Charities see no limit to poker fundraising

first_imgChurches, 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 made $12,000 in October, for instance, while the Make-a-Wish Foundation brought in a whopping $60,000 in an August tournament hosted by 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.” While the St. Mel’s tournament was held on church property, Holland said organizers believe their tournament was legal because the proceeds went to the church, not to entry fees. “We’re not taking their money for them to play poker,” she said. “We have to do it the right way.” The booster club for the Hart High School basketball team in Newhall also held a poker tournament Saturday night, with prizes for the winners including a $3,000 gift certificate, seats on the 50-yard-line of the UCLA-USC football game and two round-trip, first-class tickets to anywhere Delta Airlines flies. The Hart boosters hired Casino Entertainment Industries, a Santa Clarita-based company that averages a charity poker tournament in the area about once a week. “My attorney’s opinion, and through our interpretation of the law, is it is total legitimate,” said Todd Rockey, owner of Casino Entertainment. “We can’t force anybody to pay for anything. Everything is listed as a donation. “The American Cancer Society, Boys & Girls Clubs, schools – the reason they turn to us to raise funds is because all of their other money is being taken away. It seems to work well. We haven’t had any complaints. “What we do is gaming, not gambling. It’s pure entertainment.” But Rockey concedes there’s a fine line between gaming and gambling, and that law-enforcement agencies in various jurisdictions have different interpretations of the state law. “I never know from day-to-day if what I’m doing is legal,” he said. Recognizing the gap between policy and practice, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, 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. The Attorney General’s Office helped draft the language, which would limit each nonprofit organization to two casino-night fundraisers a year and requires at least 98 percent of the proceeds go to the charity. With state, federal and local governments reducing funding to community organizations, Torrico said, the bill is important to give those organizations a chance to recoup that money. “Gambling is a reality in California,” Torrico said. “We have card clubs, we have race tracks, we have casinos run by the tribes. State-sanctioned gambling is the Lottery. “What also is a reality is that these nonprofits are picking up the slack (of government). You have to balance those out. On balance, these are worthy organizations that need all the help they can get to raise money.” Even Torrico’s bill has its critics. Rockey argues that the bill – which says no more than 2 percent of proceeds from a poker tournament can go to operation costs – won’t cover the cost of food, drinks, dealers, tables and room rental. Despite the questions about the legality of the tournaments, organizers say, it’s difficult to ignore their popularity or their impact on the group’s bottom line. “Poker has risen to the cream of the crop and everybody wants to play,” Holland said. “I had a little guy, 7 or 8 years old, who came in here with his dad, who was dropping off a donation. He wanted to know if he could play in the tournament. He plays at home with his dad. “Everyone is playing.” Josh Kleinbaum, (818) 713-3669 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week But 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. “There are no exceptions written into the law. 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. last_img read more