Originally published 15 February 2002
in Sacramento Bee
It sounds like one of those obscure little issues only insiders notice.
a so-called bingo reform bill that stalled in the California Legislature
last spring under fierce opposition has been revived with an unlikely coalition
of supporters that includes Muslims, the Arab-American Anti-Defamation League,
dozens of Los Angeles rabbis, Jewish activists, Latinos, veterans groups,
priests in the Catholic Church and a number of small charities.
issue even has implications as far away as the Middle East. It's also ensnared
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer in one of his most controversial
and eagerly awaited decisions since taking office four years ago.
is $300 to $400 million a year in cash flowing through the bingo operators
in this state and it begs for aggressive oversight," said state Sen. Richard
Polanco, D-Los Angeles, sponsor of the so-called bingo reform bill.
"We have found a lot of abuse. There have been wholesale violations of the intent of the law."
of the scrutiny -- and most of Polanco's original bill -- has been aimed
at a handful of very large bingo operators in general and a 73-year-old Jewish
millionaire by the name of Irving Moskowitz in particular.
Miami physician made a fortune in Southern California real estate and hospital
management before moving to Florida 20 years ago. He's also been a lightning
rod for Jews and Palestinians because he's put millions into Israeli causes
critics say have undermined peace efforts in the region.
For the past
decade or so, his seven-day-a-week Hawaiian Gardens bingo parlor in Los Angeles
County has generated millions of dollars for his charitable Irving I. Moskowitz
Foundation. It owns the bingo hall and gave rise to the coalition that supports
Small, charitable bingo operators say they
can't compete with operations like Hawaiian Gardens, claiming they fly in
the face of state law that requires bingo profits to be used only for truly
Some for-profit operators have even started churches
in name only so they skirt the law, Polanco and other backers of his bill
"It's pretty hard to run a small mom-and-pop bingo operation
for charity competing against something like this," Auxiliary Bishop Joseph
M. Sartoris of Los Angeles, a supporter of Polanco's bill, said in a recent
Even with the coalition's support, though, Polanco said
there was so much organized opposition to his bill when it was heard in committee
in May that he withdrew the measure. He plans to re-introduce it before the
bill-filing deadline later this month, but in a version that will "leave
out the Moskowitz issues."
State records show that Moskowitz has paid
Sacramento lobbying firms at least $67,000 to work against Polanco's bill.
Moskowitz also recently contributed $25,000 to the campaign pushing for changes
in the state's legislative term limits law.
"SB 832 (Polanco's bill)
was clearly directed at Dr. Moskowitz," said Beryl Weiner, a Los Angeles
lawyer who works and speaks for him. "Absurd things were put in that bill
that were targeted only at him."
One such provision, Weiner pointed
out, would have prohibited bingo money from being handled by security guards.
Hawaiian Gardens stands out for its extra-tight security, Weiner said, and
the provision has since been cut from Polanco's bill.
his amended bill would simply place bingo under control of the state's Gambling
Control Commission. The commission would be charged with making sure bingo
operators follow legal requirements that forbid profit and don't allow operators
to take money out for themselves.
"The law is not being followed,"
Polanco said. "That's all this is about. I am going to introduce a new bill
and see if we can't start fresh with it."
State law now allows cities
and counties to license bingo operations that are purely charitable, but
very little oversight is provided, Polanco said.
Some bingo operators
have said they oppose the idea of state involvement, though. Marty Manges,
who runs a bingo game in Sacramento two nights a week for the Casa Roble
High School boosters club, said he already pays a local license fee of about
1 percent of the game's revenues and is afraid the state just wants to collect
"I'd hate to see the state get involved in this," he said. "We
bring in about $300,000 a year for the school and I just think the state
wants to get its hands on some of that money."
Polanco's legislation did allow for a $50 state fee at one time but that's also been taken out of the bill.
bingo hall has brought in more than $25 million each of the past three years,
according to financial reports filed with state and federal agencies.
But those same charitable foundation disclosure filings show the hall pays about $19 million each year to bingo winners.
