Twenty-five years ago, after California legislators gave the state's charities a monopoly on bingo, high school football teams, senior citizen centers and religious organizations got in on the act. But nobody has earned more money from so-called charity bingo than Brea businessman Donald R. Havard.
Most cities limit bingo games: one event per week that must be held at the charity itself. But some cities—Inglewood, Vacaville and Galt—are more liberal. In exchange for a percentage of the take, they've allowed bingo-hall operations seven nights a week anywhere in the city. That's where Havard moves in.
Take Inglewood's Hollywood Park Racetrack N Casino, for example. Havard holds the lease on the casino's bingo hall and rents it to the Samoan Congregational Christian Church of South Los Angeles. The church runs Samoana Bingo seven days per week and pays Havard about $1,093 per night in return. Despite raising millions of dollars each year—much of which has gone to Havard, a host of other local charities, and the city of Inglewood—the Samoan Church still hasn't built a church on the vacant lot it owns in Carson.
While Havard's bingo parlors rake in millions of dollars per year, smaller charities are struggling with fewer and fewer customers. Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom has seen its annual bingo proceeds plummet by a third—from $120,000 per year five years ago to just $80,000 last year.
Rabbi Jerry Goldstein says operators like Havard are to blame. “We operate within the intent of the law,” Goldstein said. “We are a volunteer organization and can only operate once a week. It's obvious that we face unfair competition from the major bingo games. Those games are jazzed-up. They draw their customers in with huge advertisements and glitzy distractions that we can't afford. And they're open seven days a week. I cannot imagine a legitimate charity organization that has volunteers working every day of the week. I think there should be very strong regulation of California charitable bingo in order to level the playing field.”
The one serious attempt at reform is headed for failure. Early last year, state Senator Richard Polanco (D-LA) introduced Senate Bill 832, a bill that would have put the clamps on major bingo operators like Samoana Bingo. But on April 11, 2001, Havard sent Polanco's office a six-page letter outlining his concern that the bill “would have severe negative impacts on charitable bingo.” Among other things, Havard argued against limiting the number of days per week a charity can hold bingo, limiting the amount of prize money that can be given out, or requiring charity bingo outfits to submit to annual financial audits that would help ensure proceeds actually go to charitable activities. All those provisions would have hurt Samoana Bingo and helped protect smaller operations like Temple Beth Sholom's weekly bingo game.
“We're not opposed to good regulation, but there were so many faulty elements to the bill,” Havard said. “They took out all those elements, so I wouldn't say we oppose the bill.”
In fact, opposition is no longer necessary: Polanco has pulled SB 832.
That may delight Havard, but most small charities are frustrated. “I support what Polanco tried to do with his bill,” Goldstein said. “It would have leveled the playing field. . . . The intent of making charity bingo legal in the first place was to support organizations like our synagogue, but it's been hijacked by guys who are out to make a lot of money.”
Rick Jordan, a bingo manager with Orange Unified School District's Canyon Bingo, said, “Maybe there's some other way to make these big-time bingo operators obey the law.”
A recent legal opinion by the California Legislative Counsel suggests that Havard's operation violates the 1976 law that created charity bingo. “Section 326.5 of the Penal Code prohibits a qualified charitable organization from renting space in a bingo parlor operated by a for-profit organization that provides space exclusively for bingo games,” the opinion states.
But that's just an opinion, and so far, no state agency has moved against Havard or others like him. Havard points out that while some have accused him of exploiting a legal loophole, he has always cooperated with local law enforcement. And while he admits the $1,093 per night he makes from the Samoan Church isn't going to charity, he claimed much of that money goes toward the purchase of bingo supplies.
“We are responsible for the equipment,” Havard explained. “We bought it and put it in there.”
And where did Havard's company purchase its bingo supplies? As bingo supplier Havard acknowledges, from Havard himself.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).