Raids by law enforcement agencies on two Cameron County Internet sweepstakes businesses Friday night led to the seizure of more than 200 computers, an unknown amount of cash and the arrest of Brownsville’s former mayor, Pat M. Ahumada Jr.
Those raids came just weeks after similar operations shut down five eight-liner businesses in the county, after which District Attorney Luis V. Saenz vowed that sweepstakes businesses would be targeted next, regardless of whether they were owned by elected officials.
Ahumada, the owner of one of the businesses raided Friday, said Saenz’s message following those raids was specifically directed at him, classifying charges against him as the continuation of what he called a personal vendetta by the DA against him.
DA spokeswoman Melissa Zamora said Ahumada, the owner of Goldmine 777 who was charged with keeping a gambling place, was the only person arrested during Friday’s raids.
Texas statutes define a gambling place as property where one of the uses is the making or settling of bets, bookmaking, or the conducting of a lottery or the playing of gambling devices.
Also raided Friday night was Longhorn Sweepstakes in Port Isabel, although nothing was seized and no arrests were made during that operation.
Speaking at a press conference in front of the County Administration Building on Saturday, Saenz said the two businesses were targeted because they were some of the biggest and better-known sweepstakes establishments in the county.
“These are the ones people are going to notice we took down,” he said.
Saenz said while his office took the lead in the raids, the intelligence that led to the selection of Goldmine and Longhorn was provided by the Department of Homeland Security, which aided in the operation along with a handful of other agencies.
Saenz said Ahumada’s role as a public figure in the community did not factor into targeting the former mayor’s business.
Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said that while the county continues to issue permits for machines, he would likely discuss the concept of a moratorium on the permits with County Tax Assessor Tony Yzaguirre.
Cascos said that the machines were not illegal themselves, but that the usage of them in a way that awarded players with cash prizes of more than $5 did violate state gambling laws.
“It’s the use of the machine in that matter that makes it illegal,” he said.
A release from Saenz’s office cited the Texas attorney general and statutes that state that sweepstakes that give cash prizes of $5 or more, even with proceeds benefiting a non-profit, are considered illegal gambling operations.
Ahumada, who was released on a $2,000 bond, addressed the media following the press conference and insisted that the charge against him was false and misguided although he did confirm that his business had paid out increments greater than $5.
He claimed that Internet cafes — where customers pay money for time spent surfing on the Internet — are legal, but also said that his sweepstakes machines did not constitute gambling.
Internet sweepstakes establishment owners say customers who purchase Internet time may also use the time to reveal winnings from entries they say are provided along with purchase. Users can choose to reveal their winnings in a variety of ways, including animated graphics that simulate slot machines.
Ahumada compared the businesses to call-in sweepstakes run by radio stations or promotions by larger businesses like Staples or McDonalds that offer game pieces along with goods or in exchange for filling out surveys.
The stipulation inherent with those sweepstakes, Saenz said, was that those businesses do not require players to pay to enter the sweepstakes leading most sweepstakes rules to state that no purchase is necessary to win.
Ahumada said his business offers one daily free entry per person, saying that participants are not required to pay to play.
He also said, as owners of similar businesses through the state have, that because the entries are predetermined they do not constitute gambling. When asked if the predetermined nature of a scratch-off lottery ticket likewise exempts lotteries from being considered gambling, Ahumada said that it did.
Ahumada and Saenz both confirmed that Ahumada had filed a temporary restraining order requesting a hearing about the legality of his business, but that TRO was never signed by the judge.
Ahumada said he was disappointed the district attorney did not wait until his day in court to allow a judge to determine whether his operation was legal, saying he had also invited officials to visit his establishment to verify its legality.
Saenz again said Operation Bishop, the 18-month criminal investigation into illegal gambling operations in Cameron County, would not be complete until all illegal gambling establishments are closed.
A release said approximately 200 eight-liner or sweepstakes businesses currently operate in Cameron County.
Ty Johnson writes for The Brownsville Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.