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What are the odds?

Bills target online gambling operations
Is it an online gambling operation or a cyber-café?

That’s the question surrounding the Internet Shoppees in Amelia Bottom and the Village Square Shopping Center. Law enforcement officials have raided similar businesses in Roanoke, Virginia Beach, Pittsylvania County and Farmville, and state legislators are considering whether to explicitly outlaw such operations.

In October, Amelia’s first Internet Shoppee opened in Amelia Bottom. The proprietor, Raj Patel, took out an ad in The Amelia Monitor (Oct. 21) that said, “$1000 Cash Give Away – Sweepstakes – Play ‘Pot O Gold’!” Under the word “sweepstakes” was a graphic reminiscent of a triple-seven winning slot machine display.

However, the Internet Shoppee room itself contains no scantily-clad cocktail waitresses, no liquor of any kind, and no one-armed bandits – just a lot of computers. The ad said customers could “Mingle, Relax, Copy, Print, Fax”; a box contained a “coupon” for “$10 Internet Time 1000 points on us!!” The establishment was described in the ad and on its sign as “a Business Center.”

This month, another outlet, also called the Internet Shoppee (Patel’s spelling), opened in the Village Square Shopping Center. At the invitation of a store employee who requested anonymity, a Monitor reporter visited the business to see what it was all about.

So which is it? Gambling? Or an Internet café?

It’s still not clear, and the business’ mode of operation seems deliberately designed to encourage ambiguity.

This reporter paid $5; presented her driver’s license (no one under 21 is permitted on the premises); then logged in as instructed by the store employee. The $5 seems to have bought 600 points and 25 minutes of Internet time.

It took perhaps seven minutes to play a slot-machine-like “game” that used up all the points, during which time the amount of Internet time on the account did not seem to decrease. The “game” used up all the points but “paid” $9, which could either be used to buy more points or be redeemed for cash.

However, before a customer can play any game or access the Internet, the computer shows three screens of disclaimers and rules. The gist seems to be:

By buying “points,” the customer is actually entering a sweepstakes unconnected to the “games” onscreen.

No purchase is required to play the sweepstakes; anyone wanting to enter can write to a North Carolina address for a free entry.

Anyone can receive one free entry every 24 hours simply by requesting one at the shop.

The number of “games” you play does not affect your chances of winning the sweepstakes.

Customers do not have to play games; indeed, for as little as $1, they can access the Internet. This reporter clicked on the appropriate icon and got a Google screen. One customer in the shop was doing schoolwork on the Internet when this reporter visited, and the employee said other customers also came in to get high-speed Internet service.

Internet service “is one of the things you drop when you’re trying to save money, like cable,” the employee said. “This way, a person can come here and not have to spend a lot of money to get on the Internet.”

But is it legal?

Patel furnished The Monitor with copies of a July 30 letter from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to Del. Bill Janis (R-Glen Allen). Attorney General Cuccinelli found that no gambling was taking place at a similar business in July.

“It is my opinion that the element of consideration is missing, and therefore no illegal gambling occurs, when the opportunity to win a prize is offered both with a purchase and without the requirement of a purchase,” the attorney general’s letter stated.

Patel also gave The Monitor a copy of an Aug. 16 letter from C. Phillips Ferguson, the commonwealth’s attorney in Suffolk, to “Dear Sir or Madam.” Ferguson stated that he would “concur that Internet Café Sweepstakes Systems do not constitute illegal gambling under current state law.”

While such operations may be legal now, they might not be for long.

Seven bills before the General Assembly seem expressly aimed at the Internet café sweepstakes phenomenon. One of them – House Bill 2224 – is being sponsored by Del. Tommy Wright, who represents the 61st House District, which includes Amelia County. Attorney General Cuccinelli has announced his support for two pieces of legislation identical to Del. Wright’s bill.

“I was asked by some people in my district to introduce this legislation,” Del. Wright said. “Last year in the Shenandoah Valley, there was a problem, and we passed legislation with unintended consequences. This year we’re trying to amend the definitions to close the loophole.”

The Monitor contacted Patel earlier this month to arrange for the sort of “new business” story often seen on page 11 of the paper under the heading, “Our Neighbors.”

Patel responded that he and “the company” had done all of the marketing they intended to do. He asserted that the Internet Shoppee is a legal business and pointed to similar businesses in Blackstone, Farmville and Richmond.

* * *

Seven bills filed this session seemed aimed at Internet gambling operations. They are:
House Bill 1584, by Del. Glenn Oder (R-Newport News)
HB 1700, by Del. Clifford Athey (R-Front Royal)
HB 1863, by Del. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake)
HB 2119, by Del. Ronald Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach)
HB 2224, by Del. Tommy Wright (R-Victoria)
Senate Bill 1164, by Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds (D-Martinsville)
SB 1195, by Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg)
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has announced his support for HB 1700 and SB 1195. All of the bills currently are in committee.


Community

Garden tails

The threat of bad weather didn’t keep visitors away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden July 10 for the facility’s weekly Flowers After 5 event (which pairs music and food with a chance to stroll the garden) and its monthly Fidos After 5 (which allows dog owners to bring their pets with them to enjoy the evening). > Read more.

Western Henrico Rotary helps fund Midwives For Haiti Jeep


Thanks in part to a $10,000 gift from the Western Henrico Rotary Club, another bright pink Jeep modified to travel extremely rough terrain has been delivered to Midwives For Haiti so that more pregnant women in the quake-ravaged country will have access to prenatal care and a greater chance of surviving childbirth.

The funds were raised at the annual casino night held in February, club president Adam Cherry said. The Rotary Club also helped purchase the Virginia-based charity’s first pink jeep three years ago. > Read more.

Agencies combine on new entry point to Chickahominy


Canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts soon will have a new access point to the Chickahominy River. VDOT, the James River Association and Henrico County Parks and Recreation are teaming up to establish a new site in Eastern Henrico.

The James River Association negotiated the deal with VDOT to procure official access to the area located just east of I-295 on North Airport Road in Sandston. The site includes a park-and-ride commuter lot bordering the Chickahominy River and has been an unofficial launch site used by paddlers for years. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


Take in a show at several locations this weekend! West End Comedy will provide laughs at HATTheatre; the production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” will close Sunday; and the youth theatre company CharacterWorks will present “Footloose” at The Steward School. Another show perfect for the kids – “Despicable Me 2” is playing at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center tonight. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

Is there an Echo in here?

‘Earth to Echo’ aims to become this generation’s ‘ET’
It’s no secret that all found-footage genre movies are the same. Grab a couple of characters, give one of them a camera, and expose them to something supernatural that’s content to lurk just off-screen until the last five minutes. Everything else will just fall into place.

But that formula isn’t particularly family friendly, if only because that thing waiting a few feet to the left of the cast is usually plotting their violent doom.

That’s what sets Earth to Echo apart from the pack. It, too, follows a group of characters armed with a camera and a tendency to encounter unknown life forms. But all those familiar parts have been rearranged just enough to make it suitable for a much younger audience. > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


An eclectic array of events are taking place this weekend throughout the county. In the West End, we have the Richmond Wedding Expo, the Under the Stars Family Film Series and Henrico Theatre Company’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” In the eastern part of the county, we have a blood drive at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, Gallmeyer Farm’s annual Sweet Corn Festival and an origami workshop at Fairfield Library. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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