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The battle over Ohio's internet cafes takes a nasty turn
Backers of the storefronts says big casino operatives are interfering with their drive for a voter referendum

Karen Kasler
Machines seized in raids on internet cafes in Cuyahoga County.
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In The Region:

Last month legislation that could basically outlaw the estimated 800 internet cafes in Ohio was signed into law. And there’s already trouble over the issue, before it’s even close to the ballot.

LISTEN: The fight to get on the ballot (short)

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Windows Media / MP3 Download (1:01)

LISTEN: The fight to get on the ballot (extended)

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Windows Media / MP3 Download (3:45)

Owners and supporters of internet cafés want to block and eventually overturn the law that would effectively ban those sweepstakes parlors in strip malls, former restaurants and mostly empty rows of storefronts. They have formed a group called the Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs, which is using paid and volunteer workers to gather at least 231,000 petition signatures to put a repeal of the crackdown before voters next year.

Spokesman Matt Dole says they’ve gathered tens of thousands of signatures, but they are finding trouble – from those who oppose the possible ballot issue.

“In Cleveland, they’re actually stepping in between the person who wants to sign the petition and the petition and refusing to allow them to sign until they’ve had their say. In Columbus, there was actually a court order issued, a stalking order issued because the opponents were actually following our staffers to their homes after work.”

Where's the opposition coming from?
And Dole says a signature gatherer was nearly run off the road in Columbus by one of those opponents. Dole says police reports have been filed in Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo because of activities by a Washington, D.C., based group called Fieldworks.

“We believe that Fieldworks was hired by the corporate casino interests. We don’t know of anybody else who opposes the issue.”

'Over the top'
Carlo LoParo speaks for Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling, which is described as a broad coalition of groups and individuals who support the crackdown. “These allegations are certainly over the top. We wouldn’t tolerate that type of activity from our people," he insists.

He acknowledges, though, the coalition has been watching the petition drive and has problems with it.

“What we’ve observed is internet café operatives are out there on the street telling individuals that by signing this petition it will give them an opportunity to vote on legalizing gambling in internet cafes. That is certainly not the case.”

LoParo confirms that Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling did hire Fieldworks to coordinate what he calls its grassroots educational effort, but says all team members are operating in a respectful manner and that they are not blocking the petition gathering effort.  LoParo says Ohio’s casinos are members of the of Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling coalition. 

The casinos weigh in
Bob Tenenbaum speaks for Penn National, which operates the casinos in Columbus and Toledo. Tenenbaum says Penn National isn’t doing any direct work to oppose the ballot issue, but says casinos are concerned about it.

“This really isn’t about the voters. You’re talking about an industry that in our view, and in the view of several court decisions and the attorney general, is engaged in illegal gambling. I think it’s as simple an issue as that.”

There is nothing in state law that prevents both supporters of a ballot issue and opponents from trying to persuade a voter to sign or not sign a petition. Ohio State election law professor Dan Tokaji says both sides are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as long as they don’t do anything criminal such as threaten or physically attack anyone.

“It’s no surprise that there are passionately held views on both sides of this issue. And this wouldn’t be the first time. The other issue that comes immediately to mind as ... a parallel is the issue of abortion, where we have often had people with very strong views trying to express those views.”

Tokaji says he would be surprised if a lawsuit doesn’t result at some point. He’s hoping it would be filed in federal court because he says that’s the best place to decide issues related to freedom of speech.

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