Charity Has Close Ties to Gambling Interests
|On February 8, Children's Cancer Cooperative, Inc, donated $20,000 to A Kid's Place Charity. Melissa Barfield is third from right; Wayne Witczak is at the right. (Photo courtesy of Children's Cancer Cooperative, Inc.)|
You might have seen the proliferation of those storefronts emblazoned with signs promoting "Internet Sweepstakes" across Hillsborough County. When County Commissioners voted to ban the use of slot machine-like devices, one of the biggest benefactors from the games turned out to be a charity. But why are charities involved with gambling to begin with?
The secretary of Children's Cancer Cooperative thought enough of the importance of the cafes that she traveled from South Carolina to Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting. There, Melissa Barfield wasn't afraid to drop a few names.
"I've donated from Wolfson's Children's Hospital to Miami Children's Hospital to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital to the Ronald McDonald Houses in Jacksonville and Tallahassee," Barfield told commissioners. "We've donated locally to the Kid's Charity, here in Hillsborough County. We have donated as well - just yesterday - to the Shriner's Hospital, here in Tampa. We donated $100,000 yesterday."
County Commissioner Sandra Murman wasn't impressed. She successfully led the charge to ban the use of slot machines whose odds are set over the Internet.
"I'm embarassed for the people in our community who are not here today who really don't like these places in their neighborhoods," Murman said. "And they are predatory operations that are unregulated and untaxed."
So what is a charity doing getting money from Internet gambling sites?
Barfield says Children's Cancer Cooperative gets much of its funding from providers of sweepstakes software. It's used in roughly 120 cafes around the state.
"It's not mandatory that they do it," she says. "There's no law saying they have to do it. It's just something that our software provider says, you know, I just want some good to come out of this."
There's no statewide regulation of these so-called "sweepstakes cafes." But the stakes may be getting raised as Tallahassee considers either regulating or banning these mini-gambling parlors.
"We don't want the regulation to be - you know, it's mandatory that you donate to a charity. We want them to choose to do that," Barfield says. "And believe it or not, these operators that I deal with on a daily basis - they enjoy the fact that they can walk around and say that they've given back to the state of Florida."
Barfield says the charity has a low overhead - it's just her, the owner and the vice president - and says 85 percent of the proceeds go to children's charities and hospitals.
Her cooperative's lastest IRS records show them receiving $1.2 million last year. They also checked the "no" box on whether they "attempted to influence legislation." So how does she explained what happened at the county commission meeting? Barfield says she's just pointing out how the community benefits.
"We can't do that - it's totally against the law for a charity to do that. But our software provider does have a lobbyist in Tallahassee that we are currently using," she says, "and I have been to a few of the meetings there in Tallahassee to speak on the charity perspective."
In 2009, records show they gave $85,000 to the Shriner's Children's Hospital in Tampa. A Shriner's spokeswoman did not return calls for comment.
But do those charities have any qualms about taking money that some people say is generated by preying on people with gambling addictions?
"When I build a relationship with a hospital or with a Ronald McDonald House, I actually take their directors - or the individual I'm dealing with - into one of the locations so, they can see what we are doing," says Barfield. "They are all quite aware."
Wayne Witczak, executive Director of Kids Charity of Tampa Bay, Inc., disagrees.
"No, no, not at all," he says. "That statement kind of surprises me, because - was I the only one that dealt with them, no, but at no time did they ever say when we first started doing business with them that it came out of proceeds from internet cafes. You know, 'these checks came from Children's Cancer Cooperative'."
He used to be with the Shriners, so Witczak has worked for both of the local charities that Children's Cancer Cooperative has given to. He says he had no idea the money came from gambling operations.
"Our funds - in both situations - came from, and come from, Children's Cancer Cooperative," says Witczak. "We don't know - nor do we have any inside information as to how those organizations that support us earn their money."
But would it make any difference if he knew their donations were coming from groups associated with gambling?
"No, I don't think so, if it's not illegal," says Witczak. "At the time, there was nothing illegal. A ban is a ban, and from my understanding from my donors, they're going to abide by the ban, and hopefully the can continue to do good work by raising charitable dollars somehow for our community's needs."
Witczak praised the charity for donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to needy children in the Tampa Bay area.
And one of his former board members - who is listed on the Kids Charity web site as an "ex officio member" is none other than Sandra Murman, the county commissioner who proposed banning the use of internet slot machines. Witczak says she's no longer active with the organization.
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