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Bingo hall plays it fair and square

An investigation by the State Attorney's Office has found Citrus County's sole commercial bingo hall is complying with state law.

The investigation was prompted by numerous complaints from charities that run other bingo halls in Citrus County.

They have said the bingo parlor in Sun Plaza on U.S. 19 is being run to profit the owner of the building and is squeezing them out of business.

Under state law, only charities can benefit from income from bingo. But the amount hall operators can charge for rent and operating expenses is largely unregulated.

"If . . . an outlandish figure jumped out at me, I would have put it in the report," said Investigator Herb Hoskins of the state attorney's office, who reviewed the operation's financial records. "But nothing stood out that said, "Something is wrong here.' "

The critics also charged numerous violations of specific parts of the state bingo law. They said, for example, that people operating the hall were not employees of the charities benefited by the games, and that charities were sponsoring the games more than twice a week.

Supporters of the Sun Plaza bingo games have said the Disabled American Veterans and other critics were simply envious they couldn't compete.

The County Commission referred the complaints to the state attorney's office in January, but decided at the same time not to enact a county ordinance regulating bingo more tightly. The board expected Crystal River would exercise its right to nullify the ordinance.

Hoskins's report, sent to the commission Feb. 23, lacked specific data on the operation's finances. He said in an interview Monday that he could not remember details from his review of the books.

Hoskins did say in his report that the owner of Sun Plaza, Jack Plummer, told him the charities together get 20 percent of the hall's gross revenues.

That would appear to put the hall ahead of some bingo operations elsewhere in the state, where charities have gotten shares as low as 3 percent. Concerns over that return lead Pasco and Hernando counties to pass local ordinances cracking down on bingo.

Hoskins said he decided not to include details of Sun Plaza's revenue or income in his report because he considered it confidential business information.

Plummer's company, Sun Markets Plaza Inc., rents the hall to another company, Crystal River Community Center Inc., which actually runs the games on behalf of four charities.

They are the Crystal River Aerie 4272, Crystal River Middle School Band Boosters, Seven Rivers Medical and Education Foundation and Deaf Services of Citrus County. Games are held Monday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Hoskins said that under state law, it is up to the charities, not the state, to determine if the 20 percent return is fair. The charities have told the County Commission they are satisfied with the arrangement, which earns them more than $32,000 a year.

Hoskins found one violation: the charities had been awarding an extra cash jackpot, called the "Pot of Gold," in certain games on top of the state maximum of $250. Thomas VanNess, a lawyer for Crystal River Community Center, told Hoskins that practice would be ended.

Hoskins also reviewed allegations of wrongdoing made by the Homosassa Lions Auxiliary.

He said he reviewed logs that showed the four charities were sharing the facility, but that none sponsored games more than the legal limit of two days a week.

He said he dropped in unannounced on the hall to interview workers and found they wore badges corresponding to the charity that was supposed to be sponsoring that particular game.

"If that's what they said, they didn't do a very good job," said Darrell Klinker, a leader of the Disabled American Veterans Suncoast Chapter 139 in Homosassa. The chapter has suspended bingo games, saying it can't compete with those at Sun Plaza.

Plummer referred questions Monday to VanNess, who didn't comment.