Aug 10, 2012 at 8:08 am
ST. CLOUD, MN (KNSI) - Its owners call it a sweepstakes, but to the State of Minnesota, it's illegal gambling. That's the argument at the center of an afternoon raid yesterday on a St. Cloud business, just days after it opened its doors.
At the heart of the controversy, what exactly is going on at Triple Crown Sweepstakes? Members of the Department of Public Safety gambling and alcohol enforcement division served a search warrant at the Veterans Drive location and seized records and equipment for a closer look.
"Our investigators will look at everything, they'll look at the equipment that they've taken, they'll look at the records they've looked at and all that information will be shared with the Stearns County prosecutor for possible criminal charges," DPS spokesman Doug Neville said.
The entire incident shocked the Steve Ehlen, the owner of Triple Crown which just opened its doors last week.
"I pull up and there are cop cars everywhere, and Department of Public Safety, and a bunch of our patrons are outside and they're wondering what's going on and they are tearing my place apart like I'm doing something illegal," Ehlen said. "As a private business owner, I feel like my rights were violated today."
Ehlen contends his business is just a new twist on the principle of a sweepstakes with an added amount of flash, an added angle that includes a donation to charity, and all the same legality.
"The problem with the state is they have been so focused on the gambling legislation and regulations and they haven't even looked at the sweepstakes and marketing and that is what we fall under," Ehlen insists. "We are running a sweepstakes, it is not gambling."
At the heart of the matter seems to be the nature of the nearly 30 touchscreen terminals inside the business that, in appearance, are similar to video slot machines.
"When you go over to McDonalds and you tear that piece of cardboard off their french fries box then it shows you what you've won. That's all our machines do, they're just doing the tearing for you," Ehlen said. "It is an entertaining way for you to tear it off and see if you've won something."
The true nature of the touchscreens, in the eyes of the state, will be determined by investigators in Stearns County.
"They are looking at bringing out some equipment to have it looked at. And they are going to be turning over any other evidence they find to the Stearns County Attorney's office for possible criminal charges," Neville said.
According to DPS the investigation of Triple Crown, also known as Minnesota Sweeps, is not a recent development. Neville said the initial investigation into the practices of Ehlen's proposed venture began in June.
"At that time after looking at what they were planning on doing we told them at that time it would not be legal within the state of Minnesota," Neville said. "We closed that case and reopened it when we received another complaint that they had in fact opened and were operating what we believe is an illegal gambling operation."
Ehlen told a different story, saying he went through all the proper channels before opening, even going so far as to talk with St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and city officials about the legalities of Triple Crown. The only obstacle Ehlen said he encountered was in dealing with DPS.
"My attorney for three weeks tried to get a hold of the Department of Public Safety and tried to contact them more than 40 times to say, 'Here, we need a resolution because this business is going to be opening on the 27th, we need an answer,'" Ehlen said. "So what do they do, they send us a letter and 'in their opinion' they think that it is illegal gambling, and it gets sent to us on the 26th, the day before we open."
Ehlen said at that point he made the decision that his business was not gambling and proceeded to open his doors.
While the determination of the true legality of Triple Crown is under investigation, it will remain closed. Investigators do not want to put a timetable on the decision, while Ehlen told customers their information will not be lost and he hopes to have the doors open as soon as the equipment is returned.
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