Bingo, a multimillion dollar industry and the only legalized form of gambling in Virginia, has generated a multifaceted controversy in Alexandria that could lead to a special grand jury investigation.
City officials are complaining that bingo games have operated illegally and that the commonwealth's attorney has failed to prosecute.
The commonwealth's attorney whose jon is to prosecute violators of state law, has said the evidence gathered by the police contained rumors of skimming and other violations, but nothing adequate for prosecution.
Police officials have said they were told their report was adequate. The city attorney, legal adviser to the City Council, has said the job of enforcing bingo laws belongs to the commonwealth's attorney.
The city manager says that bingo violations may still be going on, but the city finance director says that any violations ceased in January.
A city councilman has said the commonweatlh's attorney has a conflict of interest and should defer to a special prosecutor and the commonwealth's attorney says there is no conflict.
In an attempt to sort out the situation, the council, Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig, City Manager Douglas Harman, City Attorney C.D. Calley and Police Chief Charles T. Strobel met in closed session Tuesday to try to decide what to do.
Councilman Donald C. Casey who has said the Cowhig has a conflict of interest in the case, has called for the appointment of a special prosecutor, and Harman said yesterday that the council might decide to seek a special grand jury to investigate.
Cowhig said yesterday that he would consider the appointment of a special prosecutor as an unjustified criticism of his performance. He said he wants one of his assistants and an assistant city attorney to get together with police to review evidence.
The problems stem directly from the change in bingo since it was legalized by the state legislature in 1973. Churches, fire departments, fraternal lodges, and similar groups had been operating illegaly but openly for years and the intent was to sanction these games.
Under the loosely written laws, huge games operating professionally in large halls quickly developed. The law basically limited operation of the games to legitimate, nonprofit groups whose members would run the games themselves.
In practise, business group often would rent and set up a bingo hall and provide paid workers to run the game night after night. The penalty for a violtion was a $1,000 fine and loss of bingo permit, and critics said that was not enough to discourage an operator or lead a prosecutor to take a case into court.
Last year, the General Assembly tightened the law, limiting an organization to three nights a week an barring excessive rental payments, one method by which a profit-making group could convert "charitable" bingo earnings into profit.
In Alexandria, three of the big-time bingo games had developed. The biggest, at 350 S. Pickett St. was organized by the Montessori School of Alexandria. According to its required financial report, the game had 1977 receipts of $673,432 and expenses of $386,369 - not including money taken in and paid out nightly in prizes. The profits of $287,063 went to the school, Ascension Academy, the Alexandria Jaycees and the Alexandria Host Lions Club.
By all accounts, that game is run in compliance with the law and has presented no problem to the city.
Two other large games - at 4603 Duke St. and at 3819 Mount Vernon Ave. - have caused problems, according to city officials.
While the Montessori game was returning 43 percent of the take to its nonprofit operators, the Duke Street game was reporting a loss and the Mt. Vernon Avenue game was making only 4 percent, according to the financial statements they are required to file.
Cowhig said he had asked police to begin an investigation of the games in 1ate 1976, but that it had turned up nothing worth prosecuting by last December. However, rumors were circulating that paid professionals were involved in the games.
In January, Alexandria finance director Howard J. Holton, who licenses the games, decides that B&J Specialities Inc. was not a charitable organization as required by the bingo act. They had been licensed in 1977 and were running the Duke Street game. The game was still running in mid-January and Holton called Cowhig. Cowhig called B&J. The game closed down, Holton said. Cowhig did not prosecute.