Guess which legal gambling oversight the GBI wants to shed? Bingo!

Carol Smith plays three-dimensional bingo at VFW Post 2681 in Marietta. The GBI is hoping to hand off responsibility for overseeing Georgia bingo games to the secretary of state's office. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

On any given night, you can find Carol Smith hanging out and playing bingo at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2681 in Marietta.

The Smyrna resident said she’s there seven nights a week hoping to win a big jackpot. Thursday evening, she was cracking jokes and laughing with some other ladies as they spread out dozens of sheets of bingo cards and arranged their colorful bingo pens.

Bingo is a way of life for Georgians like Smith, but in the eyes of the state, it’s a form of gambling and must be regulated.

Enter House Bill 410, which passed the Georgia House unanimously last week. It aims to shift responsibility for that regulation from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the secretary of state’s office.

Smith said it makes no difference to her as long as the jackpots don’t go down and she can keep socializing with her friends.

“I love bingo, but I love the people in here so much,” she said. “I’d come here seven days a week before I’d go to any other bingo. It’s not about the money, it’s about the friendships.”

Some lawmakers said they were surprised to learn the GBI handles bingo investigations. It surprised Director Vic Reynolds too when he took the job two years ago.

“I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the only surprise, but one of the surprises that I learned when I became the director were some of the things that the GBI was doing as an agency that I really thought after a little while we should not be doing,” Reynolds said.

The GBI, which investigates life-and-death matters like human trafficking and gang crime, has also overseen bingo regulations in Georgia since 1980, after a 1976 constitutional amendment legalized bingo for nonprofit organizations.

Taking  policing bingo off their plate will free them up to focus on more significant crimes, said its author, Armuchee Republican Eddie Lumsden.

“The GBI is a law enforcement organization primarily responsible for criminal investigations, whereas the secretary of state’s office as a regulatory body handles many regulatory issues, so this just seems to be a logical move and frees up the ability of the GBI to fulfill their main purpose,” Lumsden said in a House Rules Committee hearing.

“Just tell me you ain’t going to lock up grandma at the bingo parlor,” said Midway Democratic state Rep. Al Williams with a laugh.

“It changes nothing about the law, it just changes who regulates it,” Lumsden said.

Bingo is one of three legal forms of gambling in Georgia, along with the Georgia Lottery and raffles.

The GBI makes sure bingo operators play by the rules, including paying out no more than $3,000 in prizes per week. That has not been much of a problem, Reynolds said.

Since 1981, only about 50 organizations have lost their bingo license for repeated rule violations or for conducting illegal gambling activities, according to the GBI.

One GBI employee handles reports involving bingo, along with other responsibilities. Investigations go to the GBI’s commercial gambling unit, which also investigates more serious gambling violations, sometimes involving organized crime.

Most of the bingo-related calls they receive do not involve violations of state code.

“They may say, ‘Hey, I had a bad experience at the bingo game at the Moose Lodge,’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of a criminal nature, and she answers those as well,” Reynolds said.

The GBI received nine bingo-related calls that required follow up in 2019, Reynolds said.

“The reality is, at least as it’s been brought to our attention, we don’t think there’s an issue with the game of bingo,” he said.

If the bill passes the senate and receives Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, that employee will be able to focus on other tasks in the commercial gambling unit, Reynolds said.

The potential for law-breaking exists whenever people wager money, and the state needs to keep an eye on that activity, Reynolds said, but the GBI is not the best fit for that job when it comes to bingo.

“We investigate criminal activity throughout the state of Georgia, generally serious criminal activity — murder, drug and human trafficking, gang cases,” he said. “Regulatory functions, which is what the vast majority of working in bingo is, is just something that simply, in my opinion, the GBI has no business doing.”

The secretary of state’s office declined to comment on the legislation. In addition to overseeing elections like Georgia’s contentious 2020 presidential race that landed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the national spotlight, the office is responsible for the state’s 42 licensing boards.

The state is monitoring 137 active bingo operations in Georgia, the GBI says. For many of the nonprofits that run bingo games, it’s an important source of funding.

Commander Harold Watkins, the presiding officer of the VFW post where Smith plays, said he has concerns with the bill.

“We’ve dealt with the GBI for years, so our concern is regulation after the fact. If another entity takes over, what are we going to have to do to continue doing what we do?” he said.

The VFW post contracts with four different bingo providers to offer bingo 364 days a year, and it’s a big help for the post’s work to support veterans, he said. Watkins said he is worried a switch to the secretary of state’s office could lead to new regulations, and separately, that expanded legalized gambling could chip away at the clientele.

“All these service organizations rely on something to keep them going, and it’s the only thing in Georgia you really have other than raffles, and you’re regulated on raffles by the sheriff’s department,” he said. “So, it’s income. Short and sweet, it’s income to keep the building open, keep the lights on and be able to have enough money to help veterans when they’re in need.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.