Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Results trump government threat

LOS ANGELES — Churches, school boosters and other nonprofit groups are calling the government’s bluff, raising thousands of dollars through wildly popular “Texas hold ‘em” poker tournaments that state officials say are illegal.

Two years into the nation’s no-limit poker craze, organizations have found that tournaments are easy and more profitable than bake sales, carwashes or other types of fundraisers.

The baseball team from West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch, Calif. made $12,000 in October, for instance, while the Make-a-Wish Foundation brought in $60,000 in an August tournament hosted by L.A. Kings star Luc Robitaille.

“It’s on TV, people are playing it in their homes, everybody seems to be playing,” said Joy Holland, development director of St. Mel Catholic Church in Woodland Hills, which held a poker tournament Saturday to raise money for a new sound system. “I don’t play — it’s not my thing — but I’ve already been called by three or four parishes. They want to do it, too.”

The state attorney general’s office says most charity poker tournaments are illegal, and the organizer could face a year in jail or a $5,000 fine for the misdemeanor violation.

“California law is rigid and inflexible when it comes to nonprofits and charitable gambling,” said Nathan Barankin, communications director for the attorney general’s office. “Even if you’re not playing for real money, it’s illegal.”

But Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, said the police have never presented such a case for prosecution.

And while the charity tournaments don’t seem to make a blip on the law-enforcement radar, some organizations do attempt to keep their fundraisers on the right side of the law.

The WeSpark Cancer Support Center in Sherman Oaks and the Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Los Angeles both held poker tournaments at Hollywood Park Casino, a card house allowed under state law. Big Brothers raised about $25,000, and WeSpark made about $30,000 — all legally.

While the St. Mel’s tournament was held on church property, Miss Holland said organizers believe their tournament was legal because the proceeds went to the church, not to entry fees.

Casino Entertainment Industries, a Santa Clarita-based company, is averaging a charity poker tournament about once a week.

“My attorney’s opinion, and through our interpretation of the law, it is [totally] legitimate,” said Todd Rockey, owner of Casino Entertainment.

But Mr. Rockey concedes there is a fine line between gaming and gambling, and that law-enforcement agencies in various jurisdictions have different interpretations of the state law.

Recognizing the gap between policy and practice, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, Fremont Democrat, proposed legislation this year that would create an exemption to the state penal code to allow nonprofit organizations to hold poker tournaments.

The bill is scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Appropriations Committee early next year.

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