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Casino owners press their case for injunction

ANNAPOLIS — With a temporary restraining order ready to expire Thursday, lawyers for the owners of a Chesapeake Beach mini casino alleged discrimination Monday against the establishment, which could be shut down through an act of the General Assembly.

Lawyers attributed much of that discrimination against Crooked I Sports Bar & Grill to the actions of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat who has been the Senate’s presiding officer since 1987.

Crooked I Sports Bar & Grill (Photo by David Stewart)

In 2009 and 2011, Miller asked the Calvert County State’s Attorney’s Office and the state comptroller to conduct an investigation into Crooked I, because he believed the bingo machines the parlor operated were illegal. In both cases, the machines were found to be legal.

Owners of the Crooked I, who said they make 95 percent their money from players of the parlor’s 105 bingo machines, said seven other parlors in Calvert County and Anne Arundel County use the same — or similar — electronic bingo machines.

But SB 864, easily passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in May, would shutter the Crooked I while keeping those seven operations in business. The law took effect July 1, but the Crooked I is still operating while the restraining order is in effect.

After six-and-a-half hours of testimony Monday in a preliminary injunction hearing, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Philip T. Caroom decided to recess before hearing closing arguments. The hearing is scheduled to resume Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., and Caroom is expected to rule late Wednesday afternoon.

Crooked I’s lawyers must show a compelling reason for the judge to grant the injunction — such as irreparable harm that could be caused by not allowing the injunction — and that the plaintiff would likely prevail in trial on the merits of the case.

Much of Monday was spent debating the industry definition of electronic bingo versus instant bingo versus slot machines. By the end of the day, expert witnesses even failed to provide a concrete definition for bingo itself.

Ronald H. Jarashow, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the innards of bingo machines at the other seven locations in Calvert and Anne Arundel counties may differ from venue to venue, but are substantially similar to each other, and those used at Crooked I.

“As to a user, they are all virtually identical,” Jarashow said. “And as of July 2012, they’re all slot machines.”

Crooked I is being forced to close because of the “personal belief” of Miller that the parlor’s machines are illegal, said Jarashow, of Baldwin, Kagan & Gormley LLC, an Annapolis law firm.

Emails between Miller and owners of the Crooked I were not admissible in court due in part to the Senate President’s legislative privilege, which prevents him from being sued for official acts.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel, was the bill’s official sponsor. But Jarashow said an early draft of the legislation emailed to lobbyists showed “it’s really Sen. Miller’s bill.”

The draft was emailed to lobbyists by Miller’s chief of staff, Victoria L. Gruber. Miller’s name, in type, was crossed out. DeGrange’s name was handwritten in its place. Gruber was in court at the hearing’s start, but left after Caroom ruled on Miller’s legislative privilege.

“He was singling out our client to go out of business,” Jarashow said. “He drove his personal belief to create legislation to the detriment of our client.”

Miller’s office declined to comment.