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This isn’t your grandmother’s sweepstakes

Unless your grandmother has a gambling jones.

So-called “sweepstakes” machines are all over Chicago, including this 15th Ward gas station, despite the city’s ban on video gambling.
So-called “sweepstakes” machines are all over Chicago, including this 15th Ward gas station, despite the city’s ban on video gambling. Purveyors of the machines say they are allowed under a loophole in state law allowing sweepstakes contests.
Mark Brown/Sun-Times

A lobbyist for the sweepstakes gambling industry raised eyebrows this past week by showing up in Springfield and picking up right where he left off last fall before state Rep. Luis Arroyo’s arrest for bribery.

James Rauh, director of legislative affairs for Collage LLC, made the rounds of state lawmakers asking them to regulate and tax so-called “sweepstakes” machines instead of banning them as has been proposed.

Collage has been at the center of aggressive efforts to formally legalize the look-alike video gaming devices, but it claims in the meantime to be operating legally under a provision (meaning loophole) in state law that allows sweepstakes contests.

The company is operated by James Weiss, a Chicago businessman married to former state Rep. Toni Berrios, daughter of former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios.

The renewed push to protect the sweepstakes machines, which flourish in Chicago despite the city’s ban on video gaming, comes even as Arroyo is due back in court Tuesday on charges he tried to bribe a state senator to support legalizing the devices. The senator, working undercover, helped record their conversation for the FBI.

Federal prosecutors filed a new charging document against Arroyo two weeks ago, appearing to set the stage for him for him to plead guilty in the case.

When he was originally charged in October, Arroyo declared his innocence and vowed he would be “completely vindicated.” It’s unclear whether Arroyo’s change of plea will come Tuesday, but his vindication certainly won’t.

Under these circumstances, you might think the sweepstakes folks would be lying low, but I imagine they’ve already invested too much money to take a chance the state or city will finally stop turning a blind eye and take decisive action to shut them down.

Arroyo’s situation, in which he was ostensibly being paid to work as a city lobbyist for another sweepstakes entity, has certainly made this a hotter topic.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, who is sponsoring legislation to ban the machines, said Rauh stopped by his office to share his views and pass out a letter that argues banning the devices will harm small businesses making money from them, including grocery stores, beauty salons, gas stations and car washes.

Butler’s own view, which I share, is that the sweepstakes machines are really just a way to evade the state’s video gambling regulation, which controls who participates and how the revenue is distributed.

“The argument that this is corollary to winning a Big Mac in a scratch-off at McDonald’s” makes no sense, Butler said. “This is gambling.”

Butler said he hopes to pair his effort with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s push to make the Chicago casino license law more attractive to a potential developer.

“Hopefully, it’s something the city could get behind,” he said.

State Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, said she also was approached by Rauh.

“I’m troubled that they remain active even after they’ve been exposed and implicated in shady/illegal activity,” said Mah, adding that she disapproves of the company’s practices.

Rauh told me he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters and promised to find someone who would. I’m still waiting.

The Illinois Gaming Board regards sweepstakes machines as illegal gambling devices but has been thwarted by the courts in its efforts to regulate them. The board has supported Butler’s legislation.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) thinks the answer is for the city to legalize and regulate video gaming, which he believes would drive out the sweepstakes operators and produce tax revenue for the city.

I’d rather see both banned and some effective enforcement, but if the city does move toward legalization and regulation, they really ought to screen out all the bad actors currently thumbing their nose at the law.

To see a sweepstakes machine for myself, I visited a gas station on 47th Street in Lopez’s ward.

Down a hall leading to the bathroom, I found four Ficus sweepstakes “promotional kiosks,” each offering a variety of video gambling amusements.

I inserted my $20 bill and started playing Shamrock Keno. When that got boring, I switched to Reel Hot Bonus, which looked like video slots. It took me a while to understand how it worked.

But 25 minutes later, just as I was ready to cut my losses and cash out, I won a $40 jackpot and collected a coupon (winning ticket) for $46, which I handed to the gas station attendant.

Without a word, he handed me the money.

Now that’s what I call gambling.