The night before she died in 2015, Jane Ann Burke made her husband promise he would continue the work she had suggested he embark upon 11 years earlier. That work, inspired in the days he was released from a Michigan state prison after three years served for embezzlement, became the foundation for the rest of his life.
“I’ve spent 20 years working with gambling addicts,” Michael Burke said. “It is my life.”
The executive director of the Michigan Association on Problem Gambling, Burke has quite a cautionary tale of his own to tell. Once a powerful attorney from a family of powerful Michigan attorneys — his grandfather was a judge during the post-World War II Nuremberg trials and his father helped cement the family law firm into a local institution — he lost nearly everything due to his gambling addiction.
It’s all documented in Burke’s book, Never Enough: One Lawyer’s Story of How He Gambled His Career Away, which was first published by the Michigan Bar Association. It is soon to be published (and offered online for free) by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), of which Burke is a board member.
After prison, a decision to help
March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month, but every month is Problem Gambling Awareness Month for the 77-year-old Burke, who has been touring the country for years speaking to attorneys and judges at risk of gambling addiction and sharing his stories with wider audiences.
“Obviously, he was a highly accomplished professional. He doesn’t fit the old profile of a down-at-the-heels bum that hangs around the track,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG. “When you read the book, you see some of the victims who were willing to stand up for him and recognize this was a good person who had done bad things. Just his commitment to not just try to make things right for the people he had hurt, but the focus on trying to prevent other people from going down the same pathway is incredible.”
On a September night in 2000, Burke sat at his desk with a .38-caliber pistol pointed at his temple. In a sign of how twisted his thinking was at the time, it didn’t feel like a low point.
“It was the most wonderful feeling I’d ever had, because I knew that suicide would free me from the guilt of being publicly exposed and having to explain to my family what I had done to them,” Burke wrote.
He then started thinking about his wife and kids, from whom he had hidden his addiction and the crime he committed to feed it, and put down the gun.
Six months later, he reported his misdeeds to the state bar association. Next, he gave a statement to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. He had spent more than $1.6 million of his clients’ money on gambling, all the while planning to pay it back. Instead, it went to the house, where it usually ends up when someone is in a downward spiral caused by gambling.
“Prison offered me the opportunity to take time to decide what I could do to reduce the pain I had caused my family, friends, victims, and myself,” Burke wrote. “I resolved that I would use that time to heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
He couldn’t practice law when he got out in 2004 because he had been disbarred. That’s when his wife suggested he join the recovery field. Now he is one of Michigan’s most persistent voices when it comes to getting care for people most susceptible to a major gambling addiction.
Helping raise awareness for residential treatment
Burke’s latest crusade is trying to get Michigan to pay for inpatient treatment for severe gambling addicts. As of now, Michigan contracts with a Louisiana inpatient treatment center, but patients must often pay out of pocket. The Michigan Association on Problem Gambling gets no state funding, instead relying on donations from gambling operators themselves. Most of that money goes toward shipping the state’s most desperate gambling addicts to Louisiana and other states.
“A residential treatment center here in Michigan has always been my dream,” Burke said. “It’s the one thing I’d like to see before I go join Jane.”
Whyte said the NCPG is in lockstep with Burke when it comes to trying to get more convenient, less costly treatment options for those most in need. Whyte said alcoholics and drug addicts have a far easier time finding treatment options that are affordable and close to home.
There are only six inpatient gambling recovery facilities across the United States, which are listed on the NCPG’s web site.
“There are probably 30 people a year in Michigan who need that kind of care. It’s not a large number,” Whyte said. “If you’ve got to ship them all that way, away from family, that’s a big barrier — and it’s a lot more costly. Imagine someone who’s in pretty desperate shape and they’ve got to spend days haggling over paperwork and stuff like that. That’s the last thing you want to be doing. You just want to get your head straight.”
Burke said the state has begun a pilot program, but so far it has made just three beds available to severe gambling addicts. Burke would also like to get state funding for the Michigan Association on Problem Gambling.
Don’t bet against him. He’s been on a mission for quite some time now.
Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images