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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Tournament tables fill a room at the Pub Casino on Washington Center Road, one of more than 3,000 organizations statewide with some form of a charity gaming license.

Gambling for charity

Though many Hoosiers likely know little about it, charity gaming is a half-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise.

A total of 3,226 organizations brought in $467 million through various forms of charity gaming, including casinos, bingo, raffles, door prizes and more in 2012. Some are annual or infrequent events, while others – like some of the gaming operations described in Jeff Wiehe’s Sunday story – occur three days a week, the limit under state law.

Though the casino gambling and other forms of charity gaming can keep afloat some service clubs and provide hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity, they should also raise some questions:

Indiana’s major casinos – like those in Michigan City, Gary and Anderson – pay millions of dollars a year in taxes. Should the charity casinos be required to use a set percentage of revenue for charity?

Organizations with licenses allowing casino operations throughout the year recorded $15.4 million in receipts last year. Of that, about 1.6 percent was donated to other charities, and the organizations kept about 8 percent of the profits. Most of the receipts – $13.6 million, about 88 percent – went back to players as prizes and for other expenses.

Should charity gaming be more heavily regulated?

This is a cash business. While there is no reason to believe any casino described in Sunday’s story has done anything wrong with the money, Hoosiers would be naïve to think wrongdoing never occurs in an Indiana charity gaming operation.

Though casinos are becoming more popular, bingo remains the biggest player in charity gaming, with nearly $182 million in revenue last year. In 2011, five people associated with American Legion Post 330 were accused of skimming about $1 million of the post’s bingo games. All pleaded guilty.

In 2009, White’s School of the Arts Community Development Programs was licensed to operate a casino out of a North Clinton Street strip mall; five people were later arrested on gambling-related charges for illegally paying the game’s workers. The bust spurred a change in the law, making the annual casino licenses available only to veterans’ groups and fraternal organizations.

Are the state’s laws and policies regarding charity gaming sound?

Many Hoosiers likely have no problem with nonprofits hosting an annual or semi-annual “casino night.” Some churches have long held weekly bingo games to bring people together and raise a little money. Occasional raffles have long been a way to raise money. But should operating a casino three days a week every week of the year be permitted?

Hoosiers have allowed the state’s inconsistent approach to gambling. For years, police and prosecutors in some counties tolerated the widespread presence of illegal slot machines – often called by the brand name Cherry Masters locally – in taverns and fraternal clubs. Their reason: They had better things to do than prosecute people for gambling when the state runs a lottery and sanctions big casinos. When state alcohol officials cracked down on the slots and virtually eliminated the operations, tavern owners and service club officials practically begged lawmakers to legalize and tax the machines. But lawmakers ignored them.

So, lawmakers and officials essentially ordered the service clubs to rid themselves of slots but allowed them to run blackjack, poker, dice and roulette games as regular enterprises.

Only Hoosier voters and their lawmakers can set the “right” policy, and unless they object, don’t expect changes.