State targets bingo machines used by some veterans' groups
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Three state agencies are trying to shut down what they claim are the use of illegal gaming devices at various veterans' organizations.
Officials from the departments of revenue, gaming and liquor licensing contend that machines that have been installed in various "posts'' around the state are not really playing "bingo'' the way it is permitted under state law. Instead, the contend, the devices operate more like slot machines whose use is legally reserved for tribal casinos.
But Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said Monday these devices were legalized under a 2017 law he crafted. And while he acknowledged the legislation was promoted as making it easier for those who are disabled to gamble, he said nothing in the statute precludes them from being used by others -- and in the way they are now operating.
He also accuses the agencies, operating under the direction of Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, of not just "threatening and terrorizing'' the veterans groups that use bingo and these devices to raise cash but also of trying to protect tribal gaming interests from competition.
Christian Slater, the governor's press aide, counters that it is the senator who is off base.
"Sen. Borrelli seems more interested in promoting unregulated, potentially predatory gambling than in helping non-profit organizations comply with the law,'' he said, accusing Borrelli of "a political stunt.''
The senator was equally critical of Hobbs.
"It's really disappointing that the governor's office would take this position and miss out on a great opportunity to look like a star, an opportunity to stand with her veteran and fraternal organizations,'' he said. "There are over 600,000 veterans in this state that use this as a revenue-generating tool so that way they are self-reliant.''
The dispute surrounds something called "bonanza bingo'' -- both the game and the way it can be played.
What is considered traditional bingo involves a caller at the front of the room who draws numbered balls out of a device and announces them to all present. Then players check their cards to see if they have those numbers.
Someone wins and the game is over when he or she gets a pre-determined pattern of matched numbers, like five in a row or all four corners.
With bonanza bingo, 30 numbers are all revealed at once. Then players check the cards they have purchased -- you can play more than one -- to see if they won.
That game, by itself is illegal according to the Department of Gaming.
That's because state rules say a game ends when the winning ball is called. If all 30 are dropped, there is no winning ball.
But it's even deeper than that.
The fight is over a process in which the 30 chosen numbers are transmitted sent to what looks like slot machines where gamblers have purchased online bingo "cards.'' Then, each gambler's electronically purchased cards are checked to see if they have won.
What that also means is that if there are numbers drawn when the post opens at 9 a.m., people can use those machines for as long as it takes until all the patterns are covered and all the prizes are won, regardless of whether there is someone calling numbers on the site.
The big problem, from the state's perspective, is the contention these free-standing devices, while they get their winning numbers from the organization that operates the games, really function more like a slot machine in allowing people to play independent of any actual game being played on site. And that, the agencies involved say, runs afoul of laws which say you can only conduct "live bingo.''
In a letter to those with bingo licenses, Robert Woods, director of the Department of Revenue, said his agency has litigated that question of multiple times.
"Each time, it has been found that offering the use of such machines does not itself constitute the offering of live bingo,'' he wrote.
Ben Henry, director of the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, also signed on to the letter, saying he concurs with the legal analysis.
What makes that important is his agency is the one who decides if these veterans' organizations get to keep their liquor licenses.
"It is important to note that Arizona law specifically prohibits a liquor licensee from knowingly allowing unlawful gambling on their premises,'' the letter states. And violations not just can result in loss of a liquor license but also criminal penalties.
Borrelli said this is covered under the 2017 law which allows "technological aids for bingo games.''
He acknowledged that was promoted as a method of assisting those who are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law generally requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for those who need special devices.
But he pointed out the statute also says that if no one who is disabled needs the devices, they can be used by others.
What Borrelli is leaving out of his discussion of the 2017 law is that while it allows for those "technological aids,'' it also says that they "function only as electronic substitutes for bingo cards.''
That, the state says, means things like hand-held devices that can be used by those who cannot use regular markers to blot out the numbers that have been called. It does not mean devices functioning separately.
Borrelli, however, said there is no authority by the Department of Gaming to determine what devices are and are not legal. In fact, he said, the company that makes the devices went to the agency to ask what are the limits.
"The Department of Gaming actually said, 'We're not in a position to approve any devices,' '' Borrelli said. "OK, if you can't approve them, you can't disapprove them.''
Borrelli rejected the idea that if there is a question about the legality of the game and the devices he should introduce legislation to clarify it. He insisted that he is right, the games and the equipment are legal, and the governor and her agencies should acknowledge that.
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