Poker Face

Charities needing a quick buck must play roulette with casino operators.

Lev Polyakin and Russian Blue Night Town, 12387 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 29, $20, 216-795-0550
The chips are flying at a Las Vegas Night fund-raiser on this Saturday night. Most of the crowd of about 150 are seated at the 14 poker and blackjack tables that fill the Lithuanian Hall on East 185th Street.

What the gamblers lose goes to a charity -- in this case the East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirtland.

To organizer John Copic, the bustle might be proof that good guys don't finish last. Running such fund-raisers is Copic's job.

Mike Moneypenny was also an organizer -- until his January indictment on gambling charges. Almost all the other operators in Northeast Ohio have been arrested, cited, or had their halls raided on suspicion of illegal gambling. Copic's record is clean. After Moneypenny and 29 associates were accused of skimming money and laundering the profits, Copic told Scene that he was one of the few straight shooters in an otherwise crooked business.

"The reason [charities] keep coming to me is because we're one of the last companies left," he said. "People keep going to jail, and the reason they're going to jail is because they're doing it illegally, and we're not."

That's one explanation. The other is that Copic, like any good gambler, knows how to bluff.

By law, charities can pay casino operators to run their fund-raisers, but those fees are narrowly proscribed, and it's illegal to pay the dealers. But since operators usually handle the money, it's commonplace for them to skim thousands of dollars, a portion of which goes to dealers, according to police.

It's hard for the charities to know what's been skimmed. Hence, it remains a perfect crime: bloodless, hugely lucrative, and nearly impossible to detect. Best of all, the charities serve as both victims and satisfied customers.

East Shore Unitarian Universalist took home nearly $10,000 from the February fund-raiser run by Copic, a figure that thrilled church officials. Yet detectives investigating Moneypenny, the area's largest casino fund-raiser, estimated that his events grossed between $50,000 and $75,000 per weekend. Copic's fund-raiser saw close to the same attendance, so it would seem that the money raised might far surpass $10,000.

"The charity should have gotten somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000," says Mike Swaney, who speaks with some authority on the subject. He too runs gambling fund-raisers and admits to having skimmed in the past. Swaney attended East Shore' s fund-raiser.

Copic told Scene that his games always have someone from the charity running the cashier's stand, yet at the peak of this night's event, his employee handled the money, while charity volunteers served food and emptied trash cans. He gives each nonprofit a printout that documents cash flow, but East Shore admits that it's impossible to say whether the church was cheated or not.

"How are you certain of anything?" asks the church's finance director, who doesn't want his name used. "The man shakes my hand, looks me in the eye. We count the money together, and it all appears on the up-and-up."

Such reluctance to speak out seems pervasive. Other charities contacted by Scene either ignored interview requests or refused to say how much money Copic gave them.

University Settlement, a nonprofit on Broadway Avenue that provides shelter to the homeless and day care for the working poor, is one that will step forward. It hired Copic for a Christmas weekend fund-raiser in Painesville and received $3,800. " I'd give him the keys to my house," says Pat Tindal, the group's development director. "That's how much we trust him. He's been very generous to us." The charity blamed the low payday on the holiday and bad weather.

Yet one player who attended those games says that "it was a booming weekend." Swaney believes University Settlement should have made between $7,000 and $12,000.

Copic maintains that University Settlement and East Shore both received the full amount. Yet the Moneypenny case has brought so much scrutiny and suspicion, he vows to abandon the business.

"The real shame of this whole thing is we were helping really good people raise a lot of money -- and they really were getting all the money," says Copic. "So now I'm going to quit doing real money events, and you know who's going to lose are the charities who need this help."

It may be a self-serving remark, but there's some truth to it. St. Ignatius of Antioch Church learned the hard way.

On February 13, the church held a fund-raiser without enlisting an operator. It trained its own volunteers to deal Texas hold 'em, the most lucrative game. Volunteers worked 10-hour shifts without pay.

Wally Martens, the church member who organized the event, says that when it was all over the church had raised only a quarter of the money it made when Moneypenny ran the show -- even though police allege that he had been skimming from them.

"He just got a better following, and they could play longer, so they made more money," says Martens. "I can't ask volunteers to put in the kind of hours that [Moneypenny] required of his dealers."

Martens is still dedicated to running his own fund-raisers. But charities that don't have a large pool of volunteers have little choice but to hire an operator and hope they're treated fairly.

"We're a church, for God's sake," exclaims the East Shore finance director. "We don't want to be dealing with crooked folks. But do you realize how many candy bars we have to sell to get $10,000?"

Police understand the predicament. Euclid Sergeant Kevin Blakely offers one rule of thumb: If the operator is making a living holding Vegas Night fund-raisers, he's probably skimming. Beyond that, there is only one way to completely avoid risk. "Stay away from these things altogether," he says. "But is that realistic? I don't know."

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