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State Attorney General rules against use of 'instant bingo' machines

Jon Brown of Elks Lodge 2284 in New Port Richey says his group will keep selling the tickets, just not from a machine.

MOLLY MOORHEAD | Times

Jon Brown of Elks Lodge 2284 in New Port Richey says his group will keep selling the tickets, just not from a machine.

NEW PORT RICHEY — There's a machine across from the bar in the lounge of the Elks Lodge on Congress Street. Stacked up inside it are tickets with names like Luck Be a Lady, Quack Pot and Duck Bucks. They cost $1, but some conceal a $500 prize.

They're known as "instant bingo" tickets, with pull-tabs that reveal winning combinations, but they function much like lottery scratch-offs. In Florida's complex, sometimes conflicting menagerie of gaming legislation, the tickets, it would appear, fall within the bounds of the law.

The machines that hold them might be another story.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office recently sought an opinion from Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum on the legalities of instant bingo, who can run it and how the tickets can be dispensed. McCollum's office responded this week. Sheriff's Office attorney Mike Randall interpreted the opinion to say that only groups who run real-time bingo — the traditional "N, 33" variety — can sell instant bingo tickets. But they can't be sold from a machine like the one at New Port Richey Elks 2284, Randall said, because that falls under the definition of a slot machine, and slot machines are outlawed.

"This is an area where the state is — I don't know the phrase — divided, perplexed," Randall said.

Jon Brown, exalted ruler of the Elks lodge, would agree. He said his group is eager to comply with the law, but he wants it clarified.

"We'll continue (using the machines) because they've told us we're allowed to," Brown said. "But if the law comes down and tells us not to, we'll shut it down. I'm not going to put our lodge in jeopardy over a pull-tab machine."

In addition to the machines, the Elks host twice-weekly bingo nights, which typically draw 150 people. The machines are very popular with bingo players.

All the profits from the regular bingo and instant bingo benefit local and national charities. From the machines alone, Brown said, the lodge has donated thousands — to the SPCA ($500), Volunteer Way food bank ($500), local veterans hospitals ($1,500) and others — and that's just since April.

"Bingo alone right now, because of the economy, is not carrying the load like we need," he said.

As it's a violation of the law to even possess a slot machine, Brown imagined quite a scene erupting during Sunday night bingo.

"I don't want to be standing here some night and have the sheriff come through that door and put me in chains and take me to jail," he said.

But Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said that's not the approach deputies would take.

The emphasis is on education.

"We welcome people to call us for clarifications," Doll said, adding that gambling information is on the Sheriff's Office Web site (pascosheriff.com).

And Brown acknowledged there are other ways to sell the instant tickets.

"If they want us to put them in a bucket, we can do that," he said. "We can walk the floor and sell them."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

State Attorney General rules against use of 'instant bingo' machines 07/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2008 7:34pm]
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