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Richland County sheriff cracks down on sweepstakes in Eastover
[February 01, 2013]

Richland County sheriff cracks down on sweepstakes in Eastover

Feb 01, 2013 (The State (Columbia - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- RICHLAND COUNTY, S.C. -- An bar owner learned the hard way Thursday night that Sheriff Leon Lott meant what he said when he ordered video gambling machines out of the county.

Sheriff's deputies found four Magic Minutes video games inside the Climax Club, a small pool hall and bar, during a four-hour crime sweep in the rural southern part of Richland County.

The club's owner, 36-year-old Arthur Frank Montgomery, was charged with operating a gaming house and taken to Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. Deputies hauled the machines out of the bar and will go before a magistrate judge later this month to argue that the machines are illegal.

Last month, Lott warned to bar owners, restaurants and convenience stores that they needed to remove all internet sweepstakes and video poker machines from their establishments. He gave them a deadline and said his deputies would begin random checks of businesses. The deputies were ordered to confiscate all machines and arrest anyone who operated them or played them.

Since Jan. 21, deputies have visited 26 locations and seized 18 machines, including those taken Thursday night in Eastover.

As a deputy put handcuffs on Montgomery, he told the bar owner, "You were given a warning. You had time to get them out of here." Thursday night's raid at Climax was part of a larger law enforcement sweep in Eastover. Lt. Frieda Wyatt with the sheriff's fugitive task force said the department has received continued complaints about criminal activity in Eastover.

Dozens of deputies rolled into the town of around 1,000 people about 9 p.m. Thursday to set up traffic checkpoints, search for men and women wanted for crimes, and to look for drugs and gambling machines. Twelve people were arrested.

"This is probably the most police that have been out here in a long time," Wyatt said.

Climax was the only club where machines were found. Other clubs either had gotten rid of their machines or had closed for the night. Wyatt suspected word quickly spread throughout Lower Richland that the sheriff's department was out in force and some businesses that had the machines closed early.

At Climax, no one was playing the Magic Minutes machines, but their flashing screens advertised new games. Each machine had a sticker on the front with an American flag and the sentence, "This is not a gambling device." The Magic Minutes machines advertise that they sell phone minutes. For example, $5 gets a customer 75 minutes worth of long-distance calls. In exchange for buying phone minutes, customers get to play poker, slots and keno for a chance to win prizes, usually cash.

The machines issue a receipt with a toll-free number and a code that is supposed to allow the long-distance calls. Cpl. Raul Ortiz of the sheriff's community action team called the toll-free number only to hear a recording that said, "Your account has been blocked." Lt. Rafael Gonzalez said the receipt would be logged into evidence to show the phone minutes business is a front for gambling.

But Josh Kendrick, an attorney for the Magic Minutes company, said Friday morningthe sheriff's department is out of line for confiscating his client's machines.

Last week, Richland County Magistrate Michael Davis ruled that Magic Minutes meets the sweepstakes gaming exception under South Carolina law, Kendrick said.

"He's the one who interprets the law, not the sheriff's department," Kendrick said of Davis' decision. "I'm disappointed the sheriff's department has taken the law into its own hands." A provision in the state's gaming law says sweepstakes games are legal in places where alcohol is sold. But Attorney General Alan Wilson and State Law Enforcement Chief Mark Keel have said the sweepstakes video games are illegal. The state Legislature is considering a bill that would close the sweepstakes loophole.

Richland County deputies also on Thursday arrested a man who was carrying a ledger listing monthly gambling payments from machines, but he would not tell them where the machines were. They obtained permission to search his home but did not find any video poker machines.

Gonzalez said deputies would be back to Eastover to figure out who had the machines and where they were.

"It's like a game of cat and mouse," he said. "They know we're hot and heavy to get these poker machines." Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

___ (c)2013 The State (Columbia, S.C.) Visit The State (Columbia, S.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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