Bingo: Harmless Entertainment or Illegal Gambling?

Bingo: Harmless Entertainment or Illegal Gambling?

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Jill Atwood reportingA lot of people enjoy a good game of bingo. But while bingo parlors thrive in some communities in Utah, others have been shut down for promoting illegal gambling.

So, why haven't their numbers come up?

You walk into Southgate Dinner and Bingo on say a Wednesday night. You pay 22 bucks for a sandwich and some soggy fries. Are you really paying for the dinner or the chance to double that 22 dollars?

Is it innocent fun, or outright gambling? You be the judge.

Southgate Social Club on a Wednesday night. Twenty-two dollars gets you a no frills buffet and a bingo card.

The biggest pot tonight is worth about 500 bucks.

Aside from traditional paper bingo, there are also fast action bingo machines, similar to what you might find in Las Vegas.

How do you play? Well, just walk up and say you want to play.

Terry Marcus/ Bingo Player: "You go in there and you pay for so many cards that they put into it. It's all computerized."

On the receipt it says we have some popcorn coming, but we never saw or were offered any popcorn.

West Valley City's chief prosecutor Ryan Robinson says it's obvious to anyone who walks in that people aren't there to eat.

Ryan Robinson/ West Valley Chief Prosecutor: "They go there to play bingo. They go there to try to win some money and the food is incidental to that."

Two months ago, after an extensive undercover investigation, his city shut down Annie's Dinner and Bingo. Twenty-two fast action machines were confiscated, and three people are facing multiple charges for organized gambling.

So what's the difference between Annies and Southgate? Apparently, only their locations.

Southgate is in Salt Lake County, and deputies there say bingo doesn't bother them, and to their knowledge no gambling is going on. The fast action machines inside were news to them.

Rosie Rivera/ Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office: "We only have one bingo parlor in our jurisdiction and we don't have any complaints on it. We are not going to go out there and fix something that is not broken."

The man who decides what might be legal or not in Salt Lake County sees it differently.

David Yocom/ Salt Lake County District Attorney: "Obviously some of that money is going for the chance to win something. So in my view of the law, this is in fact gambling."

Yocum says this is obviously one law the county sheriff chooses not to enforce.

"Their vice money, due to limited budgets and personnel, goes to enforcing the liquor laws and prostitution laws, and that is where they put their emphasis."

He also says the county may be avoiding a public relations nightmare -- if you bring down one form of gambling you have to bring them all down, including charitable bingo. Either that or change the way Utah law is written.

David Yocom/ Salt Lake County District Attorney: "If you're selling raffle tickets at your fundraiser you are just as guilty as the person running the bing parlor."

Reporter: "Did you know that you were pretty much paying for bingo rather than dinner?"

Lori: "Oh yeah, we knew it was. But we felt like there are churches and other organizations that have this sort of thing. We just didn't feel like it was anything that was hurting anything. Everyone was enjoying themselves."

Meantime, you can play bingo in one part of the county but not another.

In some places, it's seen as harmless entertainment -- in others, not so harmless.

"There is no question that there are people among their client base that are spending income that they can't afford."

The owner of Southgate says what they are doing here is not illegal. He's been doing it for years, and had to defend his business in the past.

He says people can play for free, although he admits not many people do.

And it turns out the county may be taking a closer look. After we contacted them last week, some vice squad cops suddenly showed up here to make sure things are on the up and up.

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