Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

September 11, 2013

Gambling-device raid leaves some questioning


Mineral Wells Index

— By CLINT FOSTER



Anger, confusion and questions swirl almost a week after a mass raid of illegal gambling machines took eight operations in Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto County by storm.

The American Legion Post 75 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2399, both in Mineral Wells, were included in a sting last Thursday conducted by the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office, Mineral Wells Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety and other state and county law enforcement. Eight venues in all – seven of which were in Mineral Wells – were simultaneously served search warrants and authorities confiscated sweepstakes machines and associated cash deemed illegal by the attorney general.

But the American Legion and VFW feel they were wrongly included and inadequately warned of the seizure that was to come on that hot afternoon.

“We’re just bewildered as to why this happened,” American Legion Commander Don Christy said of the raid. “The mood now is just unbelievable anger toward the sheriff’s department. All they had to do was tell us. We would have gladly complied with any change of the law.

I just don’t understand the reason for all this happening and neither does anyone at our post. We feel our good name has been slandered.

It just makes us look like we’re just a bunch of fly-by-night criminals hanging out down there and we resent that a great deal.”

Christy  said when they first got the machines several years ago, they held a meeting with city officials and the MWPD, including the chief at the time, Mike McCallister, who assured them that the machines were legal. However, since the laws have changed, Christy said he received no communication of any kind that the legality of the machines had changed or that a raid was imminent.

“We’re really thorough at the legion making sure everything we do is above board,” he said. “We’ve got a long-standing reputation in this town and we’re not going to knowingly do anything illegal that would adversely effect the reputation of our post and our members.

“All of a sudden, supposedly something happened that made [sweepstakes machines] illegal. I would think if the law is changed, you’re obligated to tell someone that the law has changed. We never heard a word from anybody.”

As Christy’s anger festered toward those responsible for the raid, VFW Commander Jim Bransom’s sentiment was one primarily of “total confusion.” Like Christy, Bransom said he was never told that the sweepstakes machines at his post were declared illegal nor does he understand all of the details of the attorney general’s decision.

“I’m not exactly sure how this came down. I know this has been months and months of investigation,” he said. “If the machines are illegal, then they’re illegal. If they would have just come and said something... the VFW would have had them out the next day.

“These machines have been in the VFW a long, long time. When I drive by the police station and there’s a business set up with these same type machines right across the street, I kind of thought they were on the up and up.”

Bransom was referring to Tri 7 Sweeps, one of the many businesses hit in the raid, and one of four exclusively set up for the purpose of illegal gambling.

Despite Christy and Bransom’s protestations, Palo Pinto Sheriff Ira Mercer said that all of the venues involved in the raid were given ample warning.

“I know for sure it’s been communicated by either my office or the PD to every one of these venues that this was coming,” he said. “I’ve had discussions with the VFW, not the American Legion, just telling them we don’t think that this is legal and we advised them against it. But I’ve been told that the PD absolutely told them that it was not kosher. I didn’t tell them that, but I’ve been told that the PD warned them of this. I’m certainly sorry that they feel that way, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Mercer told the Index on Thursday that the American Legion and VFW were included in the raid because if they were going to hit one illegal gambling operation, they would be best served to “take care of all of it at once.” Furthermore given what Mercer understood to be ample warning, there was no excuse for any of the raided venues to be practicing illegal gambling with the mindset that they would not be included in the punishment.

In the wake of last week’s events it would appear that something might have gotten lost in translation in the months before the raid. The Index reached out to Mineral Wells City Manager Lance Howerton and the MWPD to see if they provided any warning of the illegality of sweepstakes gambling machines. The answer was a surprising “no.”

“We did not alert anyone to that effect, be it the VFW, American Legion or any of the others. I’m not aware of anybody that told them,” Howerton said. “There’s certainly precedents that these types of facilities have been closed down in other locations. Certainly there was some press given to some of the court rulings that have come out. But did we actually alert them to that effect? No, we did not. As far as I know that was not done.”

In addition to feeling as though their posts were raided without any supposed warning, Christy and Brasnom are also upset because they claimed the revenue generated from their machines was used for positive purposes. Christy said his post frequently made charitable donations to organizations such as Meals on Wheels and the Mineral Wells Senior Center. Bransom also said all of the money that came through the machines was used to run the VFW and for other charitable purposes.

“I know there were some issues with the other establishments, but everything that came through the VFW was for the community,” he said.

Some of the issues at the other businesses that hosted sweepstakes gambling were drug activity and complaints of seniors spending all of their Social Security money on the games. In fact, three drug-related arrests were made in the raid at businesses in downtown Mineral Wells.

But both Christy and Bransom said they had received no complaints about seniors spending their SSI checks nor was there ever any drug activity at either post. Christy said he went out of way to disassociate his post with the downtown gambling store fronts.

“I was approached by one of the gaming places in town wanting to know if we wanted to throw in with them on some kind of united front and I told them, ‘we don’t want no part of you people downtown,’” he said. “We have never broken the law down there and if we’d have been told we were, we wouldn’t have done anything this time.”

With regards to the VFW and American Legion’s right to use machines like those for sweepstakes gambling, Mercer said he wished the law allowed for them to use them, similar to bingo. He added he believes the VFW and American Legion “deserve” to be able to use such machines legally, “But that’s not a decision that I get to make.”

“I wish the state legislature would do something to make this a legal proposition in certain areas for certain venues,” he said. “That’s the problem: we can’t get the legislature to do anything definitive one way or the other because there’s 50 percent of the people that love [gambling operations] and 50 percent of the people that hate them. As it stands right now, that’s why everything is so innocuous and hard to deal with on this stuff, because it takes someone stepping up and doing something to get case law.

“I don’t have any moral issue with gambling. I wish Texas would legalize it, but that’s just my personal opinion. We have horse racing, we have the lottery, we have bingo. Let’s organize it, legalize it, get tax revenue off it, so on and so forth. But at this juncture, that’s not the case. The bottom line is it’s against the law. There’s not anything I can do about that. There’s a ton of laws that are on the books that I don’t agree with. But they are the law, so what am I supposed to do?”

Regardless of what he wishes the state legislature would do with regards to laws concerning these gambling ventures and the many “grey areas” they create, Mercer believes he gave all of the affected venues, including the American Legion and VFW, the best possible treatment under the circumstances. He said he regrets that the American Legion and VFW did not feel adequately warned, but punishments in other counties have been much worse than a smudge on the organizations reputation.

“I wish that the VFW and American Legion could have these as revenue generators; I don’t know why something like that can’t happen,” he said. “There’s a lot of VFWs that I’m aware of that have been involved in this in one way or another but there’s also a lot of them that I know of in a lot of different counties that have been taken down. But we didn’t go out there and try to arrest them or close them down or do any of that kind of stuff. That’s the best I can do.”

Follow Clint on Twitter @Clint_Foster55