'An avoidable tragedy': A problem gambler blew his life savings, then dropped dead
Morgan Barrett spent around $500K on pokies, and then dropped dead. Now, as Steve Kilgallon reports, his family wants answers.
Paul Barrett was busy the first time his father asked to borrow money.
It was the opening week of the Heineken Open tennis championships in Auckland, January 2018, and he was the head chef, overseeing catering for the players, officials and thousands of spectators.
Paul loaned his dad $1500, but found it a strange request: the family home had been destroyed in the Christchurch earthquakes, and he knew his parents were sitting on a $450,000 insurance settlement.
In the second week, his dad asked for another thousand dollars. Paul didn’t have the cash available, and he was still very busy, but phoned his brother Matt, and decided to head home to Christchurch once the tournament ended to find out what was going on.
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Four days later his father, Morgan Barrett, was dead of a heart attack. Paul’s trip home to confront his dad instead became a visit to organise the funeral and the family’s affairs.
The delay still haunts him. “In hindsight, I missed my chance to do something. If I had gone down, it would have still been a mess, but he would still have been alive.”
When Paul arrived, his mother gave him her debit card to buy food. It declined. There was only $46 left in the account.
Gripped by a hidden addiction to poker machines, Morgan Barrett had blown about $500,000 inside three years. Just as his accounts ran dry and his secret was about to be exposed, he dropped dead.
Paul got his father’s bank statements, which showed Morgan had steadily emptied his bank accounts into the pokies at a variety of Christchurch pubs, leaving his widow with almost nothing.
One pub in particular stood out. In a 299-day period, he’d spent over $75,000 there. On a single visit, he made 17 eftpos withdrawals totalling $2700. Towards the end, he was there every second day.
Morgan Barrett was a classic problem gambler, and the pub missed all the signs of his addiction.
Paul Barrett went to the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), which regulates pokie machines.
The department agreed to prosecute the publican for failing to take all reasonable steps to identify a problem gambler. It was the first such case, and the DIA proudly issued a press release in which then gambling director Chris Thornborough said it “signals our strong focus on protecting people from gambling harm ... we will not stand by and watch as venues ignore patrons showing signs of problem gambling”.
Despite Paul’s constant pressure, including letters to the prime minister, the prosecution somehow took three years to reach court.
And two days into the trial at the Christchurch District Court, the case collapsed, thrown out by Judge Tom Gilbert, who said the DIA’s problem gambling policies were too inadequate to sustain a conviction. It was a devastating ruling that leaves it near-impossible for any publican to be prosecuted for the offence.
Creating an addiction
Problem gamblers aren’t born, but made, and the Barrett brothers have tried to work out when Morgan became addicted.
They remember him gambling casually when they were younger, but until retirement, he’d had a series of well-paid sales jobs which may have masked the habit. They suspect the EQC settlement was the tipping point.
After retirement, Morgan worked part-time as a vacuum cleaner salesman, although the job he told his wife was three full days a week was actually only for a few hours at a time. He’d arrive home around 6pm, but spent the rest of his day at the pub.
The judge later wrote it was “not uncommon” for Morgan to spend three or more hours at Pub X (the pub’s owner has permanent name suppression, which means Stuff also cannot name his pub). Morgan’s longest session there was eight minutes short of six hours.
One former bartender at Pub X gave evidence that Morgan was “one of [Publican X’s] favourite customers. All the staff loved him, including Publican X.” They often chatted: “I only ever saw Morgan happy or chilled out.” She didn’t think he was a problem gambler.
This doesn’t surprise the Barrett brothers. Paul says his dad would befriend everyone. Matt remembers a man generous with his time, always ready to listen, always interested in what you had to say. “I miss those chats.”
Publican X knew Morgan Barrett was his biggest punter, and had told his Lion Foundation rep, Kristin Anderson, about this “big spender”. After Barrett’s death, he told a gambling inspector that Barrett was always “happy and stable”.
Morgan had always run the family finances, and he had the bank statements re-directed to work. When the EQC settlement came, he and his wife looked at houses to buy, but Morgan had a string of excuses why each was unsuitable and they had to keep renting. His deception was a classic trait of the addict, or in industry parlance, a problem gambler.
“It’s a mental illness,” says Matt Barrett. “It’s a sickness. He had to lead a dual life – how stressful would that have been – and seeing all the savings frittered away getting a fix from a machine, pushing that button hoping to get a big win.”
Obviously, most pokie players aren’t addicted. The industry can cite figures placing them as low as 0.5 per cent of the adult population, while the Problem Gambling Foundation argues up to 49 per cent of regular players have a problem.
American psychiatrist Howard Shaffer once described pokies as the “crack cocaine of gambling”. Another American addiction researcher, psychologist Robert Hunter, called it “electronic morphine”.
“No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” claimed a third researcher, Nancy Petry.
How could Morgan Barrett sit at a machine for almost six hours? Partly because the machine wanted him to.
