Casino or café: NM Supreme Court debates case

From the Ruidoso News - by Milan Simonich  Texas-New Mexico Newspapers - SANTA FE - McDonald's offered a Monopoly sweepstakes game with its burgers and fries. Coca-Cola had a promotion in which certain bottle caps could be exchanged for prizes. Businessman Michael T. Vento says he merely followed the example of those corporate giants when he provided customers an opportunity to win sweepstakes prizes at his internet café in Las Cruces.
     Gov. Susana Martinez, a district attorney when Vento was operating his internet café, prosecuted him for commercial gambling. Martinez's staff won the first round, persuading a jury to convict Vento in 2009. The state Court of Appeals overturned his conviction last summer.
     Now the New Mexico Supreme Court has accepted the case and will decide whether Vento was an enterprising businessman on the right side of the law or the proprietor of a high-tech gambling operation that violated state statutes. Vento, now 63, never had a conviction except for speeding tickets until the gambling case. In her brief, Vento's public defender, Mary Barket, called him a law-abiding citizen who "took care to comply with New Mexico's gambling laws in setting up a sweepstakes in conjunction with his internet café."
     He distributed forms to customers, advising them that they were buying time on the web when they signed up to use one of the 21 computer terminals at his Internet Access Depot. He shuttered his business after it was raided by the state Gaming Control Board in July 2008. The agency seized his computers. Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline R. Medina said in her brief that Vento's internet operation was illegal, no matter how he tried to disguise it.
     "It is abundantly clear that the manner in which defendant ran his so-called sweepstakes was nothing more than an attempt to circumvent New Mexico's statutory provisions that regulate and prohibit gambling," Medina said.
     By the state's account, customers bought about $640,000 of additional sweepstakes entries from their winnings. Medina said Vento wants the Supreme Court to believe that "his patrons purchased $806,207 of internet time and that he gave sweepstakes entries to them for free."
     Vento's lawyers have said that was exactly how his internet café operated. Read more