Problems associated with enforcing Virginia's four-year-old bingo law have become so widespread that the General Assembly will be advised to "completely overhaul" the law next year, according to an influential state legislator.
Recommendations from a state bingo study commission may "very well" call for creation of a state bingo regulatory commission, tightening accounting requirements, increasing penalities for bingo violations and refining the groups which can sponsor the games, according to State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria).
Mitchell, who has long championed tighter controls on the games, is a member of the commission which will hold a public hearing Monday at 7:30 p.m. into bingo games in Northern Virginia. The hearing, open to the public, will be held in the Alexandria City Council chambers.
A special state prosecutor has secured indictments against Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig and bingo game operators in the city on various charges involving allegations of corruption and violations of state gambling and bingo laws. Cowhig, who has taken a leave from his office pending his trial, was accused of soliciting and accepting about $34,000 in bribes from the operator of one of the largest bingo games in the Washington suburbs.
"The problems found recently in Alexandria - the unlawful use of profits, the skimming, the use of paid personnel to run the games, the sale of bingo paraphernalia at inflated prices - are all problems found in other urban areas of the state," Mitchell said. While Norfolk, Richmond, and Roanoke had had similar problems, rural areas of the state haven't, he said.
Virginia's gambling law was amended in 1974 to permit bingo games under certain conditions. Generally speaking, bingo is legal if conducted by a charitable, or nonprofit, or other kind of beneficial organization, whose unpaid volunteer members stage the games, and whose individual organizers do not personally recelve more than $2,000 from the games.
However, "as the situation in Alexandria has shown," the law is subject to wide abuse, Mitchell said.
"If you wanted to, you could open up a literary society devoted to the works of Karl Marx, hold meetings once a year for two years, open a bingo game and profit from it yourself," he said.
Bingo generates about $50 million a year in Virginia and $1.2 million in Alexandria, according to reported results. "You can take a look at the accounting sheets handed in by two different sponsors in the same city, and they are as different as night and day," Mitchell said. "One will list only the receipts, the expenses, and the prizes, and the other will have everything detailed on it down to the last electric fuse," he said.
The state's problems began as soon as the bingo law was on the books, Mitchell said. With each successive meeting of the legislature, a new group of bills designed to tighten the bingo law have been introduced. Troubled by the continuing complaints over allegations of abuses in urban areas, the state bingo study commission was formed by the legislature last year. It will make its report to the next legislative session, in January.
"The mechanism for controlling bingo abuses and still allowing legitimate organizations to use the same is still out there, and it can be found. We just haven't found it yet," Mitchell said.