Az veterans, state agencies battle over bingo machines deemed illegal under state gambling laws

Arizona veterans groups say state agencies are unfairly
cracking down on electronic bingo cards, while state agencies say agents
are only conducting inspections to prevent the use of illegal bingo
machines.

At a news conference at the Arizona Capitol on Monday, several members of local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars
posts were joined by Republican Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli,
who said the departments of Revenue, Gaming, and Liquor are conducting
raids and harassing organizations for their use of bingo technological
aids.

Bingo technological aids, or BTAs, are electronic bingo cards that
assist bingo players with disabilities and have been legal since 2017.
The state says these organizations are not being penalized for using
BTAs, but for using bingo gambling machines, which resemble slot
machines and can be played without other players present.

Bingo is legal to play in Arizona but must be conducted by licensed
game conductors who follow specific rules outlined by the Department of
Revenue. Possessing a bingo gambling machine is illegal and could lead
to a class two misdemeanor.

Borrelli said that a letter sent by the departments on Sept. 1 was “threatening to criminally prosecute” the organizations that host bingo.

“Their gaming agents have been going into these nonprofit
organizations, heavy handed, flashing badges, freaking out bartenders
with criminal prosecution and intimidation, and it’s ridiculous,”
Borrelli said at the news conference.

According to a letter from the state agencies
sent to Borrelli on Monday, no threats of criminal prosecution were
made, and the agencies’ goal is to help organizations comply with the
law. The agencies said in the Sept. 1 letter that if venues with liquor
licenses knowingly allow illegal bingo machines on their premises, their
liquor licenses could be revoked.

Additionally, the state agencies denied the allegation that agents
were carrying out “raids,” but instead were conducting routine
inspections on bingo licenses after noticing an uptick in illegal
machines. “These inspections are meant to give licensees every
opportunity to comply with the law,” a fact sheet from the Arizona
Department of Gaming said. However, many veterans at the news conference
expressed concern for how the inspections were carried out.

Jim Zawacki, a veteran and member of the Arizona VFW, said state
agents have been aggressive in their inspections, instead of working
with the local posts running bingo games.

“Their responsibility is to walk in and if they see an infraction, to help us correct those infractions,” Zawacki said.

In an interview with Cronkite News after the news conference, Zawacki
said local veteran organizations rely on money from bingo to keep posts
running, support members and give back to the community.

“We’re not only trying to help ourselves, but we’re helping the
community also,” Zawacki said. “We open our hearts to help everybody.”

Other veterans who spoke at the news conference said revenue from
bingo games paid for school supplies for children, food for local food
banks and donations to MANA House, an organization that supports homeless veterans.

Christian Slater, a spokesperson for Gov. Katie Hobbs, said in an
emailed statement that the state agencies are not trying to prevent the
organizations from generating revenue to give back to the community, but
are trying to prevent exploitation of veterans and older Arizonans who
use bingo machines.

“Senator Borrelli seems more interested in promoting unregulated,
potentially predatory gambling than in helping non-profit organizations
comply with the law,” Slater said in the statement. “It’s shameful he
would make a political stunt out of Governor Hobbs protecting some of
Arizona’s most vulnerable populations from corporations that could be
exploiting them for personal profit.”