LIMA — To state Rep. Matt Huffman, Ohio House Bill 7 is more than just about regulating Internet cafés; it is about shutting them down.
“Regulation is really not the question,” the Republican from Lima said. “The overarching question is do we want to legalize this form of gambling across Ohio — for-profit gambling. I don’t think we want to be like Nevada.”
Huffman is the author of the legislation that effectively takes sweepstakes café owners out of the gambling business. His bill requires café owners to register with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and bans them from giving prizes greater than $10 in value. It also authorizes the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the cafés for any rule violations.
Huffman authored a similar bill last year, which cleared the House but died in the upper chamber when former Senate president Tom Niehaus unexplainably failed to move it forward. Huffman again looks for it to clear the House this year. He is hoping the Senate cause will be bolstered by the growing support from law enforcement, business, labor, public advocacy and charitable organizations.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says the bill cannot move through the Legislature fast enough. He is already worried about the foothold that he said he believes organized crime has gained. DeWine contends the lack of regulation allows the state’s 820 registered cafés to make huge profits because they have the freedom to fleece vulnerable Ohioans, many whom are senior citizens.
“We don’t have any power. Local law enforcement doesn’t have any power,” DeWine told the legislators of the House Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee. “You give us the power, we’ll deal with it.”
One Ohio mayor who supports the Internet cafés is G. David Gillock, of North Ridgeville, a community of 30,000 about 25 miles southwest of Cleveland. He argues the Internet cafés are providing the city with revenue and jobs as well as filling buildings that once stood vacant.
Gillock told the Columbus Dispatch that the city imposed regulations of its own on the six cafés operating in the community. That has resulted in $110,000 of revenue in two years. The businesses pay the city an annual $5,000 registration fee plus $30 a month for each computer used for gaming.
Huffman doesn’t buy it.
“There are a whole variety of activities you can make legal to create jobs and create revenue,” Huffman said. “You can legalize marijuana and prostitution and you’ll see an influx of jobs and money in Ohio for sure. I just don’t think that’s the panacea to every question.”
Both the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association and the Fraternal Order of Police back Huffman’s position.
“We believe that many of these cafés are a front for all types of illegal activity from prostitution, money laundering, fraud and human trafficking,” said a statement issued by Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association.
Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio President Jay McDonald concurred.
“Internet cafés are at best illegal gambling operations, and at worst, fronts for other more serious criminal activity," McDonald said. "Evidence that cafés support organized crime can be seen by ... tracing proceeds to accounts at foreign banks in Ukraine.”
Huffman, who did not support the building of four casinos in Ohio, also cited the social ills that result from gambling addictions, noting the state ends up paying for part of those costs in some way.
“The bottom line, however, continues to be the question: Do we want to allow for-profit gambling businesses to set up anywhere in Ohio,” Huffman said. “Do we really want to be the next Nevada?”