Arundel officials loath to ban bingo halls despite U.S. charges


ANNAPOLIS -- Despite allegations in a federal grand jury indictment linking three of Anne Arundel County's seven commercial bingo parlors to organized crime, county officials said yesterday that they are not prepared to outlaw the popular gaming halls.

"We have some old-line families and clean operations," said Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer. "I'd hate to destroy them because some crooks got involved with some of the others."

The 30-page indictment released Friday by federal prosecutors alleges that Bingo World in Brooklyn Park has been used to launder cash collected from gambling, loan-sharking, and interstate thefts operation in Illinois and Florida.

Six out-of-state residents were indicted by the grand jury on conspiracy, money laundering and racketeering charges. The defendants, Dominic Peter "Large" Cortina, Donald John Angelini, Sam Frank Urbana, Ettore "Eddie" Coco, Izaak "Red" Silber and Angelo "Gus" King, are scheduled to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Baltimore Thursday.

Bingo World's principal owner, Stephen B. Paskind, was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. The 50-year-old Florida resident also holds licenses for two other Anne Arundel County bingo halls, neither of which is currently operating.

The indictment claims that, among other things, the accused men provided Mr. Paskind with more than $1 million in cash and, when a competing bingo hall in Gambrills was about to reopen, arranged to have an individual -- identified only as "Tommy" -- set fire to it.

Mr. Paskind, who pleaded guilty to gambling-related charges in Florida nearly a decade ago, was denied a renewal of his license to operate a bingo hall last year on grounds that he did not possess "good moral character." Three months ago, the county appeals board upheld the decision and the matter is pending in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.

Bingo World officials have declined to comment on the allegations.

Anne Arundel County is reputed to be the only jurisdiction in the nation, aside from Indian reservations, with legalized commercial bingo. While the County Council has the authority to ban the bingo halls, members admit they will be reluctant to take that option.

"Certainly we need to look at this. We need to make sure they're operating properly," said Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus, D-1st, the Democratic nominee for county executive. But "it hasn't been much of a problem in the past."

Council Chairwoman Virginia P. Clagett, D-7th, said, "Just because one of them has problems doesn't mean we should shut them all down."

In fact, county residents have rarely complained about the popular bingo halls, which attract customers from several states, officials noted. Nor does there appear to be much widespread moral outrage against gambling in a county that condoned slot machines until the mid-1960s.

"If anything, we get lots of letters when we clamp down on them," said Mr. Lighthizer, who advocates "phasing them out" over time.

Police and federal prosecutors claim that bingo halls, with their large cash proceeds, are an ideal target for money-laundering schemes, however.

The bingo halls are licensed each year by the county's Department of Inspections and Permits, an agency primarily responsible for regulating new construction.

"It's easy to hide money," said Lt. James "Hank" Snow, commander of the Anne Arundel Police Department's vice intelligence unit. "Investigating them takes a lot of time and a lot of effort."

Said Gregg L. Bernstein, an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the government's case: "Bingo parlors are very fertile ground to launder proceeds from ill-gotten gains."

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