Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman has recommended a series of sweeping legislative proposals that, if enacted, would dramatically alter the state's controversial bingo games.
His recommendations would directly affect bingo abuses like those reported in past months in Alexandria, although Coleman did not specifically mention the city.
The recommendations would, for the first time, limit the gross amount of money an organization or individual could make from bingo, limit the number of nights the game could be played at a single location, and establish state-funded auditing procedures for the games, which last year grossed more than 50 million in the state.
Coleman, the state's chief law enforcement officer, also suggested the possibility banning instant bingo, a lucrative form of the game often compared to slot machine gambling. Coleman also suggested increasing the penalties for bingo law violations, and limiting the conduct of the games to buildings owned by the sponsoring organizations.
"The original intent (of the state's 1974 bingo law) has been thwarted (and) the statute needs clarification," Coleman wrote on Tuesday to state Del. Ralph L. Axselle, Jr. (D-Henrico). Axselle is chairman of a special subcommittee expected to recommend changes in the bingo laws to the next session of the General Assembly.
Bingo has become "big business in Virginia (and) may become a highly profitable source of revenue for a few large organizations," something that threatens to force smaller organizations out of participation, Coleman wrote.
Axelle said yesterday his subcommittee "does not want to abolish bingo, or put the games out of business, but, only to control it." He said that of all of Coleman's recommendations. "We might go with (the one putting limits on) the number of nights an organization can play."
Currently a charitable, nonprofit, or service organization may conduct bingo games three nights a week.
Axselle's statement indicates the subcommittee might recommend limiting bingo games to one or two nights a week.
"We're not going to impose any limitations on (bingo game sponsors) that they can't live with. The vast, vast majority of games in the state are conducted legally. Most organizations welcome some tightening of the laws," he said.
On Aug. 3 an Alexandria grand jury indicted Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig on a charge of bribery in connection with the bingo games run by the Montessori School of Alexandria. Inc. Cowhig was accused of accepting $34,000 in bribes at the rate of $500 a week from the school and its director, Dirgham Salahi. Cowhig also was indicted on two unrelated counts of organizing, helping run, and profiting from two illegal bingo games. Cowhig temporarily has given up his office pending resolution of the charges.
According to State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), bingo games run in urban areas such as Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk also have encountered difficulties, although there have been no indictments in those areas. Mitchell, a member of Axselle's subcommittee, said there have been no problems with small bingo games run in rural communities.
Coleman's letter to Axselle listed seven recommendations, including one that would require that the intended use of bingo proceeds be spelled out in advance of the games. Other "measures" the subcommittee "might wish to consider," but which Coleman himself did not specifically recommend, included outlawing instant bingo, banning a landlord from renting bingo equipment to sponsors, and defining more clearly the meaning of the word "charity."
Axselle said his subcommittee will meet on Monday in Richmond to consider the various recommendations it has received, and hoped to have a proposed bill drawn up by November.