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Chief defends decision to pull machines


Published: Sat, March 18, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.


The VFW in Hubbard may have to close without the machines.
By TIM YOVICH
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
HUBBARD -- Police Chief Jim Taafe says he felt legally comfortable with confiscating electronic machines from a private club, even though a test case to determine their legality in Ohio is unresolved.
Two machines were removed last Tuesday from the Marconi Lodge, a North Main Street club. "It's not only that they had the machines, but there were pay outs," Taafe said.
Taafe said he took the action after discussing the question of the machines' legality with the Ohio Attorney General's Office and Robert Johnson, prosecutor in Girard Municipal Court. Hubbard is within the Girard court's jurisdiction.
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3767 on West Liberty Street and Pagz's Bar & amp; Grill on North Main Street voluntarily removed the machines when told by Hubbard police that they were illegal.
Bill McMonagle, Post 3767 commander, said revenue from two Tic Tac Fruit machines has kept the post doors open.
The post's weekly take ranged from $700 to $1,000, which represents 40 percent of the machine's take. Sixty percent went to the machines' owner, Playtronics, a Youngstown-based company.
"I don't understand what's going on, and neither does anybody else," McMonagle said, noting he checked with the attorney general, county sheriff's office and Jeff Adler, acting Hubbard law director, to determine if they were legal before allowing the machines in the post.
Those who play Tic Tac Toe or Tic Tac Fruit games accumulate points and trade the accumulated points in for cash.
One local bar, Pagz's, where the owner voluntarily removed the machines, had a sign above them saying that the bartender can't pay out more than $2,500 to a winner -- and gave the players instructions on how to get paid, Taafe said.
Not confiscating
Not everyone in law enforcement is confiscating the machines.
"It's up in the air," said Lt. David McKnight, commander of the Youngstown police vice unit.
McKnight said he was of the initial belief, when the machines began showing up locally, that they were illegal. An opinion by the state attorney general, however, isn't clear, McKnight said.
He said the machine owners maintain that the Tic Tac Toe machine is a game of skill because the longer the game is played, the better the player's reflexes become -- thus a better chance of winning.
McKnight said when bar owners call him to find out if they are legal and OK to install, he tells them not to buy them because they are expensive -- $1,000 to $2,000 -- and they may lose their investment if a test case determines they are illegal.
Armand Nannicola, Playtronics president, said the price to buy such a machine is more than McKnight estimates.
The Ohio Investigative Unit of the Ohio Department of Public Safety isn't seizing the machines as it once was, and won't until the issue is resolved in court.
Rita Raimer, agent in charge of OIU's Akron district office, said the Tic Tac Toe machines aren't being confiscated because OIU is analyzing one of them to determine if it's a game of chance or skill.
Legal battle
She explained that Tic Tac Fruit machines were being confiscated, but the seizures were stopped by the Meigs County Common Pleas Court as the result of a criminal charge filed against the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 2171 in Pomeroy, Ohio.
The Meigs County court ruled that the machines were legal. The case has been appealed.
The court also granted the machine owner an injunction restraining the state from seizing any more machines.
There also is a civil case pending in the Eagles seizure before the Ohio Liquor Control Commission.
"Everything is hinging on those cases," Raimer said.
McMonagle said the money VFW Post 3767 was taking in allowed its doors to remain open and for the nonprofit club to donate money to help pay medical bills for the seriously ill.
Now, the post commander said, the post may have to close its doors. "This will literally put the last nail in the coffin."
McMonagle said he will be meeting with tavern and club owners to determine if they will file a lawsuit against the city for loss of income.
Similar machines can be seen at Truck World or Flying J Truck Stop. Todd Coonce, Hubbard Township police chief, has said township officials are waiting to see how the issue plays out in court before taking any action, but he will be taking another look at the issue after the confiscation of the machines in the city. The Truck World machines have a small plate affixed to the front telling players it is a game of skill.
Niles
In Niles, police have been investigating the machines.
Police Chief Bruce Simeone said that five or six machines were found in taverns, and he ordered them removed because he considers them illegal gambling devices.
The chief said he drew his conclusion after talking with state liquor control agents.
Simeone said he's attempting to resolve the issue of the machines the "easiest way possible."
"We're just trying to let the people [tavern owners] know they're illegal," the chief said, noting they will be seized if not removed from the bars.
Nannicola, whose Playtronics company is separate from his father's Nannicola Wholesale Co. in Warren that distributes bingo and other party supplies, said the Tic Tac Fruit machines are games of skill because the outcome is determined by the player.
There is also a time limit on Tic Tac Fruit in which players can make a selection, thus it's skill, Nannicola explained.
The Eagles in Pomeroy was cited by state investigators with permitting and/or allowing gaming.
The case was taken before the Ohio Liquor Control Commission.
In a memorandum supporting its position that the machines are gambling devices, the attorney general's office called attention to state law: If the outcome of an individual's play is determined more than 50 percent by skill, the outcome of the game is determined largely or wholly by skill and thus does not constitute a game of scheme or chance.
Nannicola said his machines have a skill level of more than 50 percent and are indeed games of skill.
The attorney general argued before the liquor commission that the machines are not games of amusement because the outcome of play is largely determined by chance, and the machine controls the outcome of the game.
yovich@vindy.com


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