Bill would bring back bingo for ‘nonpublic schools’

Bingo games to benefit charitable causes, explicitly banned in Tennessee after the 1980s “Rocky Top” state government corruption scandal, could return on a limited basis under legislation approved by a Senate committee.

“There’s nothing inherently evil about bingo,” Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, told the Senate State and Local Government Committee, adding those involved in the FBI investigation that led to more than 50 convictions “could have got into the same trouble” with “reverse lotteries or raffles.”

In the 1970s, Tennessee’s Legislature legalized bingo gambling for charity fundraising. The FBI probe found that many of the charities were bogus fronts for organized gambling activities and state enforcement officials — working under the Secretary of State’s office — had taken bribes and were otherwise actively involved with the gambling.

Secretary of State Gentry Crowell committed suicide in 1989 just before he was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury, which was widely expected to indict him.

The ban on bingo followed and continued even after lotteries were legalized following passage of a state constitutional amendment in 2002. In addition to authorizing a state-run lottery, current law allows charitable organizations to hold an annual event — each approved by the Legislature — that involves some types of gambling for fundraising. But bingo is still explicitly prohibited.

Senate Bill 349 would authorize “nonpublic schools” with IRS 501(c)3 charity status to hold an annual bingo gambling event to raise money, just as they could now for raffles, cakewalks and the like. Niceley said Heritage Christian Academy of Claiborne County asked him to sponsor the bill. Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, is House sponsor.

The bill passed the committee 6-1 with two senators abstaining. The sole no vote came from the panel’s chairman, Republican Sen. Ken Yager of Kingston, who during debate voiced misgivings about “making exceptions from the expressed will of the Legislature” under the circumstances.

Mary Beth Thomas, general counsel for the Secretary of State’s office, was questioned on bingo’s history in Tennessee by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would take their life over bingo,” Norris said, who was one of the senators abstaining on the bill.

“I believe it got a little bit out of hand,” said Thomas, who added that things “would be different” under the bill than during the scandal that “predates me.” The Secretary of State’s office has no objection to the bill, she said.

Thomas said that in the scandal days bingo professionals were operating full time. The bill allows just one event per year per organization. Also, she said other safeguards are in place, including reviews of financing, a requirement that at least 25 percent of money collected go to work of the sponsoring charity and a prohibition on third parties operating games on behalf of the charity.

Niceley said he would ultimately like to see the state constitution amended to allow church-oriented schools to hold bingo games “every Friday night.” In bygone days, he said, many schools got “most of their funding” through bingo with no scandal involved.

The next stop for SB349 is the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who as a young state representative acted as an undercover informant for the FBI during the Rocky Top investigation.

A House subcommittee, meanwhile, killed for the year last week a proposal to launch the process for approval of a state constitutional amendment that would authorize casino gambling in Tennessee, which could include bingo. The measure (HJR87) by Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, was officially sent to “summer study” on a voice vote by the House State Government Subcommittee.

After the vote, Powell told the panel that the constitutional amendment allowing state lotteries took a 20-year effort in the Legislature and he hopes there will be an actual study on the measure, leading to action next year and a shorter process. As things stand now, he said Tennesseans are flocking by the thousands to other states for casino gambling.