June 28, 2016

Mostly clear

Petitions postpone ban on Internet cafes

COLUMBUS — Opponents of an Ohio law that effectively bans storefront sweepstakes parlors have submitted enough signatures to block the law from taking effect today.

The signatures still have to be verified by local elections boards. But the petitions, from the Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs, will keep the law from kicking in, at least temporarily, while the signatures are checked.

The group filed almost 434,000 signatures in its effort to put the measure to a repeal vote next year, according to Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office. The committee needs more than 231,000 valid signatures to place a referendum on the November 2014 ballot.

If the committee reaches the required number of signatures, enforcement of the law is suspended until voters have a say as to whether it should be tossed out. In the 14-month interim, so-called Internet cafes could operate in the state.

“Hopefully this petition will be a good thing for the campaign,” said Steve Csach, owner of the Lucky Penny internet cafe in Brunswick.

Csach said that he’s following the developments carefully, but said he’s been asked to refer all questions about the petitions to the Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs.

Committee spokesman Matt Dole said the group is confident the petitions met the state’s rules, although it’s prepared to gather additional signatures if necessary.

Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling, which is backed by casinos, urged county boards on Tuesday to carefully scrutinize the signatures. The group has claimed that signature gatherers have misrepresented the referendum’s purpose.

“We also ask individuals who may have signed these petitions under false pretenses to contact their local county board of elections and have their names removed,” group spokesman Carlo LoParo said in a written statement.

Husted has directed county elections boards to finish validating signatures by Sept. 20.

A count by the Ohio attorney general’s office found that more than 620 Internet cafes are in operation across the state — including 10 in Medina County — representing growing competition to legalized casinos and games held for charity.

At the storefronts, patrons buy cards for phone and Internet time with chances to play computer games that operate like slot machines with cash prizes.

The opposition group wants legislators to pass a new law that regulates the industry and shuts down what it calls rogue operators.

Storeowner Robert Dabish runs more than 20 cafes across the state, including locations in Toledo, Findlay and Columbus. He said he welcomes regulation of his business, not a policy that he says would cost the state jobs. He employs more than 160 people.

“If this industry were to close, they’re going to be gone,” Dabish told reporters at the secretary of state’s office. “They’re going to be on the streets.”

Backers of the measure say the parlors harbor illegal gambling. They caution that no single law enforcement agency has authority to investigate or pursue criminal charges statewide for any illegal activity at the cafes, which they say leaves the industry open to money laundering and other crimes.

In June, state and local law enforcement officials raided two Internet cafes in Medina County and seized 47 cash-operated slot machines.

The businesses raided were Cyber City, 2696 Medina Road, Sharon Township, and Cyber 777’s, 1733 Pearl Road, Brunswick.

Attorney General Mike DeWine was present for the raid on the Sharon Township cafe.

“There’s no pretense that it’s some Internet cafe. There’s no pretense about buying Internet time,” DeWine said at the news conference held after the raid. “It’s just ‘come on in and gamble.’ ”

The owner of both cafes, Adam Syed, 30, of Fairlawn, was indicted by a county grand jury June 10 on 12 counts of operating a casino gaming operation and eight counts of possessing criminal tools — the slot machines. Both charges are fifth-degree felonies punishable by up to a year in prison.

The indictments also ask for the forfeiture of Syed’s property, including more than $246,000 in cash seized from the two cafes and a vending business he operated at 1180 Triplett Blvd., Akron, and his home, 3681 Torrey Pines Drive, Fairlawn; the contents of two bank accounts; the slot machines and other equipment and furnishing from the cafes; a 1998 Ford box truck; a 2003 Ford Explorer; and two Suzuki motorcycles.

Syed, who was arrested June 5 — the day after the raids — was released from the Medina County Jail after posting a $250,000, 10 percent bond.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Sept. 13 before Common Pleas Judge James L. Kimbler.

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