RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A maker of skill games is reporting a surge in illegal gambling since a ban on their machines took effect earlier this year.
Before being outlawed in Virginia, skill games were common in convenience stores. They were sometimes referred to as “gray machines” because, for years, they too operated in the gray area of state law, dodging taxation and regulation.
On Tuesday, former Congressman and U.S. Attorney Tom Marino, who currently works for the skill game producer Pace-O-Matic, said they’re putting pressure on state lawmakers to crack down on “unregulated mini casinos.” He hopes drawing attention to the problem will also convince the General Assembly to revisit the idea of legalizing skill games, which generated millions in revenue for the coronavirus response after lawmakers decided to temporarily tax them.
“We hope Virginia will take the steps to regulate, to enforce the law, to take the bad guys off the street and hit them up for the taxes that they haven’t paid,” Marino said.
On Tuesday, Marino hosted a series of press conferences at the sites of alleged illegal gaming operations. He was joined by Pace-O-Matic compliance officers Jill Feagan and George Kucik, who have been conducting investigations into these locations.
Feagan and Kucik said games of chance that may be “fixed” against customers appear to be filling the void left by the ban on skill games that took effect July 1.
“We have come across an increasing amount of unregulated games that are not compliant with the law,” Kucik said.
At one Richmond location in a shopping plaza, which we are not naming because the owner couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, investigators said there were 44 electronic gaming devices in operation. The entrance was largely unmarked other than an “open” sign, a poster board advertising a raffle and a sign prompting visitors to ring the doorbell for entry. The windows were also blacked out.
At “Good Food Store” off of Mechanicsville Turnpike in Richmond, investigators said they observed a backroom casino with over a dozen gambling devices. Asked to respond to accusations of illegal gambling at his store, a man identifying himself as the owner declined to comment.
The Richmond Police Department didn’t immediately respond when asked if they were aware of or investigating these locations on Tuesday.
State Sen. Bryce Reeves wasn’t surprised by the accusations. He has directed local law enforcement to investigate similar operations in his jurisdictions.
“They’re proliferating like mice,” Reeves said.
Reeves said many police departments don’t have the resources to regularly investigate illegal gambling.
Reeves is part of a General Assembly subcommittee working to close loopholes in state gaming regulations, create a more comprehensive regulatory structure and increase enforcement in the 2022 session.
“That’s been a big problem,” Reeves said. “We don’t have an enforcement arm.”
Reeves said he plans to introduce a bill in the 2022 legislative session to create a team within the Virginia State Police focused on criminal enforcement. The push follows the passage of another bill that allows county attorneys to crack down on illegal games within their jurisdiction by imposing civil fines of $25,000 per machine, according to Reeves.
However, Reeves was hesitant when asked if he would sponsor a bill legalizing, regulating and taxing skill games. The proposal was previously shot down by the General Assembly, despite support from Gov. Ralph Northam.
Reeves said he doesn’t want to see skill games back in bars and restaurants. He said some lawmakers don’t want them competing with other new forms of gambling like casinos.
“I’m not adverse to them coming back because I don’t think we should pick winners and losers. We should create a level playing field,” Reeves said. “Some of those folks in my caucus have a financial interest in other gambling entities’ success.”