Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem
New Times LA
Bingo's Fat Cats
By Ron Russell
In bingo, players pay for a card on which there usually are 75 numbers organized across five columns. Each number is represented by a ball, painted with a unique number, that is kept in a large drum or rotating bin in which the balls are scrambled. The caller pulls a ball out at random and announces its number to the room. The player who has the number marks it on the card. The player able to mark off five numbers in a row that spells B-I-N-G-O wins a payoff of up to $250 per game.
Without proper accounting, it's anybody's guess as to how much money -- almost all of it in cash -- flows through Hollywood Park bingo games. Even while allowing the operation to continue for nearly two years without an audit, Inglewood officials have continued to accept at face value the church's contention that its net profits from bingo have amounted to about $400,000 in each of the past two years. Inglewood's arrangement with the church requires it to donate 25 percent of profits to charities within the city. In each of the last two years, the church -- amid much fanfare -- has announced gifts to various charities totaling about $100,000 during luncheons held at Hollywood Park and attended by city officials and other civic leaders. At the most recent luncheon in June, the Reverend Mailo recalled the church's early struggle to make bingo successful at Hollywood Park and credited its prosperity to divine blessing. "We are trusting that God will continue to be by our side, as he always is," the pastor told those assembled.
Havard says the church's operation had gross revenues of about $1.2 million last year. But one city official privately scoffs at the figure. "It begs credulity that there aren't millions of dollars running through the place," says this official. "We used to hear $5 million a lot, and there were some of us who thought that was conservative." Even if the church were current with its accounting, the public would have no way of knowing the scope of the enterprise. That's because Inglewood's bingo regulations (unlike those in other cities, including L.A.) were drafted by the city attorney's office in such a way as to keep both the bingo operator's finances and those of the bingo hall manager confidential.
Kennedy Mailo, its bingo manager, seems incredulous when a reporter asks about the church's compliance problems. "We've given the city monthly statements every time. I know because I've driven them over there and turned them in to the finance department myself," he says. As for his bingo-sponsoring church's not being listed as a congregation with the United Church of Christ, he says, "That's just false. That can't be right." Similarly, he says it "couldn't be" that the secretary of state's office had suspended the church as a charitable corporation. "You don't know what you're talking about," he tells the reporter. If that were true, he says, "Don Havard would have told me, for one thing. He would have mentioned if there was a problem like that. How could we have a bingo game at Hollywood Park all this time if that stuff were true? They would have shut us down a long time ago."
Like Hollywood Park's, the stewardship of Moskowitz's Hawaiian Gardens bingo parlor is also controversial. The granddaddy of Southern California bingo palaces, it is officially operated by one of the philanthropist's charitable foundations. It typically grosses $30 million a year, and some years much more, those who monitor its finances say. Critics, including a coalition led by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, who heads a synagogue in nearby Downey, oppose the bingo parlor and Moskowitz's card-club casino next door largely on political grounds. Proceeds from the parlor have long helped finance right-wing Jewish zealots in the Middle East. Others, including former assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles), who issued a report denouncing Moskowitz's casino and bingo operations as chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, have questioned whether Moskowitz may have illegally paid people to run his bingo operation while claiming that the games are staffed solely by volunteers. The doctor's supporters -- including Weiner, his attorney and spokesman, and a battery of lobbyists and pro-Moskowitz elected officials in Hawaiian Gardens -- have long dismissed such claims.
But in interviews with New Times, three former workers who spent a combined 26 years at the bingo parlor dispute the idea that it is run by volunteers, insisting that it has for a decade been managed secretly by South Bay Protective Services, the firm hired by the Moskowitz foundation to provide security. They say that the de facto manager of the parlor is Al Lazar, South Bay's president, who they contend oversees every aspect of the operation, including the selection and scheduling of volunteers and the handling of money. "Nothing is done in that bingo parlor without Al Lazar's knowledge and approval," says Orlando Vanegas, who says he went to work at the operation in 1989, two years before South Bay entered the picture. Vanegas says he served as Lazar's "right-hand man" for several years. He says his pay was about $4,000 a month when he resigned last October after a falling out with Lazar.
Vanegas says many of the so-called volunteers during his years there were undocumented workers whose immigration status was either known or suspected by Lazar. He says Lazar chose such workers "because they tended to do what they were told without asking a lot of questions." Most of the volunteers rely heavily on tips from players that typically amount to between $40 and $60 per night, he says. He says they functioned as "low-level employees" -- even to the point of getting punished by having their hours reduced if they were late for work or violated house rules. According to Vanegas, the 30 or so volunteers listed with the bingo parlor at any given time also served another purpose -- they constituted a labor pool to be pressed into service by Moskowitz for political purposes. Vanegas says he saw bingo personnel getting paid in cash from parlor proceeds for passing out political flyers in Hawaiian Gardens. "It was no big deal," he says. "The attitude there was, "Anything Dr. Moskowitz wants is fine.' That was our impression."
