STEUBENVILLE — Owners of a gaming business raided a week ago for paying out cash prizes say they’re still not sure what they did wrong.
Co-owner Mike Renforth insists city officials were fully aware of the plans he and partner Zane Rowe had for their business, NUNACC, at 4244 Sunset Blvd.
Ohio Casino Control Commission agents said they seized about 30 gaming machines, along with cash, documents, several handguns and narcotics during the Oct. 21 raid, which also targeted Rowe’s residence.
Rowe was charged with possession of narcotics and improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle.
The Ohio Revised Code characterizes video and digital gaming devices as slot machines, unless they’re “skill-based amusement machines.”
But by law, skill-based amusement machines cannot reward players with cash prizes. And while slot machines can payout, the only four locations permitted by ORC to payout cash are the state’s four casinos.
“Skill-based amusement machines are not permitted to give out cash as a prize, and slot machines are only permitted at the four authorized casinos located in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo,” OCCC Communications Director Jessica Franks reiterated.
But Renforth maintains the business passed multiple inspections prior to opening and getting its occupancy permit.
“It wasn’t like we were trying to hide the place,” he said. “They’re trying to make us look like some kind of criminal act.”
OCCC maintains it was by the book: Franks said the commission had been made aware of an establishment operating gaming machines making cash payouts and sent undercover officers in to investigate. Search warrants were issued after the officers reported receiving cash for their winnings.
Renforth, though, maintains he and Rowe are Cherokee and, as such, different rules apply.
“There’s different laws between Native American law and state law,” he said. “Our heritage gave us the right to have gaming. We’re Cherokee, we have the right to have gaming.”
Renforth says the 1998 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “says we do not have to be on a reservation to have gaming, you just have to be an organization or a group of communities of people who are Native American.”
“That’s what makes it different,” he said. “Most folks don’t have that right to have gaming like we do.”
Renforth maintains where the federal government is concerned, “if you’re 1/32 Native American, you’re considered Native American. We’re well over that. I’m half, so …”
“We have over 100 members in the community who have been proven to have native blood,” he added. “We’ve tried to do everything legal. Everything we did, we thought was legal. We would never have tried to open if we thought it wasn’t.”
He also insists NUNACC “wasn’t just a gaming place.”
“We were a culture center, we were established in 1994 … the gaming part didn’t come along until this year,” he said. “We donate to the community, we have food banks that we donate to. We actually help minority Native Americans get school grants, we were working on trying to help them get land, things like that. That’s what we were there for…the gambling helped us afford to help the community.”
Renforth said they “poured a lot of money into the place but didn’t have a chance to recoup any of it.”
“We felt like we had followed the law, followed the law given to us by the U.S. government as far as being a tribe,” he said. “And what we are entitled to is to have gaming. When we brought it to the (city), they told us to proceed. Five months later, they come in and take everything we have. No warning, they just come in and take it all. It’s very frustrating, to spend two years going through all this, getting the charters … (then) lose everything you’ve got invested…
OCCC maintains the ethnicity of the owners has no bearing on the case.
“Although the commission is aware the owners of the NUNACC claim to be Native American, there are no federally-recognized tribes in the state of Ohio,” Franks said. “Further, federal laws only permit tribal gaming to be conducted on tribal land.”