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Gaming violations alleged - UPDATE

June 07, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

CLEAR SPRING - The Washington County Gaming Office and Maryland State Police are investigating alleged "minor to serious" violations of bingo and tip jar operations at Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Co., according to the Gaming Office.

An investigation is not yet finished but charges related to the gaming infractions are possible, according to Jim Hovis, director of the Washington County Gaming Office.

"... Given the seriousness of these violations it is not out of the question that charges will be forthcoming," Hovis wrote in a May 23 letter to Ronald Poole and Robert Downs, officials with the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Co.

A member of the fire company provided a copy of the letter to The Herald-Mail and Hovis confirmed Monday that an investigation was launched several months ago.

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The allegations relate only to the fire company's bingo and tip jar activities, not its firefighting or rescue operations. Firefighting operations and bingo and tip jar operations occur in separate buildings.

Poole, 68, president of the fire department, said he is aware of the problems and that they are being corrected.

"We definitely want to get it resolved, and we will get it resolved," Poole said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"Steps are being taken to correct the problems," he said. "Right now, I can't (reveal what steps are being taken.)"

Neither Hovis nor Poole would discuss the exact nature of the violations.

"While an investigation's ongoing, we just can't get into the details of it," Hovis said.

In the letter to the fire department Hovis characterized the violations as ranging from "minor to serious infractions."

He alleged in the letter that members of the department have been compensated to operate bingo games and tip jars, a violation of state law.

In the letter, Hovis wrote that detailed records of the receipts from gaming activities are not kept, "which creates a huge problem."

Operating errors and violations also exist, Hovis wrote.

No decision regarding any possible penalties has been made. Once the investigation is complete, its findings will be made public, Hovis said.

In the letter, Hovis wrote: "Rest assured that this office understands the vital role your department plays in the community. I will do everything possible to preserve your departments (sic) standing in that community. However, this office is charged with preserving the integrity of Washington County gaming and must take into consideration the best interest of the County when making determinations."

Initial complaint filed months ago



Several years' worth of the fire department's financial records were examined when an investigation was launched Feb. 22. The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed with the Gaming Office on Nov. 15, 2005, Hovis said.

An audit is being conducted by accountants with the firm of Smith Elliott Kearns & Co., and Hovis said a copy of the audit could be received this week.

The investigation is being conducted by the Washington County Gaming Office, said Hovis, a former Maryland State Police investigator. He retired from the State Police in April 2004 after working as an investigator for about five years.

When asked whether an investigation of this magnitude had ever been conducted by his office, Hovis said, "Not since I've been here."

The Gaming Office still needs to interview witnesses but Hovis said the investigation could be finished by the middle of this month. After that, he said, appropriate reports would need to be filed and the Gaming Office's attorney might need to be contacted to review the case.

Maryland State Police Investigator Mike Kretzer said his office is working with the Gaming Office on the matter. He said that he is awaiting the results of the Gaming Office's investigation and that the State Police is "not really aggressive(ly)" involved at this time.

"Really it's just kind of a wait-and-see situation," he said.

Kretzer emphasized more than once that the fire department has "a lot of good-working and hard-working folks," but added that that fact would not cause the State Police to ignore any potential unlawful activity.

"I'm not sure any specific criminal activity is involved," Kretzer said.

Hovis said that to his knowledge the Internal Revenue Service is not involved in the investigation.

Bingo revenue unknown to president



According to the Gaming Office's annual tip jar report for fiscal year 2005, Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Co. had 2,420 tip jars during those 12 months - twice as many as any other fire company.

The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway had 1,204 jars; all other fire companies in the county had less than 1,000 jars.

That same Gaming Office report indicated that Clear Spring reported its total jar sales to be $1,358,168 and its net proceeds to be $336,415 for fiscal year 2005.

In comparison, the fire company in Halfway - with half as many tip jars as Clear Spring - reported total jar sales at $2,051,193 and net jar proceeds of $504,832.

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