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Sweepstakes cafes face more scrutiny

Sweepstakes cafes face more scrutiny

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — City officials are the latest to raise issues over the new, so-called "sweepstakes" cafes. The police chief says the businesses are on his radar, and at least one City Council member wants a good, hard look at them.
 
"The complaint with some of the Internet cafes is that they're bringing in more of a criminal element," Councilman Russell Johnson said. He represents Ward 7, and that includes the location of the I-Sweeps Cafe on Hughes Lane.
 
That’s where Eyewitness News investigated complaints last week from other businesses-owners in the shopping center. They say there have been more fights in the parking lot, drug-use, and even prostitution since the cafe set up last summer.
 
Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson has heard the same.

"We've had some concerns, especially from the one on Hughes Lane," Williamson said Thursday on Eyewitness News Mornings. "We've been investigating these Internet cafes for probably about a year and a half."

He said the BPD is paying more attention to the sites.
 
Last summer the Kern County District Attorney's office started their investigation. By July, they'd filed civil lawsuits against nine cafes, and local courts had ordered them to stop any of the sweepstakes components of their businesses. The D.A.'s office has said they believe the games are illegal gambling.
 
Chief Williamson shares that view, and he's been talking to the D.A.'s office. "I've also called and talked to our U.S. Attorney in our district in regard to this," Williamson said. "There's concern not only in California, but across the country in regard to this type of operation."
 
The cafes say they offer services like making copies and sending faxes, and the sweepstakes are simply a marketing promotion. Customers playing the Internet games typically buy things like pre-paid phone cards or pay for Internet access.
 
But other businesses complain the cafes draw in negative and criminal behavior. The nearby shop-owners say there's been more vandalism and other problems since the cafes opened. "It's really impacting their business," Johnson said. "The number of repairs they have to deal with," he says as an example. And, some complain it scares their customers away.
 
The councilman says he'll take his questions and concerns to next Friday's meeting of the "Safe Neighborhoods" committee.
 
"We, as a city, need to go -- 'Hey, what can we do to deal with this problem?'" Johnson says. He wants to have a better understanding of what's happening, and what the city's options might be. He wonders if there could be a resolution or an ordinance.
 
The Safe Neighborhoods committee will meet on April 5 at City Hall North. The meeting will start at noon, according the city officials.
 
Meanwhile, the police chief says he's also looking at options. As a law officer, he's waiting to see the outcome of the civil cases filed by the D.A.'s office.
 
"Several (of the cafe-owners) got together and that's now tied up in the Appellate Court," Chief Williamson said. "We're waiting for that decision to determine if we can criminally prosecute or shut down these sweepstakes cafes in the future."