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DO `FREE’ BINGO GAMES VIOLATE UTAH STATUTES?

SHARE DO `FREE’ BINGO GAMES VIOLATE UTAH STATUTES?

Utah authorities historically looked the other way when churches and other nonprofit organizations sponsored bingo games, lotteries and raffles.

But that may be changing with the emergence of high stakes, for-profit bingo halls that have been springing up along the Wasatch Front during the past several years by calling themselves "clubs" or "restaurants" that provide "free" bingo along with dinner.One such establishment is the Junction City Social Club in Ogden.

Hundreds of area residents pack into the club each week and plunk down anywhere from $12 to $48 for the requisite meals and donations before playing what club owners describe as "free" bingo.

Those purchases and contributions, however, provide club members with the opportunity to win cash payouts that range anywhere from $25 to $500 on most games and as much as $1,200 or more if you complete a bingo with the "hotball" number for the evening.

Roger Wilson, who owns the club along with business partner Sam Sahami, said his bingo games should not be confused with gambling-type bingo because club members do not pay to play.

Wilson said he has carefully researched Utah law and runs his bingo games strictly as a free promotional gimmick to advertise his restaurant.

Wilson, who said he has been in the restaurant business for years, said he doesn't consider it unusual to run an eatery that only serves food two hours a day.

"Restaurants traditionally have different hours," he said. Serving meals from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 2:30 p.m. is the way they have chosen to operate their business.

"If what I am doing is illegal," he said, "why hasn't the city closed me down?"

Local authorities said they are looking at whether the club violates Utah statutes that prohibit gaming.

And Reed Richards, chief criminal prosecutor for the Utah attorney general's office and former Weber County attorney, said any pay-to-play games that give cash prizes based on winning a game of chance technically are illegal.

"I don't even think you can say that you wink at it," he said.

Prosecution is difficult, however, with most bingo clubs finding a safe haven in a 1979 Utah Supreme Court ruling on the "Double Cash Bingo" promotion staged by the Albertson's supermarket chain.

The high court found the promotion did not constitute gambling because the players did not have to purchase anything to win.

Most bingo halls say they charge for food, memberships or take donations, but do not actually charge to play bingo.

Gavin Anderson, deputy Salt Lake County attorney, said the notion of linking the number of winning opportunities to the amount of money expended has not been tested in court and is not mentioned in state statute.

But he did not rule out such a challenge in future cases if a complaint arises.

The issue of charitable gaming is one that resurfaces periodically, Richards said.

"I think you can make a good policy argument on allowing those things if they only benefit charity," he said. "But the Legislature has to make that call."

Enacting such a law, however, would also require revising the Utah Constitution.

Article 6, Section 27 says the Legislature shall not authorize a lottery. Bingo is considered a lottery-type gambling activity "under any pretense or for any purpose."

Investigations into for-profit bingo clubs have been conducted in other communities to determine whether state gambling laws have been violated but have resulted in few convictions.

"We sent in undercover investigators into a club several years ago, but we could never put together a case," said Murray City Police Chief Kenneth C. Killian. "We can never find an injured party - people just aren't willing to testify."