Looting Hawaiian Gardens
California Bingo Hall Plays on World Stage
by Charlie LeDuff
Originally published 25 November 2002
in The New York Times

This is a rundown town in the rundown eastern corner of Los Angeles County. Besides the palm trees, little here suggests Hawaii.

This stamplike city, the smallest in California, is nine-tenths of a square mile and is bounded by the 605 Freeway and a drainage ditch. It is a poor place; the population of about 15,000 has an average yearly income of less than $10,000. The mayor lives in a trailer and the burned-out bulbs in the neon sign on the bingo hall leave lighted letters -- B and O -- that only hint of what is there. But it is this sagging bingo hall that holds one of the deepest intrigues in the state. Few among the working-class players who gamble away their nickels and quarters and dollars here in what is billed as the "fastest game in town" suspect where their money goes. The games' profits go to building Israeli developments on Arab land that Israel occupied during the 1967 war and then incorporated within Jerusalem's boundaries.

The money makes its way there through the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation, which owns the bingo hall. The foundation's benefactor is a reclusive and wealthy doctor, Irving I. Moskowitz, who lives neither in Israel nor California, but in Miami Beach. He is the largest landowner and employer in town. Among his holdings are the Hawaiian Gardens Bingo Club, the neighboring Hawaiian Gardens Casino, which, in fact, is a card club, and a hospital.

As the state struggles to control Indian casino gambling, charity bingo, a $600-million-a-year business, is virtually unregulated. As large foundations have moved into charitable bingo, becoming money machines in the process and powerful in the state capital, smaller charitable bingo operators have fallen by the wayside. The number of bingo halls in the state has dwindled to fewer than 50 from nearly 600. The Hawaiian Gardens Bingo Club is the largest and is at the center of an international controversy over donations.

Dr. Moskowitz is rarely seen and when he speaks it is through his lawyer. The doctor's detractors say he lords over this small town in absentia, getting elected officials who cross him recalled and city employees who try to do so fired. They accuse him of setting up sweetheart land deals for himself and threatening to withhold contributions to the city if his wishes go unfulfilled.

His admirers have crowned him a savior of both Hawaiian Gardens and Israel. His contributions to a town once awash in red ink are in the tens of millions of dollars.

While the doctor's bingo foundation may not give directly to Jewish settlers, it gives to groups that support them, according to lawyers and tax records. Money from the bingo hall can be traced through the tax records to new apartments for Jewish settlers in Ras al-Amud, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

"The amazing Dr. I," said Daniel Seidemann, a land issues lawyer in Jerusalem who has fought Dr. Moskowitz in court over Arab properties there. "He comes to a poor Hispanic town in California, wrings money from it and pours it into an impoverished community in east Jerusalem. Violence ensues, and he honors neither city by living there."

That is one view. There are more charitable opinions. "The doctor kept us floating," Mayor John F. Heckerman said. "We don't charge the kids for the public pool anymore. So he donates to Jewish causes. My God, the man's Jewish."

Dr. Moskowitz and his bingo hall came to international attention six years ago when he was identified as a backer of the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel in Jerusalem, which prompted rioting that left about 70 people dead. He and his charities have been investigated numerous times in connection with financial wrongdoing at both the state and federal levels, but charges have never been brought.

Twice, legislation has been introduced in California to rein in the Moskowitz foundation's bingo operation, which takes in $30 million to $40 million a year, according to the foundation's disclosure forms. Each year the bingo hall pays $25 to the city for its license, while millions go to groups like Ateret Cohanim, a religious nationalist group that promotes a Jewish presence in the Arab portion of East Jerusalem. The foundation gives money to a food bank here, Dr. Moskowitz's hospital and the Little League. It also provides free dental care for the indigent.

"Look, it's very simple," Dr. Moskowitz's lawyer, Beryl Weiner, said. "You need Moskowitzes to have an Israel, you need Moskowitzes to have a Hawaiian Gardens. He's one of the few men who walks the walk. But does he rule by fiat? Absolutely not. Is there a Moskowitz machine? Absolutely not."

The California law governing bingo is a leaky one, requiring only that bingo halls be sponsored by a charity and staffed by unpaid volunteers. The law was designed so that churches and synagogues could use bingo proceeds to pay for good works, but the business has consolidated into super conglomerates with fuzzy missions and practices.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has brought a class-action lawsuit against the Moskowitz bingo operation, charging that the "unpaid volunteers" are mostly illegal Mexicans who work for tips and suffer an abusive work environment. Eighty percent of the population of Hawaiian Gardens is Latino.

Legislation that would have set accounting requirements and ensured that all bingo revenues stayed in California recently died in committee.

"The bingo law was meant to help Boy Scout groups," said Senator Richard G. Polanco, the Democratic majority leader who sponsored the bill. "But the thing has gotten totally out of hand."

Now, the crown jewel of Dr. Moskowitz's empire here is the Hawaiian Gardens Casino, a Vegas-style card club and a for-profit enterprise that attracts middle-class gamblers from Orange County. Revenues are estimated at up to $150 million a year.

The club opened in 1998 and was born of a convoluted transaction. According to a government report and Dr. Moskowitz's lawyer, the doctor bought condemned land from the city in the mid-1990's for half the amount the city spent to condemn it. His lawyer represented both the city redevelopment agency and the doctor in that deal. Some officials who raised objections about the deal said they became targets of Dr. Moskowitz.

"He cleaned house," said Julia Sylva, the former city attorney who said she resigned rather than be fired after raising questions about the deal. "He turned the town into a gambling den. The deal is highly suspect. He told me numerous times that if he didn't get what he wanted we wouldn't get payroll money."

The state has no record of the card club's earnings. Because it is operating on a temporary license, the state does not require disclosure. The office of Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, is investigating Dr. Moskowitz's application for a permanent casino license. Dr. Moskowitz recently held a benefit for Mr. Lockyer.

Dr. Moskowitz also donates to Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and other politicians locally and statewide, according to campaign finance disclosures.

Mayor Heckerman said Dr. Moskowitz would give the city about $6 million this year as part of his agreement to base operations here. The money amounts to about three-quarters of Hawaiian Gardens' budget.

"Bluntly, he's kept us floating," Mayor Heckerman said. "We were on the verge of bankruptcy. They call the card club a sweetheart deal, but we're alive. He's not the devil. He's a decent man."

Not according to Haim Dov Beliak, a local rabbi and the most vocal critic of Dr. Moskowitz.

"This city is being controlled to rip off Palestinians of their land," the rabbi said. "He throws oil on the flames of Jerusalem. What happened to 'thou shall not steal?' "

Before the card club and its money, Hawaiian Gardens was a dying backwater. Blacks were terrorized by Latino gangs in the late 90's in a string of hate crimes and killings. The schools were failing and the city was running yearly deficits of more than 100 percent. Now the bills are paid, crime is down and pupils have new books.

Through it all, the players at the Hawaiian Gardens Bingo Club gamble on. Around 9 p.m. on Thursday, a woman in stretch pants shouted "bingo." For a brief moment someone was happy and it was clear who was the winner.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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