HAWAIIAN GARDENS — The Cooper Fellowship Inc. has indefinitely closed its $24-million-a-year charity bingo operation, leaving city officials wondering if their single largest source of tax revenue has left town for good.
Representatives of Cooper met with Hawaiian Gardens officials recently and advised them that they were "tired of the bingo business" and would like another nonprofit organization to take over, Mayor Rosalie M. Sher said this week. Cooper primarily runs a center in Santa Ana for recovering alcoholics.
"It was a surprise to me," Sher said. "I thought they were closed for repairs."
When the bingo operation at 11831 Carson Street closed on Jan. 25, Cooper spokesman Bill Thom said it was because roof repairs were in progress. Earlier this month, however, Thom informed Sher and Acting City Administrator Dudley Lang that Cooper would not be reopening the 600-seat parlor, Sher said.
"They didn't really say why," Sher recalled. "They said they are closed and don't intend to open."
Since launching the highly successful bingo operation in September, 1983, Cooper Fellowship has provided the city with up to $200,000 in annual revenue, comprising about 7% of the city's operating budget, Lang said.
"That is a significant source of revenue," Sher said. "Not having it will hurt us."
Ron Davis, an attorney for Cooper, hedged somewhat this week, saying that the operation was closed indefinitely but could reopen later under Cooper's direction.
"We haven't made a firm decision," Davis said. The board of directors "is deciding whether to start up again or dispose of the property, potentially to another charitable organization."
In their meeting with city officials, Thom and Davis said that Friends of Lubavitch Inc., an Orthodox Jewish organization based in Orange County, had expressed interest in taking over the operation.
The group, which runs a bingo game in Santa Ana, applied for a license in Hawaiian Gardens earlier this month. But Sher said the application cannot be processed because of a moratorium on bingo licenses.
In August, the City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting the issuance of bingo permits until June. City officials had received several applications for new licenses and had begun to fear that Hawaiian Gardens might become "the bingo capital of the world," Sher explained.
Under the city's bingo ordinance, there is no limit to the number of licenses that the City Council can grant. In addition to the Cooper parlor, there are two other smaller bingo games in the city. One is a two-day-a-week operation run by the Lakewood Elks Lodge and the other is a weekly game operated by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7243.
"No one can figure out what's going to happen now," said Council member Kathleen Navejas. "Why would they (Cooper) give up a seven-day-a-week bingo license? Things were going so good."
Davis said the board's decision was a result of "the pressure of running a seven-day-a-week bingo operation."
"Cooper has had its share of scrutiny," Davis said. "It became not worth it."
Indeed, Cooper Fellowship has been the target of several investigations by the state attorney general's office and the Los Angeles and Orange County district attorneys.
In 1985, the organization's founder and executive director, Jack Blackburn, was arrested on misdemeanor charges of illegally using bingo proceeds to pay wages to himself and other employees. The previous year, Blackburn was arrested on charges of cocaine possession. But according to officials in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, neither charge resulted in a conviction.
Deputy Dist. Atty. James Koller said Blackburn paid a $5,000 fine and the misdemeanor charges were dismissed.
In 1980, Blackburn pleaded guilty to charges of laundering campaign contributions to a group that was trying to recall two Anaheim officials who favored limits on bingo.
A Model Business
But Hawaiian Gardens officials said they have had no problems with the Cooper Fellowship.
"They have been a model business," said Councilman Richard Vineyard. "Bingo has been a credit to our city."
Cooper Fellowship also contributes about $10,000 a month to the nonprofit Hawaiian Gardens Social Service Agency, said Carlos Navejas, chairman of the agency's board of directors.
Navejas said he is optimistic that Cooper Fellowship will continue to fund the agency.
"I am going by a commitment they made a year ago that they would continue to fund us if they ever closed down temporarily," Navejas said. "I expect them to keep that commitment until I hear otherwise. My feeling is that Cooper will probably start up again."