Bingo arrests by state’s regulatory body are a rare event in Mississippi

NOT MUCH ENFORCEMENT: The Mississippi Gaming Commission’s enforcement division has made few arrests when it comes to charitable gaming.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Imagine a law enforcement agency with four arrests since 2003. For those keeping score at home, that’s one arrest every 3 1/2 years.

Not a lot of bang for the bucks.

That’s the present state of affairs at the Mississippi Gaming Commission’s Charitable Gaming Division, which regulates the multi-million bingo industry. With four bingo arrests in 11 years for the eight sworn law enforcement agents dedicated solely to bingo enforcement — down from a high of 20 —the department isn’t exactly flexing its sworn peace officer muscles.

It hasn’t always been the case. Rick Ward, former director of charitable bingo, made 48 arrests during his two-year tenure at the commission. Ward said he resigned after he was told to “lighten up” on enforcement.

“There’s some reason behind that. They’re protecting that industry,” Ward said. “All the governor would have to do is pick up the phone and tell the director that they need to start enforcing the laws. But that hasn’t happened.”

The charitable gaming department isn’t busy when it comes to citations, either. The agency issued 279 citations and collected fines of $176,672 since 2003, according to Rodney Smith, division director II with the Charitable Gaming Division.

That adds up to about 25 citations and about $16,000 in fines per year.

Allen Godfrey, the executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said his agents are exercising their discretion. Godfrey has been executive director of the agency for the past three years and an employee since 2003.

“It’s just like with a speeding ticket,” Godfrey said. “The officer can write you a ticket or let you go with a warning and you considering yourself fortunate. If not, you go and pay the price and that’s a good analogy.

“We are a regulatory body that can make an arrest. Our agents have the discretion to issue a citation. If someone is doing something incorrect, we fine them. I can’t speak of what happened before I got here, but I think the charitable gaming industry is run pretty well. ”

The Mississippi Gaming Commission — the regulatory body for casino and charitable gaming in Mississippi — has a yearly budget of more than $9.5 million. Charitable gaming came into the state in 1992, with the passage of the Charitable Bingo law, which allowed bingo halls to be run by charities registered with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office.

The amount of cash flowing through these bingo halls is startling. In 2013, charitable gaming netted $14,665,705 out of $93,378,538 gross receipts. The rest was paid out in winnings ($66,300,907) and administrative expenses.

With all of that money flowing, one might think there would be a ton of bingo-related arrests. But that’s not the case. Of the four arrests claimed by the Gaming Commission since 2003, all came on the heels of investigations done by other agencies, even though the commission is, by law, supposed to be the lead agency on all gambling-related crimes.

In 2011, the D’Iberville Police Department charged Sheila Evans with embezzlement and Garrett Evans with grand larceny in a case involving the Veterans of Foreign Wars bingo hall. According to a news release, the D’Iberville Police Criminal Investigations Division was tipped off about the alleged crimes and informed the VFW Post and the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

Morgan Shands — the former campaign manager for Billy Hewes, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2013 and a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker — was indicted on embezzlement charges after he was accused of using $613,834 from the bingo hall that he ran for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1776.

According to an agreement reached in February with Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman, Shand will only have to pay back $370,116 to the post over the next 10 years without interest. His sister and co-worker at the bingo hall, Rachel Shands Buser, was charged with embezzlement.

According to the regulations, an organization’s authorized costs — such as salaries, administrative costs and legal fees — can not exceed 60 percent of its gross receipts. Of the money remaining after authorized expenses are paid, 65 percent has to go to the charity supported by the bingo hall. But there are no limits on the amount of yearly compensation the hall’s director or other senior staff can claim.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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