Tribes, bingo operators at war

Who knew bingo was so controversial?

In recent months, Sacramento has seen a legal and media battle over charity bingo halls. The California Tribal Business Alliance (CTBA) and the Attorney General have been trying to shut down several charity bingo halls they say aren't complying with the rules set out for the game in state law. These so-called bingo parlors, they say, resemble Vegas casinos, with electronic "bingo" machines that look and play like slot machines or video poker.

The California Charity Bingo Association has fought back with an ad campaign accusing "powerful special interest groups" wanting to cut off money for disabled veterans and sick children.

Charity bingo was legalized by a voter initiative in 1976. Over the last 30-plus years, it has provided millions of dollars for charities, according to Bingo Association lobbyist Ravi Mehta.

"People felt that charities should have a source of revenue so they're not always out there with their hand out," Mehta said.
In the 1980s, Mehta said, California Indian tribes decided they wanted to get in on the act. The state tried to block them, he said, but won the right to conduct bingo games in court. Many of the big tribal casinos also use bingo gaming machines, that don't count against their slot machine total.

"It's absolutely hypocritical," Mehta said. "These are the same arguments made against the tribes, and the tribes prevailed. Now the tribes are making the same arguments. These are not slot machines. These are legal bingo machines, just like the tribes have."

But there's one huge problem with this argument, according to Alison Harvey, executive director of the CTBA.
"We're not operating under the same laws. You can't compare them."

The tribes operate under federal law she said, while the bingo halls must comply with state law-which she said they are regularly breaking. State law allows them to play bingo on a paper card, she said, but not on machines. Except for paid security guards, all people working at bingo halls must be volunteers.

The legal maneuvering began one year ago, when the AG's office sent letters to 15 bingo parlors-about half of them in the Sacramento area-warning them they may be out of compliance with state law. The letter said that "electronic aid" in filling out a card was not illegal, but that systems that "substitute computers with stored bingo matrices…do not qualify as the game of bingo."

This was followed with actual cease and desist letters this May. The Bingo Association countered in early June by successfully seeking an injunction that would allow the parlors to stay open while the legal issues are resolved.

The CTBA took a group of reporters on a tour of bingo halls two weeks ago. Like many bingo halls, the Bingo Palace on Fulton and Marconi uses machines made by Video Gaming Technologies (VGT) of Brentwood, Tennessee. The machines offer five games-most people were playing a type of video poker-that gets translated into a bingo game on a smaller screen atop the machine. When asked, multiple players said they never paid any attention to the small top screen.

But this doesn't matter, Mehta said. The machines comply with state laws-multiple people play at the same time, the house has no direct stake in the game, and no one wins unless their bingo card on the top screen shows a winner. Mehta said the real issue is tribal casinos trying to get rid of competition.

According to a report put out on August 7 by Karen Walsh, bingo compliance manager at the Sacramento County Sheriff's Dept., charity bingo halls in Sacramento County took in $55 million from July 1, 2007, to July 1, 2008. Of this, 76 percent was paid out in prizes, 16 percent went to cover bingo hall expenses, and a little over 8 percent-just under $4.6 million-went to charities.

The CTBA's Harvey said she wanted to know how much of the "overhead" portion was going to VGT to pay for leases on machines. Meanwhile, as the market gets saturated with more and more machines, the percentage going to charities is slipping, she said. She characterized the bingo halls as an attempt to create unregulated urban gambling in California.

"If you say this is okay, you'll have these in all the card clubs," Harvey said. "You'll have casinos on every corner."

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