Liberty poker club denied criminal-charge protection
By ED RUNYAN
A Trumbull County Common Pleas court judge has refused to grant protection to the owners of Club Infiniti, a Liberty poker club, that would prevent the Liberty Police Department from filing criminal charges against the club and closing it.
The club’s attorney, Greg Rossi of Youngstown, says the club’s owners, Kevin Forestal of Liberty and C.J. McCormick of Girard, have not decided whether to reopen, but he believes they have a right to.
“I’ll let them decide based on my recommendation,” Rossi said.
Forestal and McCormick declined to comment Friday morning after Judge Peter Kontos issued his ruling.
Robert Johnson, Girard city prosecutor, says his position on the legality of the club hasn’t changed since he rendered an opinion last week: If Club Infiniti reopens under the conditions it operated under earlier this month, the owners and anyone else on the premises will be charged with gambling, a first-degree misdemeanor criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail.
Club Infiniti opened April 8 in the MetroPlex Hotel and Convention Center on Motor Inn Drive after receiving a zoning permit and occupancy permit.
The township’s legal adviser, Atty. Mark Finamore, told township officials Feb. 1 that he didn’t believe the business violated the state gambling laws.
But Liberty Police Chief Richard Tisone conferred with Johnson after the club opened, and Johnson disagreed with Finamore.
Tisone had a meeting with the club’s owners April 22 and told them the club would be shut down, and anyone inside would be charged with illegal gambling if it opened April 23.
The owners closed the club voluntarily but filed legal action this week, asking the court to prohibit the police department from filing criminal charges against the club, closing it, or revoking the club’s occupancy permit or zoning permit.
Judge Kontos ruled Friday after discussions in chambers with the parties that he does not have the authority to prevent a police department or other government body from filing criminal charges. He dismissed the club’s complaint.
Johnson and Finamore agreed that no court ever has made a ruling to determine whether Club Infiniti’s operating premise — charging customers a membership fee and entrance fee instead of receiving a portion of the gambling winnings — is legal.
That’s why such clubs have been allowed to operate in Columbus for several years, but when the same owner tried to open one in Berea, it was shut down, Johnson said.
“The judge felt that this is something that should be handled in criminal court,” Finamore said after the hearing Friday. “We all agree this is a real gray area in the law. We need clarification from the courts or the [Ohio] Legislature.”
Rossi said Forestal and McCormick are entrepreneurs who “did everything they were supposed to do” and have invested “a lot of money” in getting their business started.
Johnson said it doesn’t matter to him whether the owners of Club Infiniti receive earnings from the business directly or indirectly.
The fact that they receive earnings from a business that involves playing of poker means it is illegal, he said.