Bakersfield fights sweepstakes cafes: 'It is like Whac-A-Mole'

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) With more complaints coming in, Bakersfield officials are looking for more ways to deal with sweepstakes cafes.

The city attorney and police have upped the response to a couple locations, but City Council members have asked for even more action.

On Thursday, the Safe Neighborhoods and Community Relations Committee got an update. They heard about two locations that have been targeted over the past few months, and a local dentist showed up asking for help near his office.

Dr. Hal Shapiro told the committee he's called out police twice in the last few weeks after an Internet cafe set up shop next to him on Wilson Road.

"There's been loitering, every morning broken glass in front of my business," he said.

Shapiro said there were never problems in the 26 years he's been there, until now.

"People walk into my office just to ask my receptionist, 'Where's the casino?'" he told the committee.

That's exactly what Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson is worried about.

"If the people going in there to use it think it's a casino, obviously it's an illegal gambling operation," he said.

Johnson's been working on the issue since a businesswoman in his ward voiced concerns about a sweepstakes cafe off White Lane.

Eyewitness News has investigated that operation, the I-Sweeps Internet Cafe. City Attorney Ginny Gennaro told the committee the I-Sweeps and the Cyber Hot Spot on Oak street have been the target of extra attention in the last few months.

Starting in April, the attorney sent a letter to the Cyber Hot Spot owner warning they must take steps to curb "crime and other negative secondary" effects or face "potential citations or closure."

The attorney also reminded the business that police had been called out more than 100 times for complaints.

At the I-Sweeps, the attorney sent the owners a similar letter in June. That owner reportedly offered to provide security and janitors to clean up around that strip mall. The attorney's memo to the council says with both locations, the calls to police went down significantly.

However, it wasn't enough to save the nearby business that complained about negative impacts from the I-Sweeps cafe. The owner of a laundry-mat told Eyewitness News she had to close up, fearing for the safety of her staff and customers.

"Internet sweepstakes occupy a grey area between being considered a legal contest and illegal gambling," Gennaro wrote to the committee in a memo. "The elements of illegal gambling consist of a customer paying for the possibility of winning a prize. The businesses that operate these sweepstakes claim that customers are simply paying for internet or phone time and receive sweepstakes entries as a bonus."

City and Kern County officials have been grappling with the cafes for months. In July 2012, the District Attorney's office brought civil action against a number of the cafes, and a judge ordered nine to stop their sweepstakes activities. However, a batch of those have challenged the injunction, and the appeal is still underway.

Meanwhile, more sweepstakes cafes have continued to open up.

"It is like Whac-A-Mole," Gennaro said. "We're doing our best to keep them at bay."

At the two cafes that have been targeted, her office sent out the letters and police sent out more officers. The attorney's office was asked to look at even more options, like regulating hours of operation, requiring permits, or restricting the zones where cafes could locate.

Gennaro told the committee if the city regulates the sweepstakes cafes, that could in a way legitimize them. So, the council asked Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson to send more officers to the trouble spots.

The city attorney said her office will send out more harsh warning letters if they hear more concerns.

"If we hear some complaints from other citizens or council members our office will absolutely engage in the same type of procedure," she said. Her office also promised to work with the dentist who's worried about the cafe next to his office.

Johnson wants to know more about how communities in Kings and Tulare counties are dealing with sweepstakes cafes, but he also wants reports on how much time BPD officers spend in front of the local cafes, and what happens from that.

"I'm optimistic that this increase in police pressure will actually get something done," Johnson said. And he hopes that's the solution that gets the cafes to close. "If it's not, I'll be back here until we come up with a solution that is."