If lawmakers are looking for a place to cut costs while they contemplate the upcoming state budget, they could start by eliminating funding for the Arizona Department of Gaming.

Judging from the recent outcome of an investigation and subsequent prosecution, this agency is not the best use of taxpayer money.

Instead of pursuing real criminals and putting threats to society behind bars, “investigators” for the gaming department spent nine months back in 2017 and more than $30,000 to investigate two local businessmen who unwittingly committed the crime of entertaining local poker players.

Anyone familiar with the operation formerly at 164 E. Fry Blvd. in Sierra Vista knew there was nothing secret about its existence. It wasn’t a place to gather for big stakes, and its primary offering was the thrill of playing poker.

No one was making a living from playing at the parlor. The men running the operation obtained an annual business license from City Hall. They also filed annual income tax reports, usually recording a loss for the enterprise and issued W2 forms to their part-time poker dealers.

That’s hardly the behavior of hardened criminals who are trying to hide an illegal gaming operation.

Games at the poker table featured prominent local residents, including at least one member of the Sierra Vista City Council, a cop, and other civic and business leaders in the community.

Nonetheless, state gaming officials were apparently intent on sending a message. The Keystone crew dispatched from Phoenix for this undercover – and untoward – operation managed to make eight trips to Sierra Vista costing more than $19,000 in wages, $6,200 in mileage, and the expense of 16 hotel stays. They hid their identities and their intentions from other players, all the while justifying their behavior as acting in the name of justice.

It doesn’t stop there.

A further waste of state resources and taxpayer funds involved the Attorney General’s office, which picked up the case in August, 2018 – almost a year later – and decided these “bad guys” deserved the same criminal fate as armed robbers. This month the two businessmen were convicted of felony offenses and each will be required to pay fines toward the cost for this “investigation.”

We compare the seriousness of this case to what happens almost every day – weather permitting – on local golf courses. Players wager on everything from low scores to longest drive to closest to the pin, all in the name of entertainment. Money changes hands and usually gets spent a short time later when the winner buys a round in the clubhouse.

Neither of the businessmen prosecuted in this case are hardened criminals, but their punishment is comparable to what we expect when sentencing the worst of our society.

The Department of Gaming has accomplished its mission of sending a strong message that organized poker can only be played at a tribal casino.

Unfortunately, this message confirms the worst about our state government. This was a waste of time and resources that unnecessarily victimized two businessmen and their part-time workers — and an entire state of taxpayers.