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Poker operator stops games

Gambling at old Raynham track under scrutiny

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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Raynham Park, the former dog track, shut down its legally questionable poker room yesterday amid an inquiry by Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Conor Yunits, a spokesman for Raynham, said the casino-like venue, which has 28 tables for poker, blackjack, and roulette and has single pots worth more than $1,000, did not open as scheduled yesterday afternoon.

Coakley’s office confirmed that she did not force the closure.

“We had been speaking with them to get an understanding of their practices,’’ said spokesman Corey Welford. “We did not ask them to suspend operations. They’ve done that voluntarily, and we’ll continue to have discussions with them.’’

Poker room operator Gerald Venezia, of JRM Charitable Gaming, met yesterday with Coakley’s office and is trying to clarify whether he can operate legally under the state’s charitable gambling statute, despite several areas in which he appears to be in conflict with it.

In the interim, track owner George Carney does not want to risk breaking the law, Yunits said. At least one state legislator has warned that Carney, by allowing the poker room at his former dog track, could jeopardize his right to run a legal casino should lawmakers vote to allow them in the future.

“There obviously are some places where the operator might be out of sync with the law,’’ Yunits said. “And the track does not want to run afoul of the attorney general’s office, and decided to halt the gaming, or close down the charitable gaming, until the attorney general’s office clarifies if and how JRM can operate charitable gaming.’’

The Raynham room, opened in January, is one of several in Massachusetts that takes advantage of a state law that allows charities to run poker tournaments three times a year.

Other poker rooms running similar operations have not shut down.

Until yesterday, JRM signed up a rotating group of local charities, including sports teams and social clubs, to act as official hosts for the poker room each day it is open. It paid the groups 25 percent of its revenues.

Venezia has estimated that the room, which recently expanded to four nights per week, would generate between $2 million and $2.8 million in revenue by the end of the year.

But the poker room’s cash payouts are above the $25 limit permitted under the law. The statute also says that only members of the charity can participate in operating a casino night, that those members cannot be paid, and that all the money earned from gambling must go to charity.

JRM is a for-profit company that operates with about 60 paid employees and stands to make hundreds of thousands of dollars or more from the operation.

Venezia said he and Carney decided to shut down the poker room at 1:50 p.m. yesterday, about 70 minutes before it was scheduled to open.

That decision came immediately after his most recent meeting with an attorney from Coakley’s office, who told him the office had concerns about whether he was complying with the statute, Venezia said.

“It’s a literal reading of the statute, because there’s really no case law to define it,’’ he said.

Venezia said he takes a more expansive interpretation of the law. He believes, for example, that a charity can designate an operator to run the poker room, given that charities are already allowed to pay outsiders to rent poker equipment.

“We’re not going to throw in the towel,’’ Venezia said. “We’re going to continue having discussions with them and determine if we can come to some kind of middle ground.’’

He said the track posted signs at the entrance yesterday informing players that poker was shut down.

Venezia said he also notified two Brockton charities that had signed up as official sponsors. Still, he said, about 15 or 20 people parked their cars and had to be turned away from the poker room in person, he said.

Tim Cyr, a 40-year-old salesman from Plymouth, said he was disappointed when he arrived in the afternoon.

“They turned me away when I got there,’’ he said. “There was an old lady who told me, ‘You’ve got to read the sign.’ ’’

Cyr said he was not surprised, given the competition the room was creating for resort-style casinos in Connecticut.

“I was just thinking it’s got to be a matter of time before this collapses and snaps,’’ he said.

Yunits emphasized that Raynham Park was not running the poker room, it was just renting its facility to Venezia.

“Raynham is hosting these games like a local church or conference center would,’’ he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.