As far as Joseph Webb was concerned he was God's Poet, employed by God to write spiritual verse and obliged to help people with money he'd raise by sponsoring bingo games in Washington.
But as far as D.C. police were concerned, Webb, president of the University of the District of Columbia Alumni Association, was running an illegal gambling operation, prompting the city's first raid of a bingo game in more than three years.
Yesterday, Webb and the co-owner of a meeting hall in Northeast Washington were arraigned on gambling charges stemming from their alleged involvement in a charity bingo game held at the hall Friday night.
Although a gambling referendum passed by D.C. voters in 1980 was designed to legalize bingo games run by charitable organizations, no licensing mechanism has yet been set up. Bingo games -- all bingo games -- remain illegal, police and city officials say.
Nonetheless, Webb and others say that bingo games flourish.
More than 130 people, mostly from the Benning Road area and suburban Maryland, paid $30 apiece Friday night for a chance to win as much as $2,000 at a bingo game Webb said he organized at the Chateau, a brightly painted meeting hall at 3439 Benning Rd. NE.
Many of them said they were regular bingo players who frequently played at games held throughout the city in churches and rented halls. Some said there are bingo games in Washington on every night of the week.
Friday night's game was sponsored by God's Poet Inc., which Webb called a fledgling nonprofit group that intended to use bingo to raise money to make long-term, interest-free loans to poor people threatened with emergencies.
Webb, founder and president of the group, is charged with possessing lottery slips and maintaining a gambling establishment following the Friday night raid by more than a dozen D.C. police, who said they confiscated bingo equipment, lottery-type slips and more than $4,000.
Also charged was Walter J. Smith, owner of record of the Chateau, where God's Poet Inc. had been sponsoring bingo for more than two months. Besides the gambling charges, police said, Smith is charged with possessing a .38-caliber pistol reported stolen from South Carolina.
Both men pleaded not guilty yesterday and requested jury trials.
"Why were we singled out?" asked Webb, who works as a D.C. schools administrator. He said it is well known that bingo is played throughout the city.
After the raid, he said, he gave police a list of other places in Washington -- mostly churches -- where bingo is played regularly. Some of the bingo patrons showed a reporter mimeographed flyers and ads in community newspapers announcing upcoming bingo games.
Lt. Robert Denyer of the police department's vice squad, who headed the month-long investigation that resulted in the raid, said he was surprised by the volume of bingo games Webb's list seems to suggest.
"It's illegal. Period," he said yesterday. "This might be the end of bingo until some licensing procedure comes along."
Denyer said in the more than three years he's been in the morals division, he's never heard of a bingo game raid. He said that his investigation of the God's Poet Inc. operation was begun after his office received complaints, and that long before the raid his officers warned Webb that what he was doing was illegal.
A spokesman for the D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board said that its proposed bingo regulations are bogged down in city government bureaucracy, and confirmed that the games remain illegal.
One official said police traditionally have left bingo games alone, operating on a "three Cs" policy. "If the games were not conpicious, commercial or received complaints, they were not bothered," the official said.
Webb maintains that race and fierce competition for Washington's bingo crowd were the reasons for the raid. "I have no other thing to think," he said yesterday, claiming that most of the area's bingo players are black and that God's Poet Inc. was the area's only black-operated bingo group -- and the only one he said he has ever known to be raided by police.
Joan Perry, a self-described regular at God's Poet bingo who was playing when police stormed the game, said she and her family were burned out of their home recently and Webb's organization gave her a $100 check to help out.
"God's Poet was helping people and because it was a black organization, it was attacked. If bingo is illegal, the police should be raiding other places."