Looting Hawaiian Gardens
Bingo's Fat Cats, Part I
by Ron Russell
Originally published 11 October 2001
in New Times LA

Part I

Government has turned a blind eye as giant "charity" bingo operations at Hollywood Park and in Hawaiian Gardens skirt the law while raking in countless millions. Meanwhile, school and church games are drying up.

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Pick a night. Any night. And inside the sprawling indoor gambling complex at Hollywood Park Racetrack and Casino in Inglewood there are bingo games galore. Never mind that state law permits charity-sponsored bingo only, that the games must be run by volunteers and that nobody may be paid except security personnel. Hollywood Park has that covered. On paper, at least, the popular horse-racing and card-club venue has no connection to the lucrative operation that draws 500 people nightly (more on weekends) to its cavernous bingo pavilion. Rather, the ostensible sponsor is a tiny Samoan church whose bingo manager is a church deacon and the son of the pastor.

If it seems unusual that the Samoan Congregational Christian Church of South Los Angeles should be blessed with one of the most lucrative and high-profile bingo operations in Southern California, there's good reason. Although founded in 1989 by the Reverend Doctor Ioane Mailo, the congregation of fewer than 150 people contends that it is too impoverished to afford its own place of worship. Its official address is an office sandwiched between a nail parlor and a barber shop in a Carson strip mall. And although Mailo's church claims to be affiliated with the United Church of Christ -- a 1.4-million-member religious organization based in Cleveland, Ohio -- it is not listed among the group's 6,000-plus congregations, and there is scant evidence to suggest that it exists except on paper.

But its bingo enterprise is easier to trace. In 1999, Los Angeles took the extraordinary step of revoking the church's permit to conduct bingo games in the city after police cited a litany of violations spanning several years at its bingo operation at a Wilmington union hall. Amazingly, even before the Board of Social Service Commissioners ran the operation out of L.A., it already had been welcomed with open arms at Hollywood Park in nearby Inglewood. Yet, New Times has learned, the church has been out of compliance with Inglewood's rules and regulations governing bingo for nearly two years -- and with the apparent knowledge of Inglewood officials. Among other things, the church hasn't filed an acceptable audit, as required by the city, since 1999. What's more, the California secretary of state on July 5 suspended the church as a nonprofit corporation. In other words, the permit holder for Hollywood Park's thriving bingo operation doesn't exist legally.

An aberration? Hardly. While much attention has been focused on the state's faltering attempts to get a handle on Indian casino gambling, investigators say charity bingo has become a hotbed for operators who take advantage of weak state laws and even weaker enforcement by the cities and counties that regulate the games. In one place after another, such operators have built up close relationships with politicians while police and sheriff's departments have looked the other way. Meanwhile, traditional church bingo in Los Angeles, as elsewhere in the state, has taken a severe hit, unable to compete with bingo palaces like the one at Hollywood Park and the biggest of them all, Dr. Irving Moskowitz's parlor in Hawaiian Gardens. In L.A. alone, legitimate church- and synagogue-sponsored bingo operations have dwindled from 166 to just 38 in the last four years, says Robert Curry, a bingo investigator for the Los Angeles Police Commission. "A lot of traditional charities just can't attract enough players anymore," he says. "They've been siphoned away by the bigger operations."

Yet, the effort to purge the abuses that investigators say are endemic to bingo has hit a stone wall in the state legislature, where Moskowitz, Hollywood Park's various corporate interests and bingo suppliers together exert considerable clout. That became clear last April after state Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill seeking to place the state's charity bingo enterprises -- which rake in an estimated $300 million a year -- under tighter scrutiny. California is one of only six states that do not regulate bingo. His measure, known as SB 832, would have prevented organizations from holding bingo games more than four days a week; made it a crime for any paid personnel, including security guards, to handle money at a bingo game; set up accounting requirements aimed at eliminating the "skimming" that law enforcement officials say is typical of "cash only" operations; and brought charitable bingo under the jurisdiction of the newly created California Gambling Control Commission. "We've allowed certain entities to hide behind legitimate charities and carry on bingo with no accountability," Polanco says. "It's a horrible scam that has hurt the legitimate operators, the small churches and boys and girls clubs that voters had in mind when they legalized charity bingo [in 1976]."

But the measure ran into stiff opposition from bingo suppliers and big game operators, prompting Polanco to take out most of the bill's provisions in the hopes of winning passage by the end of next year's legislative session. Only two meaningful provisions remain: that bingo come under the gambling commission's authority and that charitable proceeds from bingo be restricted to distribution within the state. Even so, the measure remains bottled up in the senate's Governmental Organization Committee, and may remain so. The committee's new chairman, state Senator Ed Vincent (D-Inglewood), is a longtime former Inglewood mayor and councilman whose efforts on behalf of the racetrack and casino have earned him the nickname "Mr. Hollywood Park." According to campaign finance records filed with the state, Vincent received $55,000 in contributions from entities associated with Hollywood Park -- which benefit financially from the bingo operation there -- last year alone. Vincent did not respond to interview requests for this article.