10 percent to 15 percent of the take is donated to charitable causes, including
those that support various politically conservative efforts in Israel.
The remaining funds go toward operation of the bingo parlor.
other things, Moskowitz has put foundation money as well as his own personal
funds into groups that buy Arab-owned apartments in East Jerusalem and then
lease them to Jews.
Perhaps his most notorious move was to finance
excavation in 1996 of archaeological tunnels underneath the Muslim mosque
inside the old city of Jerusalem. The action so enraged Palestinians that
it sparked immediate riots in which more than 60 Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers
"The bingo operation is a violation of state law," Kamal
Abu-Shamsieh of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles charged.
He said his group also decided to speak out on the issue because Moskowitz's
gambling operations exploit the poor people in and around the city of Hawaiian
Gardens who patronize the bingo parlor.
"It's supposed to be used
for only charitable purposes and the money's being used to have a damaging
effect on the Middle East peace process. As Muslims, we are concerned about
the issue of justice for all people."
The Muslim Public Affairs Council
and other groups, including LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens,
have also opposed Moskowitz's application for a permanent state license to
run his $11 million card room and casino next door to the bingo hall. The
profitable card room was built with Moskowitz's personal funds, as well as
local redevelopment money, his lawyer said. Foundation money wasn't used.
casino has had a provisional license for several years, and Lockyer has delayed
recommending action to state gambling regulators on a permanent license until
his staff can fully evaluate all the allegations that have been made against
Members of the anti-Moskowitz coalition have claimed he
exploits the poor and predominantly Latino residents of Hawaiian Gardens
by running two profitable gambling operations and putting very little of
the proceeds back into the community.
"This is a blot on the collective
name of the Jewish people," charged Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, founder of The
Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem.
not a guy charging a few pennies more for a carton of milk. This is a guy
ripping off an entire community and using the millions of dollars to do some
very provocative and harmful things in Israel."
lawyer, said his client no longer gives interviews, and Weiner accused Beliak
of attacking Moskowitz because he doesn't like his politics. He also said
Moskowitz has put millions into local services in the city of Hawaiian Gardens,
such as food banks and hospitals.
"Rabbi Beliak has been on a witch
hunt against Dr. Moskowitz for years," Weiner said. "This is just part of
his efforts to tar and feather Irving Moskowitz with false accusations. Rabbi
Beliak freely makes these false accusations, notwithstanding the fact he's
Most of what Moskowitz has spent in Israel or on Zionist
causes comes from his own funds, not the foundation's, Weiner said. Moskowitz's
salary -- records show he paid himself more than $300,000 one year -- comes
from his own money, not bingo receipts, Weiner said. State law prohibits
bingo games from paying wages to anyone. The games must rely exclusively
"What Rabbi Beliak fails to understand is Dr. Moskowitz
has supported Israel for 45 years or more and even if he shut down Hawaiian
Gardens, this would not make Dr. Moskowitz stop that effort."
Lockyer has been urged to recommend denial of the card room license because
Moskowitz isn't of sufficient moral character to warrant a permanent license.
Under state law, the attorney general recommends action on licenses and the
Gambling Control Commission has the final say.
In one typical letter
sent to Lockyer, a group known as the Progressive Jewish Alliance claimed
last year that a variety of allegations "cast serious doubt upon (Moskowitz's)
character, honesty and integrity."
Lockyer's failure to act on the
request "gives an unfair advantage to the applicant," Polanco said. "How
long can a provisional license be provisional before it amounts to something
According to Lockyer, it's not that simple. He's opposed
to some of what Moskowitz has done in the Middle East, but that's not reason
enough to deny him a gambling license, Lockyer said.
to find out exactly what he does do with his money in the Middle East. Some
of the claims are that he's doing some things that are illegal and some are
that he's just engaging in bad policy.
"That requires a very laborious
investigation. It's better to take the time and do it right than to hurry
and wind up getting it reversed by a court."
About the Writer
The Bee's Gary Delsohn can be reached at (916) 321-1199 or firstname.lastname@example.org