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San Francisco Chronicle
June 3, 2002

Cleaning up bingo

WHEN YOU think of bingo, perhaps your Aunt Bertie and Uncle Joe come to mind. It's what they do Saturday nights down at the community hall -- wholesome, innocent fun that raises funds for the local high school band or church, right?

But in California, it's a $300 million per year industry that urgently needs reform. Although most bingo operators are the sort of small, community- based charities contemplated by the state's voters when bingo was legalized in 1976, a few are large operations that take advantage of the anything-goes environment.

Of the 48 states that allow bingo, California is one of only five that lack a regulatory system for the business. As a result, law enforcement officials say, the potential for money laundering and embezzlement is enormous.

Attempts in Sacramento to pass reform legislation have been blocked by big bingo operators, who spread campaign cash freely around the Legislature. Most notorious is the state's largest bingo king, Irving Moskowitz, who runs the Hawaiian Gardens Bingo Club in Hawaiian Gardens, a tiny suburb of Los Angeles.

Moskowitz sends more than $10 million annually in his "nonprofit" organization's bingo proceeds to ultra-rightist Israeli groups, such as the Hebron settlers in the West Bank, that seek to expel Palestinians from their lands and wreck the region's prospects for peace.

Moskowitz is again rallying his supporters to try to kill reform in Sacramento. SB1959, sponsored by Sens. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, and Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, would mandate annual audits of bingo operations that raise more than $1 million a year and are open more than 4 days a week, and would put stiff regulations on the largest outfits.

The bill is backed by a wide variety of churches, synagogues and nonprofits such as the United Cerebral Palsy Association.

Because of the stiff opposition, the bill has been stripped of its teeth. Today, a crucial vote will take place in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sens. John Burton, D-S.F., Don Perata, D- Oakland, and Jackie Speier, D- Hillsborough, will be key votes in deciding whether the measure advances to the Senate floor.

Ultimately, SB1959 should be strengthened. For example, audits must be carried out by an independent agency, not by lapdog local governments, as the bill currently permits.

Aunt Bertie and Uncle Joe deserve to be able to play bingo without worrying about possible impropriety. It's meant to be good, clean fun. It should stay that way.

Copyright 2002, San Francisco Chronicle
For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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