Sheriff Pushes Bingo Button

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

St. Mary's County deputies hand-delivered letters earlier this week that notified owners of more than 20 establishments that their instant bingo machines were in violation of at least one law.

But some of the bar, restaurant and liquor store owners who received the letters said Tuesday that the notice did not state exactly which laws were being broken.

"It looks like a form letter, it's really vague," said Bob Sorrells, owner of Fred's Liquors in Charlotte Hall, which has 55 of the devices that resemble slot machines. "I can't make any decisions until we know what we did wrong. If there are things we can change, we will. If we can't, we'll close them down. We aren't looking to go against the law."

St. Mary's Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron (R) said those involved have been given copies of the law and legal opinions interpreting it. If the machines deemed illegal are not removed by the end of the week, Cameron said his deputies may begin to seize them as early as Saturday, "starting with the most egregious offender and working our way down the list."

Cameron appeared to reject suggestions that the letters were not specific enough. "By now, they are all familiar with the law," he said. "They know what we're talking about when we say their machines are not in compliance with the law."

As of Tuesday, 10 establishments had removed their machines, Cameron said, a trend the sheriff said he hopes will continue until all illegal machines are out of the county.

Billy Hill, owner of St. Mary's Landing in Charlotte Hall, said he received a "very vague" letter on Tuesday morning and will consult with the machine owners, Frank Moran & Sons of Baltimore, as he decides what to do. Other business owners said they are seeking advice from lawyers but are not considering legal action at this point.

The letters are the result of what law enforcement authorities called a "fact-finding mission" March 13, when teams of county and state officials inspected 23 bars, restaurants and other places where the instant bingo machines have popped up in the past six months using a loophole in state law that allows nonprofit organizations to host gaming events to raise money.

The legality of the instant bingo machines -- which look and sound like a slot machine but operate differently -- has been debated locally and at the state level. Several county officials, including the sheriff, originally said the machines were legal but changed their minds when the Maryland Attorney General's Office released a comprehensive opinion on the topic.

On the basis of that opinion, Cameron concluded that all of the instant bingo machines in St. Mary's County violated at least one facet of the law.

Some of the machines themselves are illegal, such as the ones that print winning tickets as the game is played. Others are used in ways that are illegal, such as exceeding the limit of five machines or not paying enough of the revenue to the nonprofit organization that technically hosts the machines, he said.

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