Internet cafe lawyers say casino is behind attacks on industry
The owners and their lawyers point to testimony and an email documenting contact between a casino lobbyist and two people -- a prosecutor and investigator -- involved in criminal charges brought against a company that supplies software to the cafes.
Cuyahoga County Assistant Prosecutor James D. May and state investigator Robert Boldin testified last month in Columbus in favor of House Bill 605, which would have effectively killed the controversial cafes had it passed before the legislative session ended Dec. 31.
May sent Boldin an email the night before they went downstate, identifying casino lobbyist Leah Pappas Porner as their "contact" for a Senate committee hearing.
According to the transcript from a court hearing in the criminal case (see the full transcript in the document viewer below), Boldin testified that he sent Porner an advance copy of remarks he planned to make before the Senate committee. He also testified that Porner was present when he prepped for the committee meeting with his superiors from the Ohio Department of Public Safety.
Washington, D.C., defense lawyers handling the criminal case filed a motion Monday in Common Pleas Court, asking Judge Deena Calabrese to remove May from the proceedings. Attorney Mark Schamel declined to comment, but the court filing says the email is evidence that May is "aligned with the casino."
Cafe owners believe casinos are out to stifle competition, though they deny that their operations involve gambling.
Besides contact with casino representatives, lawyers are upset that May and Boldin traveled to Columbus in the midst of a two-day hearing on defense motions. The trip delayed the proceedings until the afternoon of the second day and came while Bodin stillwas under oath.
May cannot discuss the case, said Maria Russo, spokeswoman for Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty. In a statement released late Monday, McGinty discounted the complaints made by lawyers for the owners of the software company, New Jersey-based VS2 Worldwide Communications.
"Take a minute to think about what they are doing," McGinty said. "The purveyors of these gambling dens want to punish the prosecutor who testified with the Attorney General's Office before the Legislature that their totally unregulated mini casinos, using rigged video slots to bilk little old ladies out of their pensions and pin money, are absolutely wrong and illegal under Ohio law."
Porner, a Columbus-based attorney for Calfee Halter & Griswold, could not be reached for comment. Jennifer Kulczycki, a spokeswoman for Rock Ohio Caesars, the casino owners, said she did not know enough about the allegations to comment.
"Leah is a lobbyist for us," Kulczycki said. "She was involved in our support of the bill, but I can't comment on 'He said, she said.' "
Joe Andrews, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said May asked Boldin to testify at the Senate Committee meeting. Andrews said he had no indication that Boldin or other department officials acted improperly.
Owners of up to 800 Internet cafes deny they are illegal gambling operations. They say their businesses consist of selling phone or Internet time. The cafes also providecomputers for patrons to play slots-like games, and cafe owners offer cash as prizes.
But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and other critics say the storefront businesses' computer terminals run illegal games of chance and should be strictly regulated, if not shut down. House Bill 605 would have likely accomplished the latter by forbidding the cafes to award cash to sweepstakes players and capping the value of other prizes at $10.
Schamel and other lawyers in the criminal case have claimed selective prosecution. They have asked Calabrese to make former Prosecutor Bill Mason, in office when the case was filed, testify and explain why he did not go after businesses offering other types of sweepstakes contests.
Mason ordered Internet or sweepstakes cafes across the county to shut down or face possible criminal charges. Cafes obtained a temporary restraining order from Judge Nancy Margaret Russo, and a trial is pending.
Lawyer Daniel Gourash, who represents several cafes in the case, has asked for copies of all communication between the prosecutor's office and casino representatives. Russo ordered the prosecutor's office to respond by the middle of last week, but Gourash said he had not received a response as of Monday.
"We want to get to the bottom of it," he said of the reported contact between May, Boldin and Porner. "It's highly unusual."