NANTICOKE – In a two-county crackdown, troopers and enforcement officers with the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement raided numerous area bars and taverns Wednesday evening, seizing scores of video gambling machines.
LCE officers were spotted wheeling video poker machines and other electronic gambling devices out of four bars in Nanticoke between 6 and 6:30 p.m.
Most officers involved in the operation declined comment. One officer deferred comment to Trooper Tom Kelly, public information officer for state police Troop P in Wyoming.
All that officer said he could say was that it was a "huge" operation in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties.
Kelly did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Raids on bars witnessed by Times Leader reporters include the Town Tavern on Front Street, Ruby's Inn on Espy Street, The Witch on South Market Street and American Legion Post 350 on West Broad Street, all in Nanticoke.
The owner of Ruby's Inn declined comment. The bartender at the American Legion said a Legion officer was too busy to speak with a reporter.
At the Town Tavern, John Bushko, the husband of bar owner Barbara Bushko, stood on the sidewalk watching an LCE officer wheel out four poker machines from the bar.
Bushko, the former mayor of Nanticoke, said the machines are owned by a vending company with whom his wife splits revenues generated from the machines. He couldn't recall the name of the vending company.
"The machines just make about $30 a week. The casino takes all the business," Bushko said, referring to The Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Plains Township. "Twenty years ago, they used to do really good. Now they don't."
Currently, casinos in Pennsylvania are the only establishments allowed to have permits to operate slot machines. They paid $50 million for gaming licenses that guarantee their exclusive rights until 2016.
In 2009, then Gov. Ed Rendell announced a proposal to legalize video poker machines and use the revenues they generate to offer tuition relief for students attending the state's community colleges or public universities.
Under the proposal, bars, taverns, restaurants and private clubs – establishments that have liquor licenses – would have been eligible to have up to five video poker machines.
But the bill never came up for a vote. Casino owners weren't buying Rendell's argument that the machines would be "video lottery terminals," not slot machines. They would have demanded the state reimburse them for the $50 million gaming license fees they each paid.
The prospect of a half-billion-dollar hurdle and potential legal action come as bad news to some club officials who had said they were hanging on in the hope the legislation would pass.
In the past, revenue from a handful of illegal poker machines allowed many of the 3,000 clubs statewide to offer $1 drafts and cheap food to members.
Since the state legalized slot machines, many of the clubs have been repeatedly raided, forcing many to give up their machines. Many have closed and others could follow.
Gambling cases are investigated by the State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, which will either file criminal charges against the licensee or handle the case administratively by filing an action with the Liquor Control Board.
If a case is handled administratively, an administrative law judge with the LCB will hear evidence and issue an enforcement action, such as a fine or license suspension, if the violation is proven. Money seized is subject to forfeiture regardless if criminal charges were filed.
Asked why his wife's bar pays out money to gamblers on winning spins if he knows it's illegal, Bushko said, "Everybody who owns these machines does it. It's been that way for the past 40 years."
Bushko said he doesn't intend to have any more gambling machines put in the bar and noted that the city will lose revenue.
"In Nanticoke, you pay $100 for each machine" in amusement tax, he said.
Bushko said business has been poor lately, and now the small customer draw that the machines had is gone.
"Kids go to The Woodlands (Inn & Resort in Plains Township) and pay $4 a drink. Here, they would pay $1.50 and they don't come in," Bushko said. "It's time to retire anyway."