A bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers is calling for the ouster of several members of the Virginia Charitable Gaming Board after a watchdog report raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest.
Without naming names, the legislators are asking House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, to remove current Board Chairman Chuck Lessin, an appointee of past speakers who played a leading role in the drafting of charitable poker regulations while planning to be involved in the new poker industry himself.
“Quite frankly, there’s no better way of putting it in than to say we’ve lost faith in those who are currently leading this body,” Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, said at a news conference this week. “And we need a change.”
The legislators also called for the removal of board Vice Chair Amy Solares, though as a gubernatorial appointee her position on the board falls under the purview of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Signing on to the letter with Bell were Sens. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria and Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax. All four lawmakers served on a joint subcommittee last summer to look into issues in charitable gaming, which has expanded from bingo halls to include slots-like gambling machines and poker games. Some of the gambling proceeds have to be set aside for charity. But lawmakers fear the industry has strayed too far from its roots, arguing it’s now hard to distinguish legitimate charities from enterprises built mainly for gambling.
The Virginia Mercury reported last year on the dual roles of Lessin, the longtime operator of a charitable bingo hall and sports bar in Richmond. While drafting the regulations, Lessin clashed with state regulators he worked with at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, urging the agency to make poker licenses available as soon as possible. When the General Assembly instructed the agency to freeze the rollout of charitable poker, Lessin opened his poker room without a license from the state.
In a statement Wednesday, Lessin denounced the legislators’ call for his removal as an “arbitrary attack” connected to the “corrupting influence” of the for-profit gambling industry’s donations to General Assembly members.
“The conflict of interest argument is nonsense,” Lessin said. “Every industry board in Virginia is comprised of (and required to be comprised of) industry experts. Our board is no different. We are being purposefully and blatantly singled out.”
The Office of the Inspector General found Lessin did not properly recuse himself from drafting and voting on poker rules that would affect his own business and charitable interests. Lessin previously cast doubt on that finding, noting he disclosed his personal stake in the issue and no one from the attorney general’s office told him he had to recuse himself entirely.
Garren Shipley, a spokesman for Gilbert, said the House speaker “has received the letter and looks forward to meeting with the authors to learn about their concerns.”
The lawmakers who authored the letter have sponsored several bills to tighten oversight of the charitable gaming industry. Their proposals would allow fines ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 for anyone conducting charitable gaming without the proper permits, prohibit charitable poker operators from hosting open-ended cash games or hiring for-profit outfits to run their tournaments, strip the Charitable Gaming Board of some of its policy-making power and throw out the poker regulations the board approved last year. Another bill would put new limits on where charitable organizations can install electronic games that resemble slot machines.
The charitable gaming industry, the first type of legalized gambling allowed in Virginia, has been trying to protect itself after the state opened the door to casinos, sports betting and horse-racing themed slots parlors.
The larger decision before the General Assembly, Krizek said, is how far should gambling be allowed to spread.
“Do we want us to be kind of a Wild West, Deadwood-like scenario where we’ve got casinos on every corner, poker parlors, bingo halls, slot machines everywhere?,” Krizek said. “Or do we want to have what we’ve really been working toward… a handful of very big casinos that are destination locations.”
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