COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Search warrants were executed at six storefront gambling-like operations known as Internet cafes Wednesday as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced new efforts by his office to prosecute what he says are illegal gambling operations.
The actions came the same day DeWine made a public relations push urging lawmakers to pass a bill regulating the operations, saying that going after them with criminal investigations was “the hard way” to approach them.
“This is not the easy way to do it,” DeWine said after briefing dozens of prosecutors and police at a law enforcement meeting in Columbus on ways to investigate the cafes. He also announced an internal advisory group to assist police and prosecutors.
“This frankly is the hard way,” DeWine said. “We are now committed to fight this battle county by county and courthouse to courthouse, and that’s exactly what this fight will be.”
The Ohio House passed a bill to crack down on Internet cafes late last year but it failed to gain traction in the Senate, where leaders said they needed more time. The House passed a new proposal in March that would impose operating restrictions, registration requirements and background checks on Internet cafes. That bill is pending in a Senate committee.
House Speaker William Batchelder said his chamber has acted.
“I don’t know aside from some sort of a native dance what we might add to that,” he told reporters.
Senate President Keith Faber said his chamber is working on the bill but noted state budget hearings will take up most of lawmakers’ time this spring.
“I don’t think anybody in our caucus believes that Internet cafes should just be left to do what they’re doing now,” he said.
Faber also said he’s asked for a bill that would extend the moratorium on new cafes, which ends this summer.
However, any law could still raise constitutional questions because the question of permitting the cafes as gambling operations has not been put to a statewide vote. “That is obviously an issue,” said Peter Thomas, head of DeWine’s Charitable Law division.
DeWine said he’s taking his authority to prosecute the cafes for illegal gambling from a district court ruling that declared the cafes in Cleveland to be illegal.
DeWine said he’s being forced to undertake criminal investigations because of the Cleveland appeals court decision and the lack of legislative action.
Backers of the businesses say they are legal and help the economy, and they say the Cleveland appeals court ruling extends only to cafes in that city. They also point to a Toledo appeals court ruling that upheld the cafes’ legality.
DeWine said prosecuting these cafes is complicated and costly, and police already have their hands full around the state with everything from overdose deaths from heroin and illegally obtained prescription painkiller sales to child abuse and child pornography investigations.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien echoed these concerns in a letter to Faber on Wednesday afternoon urging the Senate to act.
His office and police agencies don’t have the time or resources to pursue the cafes, which he likened to the “whack-a-mole” carnival game, where one closes, “and two others open,” O’Brien said.
DeWine said several bank accounts were seized as part of Wednesday’s raids, which also included search warrants issued at a New Jersey company and private residence.
“These establishments advertised themselves like casinos, provided patrons with slot-machine-like games, and yet thought they could conduct illegal gambling simply by calling it a ‘sweepstakes,'” DeWine said in a statement.
At the storefronts, patrons buy cards for phone and Internet time with chances to play computer games that operate like slot machines with cash prizes.
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