At odds with the law?

By Rick Rouan

Slot-like sweepstakes machines have appeared throughout Boardman.

BOARDMAN — The No. 1 guideline posted in Lucky’s Internet Cafe on Boardman-Canfield Road is: “You are not gambling.”

The public officials charged with enforcing gambling laws aren’t quite as decisive.

Slot-like sweepstakes machines that have appeared throughout Boardman exist in a legal gray area that state and local officials have so far left untouched.

The games operate on personal computers and look like slot machines, but operators call them “sweepstakes machines.”

Players purchase merchandise or long-distance phone cards and receive credits on access cards to play the games. Swiping the access card and playing the games reveal whether the player is one of the predetermined winners. Performing well in the games does not affect the player’s chance at winning the sweepstakes.

That winnings are predetermined is key. Ohio outlaws casino gambling, with a voter-approved exemption for casinos in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. But operators compare their electronic sweepstakes to games on pop-bottle caps — the purchaser gets something of value along with a chance to win.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray’s office has said that the machines are a matter for local law enforcement.

The Mahoning County prosecutor scoffed at that assertion and said that local police departments have not raised questions with his office.

“No, I don’t know anything about them,” county Prosecutor Paul Gains said. “If one of the local law- enforcement agencies chooses to charge these people, then it would run its course.”

In Boardman, Police Chief Jack Nichols said the department has “been assembling some information” about the businesses.

“It just depends on your reading of the law and your interpretation,” Nichols said. “That’s not what we do. We enforce it.”

The games have been challenged in other Ohio cities. A Toledo judge in November ruled that the businesses were legal, but his decision conflicts with an Akron jury’s verdict in March that they constitute a gambling house.

Toledo Municipal Court Judge Francis X. Gorman wrote that “the outcome of the sweepstakes winners was predetermined by the operation of the computer.”

According to Judge Gorman’s ruling, the Toledo business owner testified that all his profits came from selling phone cards. But prosecutors called the phone cards “a sham to entice customers into the establishment” and that the games were illegal games of chance under Ohio law.

Gorman wrote that the owner’s “argument is rather persuasive that the predominate purpose of the machines is to encourage the purchase of the phone cards, a clever and apparently profitable marketing tool.”

In Akron, however, a woman was sentenced to 180 days in jail after a jury convicted her of four gambling charges, according to The Akron Beacon Journal.

The businesses have been popping up recently throughout Boardman. Dozens of personal computers, where customers can play the games or browse the Internet, line the buildings. Typically, employees will make copies and faxes and perform other services as well.

Internet Sweepstakes, 7684 Market St., was the first to open in Boardman when it was approved by the board of zoning appeals in September 2008. Lucky’s Internet Cafe, 685 Boardman-Canfield Road, opened earlier this year. Two other sweepstakes parlors — one on South Avenue and another on Market Street — have been approved by zoning as well.

Owners of those local businesses declined to comment.

“Again someone has come up with something they think will skirt the law,” said Rob Walgate, vice president of the Ohio Round Table, a nonpartisan, conservative-leaning, nonprofit research organization.

Walgate said that the sweepstakes businesses are abusing a loophole in the law and that the state’s intent was to eliminate wagering on machines for cash.

The Ohio Round Table opposes the businesses, Walgate said, adding that state leaders should be more active in their regulation.

“I would like to see the attorney general have a more firm stance on the issue,” Walgate said. “He’s the top lawman in the state, and people are looking to him for direction.”

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