Looting Hawaiian Gardens
Bingo Operations Need Stronger Controls
by Charles E. Greenberg
Originally published 13 May 2001
in Long Beach Press-Telegram

Recently this newspaper reported, in essence, that a bill under consideration by the state Legislature to place a few mild limits on the operation of California bingo barons probably would be gutted by proposed amendments. The story followed an editorial criticizing the bill for largely being sparked by the actions of our local bingo baron, Dr. Irving Moskowitz in Hawaiian Gardens.

The prospect of this bill being gutted saddens me. A good case can be made that while the original bill is a step in the right direction, stronger, not weaker controls need to be placed on the burgeoning bingo industry.

All this bill tries to do is to restrict ``charitable'' bingo to four days a week and require that profits from California bingo players be used to support California charities. Apparently, both of these mild controls are now heading for the trash heap.

The original law allowing charities to have bingo games was passed decades ago as a small exception to California laws outlawing gambling. The exception was intended to allow charities such as churches, boys and girls clubs and the like to put on small, amateur bingo games as a method of raising funds to help support themselves.

Over the last decade, however, this ``small'' exception to our anti-gambling laws has grown to gargantuan proportions. Today, bingo has spawned a major industry spewing out hundreds of millions of dollars a year, often to dubious causes all over the world. Surely, this result was never contemplated by the drafters of the original charitable bingo exception to our gambling laws.

How far has the bingo industry strayed from its modest beginnings? The operations of our local bingo baron, Dr. Moskowitz, in Hawaiian Gardens, illustrates what has happened.

Originally, it was contemplated that a small charity might put on bingo games once or twice a week. The Moskowitz operation is open seven days a week.

Originally, it was contemplated a small charity might conduct two-to-four-hour bingo sessions. The Moskowitz operation runs full throttle all evening.

Originally, the small charities were expected to use their modest bingo profits to support their own local efforts. The Moskowitz operation is reported to have produced over $28 million in profits, $20 million of which directly or indirectly ended up out of the state or out of the country.

Originally, all profits from bingo were supposed to be used for charitable purposes. Moskowitz critics claim that hundreds of thousands of dollars per year that went from the Moskowitz operation to a nonprofit hospital ended up being paid to Moskowitz as rent.

Originally, the small charity was expected to conduct its bingo games on its own premises such as a church basement. Moskowitz conducts his operations in a large bingo hall used especially for that purpose.

Originally, small charity bingo was expected to be a stand-alone gambling activity. The Moskowitz operation is reported to have used the economic and political power resulting from its bingo operations to obtain approval from Hawaiian Gardens to operate a neighboring huge poker palace as a ``for-profit'' business. This mixing of ``not-for-profit'' gambling with ``for-profit'' gambling was never originally contemplated.

Originally, it was contemplated the city in which the bingo games were conducted would police and control their operations. Critics of the Moskowitz operation claim that the opposite is true in Hawaiian Gardens. They claim the Moskowitz operation controls the city.

They claim that when Moskowitz's operations had legal business dealings with the Hawaiian Gardens Redevelopment Agency, Moskowitz was able to persuade the agency to hire the lawyer representing Moskowitz to also represent it. Thus, both sides in the business negotiations were represented by the same lawyer, a lawyer who had represented Moskowitz's interests for years. As an ex-deputy city attorney I must say that if these charges are true, I have never heard of such a bizarre situation.

I have used the Moskowitz operation as an illustration of the problem because it is local. The problem, however, apparently is statewide in scope. It appears from the newspaper article that California bingo barons united in opposition to the bill presently under consideration in Sacramento. Together, I am afraid, they have sufficient clout to defeat any meaningful reform of our bingo laws.

The proposed changes to the bingo laws are but a modest step in the right direction. We need to go further. Bingo sessions should be restricted to four hours a day, no more than two days a week. Money derived form bingo should have to be used directly for the charity conducting the games. Oversight and auditing of the bingo industry should be by a state rather than a local government, perhaps by the state Gambling Commission. Only then will bingo in California return to the original intent of its sponsors.

Wherever professional gambling operations go they bring with them major political and social problems. Allowing small-scale amateur bingo to grow into a major professional industry is proving no different. Let us hope it is not too late to return bingo to the amateur charitable cottage industry it originally was meant to be in California.

Charles E. Greenberg is a member of the Long Beach Planning Commission.

Copyright 2001, Long Beach Press-Telegram For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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