The National Gambling Office (ONJN) celebrates its 10th anniversary in April. We present a series of very interesting interviews in which the main protagonists of those early days of the ONJN recount their experience of setting up this important institution. At the same time, they will give their current perspective on the success of this institution and how the ONJN should look like in years to come, in its role as regulator and controller, as facilitator of dialogue and as protector of this very important industry for Romania.
Odeta Nestor, former President of the ONJN
How important do you think the establishment of the National Gambling Office was?
I was the first President of the ONJN and in this capacity I can say without any lack of modesty that I am the person who knows this institution, its structure and its purpose best. The creation of the ONJN was a moment of success and, together with the adoption of balanced legislation, transformed Romania into a model of good practice in the field of gambling.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of quality management, in recent years the ONJN has failed in its mission and is operating below its potential, to the detriment of both the state and licensed gambling operators and players.
How do you find the Office now, 10 years after its establishment? Do you think it has fulfilled its purpose, its mission?
Although it had a promising start, the institution is currently far from its mission. We have countless examples of recent situations where the ONJN has failed in its mission as an intermediary and facilitator of dialogue between authorities and industry. We can recall the period of the covid19 pandemic and the closest situation, in the summer of 2022, when the industry was faced with a hastily adopted and non-transparent tax increase. The same is happening now, when there is an avalanche of legislative initiatives, some of which contain measures with major damaging potential for all parties, i.e. both the gambling industry and the media (in the case of advertising), but not least for the state.
Beyond these specific cases, there are many situations where the NSJO does not fulfil its statutory role despite having the necessary legislative framework. For example, although it has, according to the organization chart, a Responsible Gambling Service, the ONJN has not had any concrete, major initiative to support addicts, as is the case in other countries. Everything is left to the operators. In the online segment, licensed operators have made major investments so that players with dangerous behavioral patterns are automatically excluded. In order to prevent the addictive factor, the approaches should be supported, both by the state and by the operators. There is a need for broad, coordinated campaigns, especially on the land base segment, and here the ONJN could and should be the main actor.
Also, as I have said on other occasions and I repeat it, the ONJN has not convened the Advisory Council, even though it was obliged to do so, and so it is once again failing in its mission as facilitator of dialogue, intermediary and link between the industry and the authorities.
What do you think is the best thing that has happened in your term as President of the ONJN?
In short, that we have laid the sound and solid legal foundations to turn gambling into a responsible entertainment industry where everyone can benefit. Players get a safer and more enjoyable gaming experience in a carefully and properly regulated market. The State in turn stands to gain significantly from gambling (the activity reports of the ONJN show a 99% collection of gambling taxes which reflects the degree of compliance). Last but not least, the industry needs a transparent, predictable and balanced legislative framework for development.
Unfortunately, I see that this healthy regulatory context is being jeopardized by a series of radical and ill-founded legislative initiatives that will ultimately benefit no one. Basically, if this set of legislative initiatives passes as presented, it will set Romania back 10 years. And here I can only wonder whether the lack of involvement of the ONJN is generated by disinterest or lack of expertise. In the end, I can only be disappointed to see that a state institution that had an internationally acclaimed debut has become a sinecure. It’s a pity that a thing well done has gone wrong… in the “Romanian” way.
Gabriel Gheorghe, former vice-president of ONJN
What was the best moment you spent with the ONJN team you were part of?
We’re talking about quite a long period of time, during which the collective bonded, a certain level of trust was consolidated, friendships were made and, as in any relationship, there were good moments and not so good moments.
We had moments when we all worked side by side, both on the regulatory side and on the side of control and reduction of tax evasion and illicit activities, but also on the side of prevention and accountability, as much as the legal framework allowed us at that time. All this has brought us satisfaction translated into significant figures (significant sums brought to the state budget, devices removed from the black market, creation of a solid and sustained dialogue with the industry) and encouraged us to continue.
What do you consider to be the main initiative/action that the ONJN undertook during your time as Vice-President and what good things resulted from it?
Certainly, the regulation of online gaming. It was a joint effort of the entire ONJN team, which involved consultations with European Commission structures, with regulatory authorities in the field of gambling in other countries, with the private sector, the result being appreciated and regarded as a good example at European level. These efforts resulted in a necessary and effective piece of legislation that regulated a part of gambling that brought considerable revenue to the state in the years that followed.
Where do you see the ONJN in another 10 years?
I can’t make a prediction on this, but having been part of the ONJN team since its inception, I would be genuinely happy if this institution performs in the long term. But I can say one thing for sure: to prove its effectiveness, any strategy needs stability, and the gambling industry is no exception. This is why any approach taken in this area must always bear in mind two essential issues:
– supporting industry by creating and maintaining a balanced and fair legislative framework;
-protecting players through control measures and awareness and social responsibility campaigns.
Marius Pantea, ex-General Director Directorate of Authorizations ONJN
What is the most unique thing you remember from 10 years ago, when you started working at the newly established National Gambling Office?
Starting from the way the Office was set up, with three people (Odeta Nestor, Gabi Gheorghe and myself), a computer (desktop), a desk with two chairs, in a room on the ground floor of the Ministry of Finance. This is what ONJN looked like in the early days! Subsequently, through struggles, interventions, pleas, etc., the Office received its present location (on Calea Victoriei), its present equipment (machines, computers, desks, chairs, etc., the offices in the territory), decent salaries and employees (200 people), submitted 3 projects for accessing European funds, 2 in Brussels and 1 in Bucharest, all of which were approved, but because we did not have specialized staff, only one was accessed – which was successfully completed, and the other two were applied for in the following years, but were forgotten in the drawers of the Office.
What did you find to be the most difficult thing you had to go through at the beginning of the Office’s work?
