have turned myself in to the Cedar Rapids Police Department and I will have notified the Linn County Attorneys,” Hense wrote.
“Finally, I cannot begin to express how sorry I feel for the awful breach of trust my actions have created,” Hense writes near the end of the letter, which she signed.
On Jan. 2, Hense’s sworn affidavit consenting to disbarment was filed with the Iowa Supreme Court, home to Iowa’s Attorney Disciplinary Board. “The board understands that Ms. Hense misappropriated approximately $800,000 of client funds,” the document states. Hense, according to the affidavit, frequented casinos in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. She has “self-excluded” herself from those casinos and is in treatment. The Supreme Court issued the order revoking her license Wednesday.
It’s important to note that Hense has not yet been charged with any crime. Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said he has been contacted by Hense’s attorney, Frank Nidey, but that the investigation is still in the hands of Cedar Rapids police. Police spokeswoman Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said the case has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“I can’t confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” said Peter Deegan, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Standard procedure, he said.
So far, 15 claims tied to the case have been made to the Supreme Court's Client Security Commission, according to Steve Davis spokesman for the Iowa Judicial Branch. The commission administers a trust fund intended to repay victims of attorney misconduct. But the fund pays out a maximum of $150,000 per case of misconduct, far less than the estimated $800,000 lost.
Calls I placed to Nidey’s office were not returned. The phone at Hense’s office has been disconnected.
Of course, this sort of thing would be news any time. But with a gambling referendum on the ballot March 5, it takes on an added dimension. The letter, which has been circulating around the city’s legal community, was sent to me by Sara Riley, a local attorney who opposes a potential Cedar Rapids casino. In particular, Riley is concerned about a casino’s potential to spawn gambling addiction.
But, coincidentally, I got a call from another person, who didn’t give her name, pointing me to Hense’s case as an example of how problem gambling already exists in Cedar Rapids, without a casino.
This is an awful saga for everyone involved. But I’m not writing about it so I can preach about the evils of gambling. Nor do I cite it as evidence that we already have gambling’s problems, so we might as well reap the profits locally.
I simply want we the voters of this county to look at this aspect of gambling, its darkest side, squarely in the eye. And with all the bickering between dueling campaigns about jobs claims and sweetheart deals, transparency and hypocrisy, addiction hasn’t gotten much attention. This case got my attention.
Maybe many of us, as Iowans living in a state with more than two decades of gambling, with casinos from the Mississippi to the Missouri, have gotten used to this. We’ve got gambling, and we’ve got some problem gamblers. What’s new?
But the Hense case is a jarring reminder that gambling addiction isn’t just about the gambler.
A 2011 survey of 1,700 Iowans conducted by the University of Northern Iowa Center for Social and Behavioral Research, funded by the state health department, found that 14.5 percent reported experiencing at least one symptom associated with problem gambling during their lifetime, and 12.1 percent within the last year. Just 2 percent of Iowans in their lifetime, and 0.6 percent in the last year, met the criteria as a pathological gambler.
But 22 percent of those surveyed said they have been negatively affected by the gambling behavior of a family member, friend or someone else they know.
The state will spend just more than $1 million on treatment services and another $1 million on prevention through the 1-800-BETSOFF program, funded with gambling revenues. There were 4,029 calls to the helpline in 2012, up from 3,695 in 2011.
Would a Cedar Rapids casino make the problem here worse? Like so many gambling issues, it depends on who you ask.
A survey of 365 Eastern Iowa adults by University of Iowa researcher Donald Black found that fewer Iowans are gambling and are addicted to gambling, compared to previous similar surveys, despite expansion in recent years.
But a 2005 survey of 2,631 U.S. adults by the University of Buffalo’s John Welte, often cited by gambling opponents, found that having a casino within 10 miles of your home significantly raises your risk of becoming a problem gambler. Welte cautions that addiction is complex, and other factors can contribute more than geography, such as alcohol abuse.
I struggle with this issue. Addiction can exact a horrible cost. But who is responsible? If I develop a drinking problem, can we blame the grocery store where I buy my booze? Some folks were opposed to expanding Highway 100, but I never heard anyone say it shouldn’t be built because people certainly will be maimed and die in auto accidents.
And yet, my grocery store’s business model doesn’t depend on my loss of sobriety like a casino’s depends on me losing my cash, all the while telling me I’ll hit the jackpot any minute now.
I think gamblers are primarily responsible for the harm caused by their addiction. Hense has taken responsibility. But as someone preparing to vote on bringing gambling to my county, I have a responsibility to consider the damage that has and could be done.