A Tale of Two Cities
Bingo bill unites unlikely coalition
by Gary Delsohn -- Bee Staff Writer
Originally published 15 February 2002
in Sacramento Bee

It sounds like one of those obscure little issues only insiders notice.

But a so-called bingo reform bill that stalled in the California Legislature last spring under fierce opposition has been revived with an unlikely coalition of supporters that includes Muslims, the Arab-American Anti-Defamation League, dozens of Los Angeles rabbis, Jewish activists, Latinos, veterans groups, priests in the Catholic Church and a number of small charities.

The issue even has implications as far away as the Middle East. It's also ensnared California Attorney General Bill Lockyer in one of his most controversial and eagerly awaited decisions since taking office four years ago.

"There is $300 to $400 million a year in cash flowing through the bingo operators in this state and it begs for aggressive oversight," said state Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, sponsor of the so-called bingo reform bill.

"We have found a lot of abuse. There have been wholesale violations of the intent of the law."

Most of the scrutiny -- and most of Polanco's original bill -- has been aimed at a handful of very large bingo operators in general and a 73-year-old Jewish millionaire by the name of Irving Moskowitz in particular.

The retired Miami physician made a fortune in Southern California real estate and hospital management before moving to Florida 20 years ago. He's also been a lightning rod for Jews and Palestinians because he's put millions into Israeli causes critics say have undermined peace efforts in the region.

For the past decade or so, his seven-day-a-week Hawaiian Gardens bingo parlor in Los Angeles County has generated millions of dollars for his charitable Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation. It owns the bingo hall and gave rise to the coalition that supports Polanco's legislation.

Small, charitable bingo operators say they can't compete with operations like Hawaiian Gardens, claiming they fly in the face of state law that requires bingo profits to be used only for truly charitable purposes.

Some for-profit operators have even started churches in name only so they skirt the law, Polanco and other backers of his bill have claimed.

"It's pretty hard to run a small mom-and-pop bingo operation for charity competing against something like this," Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sartoris of Los Angeles, a supporter of Polanco's bill, said in a recent interview.

Even with the coalition's support, though, Polanco said there was so much organized opposition to his bill when it was heard in committee in May that he withdrew the measure. He plans to re-introduce it before the bill-filing deadline later this month, but in a version that will "leave out the Moskowitz issues."

State records show that Moskowitz has paid Sacramento lobbying firms at least $67,000 to work against Polanco's bill. Moskowitz also recently contributed $25,000 to the campaign pushing for changes in the state's legislative term limits law.

"SB 832 (Polanco's bill) was clearly directed at Dr. Moskowitz," said Beryl Weiner, a Los Angeles lawyer who works and speaks for him. "Absurd things were put in that bill that were targeted only at him."

One such provision, Weiner pointed out, would have prohibited bingo money from being handled by security guards. Hawaiian Gardens stands out for its extra-tight security, Weiner said, and the provision has since been cut from Polanco's bill.

Polanco said his amended bill would simply place bingo under control of the state's Gambling Control Commission. The commission would be charged with making sure bingo operators follow legal requirements that forbid profit and don't allow operators to take money out for themselves.

"The law is not being followed," Polanco said. "That's all this is about. I am going to introduce a new bill and see if we can't start fresh with it."

State law now allows cities and counties to license bingo operations that are purely charitable, but very little oversight is provided, Polanco said.

Some bingo operators have said they oppose the idea of state involvement, though. Marty Manges, who runs a bingo game in Sacramento two nights a week for the Casa Roble High School boosters club, said he already pays a local license fee of about 1 percent of the game's revenues and is afraid the state just wants to collect more.

"I'd hate to see the state get involved in this," he said. "We bring in about $300,000 a year for the school and I just think the state wants to get its hands on some of that money."

Polanco's legislation did allow for a $50 state fee at one time but that's also been taken out of the bill.

Moskowitz's bingo hall has brought in more than $25 million each of the past three years, according to financial reports filed with state and federal agencies.

But those same charitable foundation disclosure filings show the hall pays about $19 million each year to bingo winners.