Perhaps more seriously, Vanegas says bingo parlor personnel were instructed to lie to an Internal Revenue Service investigator who came to the parlor in 1995 asking questions about its operations. Vanegas acknowledges that he also misled the IRS investigator into believing "that everything was on the up and up with regard to who ran what and who did what inside the bingo parlor." In fact, Vanegas says he told his story to a fraud investigator at the IRS's offices in Laguna Niguel last May, including divulging his actions in 1995, "because I wanted to get it behind me and get it off my chest." He says the investigator thanked him for coming and said that someone from the IRS would likely contact him. Since then, he has not heard from the IRS, he says. IRS spokeswoman Deborah Guajardo says that the agency doesn't comment on such matters.
All of the other former workers who spoke with New Times cited their refusal to lie to investigators earlier this year as the reason for their departure. One of them, Vanegas' wife, Herndida, says she was essentially "let go" in May after 11 years as a volunteer when she let her superiors know that she was unwilling to mislead investigators from the IRS or the Franchise Tax Board. She says Lazar called a meeting of volunteers on May 11, at which one of his subordinates told them that visitors, whom she and others presumed to be either state or federal investigators, were expected to arrive within two weeks. If asked, they were to say that Lazar and his South Bay associates had nothing to do with the bingo operation. "Of course I knew that wasn't true and I wasn't willing to lie about it, not to someone from the government," Herndida Vanegas says.
Jorge Ortiz, 28, who worked at the bingo parlor for four years, says he made a similar decision. "They said someone from the IRS was coming and that the word came down from Mr. Lazar that we were supposed to say the volunteers were in charge of everything, and not anybody from South Bay [was involved]," he says. "I stood up and said I wasn't willing to do that." Ortiz, who is married to a relative of Hawaiian Gardens Mayor Petra Prida, a staunch Moskowitz supporter, says he was removed from the work schedule after the meeting. The next week, he went to Lazar and asked why he effectively had been fired. He says Lazar's answer was, "Because you have a big mouth."
Lazar tells New Times that he has nothing to do with the bingo games themselves, that the handling of money by his South Bay employees is strictly part of the company's security function and that he does not and has never supervised the bingo parlor's volunteers. "I don't work for the bingo club. I work for the foundation," he says. He acknowledged that Moskowitz is his company's only client. "I protect the money. We have uniformed security personnel who provide the security. We don't have anything to do with the games."
Yet documents provided to New Times by Vanegas raise questions about Lazar's role. For example, a 1998 Lazar memo to Vanegas informs him that "you will immediately, for security purposes, change all schedules (main gate, callers, volunteer personnel and maintenance)." In the memo, Lazar says any complaints from personnel should be directed to Vanegas and not to him, but he quickly adds that he will "continue to have an open-door policy regarding [personnel] problems or items beneficial to the bingo club." Lazar further directs Vanegas to "inform [him] as to all the changes you have made." Vanegas says it "still makes me laugh when I read these. Al was so funny. He'd write this stuff that he seemed to think gave him some kind of immunity, and then he'd turn around in the next breath and let me know that no matter what he had put on paper, I wasn't supposed to do anything without his approval."
Not surprisingly, the Moskowitz forces were quick to attack when Polanco's legislation came before a senate panel in Sacramento last April. Moskowitz supporters took the extraordinary step of circulating a petition opposing the measure even before its first hearing. The petition was signed by hundreds of Hawaiian Gardens residents, including the mayor and other members of the pro-Moskowitz city council. As is his custom regarding requests for comments about his Hawaiian Gardens activities, Moskowitz declined to be interviewed for this article. In a letter to Polanco dated April 5, he defended the use of security personnel at the bingo parlor as the best way to prevent graft and theft. The mayor and other councilmembers later submitted opposition letters of their own that were almost word-for-word copies of the Moskowitz letter. Moskowitz lobbyist Gregg Cook derided the measure as "a solution in search of a problem." And attorney Weiner contended that the bill is the result of a conspiracy by Beliak and others opposed to Moskowitz's political agenda.
Meanwhile, in Inglewood, where city officials spent the better part of two weeks scrambling for cover after questions were raised about the city's lack of scrutiny of the Samoans, there's a new wrinkle. Shortly before this article went to press, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn told New Times that he has ordered an investigation of the Hollywood Park enterprise.
Apparently in bingo, as in baseball, it's never over until it's over.
©2001 New Times, Inc. For education and discussion purposes only.