Spurred by charges of bribery and illegal gambling against Alexandria's prosecutor in connection with bingo, a state legislative committee has recommended passage of a bill that would put severe restrictions on the game in Virginia.
State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), a member of the General Assembly bingo committee, said the measure drafted by the nine-member panel would put "big-time bingo parlor operators out of business" and give cities and counties the power to outlaw "instant bingo," a game that its opponents characterize as "nothing less than cardboard slot machines."
Mitchell was one of the first public officials in Northern Virginia to focus on abuses by bingo operators in the Washington suburbs and he said yesterday that "problems in both Alexandria and Fairfax County" contributed to the drafting of the tough bingo law.
"There is no question but that those problems have held center stage during our deliberations," he said. "They have helped mold the bill."
Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig goes on trial next week on charges of taking $32,000 in bribes to shield bingo games operated by the city's Montesorri School from prosecution. He is scheduled for trial in January on a charges of illegal gambling in connection with another bingo operation.
Mitchell said the bill approved by the joint Senate and House of Delegates committee would repeal the state's existing bingo law, which prosecutors around the state have called vague and virtually unenforceable.
The two most controversial restrictions included in the new bill described by Mitchell would limit bingo operations at any one location to three times a week and give local governing bodies the right to outlaw instant bingo.
A player of instant bingo typically buys a card and peels back its cover to determine instantly from symbols on the card whether he or she wins a prize.
Mitchell said the three-times-a-week limit on bingo games at one location is a deliberate attempt by the committee to put out of business professional parlor operators who he said charge $300 to $350 a night to rent bingo rooms to organizations that do not have meeting halls.
The committee has estimated that bingo is a $50 million-a-year business in Virginia, but its chairman, Del. Ralph L. Axselle (D-Henrico), has said that only about $12 million of that amount actually goes to the charitable and civic organizations that sponsor games. The committee has found that professional parlor operators get a large share of the other $38 million.
Mitchell said other important provisions in the proposed bingo law include detailed disclosure requirements for organizations seeking bingo permits, full audits of bingo proceeds, local government authority to levy a 0.5 percent fee on bingo revenues to pay auditing costs, a $1,000 ceiling on prizes and a requirement that any organizaton grossing more than $50,000 a year from bingo prove that it is classified as a nonprofit organization by the Internal Revenue Service.