County officials reject electronic bingo, uncertain about high-tech regulation

September 09, 1994|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Anne Arundel County officials have turned down electronic bingo because they don't know how to regulate it and are afraid the game's high-tech version would be open to manipulation.

Two years ago, FortuNet Inc., located in Las Vegas, started seeking a county license to lease computer programs and players' computer screens to any of the five commercial bingo halls in Anne Arundel.

This summer, county licensing officials decided the technology was simply too advanced for local regulators to be able to apply the necessary controls, said Anne Hatcher, chief of licensing.

"There are opportunities for abuse. We can't identify entirely what they are because we don't have the resources," said John Klocko, chairman of the county's Amusement License Commission. "We would like to rely on the more sophisticated gaming authorities."

But even for them, bingo by computer is a new permutation of an old game. In 1992, when FortuNet was first seeking a license here, Nevada officials were concerned about the company and had only given it a provisional license, Ms. Hatcher said.

Yuri Itkis, president of FortuNet, said yesterday that his company received a full Nevada gaming license in June 1994. He said he understood Anne Arundel's concerns but believes the electronic game has more accountability because it leaves a computer trail. He also said he would not do anything to jeopardize his Nevada license, which he termed the "granddaddy of them all."

In commercial bingo, a blower/mixer randomly and mechanically selects bingo numbers. The numbers are illuminated on a display board as players search their cards and mark the numbers.

Adding computers -- whether to select the numbers, generate the cards or signal the winner -- raises key issues for county officials, especially how computerization would change the game, and how the county would monitor its relationship with FortuNet.

"Who monitors the computer program? How do we as a governmental agency check the integrity of that chip?" asked Victor Sulin, a deputy director for planning and code enforcement. "How do we check so that the game cannot be changed willy-nilly and even be fixed?"

Mr. Sulin also was concerned about the possible pitfalls of working with an out-of-state company.

"Right now, we deal locally with local people. We know them. We have police checks on them," he said.

County officials are still smarting from revelations several years ago that Bingo World owner Stephen Paskind, a Florida businessman, had alleged ties to organized crime. County rules say a bingo licensee must be of "sound moral character." It took county officials and judges five years to get Mr. Paskind out of bingo in the county.

In 1992, several of Mr. Paskind's associates were convicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore of funneling profits from gambling, loan-sharking, robbery and other enterprises through Bingo World. Mr. Paskind had been named an unindicted co-conspirator.

Though county officials have decided they would need new regulations for electronic bingo, Ms. Hatcher said the county lacks the resources to determine what needs to be done. Mr. Sulin said the county is approaching Nevada authorities and the National Association of Gaming Regulators for help in developing regulations.

Mr. Itkis said he might seek a license if the county implements regulations for electronic bingo. He also said electronic bingo is a big hit with the gambling operations on Native American reservations and with charity bingo in California.

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