Prosecutor: Poker clubs violate gambling laws

By Elise Franco

While Austintown Township awaits a legal opinion on a proposed poker club in Mahoning County, a neighboring prosecutor is taking aim at poker clubs and Internet cafes, which he says violates Ohio’s gambling law.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins issued his opinion Monday, serving up a warning to those businesses already established in that county.

“The owners/operators of poker clubs and Internet cafes obviously know what kind of business they are engaged in,” Watkins wrote. “They facilitate the playing of games of chance, and there is a profit by each.”

Watkins said he hopes businesses in violation of Ohio law will cease operation, but until then, police departments throughout Trumbull County will monitor their operations.

“If the shoe fits, and the law is being violated, search warrants, arrests and prosecutions will occur,” he said.

A poker club is described as an operation that collects membership fees and a fee to play on any given day, Watkins said.

Even if the poker games are “winner-takes-all,” and the club itself doesn’t profit directly from the betting, that doesn’t mean the business isn’t profiting, Watkins said.

“The law is clear and supported by case law, that if [businesses] charge fees [they are] profiting by the operation,” he said. “No one will open these establishments unless they make money.”

Watkins said the decision was made after he met May 5 with police chiefs and law departments of Warren, Niles and Girard and officials of the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Department and Howland and Liberty police departments.

“In this county, the relevant police agencies and law directors have a uniform opinion,” he said. Watkins said the emergence of these establishments has raised concern among the public and police departments.

Club Infiniti, a poker club inside the MetroPlex Hotel and Convention Center in Liberty, opened April 16 and was temporarily shut down two weeks later as the police department investigated possible violations.

Though it reopened early this month, Watkins said departments will keep an eye on all such operations.

In Mahoning County, a proposed poker club in Austintown is also under scrutiny.

Darren Crivelli, township zoning inspector, said the board of appeals already has heard the case but won’t vote until Donald Duda, an assistant county prosecutor, issues an opinion.

“I think whether it passes will depend on the legal advice. It does appear to be the same type of business as [Club Infiniti,]” Crivelli said. “If the prosecutor tells us it’s legal, my guess is, the board will approve.”

Duda didn’t return calls for comment Tuesday.

Crivelli said the board of appeals also has issued conditional-use permits for five Internet cafes in the township.

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