Veterans Day brought an unpleasant surprise for Delaware veterans’ organizations: they were informed they have been breaking the law for years by allowing members to play slot machines on their premises.
Delaware State Police Col. Robert Coupe sent a letter to numerous veterans' associations throughout the state, advising them to remove gambling devices or face the consequences of breaking the law.
“A gambling device includes any machine into which a coin or token is inserted and, depending on the elements of chance, something of value may be dispensed,” the letter states. “It is not necessary that the value be cash.” Many slot machines award players dinner tickets or other tokens that can be exchanged for a prize.
In the letter, Coupe warned any establishment that permits illegal gambling could face revocation of its liquor license and confiscation of the devices.
Slot machines are a primary source of income popular with several veterans organizations. Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said he does not know why all of the sudden the machines have become an issue.
Schwartzkopf said he was told spouses of veterans’ association members filed complaints, seeking to get rid of the machines.
Some posts might have to close their doors two to three days a week to make up for the loss of revenue, Schwartzkopf said. “These organizations do a lot of good,” he said. “These guys are not running around trying to get rich.”
He said he wants police to hold off on enforcing the law until the Legislature goes back in session in January. “Put it on hold. It’s been on hold for years,” he said. “This is downright devastating to these veterans’ organizations.”
Beth McGinn, an active member of the American Legion, said she also heard some spouses had complained about the machines. She said slot machines in both Post 28 and the Lewes American Legion have been turned off. She said machines in AmVets Post 2 in Long Neck had been removed as of Nov. 14.
McGinn said the machines have been a source of income for veterans’ organizations for at least 11 years. “They’ve been there since I’ve been there,” she said. “I don’t know why they’re illegal all of the sudden.”
McGinn said she is concerned about how the enforcement will affect the ability of smaller posts to stay open and continue to operate programs that assist veterans financially. “This is really going to hurt the organizations that do so much for the veterans and the military,” she said.
McGinn said she was not sure how much revenue came from the machines each year, but she said it was a primary source of the posts' income.
“Besides membership dues and special events, these veterans organizations rely on this income stream to support their programs for our veterans and military. More and more members are contacting the Legion for help in this economy,” McGinn said.
Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Lewis D. Schiliro said in a Nov. 13 statement the letter was sent to several organizations after the department received complaints from citizens who said certain venues in the state had slot machines.
Schiliro did not identify who had sent the complaints.
“In response to those complaints and subsequent on-site visits by law enforcement, the Attorney General's Office was consulted and advised that under the current law most of the machines were clearly illegal,” Schiliro said.
He said the department decided to send a letter to the venues advising them of the issue, rather than take immediate enforcement action.
“While we fully recognize that some of the locations have very important charitable purposes, the nature, payout and regulation of these gambling devices creates an enforcement issue,” Schiliro said.
He also said the gambling devices could be coming from unregulated, out-of-state venues. “In order to provide appropriate controls and safeguards to regulate gaming devices coming into the State of Delaware, this may very well be an appropriate topic for legislative debate," Schiliro said.
Schwartzkopf, who served as majority leader in the 146th General Assembly, said he plans to run for speaker of the house in January. If elected, he said, he plans to hold a hearing to allow all parties involved to testify on the issue. “Let’s hear both sides of this thing,” he said.
Schwartzkopf said he, Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, and Gov. Jack Markell did not know about the letter until it was issued. Schwartzkopf said an officer at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Rehoboth Beach notified him and officials at American Legion Post 28 in Oak Orchard notified Atkins.
Schwartzkopf said gambling laws exist, and they must be enforced or modified. “I’m leaning toward modifying the law to protect veterans,” he said.
Most posts do not own the slot machines, instead leasing them from a vendor. Schwartzkopf said he heard one out-of-state vendors was not licensed to do business in Delaware and he heard of another vendor who was taking a percentage of the profits from the machines, which Schwartzkopf said is illegal.
Schwartzkopf said he would like to see a gambling exemption for veterans’ organizations that might include limiting the number of machines per venue, regulating vendors who provide the machines or forcing posts to pay taxes on the machines.
“I think it has to change. I think there has to be some regulations,” he said. “I truly believe we can work something out that’d be beneficial to all.”
Until the Legislature is back in session, Schwartzkopf said, he urges veterans’ organizations to be patient. “I know they want something done today,” he said. “It’s going to take time.”
He also urged police to postpone cracking down on the organizations. “It’s hard to tell a law enforcement agency, ‘Don’t enforce the law,’” Schwartzkopf said. “I don’t see why they can’t ignore it for a few more months.”