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State investigating prison raffle game at Cape Vincent

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CAPE VINCENT — The state Inspector General’s office is investigating whether a progressive raffle game called the Queen of Hearts was operated illegally at the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility for nearly a year starting in the spring of 2012.

William P. Reynolds, a spokesman for the Inspector General, has confirmed to the Times that an investigation was launched by the Albany office after a whistleblower at the medium-security state prison filed a complaint early last year.

The complaint questioned “the legality and propriety of a game of chance allegedly being run out of the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility,” Mr. Reynolds told the Times in a prepared statement in response to the newspaper’s inquiries about the complaint.

Inspector General investigators “have conducted interviews with witnesses and obtained evidence necessary to assess the allegations,” Mr. Reynolds said in the statement. “Part of our investigation is analyzing the legality of activity at Cape Vincent and what knowledge individuals had or should have had regarding the propriety of the game.”

Citing its ongoing nature, Mr. Reynolds declined to elaborate on the investigation, including when it would be completed.

According to members of the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, the Inspector General’s investigation appears to be focused on the group’s failure to obtain a license for the game from the Cape Vincent town clerk.

Under state General Municipal Law, municipalities are allowed to oversee all charitable games of chance. In Cape Vincent, all organizations that want to run such games are required to obtain a license from the clerk’s office, but that never happened in the prison, according to Town Clerk Michele A. Bouchard.

While the situation is being sorted out, investigators are holding the money that the committee had deposited into a bank account, along with funds that had yet to be deposited, one of the organizers said. The money was earmarked to pay the eventual winner of the raffle. The funds now are being held by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and will be distributed to an approved charity or charities.

Several sources told the Times that at one point in early 2013, the prize money for the Queen of Hearts — a raffle based on a deck of cards — reached $37,000 after no one had won the grand prize for months. All of the sources who spoke to the Times requested anonymity because they said they’ve been told that speaking on the record could result in a work suspension or other sanctions.

An organizer of the Queen of Hearts game, who is a member of the corrections officers union, said the investigation is focusing on the committee of union members who started the game. The organizer said Thursday that union members have been told the investigation is nearly done, and the committee that ran the game has submitted to the state a list of charities it would like the game’s proceeds to go to.

A founder of the committee that oversaw the prison raffle confirmed Thursday the game was unlicensed. He said no one on the committee was aware a license was required. He also said the committee requested — and received — permission for the game from the prison superintendent at the time, Patricia E. LeConey.

Two sources told the Times that Ms. LeConey gave her blessing for the game because she thought it would be a good way to raise money for the union’s charitable funds. Ms. LeConey now is assistant commissioner at the state Department of Corrections.

She did not return several phone calls from the Times, and Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the corrections department, said he could not talk about the Queen of Hearts game because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

Anyone suspected of running an unlicensed game of chance could be charged with a misdemeanor under Article 225 of state Penal Law. While there are several criminal charges that could apply, the most likely is promoting gambling in the second degree, charged when someone “knowingly advances or profits from unlawful gambling activity.”

The charge is a Class A misdemeanor, but a member of the raffle’s oversight committee said he was told by the IG’s office that no one involved in the Queen of Hearts game likely will be disciplined or charged with a crime. The committee member said it appears the state will agree that the money can be distributed to north country food pantries.

The Inspector General’s office has investigative jurisdiction over all state correctional facilities in New York, and over the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which runs the state’s prisons.

The Inspector General’s investigation appears to be winding down, union members said.

A committee member said the 40 percent of the take that went to the employees fund was used for a variety of programs, including buying clothes and boots that were distributed to indigent children through schools near the prison. A committee member told the Times that the Queen of Hearts game ran for 49 weeks and had at least a few winners who took home a few thousand dollars or more.

When the IG’s office seized the game board and the entries box, five slots containing cards remained, and one slot held the queen of hearts, which leads to the grand prize.

“The interest was really building at the end, when there were only five cards left,” he said. “The number of tickets sold was really starting to climb.”

The committee member who was instrumental in starting the game said he regrets not knowing about the need for a license.

“We were going to do great things,” he said. “It was a great money-raiser. If we could do it all again legally, we would do it.”

Queen of Hearts game an important revenue source for Elks club

An organizer of a Queen of Hearts raffle game being investigated by the state Inspector General’s office at the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility said the game was patterned after one at the Watertown Elks Lodge.

Three years ago, two large dining rooms at Lodge 496 on Bradley Street in Watertown were filling up quickly on Tuesday evenings, but the majority of the patrons weren’t at the club for steak dinners. They were there to plunk down a dollar to take a chance on the organization’s Queen of Hearts card game as the jackpot climbed to $200,000.

Word got out.

“We were taking $20,000 a weekend in ticket sales leading up to it,” said Elks Lodge member Timothy E. Kelly, who helps run the game of chance for the private club.

Lodge members, their guests and the general public — some from as far as Oswego, Plattsburgh, the Mohawk Valley and Rochester — showed up just to get into the action, Mr. Kelly said.

Of the $200,000 jackpot, the three winners took home a total of $50,000, while the Elks Lodge used part of $125,000 to make repairs to the building and buy a new cooler for the kitchen.

The club split the remaining $25,000 equally among 25 nonprofit organizations.

“Without games like this, private clubs would not exist anymore,” Mr. Kelly said.

He said the drawings remain on Tuesday nights, with winners receiving prize money between $5 and $50 in the Queen of Hearts, a card game whose grand prize is paid when that queen is chosen.

Last year, the jackpot reached about $60,000 before the queen finally was picked.

Queen of Hearts games have been permitted by the state for about eight years, but organizations must get a license and follow a series of rules and regulations put together by the state’s Gaming Commission.

And, of course, the state wants a part of the action at the Elks, taking 2 percent of the proceeds that exceed $30,000, Mr. Kelly said.

“It’s a big money-maker for us,” he said.

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