The Internal Revenue Service has revoked the tax-exempt status of a Baltimore County charity -- headed by women in their 70s and 80s -- for having a paid employee at bingo games.
"I'm really shaken by all this," said Ann Leviton, 77, treasurer of Hilltop Guild Inc., a philanthropic group for more than four decades.
Over the years, the group's members included some of the elite of Northwest Baltimore and Pikesville. They sought donations for children's groups and hospitals, did charity telethons and bought equipment for the needy.
But the IRS imposed financial penalties and accepted Hilltop's voluntary relinquishment of its tax-exempt status, after an investigation of its Dundalk bingo games.
Sam Serio, spokesman for the IRS office in Baltimore, said yesterday the investigation started because "charities can't have a paid employee."
"They must be volunteers," Mr. Serio said. "Whoever ran the bingo games representing the charity was paid." He would not discuss details of the investigation.
A two-paragraph IRS news release distributed yesterday said Hilltop operated bingo games at Merritt Point Bingo Hall in the 1600 block of Merritt Blvd.
"I gave the government all the money we had in the bank," Mrs. Leviton said, adding that Hilltop's other corporate officers are senior citizens, and all live in Owings Mills. The IRS penalties and interest amounted to "thousands," she said.
She was not certain of the group's future and would not say whether the IRS action means an end to its work.
"When the IRS investigator walked in and saw us, she said 'Is this what I'm investigating?' " Mrs. Leviton said.
A spokeswoman for the hall -- who would not give her name -- said it is open every day, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. "It's a walk-in, you can play a card anytime right off the street," she said.
Patricia Wilson, the hall manager, could not be reached for comment.
The Hilltop group operated the bingo games in the name of several charities but did not participate in running the games, the IRS said. A caller was employed by the hall while working games for the charity.
Eugene A. Freeman, chief of county permits and licenses, said yesterday that some organizations, such as churches and fire halls, have facilities in which they can operate bingo games for charitable causes. Other groups use halls such as Merritt.
Among such groups are Children With Special Disabilities and the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center Inc.
There are 116 groups with licenses to operate bingo games in the county this year, Mr. Freeman said.
Hilltop is not among that number, he added, noting that the group's bingo license expired in 1992.