Kitten rescue lawsuit fails to save Virginia’s charity poker industry

‘Hopefully the General Assembly will get these things straightened out’

By: - June 30, 2022 5:55 pm

Pop’s Poker in South Richmond, a poker room attached to a sports bar and bingo hall, opened its doors to players on Sept. 9. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Billy the Kidden fought the law. And the law won.

A cat-focused animal rescue in Virginia Beach went to court Thursday to try to block a General Assembly-ordered crackdown on charitable poker games from taking effect Friday, when a new law will kick in threatening unlicensed poker rooms with fines of $25,000 to $50,000 per violation.

Virginia legalized charity Texas Hold ’em poker tournaments in 2020. But after a lengthy dispute over how the games should be regulated and alleged self-dealing by key players in the charitable gaming industry, the General Assembly quashed the poker rollout and passed new legislation that effectively forces unlicensed poker rooms to shut down Friday or run the risk of crippling fines.

Spearheading a lawsuit on behalf of Billy the Kidden Rescue and the poker operation that sends it roughly $500 a week, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, asked a judge Thursday for an emergency order suspending enforcement of those fines and requiring the state to start acting on long-stalled applications for poker licenses.

Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Anne Bonwill Shockley denied the request for an emergency injunction, saying Petersen and his clients hadn’t convinced her they had a clear chance to win on the merits of the case. But Shockley suggested the legislature had made a mess, saying the state is seeing some “very strange and very contradictory things sometimes coming out of Richmond.”

“Hopefully the General Assembly will get these things straightened out,” the judge said. “’Cause … well … I should keep my mouth shut.”

It’s unclear how the handful of charity poker rooms that have opened in Virginia over the last few years will respond, but the immediate consequences could be dire.

J.W. Tejchman, the general manager of the Beach Poker Room in Virginia Beach, said the outcome will push poker out of the safer environments those poker rooms offered and back into illegal house games.

“I just told 71 people they’re not going to have a job,” Tejchman said after the ruling.

Lawyers for the state argued the new laws represented the General Assembly’s effort to get a handle on an industry that was operating with virtually no oversight under rules written by members of the state Charitable Gaming Board who stood to profit from poker. 

Erin McNeill with the Virginia Attorney General’s Office repeated a phrase the judge used earlier in the day, when Shockley denied the bond appeal of a man accused of firing a gun in the air and said, “This isn’t the wild west.”

“It is the wild west out here today,” McNeill said, saying unlicensed poker games were happening with no consequences because police have “better things to do” than go after charity poker.

The steep fines the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will soon be able to assess against operators who run afoul of the General Assembly’s rules, McNeill said, were a way to bring a stop to that.

“The fine gives a small agency a big stick,” she said.

The General Assembly opened the door to state-sanctioned poker games as a way to give the charitable gaming industry, perhaps best known for fading bingo halls, a chance to reinvigorate itself as sports betting, casinos and horse-racing themed slots parlors arrived in the state. 

The law authorizing charitable poker left it to the Charitable Gaming Board to write more detailed regulations for how the poker tournaments would work. But as that process got underway, VDACS officials clashed repeatedly with board chairman Chuck Lessin, a Richmond bingo hall owner who was planning to launch his own poker room. Over objections from state officials, Lessin steered the regulations toward maximum profitability for the charitable gaming industry, prompting the General Assembly to nullify the poker regulations the Lessin-led board approved in late 2020. 

In a report issued last year, the state’s watchdog agency found Lessin had failed to recuse himself from the process and concluded the initial poker regulations failed to include adequate conflict-of-interest rules to ensure separation between charities and for-profit poker enterprises. In response, the General Assembly passed legislation in the 2022 session stripping the board of its policymaking powers, leaving it in an advisory role only. That bill, which also takes effect Friday, specified that it will be up to VDACS, not the board, to draft a new set of poker regulations.

“They made a judgment call that charitable gaming in Virginia was not adequately regulated or overseen,” McNeill said.

Petersen represented Lessin in an earlier poker-related lawsuit against VDACS, and he called several people affiilated with Lessin to testify in Thursday’s hearing. Lessin opened Pop’s Poker Room in Richmond in the fall of 2021.

Petersen said the charities he works with can’t afford to wait on an agency that he said seems uninterested in that task or responding to applications for poker licenses. McNeill argued VDACS is simply doing what lawmakers have instructed the agency to do, even if that process has at times seemed arduous for those so eager to start playing poker they didn’t wait for a license.

“That’s the world we live in,” McNeill said. “I’m sorry it’s frustrating to them.”

The state also said the new law does no harm to charitable gaming organizations other than a “loss of profits,” which doesn’t rise to the type of irreparable harm that justifies court intervention.

Taking the witness stand in a T-shirt that read “Saving kitties, one meow at a time,” Emilie Jackson, the president of Billy the Kidden Rescue, said the loss of poker revenue could mean her organization could only take in about half of the 550 cats it cares for today.

“I would not be able to help the community like we do,” she said.

Petersen, who sponsored the original charity poker bill in 2020 but has recused himself from other poker-related votes, said after the hearing that he plans to escalate the legal fight to the Supreme Court of Virginia. He told his clients afterward that the outcome is “basically putting you all out of business.”

“I’ve got a woman who’s trying to save cats,” Petersen said. “I mean what the heck.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.