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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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."
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
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."
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.