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Are VFW bingo machines legal?
Are VFW bingo machines legal?
By SUE REID
A waiver to allow four additional amusement devices at the Solon Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1863 raised a question of their legality at the city’s planning commission meeting last week.
The commission tabled VFW’s request and is seeking the opinion of the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office and the state attorney general.
“The city and this commission wants an official rendering of the legality of the machines,” commission member William M. Mazur said.
City Prosecutor Lon D. Stolarsky told the commission that he has spoken extensively with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and reviewed relevant Ohio law. It’s his opinion that the machines clearly fit the definition of a slot machine and advised against granting a waiver or variance for these particular machines.
Also, following the meeting, Mr. Stolarsky forwarded his opinion to an assistant Ohio Attorney General, who agreed with his assessment and conclusion.
“The machines and what they do are not in accordance with Ohio law, in my opinion,” Mr. Stolarsky said, adding they do not fit with the definition of a raffle, which charities are permitted to conduct.
“It’s electronically generated bingo, and that is the problem,” he said. “Ohio law prohibits any electronic-generated bingo as a slot machine.”
As a result, Mr. Stolarksy told the VFW representative in attendance, “What you are doing is not within the panels of what is allowed.”
This comes as a shock to the VFW, Commander Jack V. Tesmer said after the meeting.
“We expected to get the variance, and then all of a sudden, they presented her (the VFW representative) with emails, and that’s the first we’ve seen of it,” Mr. Tesmer said. “No one has had a problem in the state of Ohio until the city apparently has a problem with them.
“They are in most, if not all, of the 88 counties in Ohio in fraternal organizations. We probably had them six months after they first started putting them out in Ohio.”
The VFW on Melbury Avenue has had these machines for a couple of months and are called electronic raffle terminals, Mr. Tesmer said.
“When we first got the machines, we were told they were totally legal in Ohio by the Ohio Veteran and Fraternal Charitable Coalition,” he said, adding the post obtained the machines from the coalition in good faith and their proceeds help to pay property taxes.
“From what I understand, there are over 200 fraternal organizations, which include VFWs, in Ohio that have them,” Mr. Tesmer said.
“We’re just going to do whatever we are advised by the attorney,” he said of David Kopech, counsel for the coalition, who declined comment.
In an email to Mr. Stolarsky, Mr. Kopech stated that the coalition is working with the attorney general and the general assembly on legislation to clarify the law. “To date, we have not received any indication from any law enforcement agency that our program is not legal, and we are continuing to operate in over 200 locations. To date, the Ohio Veterans and Fraternal Charitable Coalition and its members have raised well over $1 million for charity utilizing the video raffle system.”
The fact that they are working on legislation to address ambiguities in the law strongly suggests that there are problems with these machines under current law, Mr. Stolarsky said.
In addition to Mr. Stolarsky’s objections, Police Chief Christopher P. Viland also is skeptical. In an email to the city’s planning director, Mr. Viland said, “With all due respect to those involved, including the author of the opinion letter and the lab report, I am uncomfortable with accepting these machines absent a specific letter of opinion from the office of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason or the Ohio Attorney General’s Office stating in unambiguous terms that neither the state nor the county determined that there are prosecutable issues involved.
“Too many times in my past history in law enforcement has a vendor come forward with a ‘new and different’ game machine that is ‘legal’. The proof they have is their own legal opinion and a study. Every single time this has happened in the past, the machine or operation was determined to be illegal and was shut down. Every time.”
Mr. Viland said he would not want the “good people at the Solon VFW to have to answer when the Ohio Investigative Unit or the Cuyahoga County prosecutor shows up, confiscates the machines and charges individuals. That is not fair to them.”
The VFW proposed to locate seven devices in its building, and city code limits the number of amusement devices to two. There also is a requirement that a permit be issued for each device subject to review by the building, police and fire departments. In 2010, the commission approved one extra device for the property for a total of three.
The city subsequently became aware that three additional devices had been moved onto the property without planning commission approval or permits, according to City Planning Director Robert S. Frankland. The result is six amusement devices on site, with the VFW requesting that seven be allowed.
The machines are popular at the post, Mr. Tesmer said.
“They contribute a lot to keeping not only our VFW, but all VFWs, open for the veterans,” he said. “The property taxes we pay in Solon are over $16,000 a year, and these machines will help to offset that and allow us to keep our doors open.”
“I’m looking for a legal out on this,” Mr. Mazur said. “You have sort of a sticky wicket here.”
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