Virginia Lawmakers Call for Charitable Gaming Board Executives to Be Ousted

A bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers is calling for the ousting of several members of the Virginia Charitable Gaming Board after an oversight report raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

Without naming names, lawmakers are asking House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, to remove current board chairman Chuck Lessin, a past-speaker appointee who played a leading role in drafting charity poker regulations while planning to get involved in the new poker industry itself.

“Quite frankly, there is no better way to put it than to say that we have lost faith in those who currently run this body,” Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, said at a conference of press this week. “And we need a change.”

Lawmakers also called for the removal of Board Vice Chair Amy Solares, although as Governor-nominee, her position on the Board falls under Governor Glenn Youngkin’s purview.

Signing the letter with Bell were Sens. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria and Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax. The four lawmakers last summer sat on a joint subcommittee examining issues surrounding charitable gaming, which has evolved from bingo halls to slot machines and poker games. A portion of game proceeds must be set aside for charity. But lawmakers worry the industry has strayed too far from its roots, arguing that it’s now difficult to distinguish legitimate charities from businesses built primarily for gambling.

Virginia Mercury reported last year about Lessin’s dual role as a longtime operator of a charity bingo hall and sports bar in Richmond. While drafting the regulations, Lessin clashed with state regulators he worked with at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, urging the agency to make poker licenses available as soon as possible. possible. When the General Assembly asked the agency to freeze the rollout of charity poker, Lessin opened his poker room without a state license.

In a statement Wednesday, Lessin denounced lawmakers’ call for his impeachment as an “arbitrary attack” tied to the “corrupting influence” of the for-profit gaming industry‘s donations to members of the General Assembly.

The conflict of interest argument is nonsense,” Lessin said. “Every industry board in Virginia is (and should be) made up of industry experts. Our advice is no different. We are deliberately and openly singled out. »

The Inspector General’s office concluded that Lessin had improperly recused himself from writing and voting on poker rules that would affect his own business and charitable interests. Lessin had previously questioned that conclusion, noting that he had disclosed his personal interest in the matter and that no one from the attorney general’s office had told him he had to recuse himself entirely.

Garren Shipley, a spokesman for Gilbert, said the Speaker “has received the letter and looks forward to meeting with the authors to hear their concerns.”

The lawmakers who drafted the letter have sponsored several bills aimed at strengthening oversight of the charitable gaming industry. Their proposals would authorize fines ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 to anyone conducting charitable gambling without the proper permits, prohibit charity poker operators from running open-ended gambling or hiring teams for-profit organizations to run their tournaments, would strip the Charitable Gaming Board of some of its policy-making power, and reject poker regulations that the board approved last year. Another bill would place new limits on where charities can set up electronic games that look like slot machines.

The charitable gambling industry, the first type of legalized gambling allowed in Virginia, tried to protect itself after the state opened the door to racing-themed casinos, sportsbooks and slots. horses.

The biggest decision ahead of the General Assembly, Krizek said, is how far the game should be allowed to spread.

“Do we want us to be some sort of Wild West, Deadwood type scenario where we have casinos on every corner, poker rooms, bingo halls, slot machines everywhere?” Krizek said . “Or do we want to have what we’re really working towards…a handful of really big casinos that are destination places.”

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