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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Internet cafes in Bakersfield have become a haven for illegal gambling, City Attorney Ginny Gennaro told the city's Safe Neighborhoods and Community Relations Committee on Thursday.
"We believe that internet cafes, as a general rule, are just a front for conducting illegal gambling acts," Gennaro told the committee, which is comprises three City Council representatives.
City officials are awaiting a decision later this year from the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno, which they hope will strengthen their legal grounds on which to prosecute cafes.
In the interim, the committee directed Police Chief Greg Williamson to have officers park outside the cafes while writing up their reports, hoping a police presence will inspire law-abiding behavior.
"What makes these illegal is, they're disguising gambling by calling it a sweepstakes," committee chairman Russell Johnson, Ward 7 councilman, said after the meeting. City officials say that, typically, cafes will sell phone cards with codes which may be redeemed to play online games.
"You can't sell someone an Internet or a phone card that has so many minutes on it that they'll never use it, and meanwhile they're in there gambling," Johnson said.
Bakersfield dentist Dr. Hal Shapiro agreed. He said an Internet cafe next door to his offices has negatively impacted his business.
"I have people walk into my office just to ask my receptionist 'Where's the casino?'" Shapiro told the committee. "That's kind of what I'm stuck with after 26 years."
Reactions varied among internet cafes contacted by The Californian. At iSweeps Internet Cafe in southeast Bakersfield, an employee immediately hung up when a reporter asked if it was an Internet cafe. Others said they run a legitimate business and that police haven't been seen.
"Not on my shift, we haven't" had visits from police, said Briana Nicole, shift manager at Keeping It Real Internet Cafe and Tattoo in northeast Bakersfield. "You come in here, put money on your account, and you can just get on the Internet or play games."
The Police Department has increased its monitoring of illegal activity conducted at or near the cafes, such as drug sales and prostitution, Williamson said.
But owners of Internet cafes the city closed last year have appealed verdicts against them, and the Kern County District Attorney's office is awaiting decisions from the appellate court before it prosecutes other cafes.
"We are awaiting a court decision from federal courts that these Internet cafes are exactly what we believe they are, which is a front for illegal gambling activities," Gennaro said.