Internet gaming cafes are proliferating throughout Boardman and within the past year upwards of 17 such facilities are operating in the township; as well as in other townships and municipalities throughout Mahoning County.
At least on two occasions, information has been presented to the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office by Boardman Township and, as the record shows, the prosecutor’s office has done nothing to insure the businesses are operating legally.
That isn’t the way it is in nearby Trumbull County, where in the absence of any state laws governing their operation, internet gaming cafes are illegal.
Speaking to Boardman Township Trustees on Monday night, Boardman Police Chief Jack Nichols said his department had gained entry into the back rooms of at least two such internet cafes and found that there was no connection to the internet.
“We’ve made it to the back rooms, and there is no internet connection,” Chief Nichols said.
Throughout the state of Ohio, municipalities have placed moratoriums on issuing permits for internet cafes.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has, at best, waffled on the issue for at least a year.
In Jan., 2011, Mr. DeWine told The Columbus Dispatch he was in the process of gathering “information from prosecutors and law enforcement officials on the legality of internet cafes that have been popping up around Ohio” and he would soon issue an opinion.
Last January, Mr. DeWine said he had hoped to have an opinion “next week,” noting it was important to “act on this right away.”
Fast forward a year later, to Jan., 2012, and in another article in The Columbus Dispatch, Mr. DeWine called for a law regulating internet cafes. But his office has yet to issue an opinion on their current legality, leaving communities across Ohio wondering what to do about them, without guidance from the state’s chief legal officer.
While failing to provide an opinion on the legality of internet cafes, Mr. DeWine told The Dispatch, “These guys are flying under the radar and they’re making millions and millions of dollars.”
There is current legislation pending in an Ohio House Committee that would limit the number of sweepstakes cafes in a county, based upon a county’s population.
For example, in one of Ohio’s most populated counties, Franklin County, the legislation would permit just 64 internet cafes. Under such legislation, far fewer such businesses would be allowed in smaller counties, like Mahoning County.
Do internet cafes operate illegally?
“The line is blurred,” according to Chief Nichols.
He points out the operators of such businesses get around the law saying internet sweepstakes are a game of skill, rather than chance.
But the sweepstakes lobby talks out of both sides of their mouth, as Chief Nichols indicates, when he notes the lobby also claims there isn’t much difference between their business and patrons of, for example, fast-food businesses like McDonald’s that offer scratch-off games every year (that provide payouts purely upon the ‘chance’ a winning ticket will be scratched-off).
Chief Nichols said if the law clearly said internet sweepstakes cafes were illegal, “Then our department would go out and shut down 17 businesses immediately.”
Without a clear law to follow, Chief Nichols said it would not be prudent to shut current internet cafes down, because it could expose the township to liabilities if the business were ruled to be legal.
“I am reluctant to put the township in a position of that liability,” Chief Nichols said.
The Boardman chief says he has spoken with Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains and says Gains has never received any clear direction on the internet cafes, either from Mr. DeWine, or his predessor, Richard Courdray.
In Trumbull County, Prosecutor Dennis Watkins sees it a lot differently.
In 2010, he issued an opinion declaring internet sweepstakes cafes illegal.
“In my opinion [the law] states that if it is a game of chance and it is not authorized by current law, then it is a violation of law, and the law will be enforced,” said Watkins, adding “We have law enforcement agencies in Trumbull County that will be enforcing the law.”
It is a very different story in Mahoning County; and current Youngstown City Prosecutor, Jay Macejko, who seeks to unseat Gains in the March, Democrat primaries, sides with Mr. Watkins.
“They are illegal,” Mr. Macejko told The Boardman News.
Mr. Maceyko said communities throughout Ohio are placing maoratoriums on internet cafes. Among others, they include Youngstown, Struthers, Cleveland and Brooke Park (near Cleveland), says Mr. Macejko.
Addressing internet cafes, Mr. Macejko said issues with internet cafes “did arise in Boardman and later in Austintown. In my discussions with not only those chiefs of police but other chiefs of police around Mahoning County, they have some great concerns about these establishments.”
Last August, The city of Cheviot, Oh. has opened the possibility for the first internet café in Hamilton County with the passage of a local ordinance regulating such businesses. This was said to be unusual on two counts. First of all, internet cafes have been primarily confined to northern Ohio. Hamilton County is in southwestern Ohio.
Secondly, most Ohio communities that have addressed internet cafes have passed temporary moratoriums while they await guidance from the state.
At Monday night’s meeting of Boardman Trustees, newly-elected Chairman Brad Calhoun asked Township Administrator Jason Loree to study some type of home-rule legislation that would address internet cafes.
“They are good neighbors,” Mr. Calhoun said.
Boardman Police Chief Nichols told The Boardman News “once a year the department collects inforamtion on internet cafes. We put it in an envelope and send it to the prosecutor’s office,” the chief said, adding his department had received a “few complaints such as purse snatchings and burglaries” at current internet cafes, “but nothing out of the ordinary.”
Standing outside the Lucky Hook Internet Café in north Columbus, last week, Mr. DeWine said he’s not trying to prevent gambling but wants to target “consumer rip-offs.”