Internet cafe ban takes effect

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s effective ban on storefront sweepstakes parlors is set to go into effect Friday, after opponents dropped their effort to pursue a ballot repeal because of a lack of signatures.

The Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs said its petition-gathering firm was unable to collect the roughly 71,000 additional valid signatures needed by Thursday’s deadline to put the repeal on the November 2014 ballot. The group technically had until midnight to hand in the names to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted after falling significantly short of the mark last month.

The committee said in a statement that it was the first to operate under Ohio’s new, more stringent signature gathering rules and that the restrictions hampered its effort. It said the experience made a pending constitutional challenge to the new rules by the conservative 1851 Center for Constitutional Law appear justified.

“Simply put, never before has it been so difficult for Ohio citizens to place an issue on the ballot,” the group said.

The committee was still exploring the idea of challenging the law in court.

Backers of the measure, including top state law enforcement officials, say the parlors harbor illegal gambling. They have cautioned that no single law enforcement agency has authority to investigate or pursue criminal charges statewide for any illegal activity at the cafes, which they argue leaves the industry open to money laundering and other crimes.

Foes of the crackdown say the law went too far in limiting activity at the parlors, many of which they describe as mom-and-pop operations that provide jobs in local communities.

Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling, a casino-backed committee fighting the repeal, said Ohioans didn’t sign the petitions because they don’t support Internet cafes in the state.

“House Bill 7 is a well-reasoned bi-partisan measure that gives law enforcement officials strong tools to fight illegal gambling and other serious criminal activity occurring at many Internet cafes,” spokesman Carlo LoParo said in a statement. “The push by cafe owners to halt this important law came up short because Ohioans refused to aid and abet a known criminal enterprise.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced Thursday afternoon that his office would begin enforcement efforts for Ohio’s new internet sweepstakes café regulations.

“Internet sweepstakes cafés have long had operations that raised suspicions of illegal gambling,” DeWine said. “Ohio now has a law which makes clear which activities are legal and illegal in these cafes, and we will not hesitate to enforce the law.”
House Bill 7 gives the Attorney General’s Office regulatory authority over sweepstakes terminal devices used by internet sweepstakes cafes. Cafes are required to obtain a certificate of registration from the Attorney General’s Office and file monthly reports. The Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) also now will have explicit authority to investigate gambling law violations alleged to occur at internet sweepstakes cafes.
The Attorney General’s Office will be sending letters to each of the internet sweepstakes cafes who previously filed affidavits of existence pursuant to Senate Bill 115’s moratorium on new cafes. The letter will outline the changes to law enacted by House Bill 7, including a $10 limit on the value of prizes. The new law also prohibits prizes in the form of cash, gift cards, lottery tickets, bingo, instant bingo, alcohol, tobacco, firearms or vouchers for any such items.
The new law also draws a distinction between the casino-style games played at internet sweepstakes cafes and traditional promotional sweepstakes offered by retailers. Retailers who offer promotional sweepstakes via a terminal device will have certain restrictions and registration to ensure compliance with Ohio law.
The Attorney General’s Office will also be sending letters to all 88 county prosecutors letting them know of the known cafes in their county. The Attorney General’s Office will continue to provide assistance to local law enforcement who request assistance on illegal gambling investigations regarding internet sweepstakes cafes, including services from BCI, charitable law investigators and attorneys, and special prosecutors.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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