About 10 percent to 15 percent of the take is donated to charitable causes, including those that support various politically conservative efforts in Israel.

The remaining funds go toward operation of the bingo parlor.

Among other things, Moskowitz has put foundation money as well as his own personal funds into groups that buy Arab-owned apartments in East Jerusalem and then lease them to Jews.

Perhaps his most notorious move was to finance excavation in 1996 of archaeological tunnels underneath the Muslim mosque inside the old city of Jerusalem. The action so enraged Palestinians that it sparked immediate riots in which more than 60 Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed.

"The bingo operation is a violation of state law," Kamal Abu-Shamsieh of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles charged. He said his group also decided to speak out on the issue because Moskowitz's gambling operations exploit the poor people in and around the city of Hawaiian Gardens who patronize the bingo parlor.

"It's supposed to be used for only charitable purposes and the money's being used to have a damaging effect on the Middle East peace process. As Muslims, we are concerned about the issue of justice for all people."

The Muslim Public Affairs Council and other groups, including LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, have also opposed Moskowitz's application for a permanent state license to run his $11 million card room and casino next door to the bingo hall. The profitable card room was built with Moskowitz's personal funds, as well as local redevelopment money, his lawyer said. Foundation money wasn't used.

The casino has had a provisional license for several years, and Lockyer has delayed recommending action to state gambling regulators on a permanent license until his staff can fully evaluate all the allegations that have been made against Moskowitz.

Members of the anti-Moskowitz coalition have claimed he exploits the poor and predominantly Latino residents of Hawaiian Gardens by running two profitable gambling operations and putting very little of the proceeds back into the community.

"This is a blot on the collective name of the Jewish people," charged Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, founder of The Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem.

"This is not a guy charging a few pennies more for a carton of milk. This is a guy ripping off an entire community and using the millions of dollars to do some very provocative and harmful things in Israel."

Weiner, Moskowitz's lawyer, said his client no longer gives interviews, and Weiner accused Beliak of attacking Moskowitz because he doesn't like his politics. He also said Moskowitz has put millions into local services in the city of Hawaiian Gardens, such as food banks and hospitals.

"Rabbi Beliak has been on a witch hunt against Dr. Moskowitz for years," Weiner said. "This is just part of his efforts to tar and feather Irving Moskowitz with false accusations. Rabbi Beliak freely makes these false accusations, notwithstanding the fact he's a rabbi."

Most of what Moskowitz has spent in Israel or on Zionist causes comes from his own funds, not the foundation's, Weiner said. Moskowitz's salary -- records show he paid himself more than $300,000 one year -- comes from his own money, not bingo receipts, Weiner said. State law prohibits bingo games from paying wages to anyone. The games must rely exclusively on volunteers.

"What Rabbi Beliak fails to understand is Dr. Moskowitz has supported Israel for 45 years or more and even if he shut down Hawaiian Gardens, this would not make Dr. Moskowitz stop that effort."

Regardless, Lockyer has been urged to recommend denial of the card room license because Moskowitz isn't of sufficient moral character to warrant a permanent license. Under state law, the attorney general recommends action on licenses and the Gambling Control Commission has the final say.

In one typical letter sent to Lockyer, a group known as the Progressive Jewish Alliance claimed last year that a variety of allegations "cast serious doubt upon (Moskowitz's) character, honesty and integrity."

Lockyer's failure to act on the request "gives an unfair advantage to the applicant," Polanco said. "How long can a provisional license be provisional before it amounts to something permanent?"

According to Lockyer, it's not that simple. He's opposed to some of what Moskowitz has done in the Middle East, but that's not reason enough to deny him a gambling license, Lockyer said.

"We're trying to find out exactly what he does do with his money in the Middle East. Some of the claims are that he's doing some things that are illegal and some are that he's just engaging in bad policy.

"That requires a very laborious investigation. It's better to take the time and do it right than to hurry and wind up getting it reversed by a court."

About the Writer
The Bee's Gary Delsohn can be reached at (916) 321-1199 or gdelsohn@sacbee.com

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