The instant gratification of pokies can induce a trance-like state that American writer Natasha Dow Schull, in her book Addiction by Design, called the ‘machine zone’, distracting punters from anxiety, depression and boredom. Game designers tweak the machines to induce players to gamble for longer, increasing each machine’s turnover.
Problem Gambling Foundation director Andree Froude, who has given support to the Barrett family, said she would hate for people to read this story and criticise Morgan Barrett. “I don’t want people to say he had a choice,” she says. “Someone who is addicted to gambling doesn’t have that choice.”
On the day he died, Morgan Barrett gambled for 90 minutes at Pub X. Publican X later told gambling inspectors he’d left without saying goodbye; unusual for such an upbeat character.
Judge Gilbert wrote that “whether or not Morgan Barrett’s problem gambling contributed to his untimely death will never be known for sure. However, what is certain is that his problem gambling resulted in financial ruin for his widow. It is a stark illustration of the dangers inherent in gambling”.
But his sons have no doubt the looming certainty of exposure caused Morgan’s death. They would later discover that on the day he died, Morgan borrowed $1000 from a friend. They never found that money; they’re fairly certain it was consumed by a gaming machine. Paul says: “He was not a bad man, he just had a gambling problem.”
Discovering the truth
It was that trip to the bank, three days after Morgan’s funeral, where the Barrett brothers unravelled what had happened. Matt has a vivid memory of the teller swivelling the screen towards him. “Reality hit pretty hard. It was a dark day… the realisation of how bad things were.”
Across Morgan’s 12 accounts, there was less than $150 left. The brothers examined statements which showed little money coming in, and lots draining out, to about a dozen Christchurch bars, including Pub X.
In the 299 days from April 1, 2017, to the day he died, January 26, 2018, Morgan Barrett spent just over $100,000 at various pubs (he’d blown much more over the preceding three years). At Pub X, he spent $75,914.80, with 737 eftpos withdrawals over 137 of those days. On 15 days, he made 10 or more withdrawals; on one day, he made 27 and took out $2076.
The Barretts believe the ANZ bank is among those culpable for not intervening in such an obvious spending pattern.
ANZ spokeswoman Kristy Martin said the bank sympathised with the Barretts. “There are ways in which we can assist customers who wish to control their spending. However, ultimately we are obligated, as a service provider, to follow the instructions given to us by our customers. Problem gambling is a complex issue, and one which banks alone cannot solve.”
The DIA’s manager of gambling investigations, Marty Greentree, says the case was the first time a family had been willing to come forward and the evidence considered strong enough to mount a problem gambling prosecution.
The Barretts wanted all the venues charged, but the DIA opted to charge only Publican X, as his venue saw the biggest turnover.
The much-delayed trial began this June at Christchurch District Court. At the end of day two, as the prosecution neared conclusion (although before Publican X had taken the stand), Judge Gilbert conferred with counsel. That night, the DIA decided to withdraw. The Barrett family was stunned. The judgement made it clear why.
The judge said it was “inarguable” that Morgan Barrett was a problem gambler. He outlined how Publican X had no system for recording indicators of problem gambling among his customers.
He noted how when Publican X bought the bar, he inherited the standard problem gambling policy of his gaming trust, the Lion Foundation, which had been approved by the DIA, and included such key indicators of concern such as multiple ATM transactions and long playing sessions (both factors of Morgan Barrett’s gambling).
The DIA argued that Publican X ought to have taken steps such as limiting a gambler to three transactions a day on a single till (to track their spending), and logging those who reached those limits. It said the policy represented a set of principles, and the exact actions to take were up to the publican.
Publican X said that wasn’t in the policy – and he had done his best, but the fault for his failure to identify Barrett as a problem gambler was with the policy, not him. His defence said his job was simply to follow the instructions.
The judge said the truth was somewhere in the middle – but if the DIA considered the steps it suggested were reasonable, it should have mandated them. The judge said Parliament could specifically identify procedures in law, but “for whatever reason, has not done so”.
The inadequacy of both law and regulations seemed to shock everyone. All those spoken to for this story admitted they weren’t aware of its limitations before the Barrett prosecution.
The court case’s collapse left the Barrett family angry and frustrated.
“I really understand the hurt and frustration they are feeling,” said Greentree, who said the DIA treated the family with empathy, respect and sensitivity and had regarded their willingness to open up about Morgan as a taonga.
“It was a waste of time,” counters Matt Barrett. “We were dragged through the whole horrible situation all over again, and it brought up a lot of raw emotions. I don’t have closure, I don’t have the answer, and it feels like DIA washed their hands of it ... and nothing has changed.”
He says the case took a huge toll on his brother, who is deeply stressed and carrying a burden of guilt. “There is a lot of guilt and shame attached to this,” Matt says. “But neither Paul nor my mother nor myself should carry any guilt ... ultimately, we didn’t know.”
