By Jeremy Maready
Published: Friday, April 19, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 19, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.
LAKELAND | As Polk County's nonprofit organizations try to entice donors to give generously at fundraisers, organizers also have to balance what is legal with what isn't.
Last week, plans for a "casino night" were halted after the Polk County Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office learned of the plans for Sun 'n Fun's Future of Flight Casino Night.
Those who attended would have been able to play roulette, poker, black jack and craps for "funny money," according to a recent story in The Ledger.
And the five "High Roller" prizes were a trip for two to Key West, an iPad, a World War II print of an airplane signed by all the pilots featured in the photograph, a Bose A20 Aviation Headset and a Bose Bluetooth music system.
Sponsors had paid for Cheers Events, a St. Petersburg company, to plan the gaming night. Cheers hired an outside company, Florida Casino Parties, to operate the games. The proceeds were to be split between the company and the charity, said Deedra Knight, who is with Sun 'n Fun and helped organize the event.
But state law doesn't allow that, Assistant State Attorney Brad Copley said. "If it's a charitable operation, the money should stay with the charity, not an outside organization."
If anyone "keeps, exercises or maintains a gaming table or room, or gaming implements or apparatus, or house, booth, tent, shelter or other place for the purpose of gaming or gambling ... or permits any person to play for money or other valuable thing at any game whatever, whether heretofore prohibited or not, shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree," according to state law.
But there are ways of holding a casino night that don't violate the law.
And if those in charge of the Sun 'n Fun event had called the Sheriff's Office or prosecutors, organizers would have known better, detectives said.
Knight said a staff member was supposed to do that but didn't, instead opting to do online research. That staff member has since resigned.
"We just screwed up, I guess," she said.
"It really did make us look like fools."
Sun 'n Fun's chairman, Bob Knight, who is Deedra Knight's husband, said the amended event was able to raise about $40,000, but that wasn't as much as in past years.
"The biggest damage done to Sun 'n Fun as a result of the sheriff's department canceling the casino function only 24 hours before the event was the trust sponsors of this event placed in us, expecting the games, etc., only to find out the day of the event or even when attending the event that it was changed into just a social with silent auction," Bob Knight said.
"This could be a problem for us on future events."
LEGALITIES & ENFORCEMENT
Deedra Knight is no stranger to Polk's social events and understands what it takes to manage them.
"Old-fashioned" fundraisers that relied on silent auctions and dinners no longer appeal to donors, she said. "People were so bored with it they were no longer interested in it."
During a meeting of Sun 'n Fun officials, someone suggested a casino-themed night to entice donors, said Knight, who has attended many fundraisers that used a casino theme.
Sun 'n Fun, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, must adhere to certain laws in how it collects money. While the air show is its biggest fundraiser during Sun 'n Fun week, the group usually holds an event specifically to raise money for educational programs.
Advertisements for the event said the $50 admission fee would include two drink tickets, food and $2,500 of funny money to be used in the casino games.
Knight and others thought it mirrored that of other similar events.
"It's hard to think it's illegal when everyone does it," she said. "I've been to more than a half dozen myself. You have to wonder about this."
She also questioned why this law is applied when the organization is trying to raise money for a charitable cause.
"In Polk County, we enforce all the statutes," Copley said. "We don't pick and choose which ones we enforce."
Copley said the State Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office weren't being selective or singling out Sun 'n Fun for its charity night.
"We act on every bit of information that comes into our office," Copley said. "(But) If people don't report it, we can't act on it."
Copley, who said he receives numerous calls throughout the year from nonprofits, would rather work with them than hurt a fundraising event.
"We spend quite a bit of time on this," he said.
A POLK PROBLEM?
Jaaz Araya, who owns Florida Casino Parties, said Polk County seems to be the only place where the law is interpreted in a way that makes his business seem illegal.
Several years ago, while working for a different company, the Polk County Sheriff's Office ordered that the company's gaming tables be covered during a fundraiser event, he said.
"It seems like it's only a problem there," Araya said. "I've been doing this 23 years from Tallahassee to Key West."
Araya said, in his legal understanding, that three things must be present to constitute gambling: A person makes a wager; it's a game of chance; and there are money prizes at the end.
"It's just for fun," he said. "It's no different than Monopoly. For this, there is no wager being made, and there are no (monetary) prizes at the end. This is one of the first times anyone has questioned it being legal."
Ron Lee, who owns Cheers Events and hired Araya, said he is upset about what happened and disagrees with the legal interpretations of the Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office.
"They are telling me it is illegal, and it's not," he said. "I've done over 100 casino themes for companies like this, and never once have I had a problem."
Araya said he also does a poker tournament for Girls Inc. in Lakeland each year and hasn't had a problem with that.
"(But) maybe they don't consider that gambling since it's more of a game of skill," he said.
Another casino night was held at the Lakeland Yacht & Country Club on April 13 for the Lakeland High School baseball team.
Dan Talbot, the school's athletic director, said an outside company was hired to conduct the gaming night, but they were never contacted by the Sheriff's Office or told their plans could be in violation of the law.
"That's crazy," Talbot said when told about Sun 'n Fun's problems. "It's not like you can win anything. It's Monopoly money. I could win $10,000 in Monopoly money and what would I win? A hug."
Detectives and prosecutors say they don't want to hurt a charity's chances for making money, but it has to be done in a legal way and they are both willing to help if asked.
Copley said the State Attorney's Office is constantly asked its opinion on how fundraisers should be operated and whether they are within the law.
The Sheriff's Office gets the same calls, said Capt. Rick Holland, who oversees the Bureau of Special Investigations.
In recent years, donations for many nonprofits became scarce, budgets were slashed and staff sizes were reduced at a number of agencies throughout Polk and the state.
It left many agencies seeking new revenue streams to make up for the short fall, according to detectives at the Polk County Sheriff's Office.
Ann Boogher, treasurer of the Lake Ashton R.V. Community Benefit Association, said when her group decided to do a casino night, someone called the Sheriff's Office to ask about the legality of the event.
"It could have turned into the same situation as Sun 'n Fun" she said. "We were fortunate someone questioned if we were doing it right because it turned out that we weren't."
Boogher received a phone call from a detective who questioned how the event was to be handled.
She told them the night would be filled with games, basket raffles and silent auctions in the hope of raising money for schools in Winter Haven and Lake Wales. The casino aspect was to have games of chance like cards, roulette and devices similar to slot machines.
That didn't fly, and Boogher and detectives decided to meet two times to go over plans and make sure the Feb. 23 event was planned correctly.
"It was a good thing we did that ahead of time," she said. "The sheriff's department was most courteous in giving us the guidelines."
One of the most significant problems, Copley said of casino nights, is that nonprofit organizations that are holding the event hire outside companies to do card dealing and operate the games for a cut of the proceeds, which he said is a violation of state law.
In the case of the Lake Ashton event, the organization's members served as card dealers.
If an outside organization is operating gambling devices within Polk County, it could be arrested and face a third-degree felony charge, Copley said. But that hasn't happened.
After rearranging its plans, the Lake Ashton group was able to raise $36,000 for the local schools, Boogher said.
"It took a little bit of scrambling, but the event was quite successful."
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