GOP activist sues Rhode Island over launch of sports betting

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A Republican activist is suing over sports betting in Rhode Island, saying the state should have sought voter approval before legalizing and launching it.

Daniel Harrop said Thursday sports betting should stop pending a statewide referendum. Former Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell and attorney Joe Larisa filed a lawsuit against state lottery officials Wednesday in Providence Superior Court on behalf of Harrop, a member of the party’s central committee.

Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has said legal advice says voters approved sports betting when they approved casino gambling. He’s confident Rhode Island would prevail in any challenge. The Democratic governor’s spokesman has said the same thing.

Harrop said he’s not opposed to gambling — he said he decided to sue over sports betting while playing roulette at a Rhode Island casino. The state constitution requires voter approval for any expansion of gambling and the state could ask voters before his lawsuit would likely conclude, he said.

“If you don’t follow the constitution, what good it is then?” Harrop said.

Rhode Island is the only New England state that currently offers sports betting. It launched in-person sports betting at two casinos late last year.

Bell publicly raised the idea of a lawsuit in March, when lawmakers passed a bill to allow sports betting to move online.

During the floor debate, House Republicans introduced an amendment to ask for a court opinion on whether lawmakers can authorize mobile gambling without asking voters first. They argued that because sports betting was banned when voters approved gambling at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln in 2012 and in Tiverton in 2016, it’s unclear whether that approval allows for sports betting, too.

Democratic Rep. Joe Shekarchi, the House majority leader, countered that they’re not expanding gambling, they’re just providing a new way of doing it to keep up with current technology. The amendment was defeated and the bill was sent to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk.

Raimondo signed it, and the lottery aims to launch online betting by the end of the summer, in time for the start of preseason football.