Norfolk and Virginia Beach business owners sue to halt Virginia skill machine ban, calling it a ‘human rights violation’

Virginia Politics

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Six business owners have sued the Commonwealth of Virginia in hopes of keeping skill games in operation beyond July 1 — the day they are scheduled to be banned.

In the complaint filed Tuesday in Norfolk Circuit Court, attorneys argue that the loss of the games — often found in convenience stores, bars and restaurants — will “substantially affect, damage and, and hinder” their clients’ businesses, “potentially to the point of insolvency and closure.”

It describes the law banning them as “discriminatory,” in that similar games such as historic horse racing terminals will still be legal.

They’re asking a judge to halt the law’s effective date while Attorney General Mark Herring investigates the matter as a possible violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.

For supporters of the games, this is their last ditch effort.

The games operate much like a slot machine. But after the initial spin, players on skill machines can adjust the symbols to create a winning pattern to win additional money.

Business owners receive a cut of that money. Many have told 10 On Your Side that the games’ presence helps to keep customers at their business longer, spending money on other products.

State powerbrokers haven’t swayed in their disdain for the devices in more than two years. Minority Leader state Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City County), Finance Committee Chair State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County), and state Sen. Louise Lucas, (D-Portsmouth) all have criticized the gaming manufacturers for the way they entered the state without permission and hurt lottery sales.

The General Assembly voted to ban them last year, but in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) came up with a proposal to tax and regulate the devices for one year, in order to help struggling businesses and establish a COVID-19 fund.

A recent release from Queen of Virginia Skill, the largest gaming provider, announced they contributed $74 million to Virginia’s COVID-19 Relief Fund in the last year.

Himansu Patel (Market Express, Virginia Beach), Melody Weekly (Mel’s Place, Virginia Beach), Judith Hendricks, Takis Karangelen (Azalea Inn, Norfolk), Tommy Posilero (Mona Lisa Restaurant and Bar, Norfolk), and Boyd Melchor (Kelly’s Tavern, various locations) all are registered with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to operate skill games.

Attorney Mike Joynes, who along with Del. Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth) is representing the business owners, said banning the games now makes no sense.

“Think about it. Look at the condition that COVID left a lot of the restaurants and different places. It was the skill games that kept most of these places afloat,” Joynes said. “They are just now getting back on their feet and as soon as they are, the governor wants to take them away from them.”

Joynes claims that a significant proportion of the owners of businesses operating skill games are comprised of ethnic and religious minorities, including his clients.

He says because the majority of casino companies soon to be or already operating in the state are not predominantly owned by minorities, the ban on skill games violates the Virginia Human Rights Act in that “it unfairly and prejudicially affects the rights, titles, and interests that the Plaintiffs and other similarly affected business owners have in the conduct of their businesses.”

“Casinos still have their games. The traditional horse racing companies still have all their games,” Joynes said. “It’s wrong, we believe it’s a human rights violation.”

Joynes said as much in a letter to Attorney General Herring.

Joynes said Herring’s office now has 180 days to issue an opinion.

He hopes a judge will allow gaming to continue until then. A hearing has been scheduled for June 30.

In the meantime, Queen of Virginia has launched a campaign saying goodbye to the commonwealth.

On July 1, as skill game regulation ends in Virginia, skill game operations and needed additional funds at restaurants, bars and other locations will also end,” a release read. “QVS will comply with the current law and shut down its business operations in the Commonwealth by that date.”

A spokesperson for the company said the machines would be removed shortly after and sent to other states.

Joynes hopes they have results before that happens.

“If there is a legal argument to be made that something should be legal, then I think it’s incumbent upon us to make that argument for the folks that need us,” Joynes said.

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