CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The logo on the poker table read “Charity Games.” The nameplate on the door read “Charity Games LLC.” The Secretary of State licensed the games themselves as a charity. And Charlotte-Mecklenburg police took the operator’s word when he said he was raising money for charity.
There’s just one problem: “Charity Games” was a for-profit corporation – not a charity.
Cell phone video obtained by the NewsChannel 36 I-Team shows players tossed cash on the table to buy chips and bet on individual hands of poker and cashed out when they were ready to leave.
Poker games at an office park off of Arrowood Road routinely ran from the afternoon into the wee hours of the morning. And at this poker game, the security was provided by off-duty, uniformed CMPD officers.
“This job was presented as a charitable organization,” said Captain Andy Kornberg, who supervises off-duty, secondary employment for CMPD. “I can't say that (the officers) never went inside because I wasn't there but the specification for the job is that they were working outside.”
Kornberg says the officers were outside in the parking lot while the poker game went on – first at the Ramada Inn on Woodlawn Road, and then in an office park at 9635 Southern Pines Boulevard, off of Arrowood Road in south Charlotte.
Kornberg says off-duty CMPD officers who take second jobs as uniformed police coordinate with the department, and sign off on time sheets and hourly rates of pay.
The off-duty officers are still sworn to uphold the law, be on the lookout for crime and can still make arrests. Off-duty employers pay the officers directly, according to Capt. Kornberg, but cannot order officers to guard the cash register or remain in the back of a business. Instead, Kornberg says the officers try to maintain a visible presence at the front of a business.
Records obtained by the NewsChannel 36 I-Team under the NC Open Records Act show that CMPD officers worked off-duty on 16 separate dates from October 10, 2009 to May 19, 2010. The officers began working a “Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament” at the Ramada Inn at 212 West Woodlawn Road but moved to the Southern Pines Boulevard location on April 21, 2010. Police say the officers never made any arrests.
“Charity Games” paid each officer directly and the rates ranged from $27 to $30 an hour with the typical rate at $28 an hour.
Kornberg denies that the officers would be any less likely to enforce gambling statutes because they were being paid directly by “Charity Games.”
But after seven months the off-duty assignment at the poker game abruptly stopped, even as the poker games continued into this year.
“We pulled the job,” said Capt. Kornberg. “The minute we got an inclination there may be something going on there we pulled it.”
Captain Kornberg says an officer saw the job posting for the off-duty work at a poker tournament and emailed a supervisor in the supplemental employment section to say there might be gambling at the poker game.
“If it smells bad to us we pull the job,” said Kornberg.
Police spokesman Rob Tufano says CMPD launched an investigation of the poker game and contacted other law enforcement agencies but never got probable cause to make an arrest.
Charity Games advertised games seven days a week on a full-color calendar handed out to players. It sent text messages to regular players promoting daily specials. A portion of the proceeds supported legitimate non-profits, primarily the Charlotte Zoological Society, a nascent effort to attract $300 million to acquire land and animals and build a zoo.
Both the Zoo and Charity Games were operated by the same man: Robert Mussen. Mussen has repeatedly declined the I-Team’s requests for an on-camera interview.
“I can assure you there were no improprieties,” Mussen said Friday in a brief telephone interview. “All the officers liked the event.”
After the I-Team raised questions about the Secretary of State licensing a for-profit poker game as a charity, the charitable solicitation licensing section moved to formally revoke the license for charity games.
Mussen has shut down the location at 9635 Southern Pines, according to ALE agents who served a subpoena earlier this week.
Meantime, CMPD supervisors say its officers did the right thing.
Capt. Kornberg said, “I can say with great certainty had they observed criminal activity they would have brought it to our attention and we would have ceased the job.”
It’s hard to know whether officers “observed criminal activity.”
The question is how hard they looked.