In a victim impact statement, Morgan’s widow (who didn’t want to be named or interviewed) wrote that she hoped Publican X at least learned something from the trial.
She wrote movingly of her loss: “I miss him so much ... so lonely without him ... want him to walk through the door ... even got his cellphone so [that] I can ring his cellphone to hear his voice and be close to him. They say when the case is over you will get closure, but I never will.”
She added: “I've lost everything: my husband and nearly everything we owned.”
‘An absolute failure’
While Publican X’s charges were withdrawn, it’s clear he could have done better.
“Let’s call it what it is: an absolute failure of the venue to recognise Mr Barrett’s deteriorating behaviour and intervene,” said Martin Cheer, chief executive of one of the biggest pokie trusts, Pub Charity. His trust uses incident report forms which log signs of possible problem gambling and push staff members to take action – including confronting gamblers.
Cheer said DIA’s response was “equally ham-fisted” and described it as an “absolute and avoidable tragedy. Even though this wasn’t our venue I offer Mr Barrett’s family my condolences and sincere apologies”.
Problem Gambling’s Andree Froude says it was clear that the publican failed in his duty to have those difficult conversations with Morgan Barrett about his gambling.
In evidence, Lion Foundation rep Kristin Anderson said she had trained staff, including Publican X, on problem gambling – and had told them to watch for multiple eftpos transactions, a point which was also in Pub X’s own problem gambling policy. She would have expected staff to question Barrett and note his behaviour.
Pub X, remarkably, hasn’t been inspected by the DIA since October 2015. But Greentree says Lion and Publican X have “given us assurances [they’ve taken] the appropriate measures that should have been in place first time around”.
The online link to Lion Foundation’s harm minimisation policies, at publication time, was broken. But a sign they post at their venues offers an advice checklist to gamblers which includes the suggestion: “Make it a special occasion, not a habit: if you’re coming every day, you’ve got a problem.”
Greentree said while if the case had been successful, Publican X could have had his licence cancelled, there is no further action they can take against him.
Publican X refused to comment. Despite repeated attempts, Lion Foundation chief executive Tony Goldfinch couldn’t be reached for comment.
The outcome leaves Chris Thornborough’s comments about not standing by while problem gambling occurs looking hollow. Greentree disagrees. “That’s still true,” he says. “Each case on its merits. If we get a complaint tomorrow of a similar nature, we will investigate it and take appropriate action.”
More specifically, if they had a complaint and the venue did have a policy with specific, measurable steps in it and failed, then a prosecution might be successful.
But really, urgent change is needed.
So what will happen? Judge Gilbert found it “difficult to understand” why the steps the DIA had expected Publican X aren’t “explicitly contained” in gambling policies. He suggested imposing daily withdrawal limits and said the DIA could “easily remedy” the issue by insisting such rules be enshrined in policies, or included in changes to the Gambling Act.
Gaming trusts might resist such rules. Gaming Machine Association chairman Peter Dengate-Thrust said it was illegal for regulations to simply make gambling harder – rules must be targeted at problem gamblers. Trusts are likely to push back on time limits and eftpos limits, arguing it would simply drive gamblers to rotate venues.
But Dengate-Thrush said pokie trusts were willing to start work immediately with the DIA on new regulations that “actually work”.
“This has clearly revealed some defects and areas that needed attention… this tragedy exposes some gaps, and we need to fill them”.
In a statement, Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti said she had a focus on reducing gambling harm, and $60m had been allocated to the issue in 2019. She was aware of the Barrett case, and had asked the DIA for advice on “potential options to strengthen the regulations”.
Michael Woodside, the DIA’s director of gambling policy, admitted the judge’s decision offered “some pretty clear signalling” and said they expected to deliver those options within months. He admitted the regulations “hadn’t really been utilised before” and there was “more work that could be done in strengthening them, and making them more direct [in terms of rules for venues to follow]”.
Higher penalties for those who fail to spot problem gamblers seem inevitable.
Even if Publican X had been found guilty, the maximum punishment was a $5000 fine, which the judge called a “seemingly paltry amount”.
While he was a chef, because he worked at a casino, Paul Barrett had undergone responsible service of alcohol training and understood the penalties involved. “If this was alcohol,” he says, “there would be loss of licence, a fine and imprisonment.”
The Problem Gambling Foundation agrees. “If someone was intoxicated and kept going to the bar and wanting to be served, the publican would refuse because the consequences would be too great, so why not with gambling?” says Andree Froude. “I hope this is a wake-up call: the whole case points to real failings in the whole system.”
Meanwhile, nobody has apologised to the Barrett family – not the DIA, not Lion Foundation, not Publican X.
“For me, this is about making sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” says Paul Barrett.
Talking publicly, even though it’s so obviously painful, is Paul’s final step. “I’m finishing off my duty of care to my father, and to my family. This is not right. It’s now up to the politicians and Internal Affairs – it’s now on you.”