BanBuster Games Gives Cafe Owners and Operators a Few Options
WILLOUGHBY HILLS, Ohio – On the first week of new state regulations, two Internet cafes on Chardon Road took markedly different tacks.
The Sweepstakes Club, which was open earlier last week, according to a customer, was locked late Friday morning. A sign on the door said the cafe was “closed for an upgrade” and will resume operation Monday. The upgrade seems to be a change of tactic on how the games operate that is supposed to keep the cafes open.
The Cyber Playground, on the other hand, had more than 30 patrons playing computer games. But customers had to sign a new form advising them that they were playing at their own risk.”They could shut us down at any time,” a female employee told several who were waiting in line.
The cafes can remain open under a law that took effect at midnight, opponents said they had failed get enough signatures for a statewide vote on the statute and its new restrictions.
The owners are prohibited from awarding cash jackpots or prizes worth more than $10, rules that threaten to close an industry that casino operators and other critics say is a facade for illegal gambling (although gambling and sweepstakes aren’t technically the same) Another employee at the Cyber Playground said the cafe was paying customers the value of “whatever is on their cards.”
Attorney Daniel Gourash at one time represented more than 20 cafes in Cuyahoga County, where court cases and raids waged by Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty and state agents gradually forced more than 50 to fold. A push many blame on “big casino money”
Gourash said Friday that he expects to see a lawsuit filed on constitutional grounds, though he declined to comment on whether he would handle the filing. He said arguments could allege that state legislators violated home-rule powers in cities that had licensed cafes and charged them fees, or illegal “taking” of enterprises that legislators had long tolerated. The on-going consensus points toward a violation of the first amendment.
Cafe operators claim they run legitimate businesses, selling Internet or phone time and using sweepstakes games for marketing.
Critics say customers have no interest in the products, just playing games for cash. Café operators point out that the internet is used to access the games.
Michelle Allen of Cleveland pulled up in front of the Sweepstakes Club on Friday morning and learned she was shut out of a place she has visited almost daily. Allen said she recently won $1,600 in a two-day period but wouldn’t really mind if the new law sends all the cafes packing.
“It probably wouldn’t affect me much,” said Allen, 31. “It’s more of a fun thing. I come to relax, actually.”
Unable to get into the Sweepstakes Club, Ron, a 63-year-old retiree who wouldn’t give his last name, headed to the Cyber Playground with his wife. The Cleveland Heights man said he caps his day’s spending at $20 and would not be bothered if the cafes disappear.
“I’m all for it,” he said without hesitation. “It can be habit forming. It’s like any other addiction.”
Attorney General Mike DeWine, a leading opponent of the cafes, pledged Thursday to watch for cafes that break the law. Spokesman Daniel Tierney said enforcement will start by sending cafes letters outlining “expectations” and notifying county prosecutors which cafes have registered with the attorney general, as required.
Tierney said people who believe cafes are violating the law can call local authorities or contact the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation at 1-855-BCIOHIO.
The owners of VS2 Worldwide Communications, a New Jersey company that supplies software to the Cyber Playground and many other Internet cafes in Ohio, are to be sentenced Thursday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, but the terms of pleas they entered are sealed until then. They were indicted on charges of racketeering, money laundering, possession of criminal tools and gambling in connection with use of their products.
To head off raids in Lake County, Cyber Playground and two other cafes sued DeWine, county Prosecutor Charles Coulson and three cities’ prosecutors in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. The judge did not grant the injunction that was sought but indicated that authorities should delay any action they might be considering.
Dominic Vitantonio, an attorney who filed the suit, could not be reached for comment Friday.