SHENANGO VALLEY —
Internet sweepstakes games are on again in the Shenango Valley, despite a new state law that aims to shut them down.
Mercer County District Attorney Robert G. Kochems said Sunday he’d received no complaints about the cafes where the sweepstakes are played and that he didn’t intend to advise police to cite the businesses, which have operated for about a year on the edge of state gambling laws.
There are at least six such cafes in Mercer County and they had been shuttered since June 30, when Gov. Tom Corbett signed a law that was intended to close the loophole by which they were allowed to operate.
The games operate by selling Internet time via a telephone card to customers, who are in turn entered into a “sweepstakes” with a finite and pre-determined number of winners. Participants can find out if they’ve “won” or “lost” instantly or they can use a computer in one of the cafes to play games that look much like slot machines to find out if they’ve won.
Pennsylvania lawmakers, including state Rep. Mark Longietti, say the cafes amount to gambling parlors and the law making them illegal was passed with little opposition.
Last week, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Scranton, by one of the operators of a cafe, Telesweeps of Butler Valley.
The suit was filed Monday and by Friday night at least two of the local cafes were back in business.
“I got a call Friday to come back to work,” Pam Fluent, who works at the Sharon City Sweepstakes cafe at Connelly Boulevard and the Shenango Valley Freeway said Sunday.
“We’re going to be open until further notice,” Fluent said.
Customers were happy to see the place re-open, she said.
“We have a nice group of people that come in,” Fluent said. “People missed it. They really did.”
The law banning the games was effective immediately and had spurred the operators of the cafes to close and post “temporarily closed” signs on their doors.
U.S. District Court hasn’t issued a ruling allowing the cafes to open again, but Kochems said “we’re not going to rush” into enforcing the law.
“I’m not just going to say they’ve opened the doors and we’re going to go in and raid them like Prohibition or something,” Kochems said.
The federal lawsuit claims the law violates First Amendment free speech protections and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The businesses are selling what amounts to Internet time, according to the lawsuit, and the “sweepstakes” are simply a promotional tool, similar to the Monopoly game that’s long been a McDonald’s promotion.
The lawyers who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Telesweeps of Butler Valley Inc., Luzerne County, declined commentt.
State Attorney General’s office spokesman Nils Frederickson said “as policy we don’t discuss ongoing litigation.”
Both sides have until July 31 to file briefs in the case, according to court papers.
Kochems said he was glad the state Attorney General’s office had taken up the case, instead of referring it to a local district attorney.
“It’s a statewide problem,” Kochems said, adding that he’d expect similar suits to be filed in the eastern and western districts of the federal court system.
“This (defending the law) could tie up a lot of resources,” Kochems said.
SHENANGO VALLEY —
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