Va. Charitable Gaming Board leader resigns as lawmakers split on charity poker

Bill allowing cash poker games fails in House, passes in Senate

By: - February 7, 2023 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)

Richmond bingo hall owner Chuck Lessin resigned from his position as chairman of Virginia’s Charitable Gaming Board Tuesday ahead of a key vote on the future of charity poker halls in the state, an issue that has split the General Assembly.

Legislation to let charitable gaming operators run cash poker games, a more lucrative form of play that state regulators said wasn’t allowed under an original 2020 law legalizing charity poker tournaments, failed in the House of Delegates at the critical crossover deadline, when each chamber is required to take action on its own bills. The state Senate passed the measure shortly before the House vote.

Supporters of the bill have said it will provide badly needed help to charities that won’t be able to make enough money off more restricted tournament poker, where players typically pay a flat fee for a fixed amount of chips. Skeptics have warned against greenlighting casino-style poker rooms run by a loosely overseen industry where the distinction between legitimate charities and for-profit gambling ventures isn’t always clear. 

The General Assembly first authorized charity poker tournaments in 2020, but legal and policy disputes over that law have mostly prevented charitable groups from taking advantage of the opportunity. Despite the state never issuing any permits for charity poker, Lessin and others opened poker halls in 2021 but later shut them down after the state threatened to start hitting the facilities with $50,000 fines. The state is currently finalizing new charity poker regulations that could allow the halls to reopen once a licensing structure is in place.

The new poker bill’s ultimate fate is unclear based on the narrow vote margin in the House, where the proposal failed 48-49 on the first vote and deadlocked 49-49 on a second attempt.

Lessin’s resignation, delivered to House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, Tuesday morning, appeared to be an effort to shore up support for the bill.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, mentioned the Lessin news in a floor speech shortly before the Senate voted 21-16-3 to approve the bill.

“One of the things I believe we needed to do was we needed to have change in the Charitable Gaming Board. I applaud the current chair for resigning,” Bell said. “That opens this up for, frankly, fresh new leadership.”

Bell was part of a bipartisan group of legislators who called for Lessin to be removed from the Charitable Gaming Board over his controversial role in crafting the state’s first set of charity poker rules, which have since been repealed. Though Lessin disclosed he had a financial interest in the poker regulations the board was crafting, a state watchdog report found he did not properly handle the conflict of interest and should have recused himself from the process. 

The General Assembly stripped the Charitable Gaming Board of its regulatory powers, but Lessin remained its chairman. His term on the board was set to expire in June.

As a legislative appointee, Lessin submitted his resignation to Gilbert.

“In the best interests of Virginia’s charities, I tender my resignation immediately as a member of the Virginia Charitable Gaming Board,” Lessin wrote.

In response to the scrutiny over his actions on the board, Lessin pointed out that numerous other state boards are designed to include industry stakeholders with expertise in their field. The critical conflict of interest findings against him by the Office of the State Inspector General, he suggested at the time, were overblown because no government lawyers working with the board told him he could not be involved in preparing or voting on poker regulations.

A spokesman for Lessin confirmed the resignation but did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Before the bill passed the Senate, Bell said he and others had worked “very hard” to clean up the charitable gaming industry. Despite concerns about the initial scope of the cash poker bill, he said, he concluded a scaled-down version is needed to benefit charities facing declining bingo revenues.

“They’re legitimate charities that do good work and help people out,” Bell said.


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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.