No one has been more vocal against Polanco's bingo reform effort than Moskowitz, 73, the wealthy ultraconservative Jewish zealot and one-time California resident who has lived in Miami Beach, Florida, since 1980. Raking in more than $30 million a year, the Hawaiian Gardens Bingo Parlor (not to mention Moskowitz's glitzy new card club casino next door) has long been controversial as an alleged funding source for Zionist groups bent on disrupting the Middle East peace process. Moskowitz's spokesman and chief overseer in Hawaiian Gardens, Los Angeles attorney Beryl Weiner, tells New Times that Polanco's bill is a thinly disguised effort by the philanthropists' opponents to "shut down the bingo club" in Hawaiian Gardens. Weiner insists that, if passed, it would also "effectively shut down charity bingo in California" because increased regulation would make it too expensive for many operators to afford.

As the largest landowner in Hawaiian Gardens, and the force behind the bingo parlor, casino and three charitable foundations upon which the impoverished southeast L.A. County suburb depends, Moskowitz runs the community like a personal fiefdom, his critics say. That has included providing financial backing to elected officials he likes, and helping to recall those who've crossed him by raising objections to the bingo parlor or casino. For years, critics have alleged that the bingo parlor has skirted the law by allowing a security company in the employ of a Moskowitz foundation to manage the bingo operation in violation of state law while using volunteers -- many of them undocumented Latino immigrants -- as a front. Moskowitz's supporters have long denied such accusations. Yet, in interviews with New Times, three former workers at the bingo parlor, including one who was a top lieutenant of the security company's boss, say the notion that the bingo parlor is operated by volunteers is a sham. "The idea that volunteers run the parlor is ludicrous," says Orlando Vanegas, who until last year held a key post as an aide to Al Lazar, head of South Bay Protective Services, which ostensibly only provides security for the Moskowitz bingo parlor. Vanegas and the others say that Lazar is the real manager of the bingo operation. "I know," says Vanegas, "because I was part of his team."

While upbeat about the chances of his emasculated legislation winning approval, Polanco dismisses criticism that his is an anti-Moskowitz measure. "This is much bigger than Moskowitz," he says. "This is about bringing accountability to charitable bingo [enterprises] where abusers operate while hiding out among legitimate charities. And almost no one is keeping an eye on it." As for the Hollywood Park operation, he says, "It ought to be investigated and probably shut down."

By his account, the Reverend Doctor Iane Mailo, 63, is the senior minister over not one, but five Samoan congregations -- four in the L.A. area and one in Texas. Born in American Samoa, he came to the United States as a teenager. After a stint in the Navy he became a lay preacher and choir director for a church in Los Angeles before attending Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and the California Graduate School of Theology in Glendale, where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 1984. But according to a press release provided by Hollywood Park, his "true calling" was fulfilled in 1989, with the establishment of the Samoan Congregational Christian Church of South Los Angeles. As its founder and president, Mailo clearly enjoys talking about the church, as he did freely with a reporter in the living room of his two-story home in Carson. That is, until the conversation turned to bingo.

"Oh, you need to ask my son, Kennedy [Mailo] about the bingo," he says, when asked how much revenue the church has generated from the game. "We've only had bingo for a little more than three years. The first year and a half we lost money." Only three years? "Yes." The church didn't sponsor bingo until three years ago? "That's right." Not even in Los Angeles? "Oh, yes, well, we did have a little bingo game in Los Angeles for awhile, yes." Where is your church? "We don't have a church of our own. We meet with another church." Which one? "The Malamalama [Congregational] Church." Where is that? "In Long Beach." When asked for the address, the elder Mailo gives the reporter an address on Long Beach Boulevard that proves to be inaccurate. Later, when he is called back, Mailo's mood has changed. "I hear you're telling people we're not a legitimate church," he says. "You're a liar." Informed that the address he gave for the Malamalama church is nonexistent, he offers a second address, about a mile from the first. It, too, is nonexistent.

The Malamalama Congregational Church does exist. The Web site of the United Church of Christ, the organization to which Mailo's bingo-sponsoring church claims to belong, lists the Malamalama church as one of its affiliates. Malamalama is in north Long Beach, not far from the second address Mailo had provided. A squat industrial-type building sandwiched between two blue-collar apartment houses, the church bears the Malamalama name prominently in front. There is no outward evidence that Mailo's bingo-sponsoring Samoan Congregational Christian Church of South Los Angeles shares a presence there. For that matter, at the Samoan Congregational Church of South L.A.'s office in the Carson shopping center, there are no signs to suggest where the bingo-sponsoring congregation meets or the time of its services. When asked about this, Kennedy Mailo, the pastor's son, explains that anyone coming to the Carson office is probably already familiar with the congregation's whereabouts and schedule. As for why no signs for his church exist at the Malamalama building, he says, "When people come in we let them know. It's word of mouth, so we don't need [any] signs."

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2001 New Times, Inc. For education and discussion purposes only.

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