RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A push to crack down on corruption in charitable gaming is coming to a head in the General Assembly. A bipartisan group is pushing for reform and new leadership of an embroiled regulatory board.
In a letter sent on Monday, Jan 24., members of the Joint Subcommittee on Charitable Gaming asked House Speaker Todd Gilbert to take immediate action to clean up Virginia’s Charitable Gaming Board by replacing members he has the power to appoint. The letter, signed by Senator Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), Senator John Bell (D-Loudoun), Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Delegate Paul Krizek (D-Fairfax), cited financial conflict of interest violations by members of the Board.
“Today we have a lot of division politically but I want to make this point clear because it’s a powerful one: We have absolutely no division on this,” Senator Bell said during a Monday morning press conference. “Frankly, many of the things we discovered are disturbing. We have a problem in charitable gaming today in Virginia.”
Speaker Gilbert took no immediate action on Monday but a spokesperson said he looks forward to speaking with legislators about their concerns.
“There’s no better way of putting it than to say we’ve lost faith in those who are currently leading this body and we need a change,” Bell said.
At the center of controversy is Chuck Lessin, the founder and president of “The Jerusalem Connection,” who also serves as chairman of Virginia’s Charitable Gaming Board.
A recent report from the Office of the State Inspector General found Lessin failed to properly recuse himself from crafting regulations for charitable Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournaments that he stood to benefit from. The report found, while there are positives to having an experienced Board with industry knowledge, the failure of members to recuse themselves in accordance with state law and their bylaws damages the integrity of charitable gaming oversight.
In a statement on Monday, Lessin called the letter from legislators an “arbitrary attack” and denied any wrongdoing. He accused lawmakers of unfairly targeting the Board due to the “corrupting influence” of for-profit gaming in Virginia.
Lessin echoed those comments in a one-on-one interview before the 2022 session.
“I am saddened by the perception but I feel very confident that I acted like all other Board members in the state,” Lessin said when asked to respond to OSIG’s findings.
Lessin said he consulted with his private counsel and the Attorney General’s Office about his financial interest. He disclosed his conflict but that didn’t stop him from playing a key role in the regulatory process.
“I don’t think you would want, in my case, Board members to recuse themselves. We are active and involved in the industry and there was nothing in the regs or in the statute for that matter that benefited directly me. It was an entire industry that would benefit from it,” Lessin said.
However, the OSIG report argued that the Virginia Racing Commission and the Virginia Lottery–the two other state agencies responsible for gambling oversight– don’t allow members to have direct or indirect financial interests.
Despite a legislative effort to temporarily stop charitable poker from moving forward, Lessin is already playing games at his Richmond sports bar without a permit, now enabled by a recently won lawsuit.
The push to pump the breaks followed concerns that the Board’s regulatory standards, which remain unapproved, were too lax and could’ve paved the way for corruption by making it more difficult to track profits.
“The fact of the matter is that oversight has been weakened by the General Assembly, not by regulations,” Lessin said. “There is nothing in the regs that would make it harder to track. I’ll tell you what makes it harder to track, when you don’t have proper enforcement.”
In the 2022 session, lawmakers are proposing six bills that aim to crack down on charitable gaming. They include efforts to enhance enforcement and increase penalties for violators. Another bill would set stricter limits on where certain electronic machines can be located as lawmakers describe a “mass proliferation of illegal games” in bars and restaurants.
Lawmakers also want to strip the Charitable Gaming Board of its regulatory authority, instead allowing them to serve in an advisory role only to prevent conflicts of interest.
Lessin accused certain lawmakers of trying to shrink charitable gaming to benefit the budding casino industry, as well as other for-profit gaming sectors.
“I think the Charitable Gaming Board has been mistreated in a really big way and I think that all of that falls at the feet of big money coming in and influencing the legislators to try to shut down what the charities have had for decades,” Lessin said.
Senator Bell called Lessin’s criticism “ridiculous” and “a distraction.”
“We don’t want to do any harm to the many great charities out there,” Bell said. “Matter of fact, we want to protect them and want to make sure the bad actors aren’t taking away from the good that they’re doing.