Ohio attorney general creates Internet cafe advisory unit

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
From Beacon Journal staff, wire reports

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COLUMBUS: Search warrants were executed at six storefront gambling-like operations known as Internet cafes Wednesday as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced new efforts by his office to prosecute what he says are illegal gambling operations.

The actions came the same day DeWine made a public relations push urging lawmakers to pass a bill regulating the operations, saying that going after them with criminal investigations was “the hard way” to approach them.

“This is not the easy way to do it,” DeWine said after briefing dozens of prosecutors and police at a law enforcement meeting in Columbus on ways to investigate the cafes. He also announced an internal advisory group to assist police and prosecutors.

“This frankly is the hard way,” DeWine said. “We are now committed to fight this battle county by county and courthouse to courthouse, and that’s exactly what this fight will be.”

The Ohio House passed a bill to crack down on Internet cafes late last year but it failed to gain traction in the Senate, where leaders said they needed more time. The House passed a new proposal in March that would impose operating restrictions, registration requirements and background checks on Internet cafes. That bill is pending in a Senate committee.

House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, said his chamber has acted. “I don’t know aside from some sort of a native dance what we might add to that,” he told reporters.

Senate President Keith Faber said his chamber is working on the bill but noted state budget hearings will take up most of lawmakers’ time this spring.

Faber also said he’s asked for a bill that would extend the moratorium on new cafes, which ends this summer.

However, any law could still raise constitutional questions because the question of permitting the cafes as gambling operations has not been put to a statewide vote.

DeWine said he’s taking his authority to prosecute the cafes for illegal gambling from a district court ruling that declared the cafes in Cleveland to be illegal. He said he’s being forced to undertake criminal investigations because of the Cleveland appeals court decision and the lack of legislative action.

Backers of the businesses say they are legal and help the economy, and they say the Cleveland appeals court ruling extends only to cafes in that city. They also point to a Toledo appeals court ruling that upheld the cafes’ legality.

Summit County started regulating Internet cafes and sweepstakes parlors in 2011 at the urging of Springfield and Coventry township officials who complained about the businesses popping up in their communities. The county law requires the businesses to be licensed, pay fees for each machine, provide paperwork identifying owners and workers and keep photo records of every patron who wins $10 or more in cash and prizes.

Today, there are 10 businesses licensed by the county, which oversees only the townships and the village of Boston Heights.

Springfield Township Police Chief John Smith, a longtime critic of the businesses, said he will reach out to the attorney general to see what assistance the state can provide for his community. “You can say what you want, but that’s gambling,” he said of the cafes.

Summit County sheriff’s spokesman Bill Holland said the sheriff will do the same. “We’re going to see what kind of direction and guidance that the attorney general gives us and keep enforcing the law,” he said. “If [the cafes] are breaking the law, we’re going to enforce the law.”

Brad Gessner, chief assistant prosecutor for Summit County, said the office has “been involved in discussions with the attorney general’s office on these issues and are currently reviewing what they have presented.”

DeWine said several bank accounts were seized in Wednesday’s raids and 364 gambling machines confiscated.

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