PHOENIX – Arizona veterans groups say state agencies are unfairly cracking down on electronic bingo cards, while state agencies say agents are only conducting inspections to prevent the use of illegal bingo machines.
At a news conference at the Arizona Capitol on Monday, several members of local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts were joined by Republican Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli, who said the departments of Revenue, Gaming, and Liquor are conducting raids and harassing organizations for their use of bingo technological aids.
Bingo technological aids, or BTAs, are electronic bingo cards that assist bingo players with disabilities and have been legal since 2017. The state says these organizations are not being penalized for using BTAs, but for using bingo gambling machines, which resemble slot machines and can be played without other players present.
Bingo is legal to play in Arizona but must be conducted by licensed game conductors who follow specific rules outlined by the Department of Revenue. Possessing a bingo gambling machine is illegal and could lead to a class two misdemeanor.
Borrelli said that a letter sent by the departments on Sept. 1 was “threatening to criminally prosecute” the organizations that host bingo.
“Their gaming agents have been going into these nonprofit organizations, heavy handed, flashing badges, freaking out bartenders with criminal prosecution and intimidation, and it’s ridiculous,” Borrelli said at the news conference.
According to a letter from the state agencies sent to Borrelli on Monday, no threats of criminal prosecution were made, and the agencies’ goal is to help organizations comply with the law. The agencies said in the Sept. 1 letter that if venues with liquor licenses knowingly allow illegal bingo machines on their premises, their liquor licenses could be revoked.
Additionally, the state agencies denied the allegation that agents were carrying out “raids,” but instead were conducting routine inspections on bingo licenses after noticing an uptick in illegal machines. “These inspections are meant to give licensees every opportunity to comply with the law,” a fact sheet from the Arizona Department of Gaming said. However, many veterans at the news conference expressed concern for how the inspections were carried out.
Jim Zawacki, a veteran and member of the Arizona VFW, said state agents have been aggressive in their inspections, instead of working with the local posts running bingo games.
“Their responsibility is to walk in and if they see an infraction, to help us correct those infractions,” Zawacki said.
In an interview with Cronkite News after the news conference, Zawacki said local veteran organizations rely on money from bingo to keep posts running, support members and give back to the community.
“We’re not only trying to help ourselves, but we’re helping the community also,” Zawacki said. “We open our hearts to help everybody.”
Other veterans who spoke at the news conference said revenue from bingo games paid for school supplies for children, food for local food banks and donations to MANA House, an organization that supports homeless veterans.
Christian Slater, a spokesperson for Gov. Katie Hobbs, said in an emailed statement that the state agencies are not trying to prevent the organizations from generating revenue to give back to the community, but are trying to prevent exploitation of veterans and older Arizonans who use bingo machines.
“Senator Borrelli seems more interested in promoting unregulated, potentially predatory gambling than in helping non-profit organizations comply with the law,” Slater said in the statement. “It’s shameful he would make a political stunt out of Governor Hobbs protecting some of Arizona’s most vulnerable populations from corporations that could be exploiting them for personal profit.”