Resistance to the new by civil servants in ministries at the time. Specifically, at the time we drafted the proposal for a rule on the organization and functioning of the ONJN (GD 298/2013), we received negative opinions from two important ministries (justice and finance) allowing only the verification of licensed operators, for those who carried out illegal or grey gambling activities, the Control Directorate of the ONJN had no competence. These anomalies were perpetuated for the first 2-3 years of activity of the ONJN, when we had to go for approval for various amendments to the regulatory acts regulating gambling. Our “luck” was that the institution was under the Prime Minister, otherwise we would not have been able to correct even 10% of what changed during that period. Also on this note was the refusal to create an Advisory Council at the level of the ONJN, the reason being that such a structure did not exist anywhere at that time. There was a lot of “pressure” from various people in the institutions at the time. They refused us each time, but we kept insisting until we managed to convince them to talk to us, and after arguing all the industry’s demands, we managed to pass most of the things that were of interest to the operators, the players and not least to the Romanian state.
What has been your greatest achievement as Director of the General Directorate of Gambling Authorization within the ONJN?
With the help of the associations in the Advisory Council and serious operators, it was possible to regulate online gambling, to stop the “sport” activities in the field of poker and to legalize poker clubs and poker festivals, to remove black and grey gambling means from the market. As far as the DGAJN activity is concerned, we managed in 2014, with the help of the courageous girls in the directorate, to calculate and verify the payment of licenses and authorizations to operators for the first period of 5 years (2009-2014) and we collected important amounts to the state budget, from operators who “forgot to declare or pay” the fees according to the legal provisions in force. Then we identified ingenious ways of operating. For example, an operator who had declared and paid only the first fee, when he had submitted the file to the ONJN and had to bring the proof in order to receive the license and authorizations, then he declared zero for the remaining 3 quarters, after which he came with a debt-free CAF for the next year of operation and so on. Or, an operator who paid 100 lei by PO, which he then modified by adding three zeros, photocopied it and sent it to the ONJN, making proof of payment for the license and authorizations. I remember that it caused a damage of almost 3 million lei, which we managed to recover in part by seizing the means of gambling and the sums urgently identified by the colleagues responsible for controlling the cash desks.
We managed to attract a young team to the DGAJN, which quickly educated itself and understood that the operator and the player are the ones from whom we were getting our salaries, to think and respond to the needs of the market in one voice, in the same way for everyone and in a polite tone, and the efforts made at the time (working hours far exceeded 8 hours) finally paid off. The people in that directorate are extraordinary, they understand the field in depth and have managed to command respect in the market through professionalism and condescension, for which I also congratulate them!
Dan Bucur, former General Director of the ONJN Control Directorate
If politicians were to follow through on their threat to shut down the gambling industry, the ONJN’s mission would probably become meaningless. But why is it important that this area is better regulated than closed? How could the ONJN help the industry to be better understood by politicians?
Entertainment is part of the normal functioning of society. There is no justification for even abusive restrictive measures taken against gambling organizers. It is hypocritical to over-tax this industry, on the one hand, and the prudish public posturing of decision-makers, on the other. In a society with minimal claims to individual freedom, over-regulation in this area is not justified. If players no longer have access to the regulated market for these services, they will find other solutions, either online or in a fast-growing, out-of-control and unregulated black market. Measures to prevent and combat gambling addiction and other forms of inappropriate behavior can be taken, as long as there is a proper dialogue between representatives of the private sector and state bodies. I should also mention that the latter should have a real representation of the importance and specificities of this field, which is not really the case at present. I have nothing good to say about politicians in this economic sector, a lot of slogans and a lot of hypocrisy. From my point of view, ONJN has nothing to explain to the politicians, the elected of the nation must do their best to know and understand what they vote, each according to his own conscience and not as an act of discipline. Of course, it’s a long discussion.
What do you think have been the best measures you have implemented as head of the Office’s control directorate that have helped the gambling industry to evolve?
As a newly created institution, it was important for me to participate in the creation of functional, interrelated structures that act in a coordinated way, according to the same professional standards in order to achieve clear and achievable objectives. We considered it essential for the General Authority for Control to act in particular to combat unauthorized games, those that directly affect both the interest of the state, but also that of those who comply with the law and correctly fulfill their obligations to the budget. Of course, the entire regulatory framework must be respected, but I believe that the formal aspects are secondary and I believe that consistent measures must be taken to maintain a climate of legality in this sector of activity and ensure open and fair competition for gambling operators.
What should happen in the next 10 years in the ONJN so that this institution becomes a modern one with an important role within the state institutions?
As far as the modernity of the Office is concerned, I believe that it is an appropriate and dynamic institution, with the capacity to adapt to the concrete requirements of the market. I think problems arise when regulations are generally made without real consultation with business and experts in the field. There are cases where both operators and law enforcement find themselves in purely ironic situations. Unclear, unpredictable regulations with unknown effects have persisted. For example, the outlier regulation on the distance of playgrounds from certain buildings with social, educational, cultural or health functions. Investments have been made, people are employed, their existence, and not only, depends on these spaces. What do we do, send them to the woods? Who is responsible for job losses and budget revenues? This excess of morality leads the other way, to immorality!
As far as the future of the Office is concerned, I believe that the level of tax collection it ensures, which significantly exceeds the level in other sectors of the economy, justifies the allocation of the necessary funds to carry out the activity in good conditions, to ensure additional staff, structures and technical and material means to maintain the activity at the level of the dynamics of the entertainment industry or even to overtake it through anticipation and information analysis. Last but not least, I am thinking of ensuring professional development with specificity and inter-institutional cooperation while respecting the competences of each participant.