Apr 29, 2013 12:21 PM by Janine Reyes
CORPUS CHRISTI -- Charity bingo is big business in Texas, bringing in more than $700 million in sales last year. Of that 700-million dollars though, only $29 million went to charities..
So, who is winning and who's watching to make sure the charities involved are not cheated?
For the most part, it's not the charity winning. Just about everyone else involved is making money though in what actually functions more like big business than charity.
Every day of the week charitable bingo brings in business at Corpus Christi Bingo.
The Columbian Ladies of South Texas run the bingo to raise money for their church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, they're affiliated with the Knights of Columbus and Wednesdays are their nights.
The group caught our attention with about $1.12 million in bingo sales last year. They had big payouts too, more than $860,000. But, after that, the charity only got about 3% of the $257,000 left.
They're supposed to pay 35% to the charity after prizes and expenses. That did not happen last year, they didn't even come close.
We don't know their expenses, and neither did they when we asked the treasurer how much payroll is for each session
"I can't even come up with a figure," treasurer Dee Escamilla told us.
The group is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3). That means they are a non-profit, or charity, so what do they do exactly?
"We give out scholarships and we have Christmas parties for the children, especially families right here from the bingo, because they're the one's that support our bingo," said Betty Constante, a member of the group, "and we help our church, the Lady of Guadalupe Church, she said.
The Columbian Ladies offer scholarships that have ranged from $1,500 on down and say everyone who applies gets something.
But, a payout of less than $8,000 in 2012 doesn't fund many scholarships. In 2012, all the charity got was $7,596.00.
We sat down with the Columbian Ladies to crunch numbers and get answers.
They held a total of 157 bingo sessions last year, bringing in an average of only $48.76 per session for the charity.
Remember, they brought in a total of more than a million dollars in those sessions, an average of more than $7,000 per session
The Columbian Ladies get paid for their time here too, some, up to $75 dollars a session, that's more than the charity gets, and that's only payroll for one person.
"You're also making money," we asked Contante when we found her running the bingo one night. "Yes," she replied. "Minnie was also making money," we asked. "yes," she said. "Who else is making money," we asked. "The workers and the people that win," said Constante.
The people playing make money sometimes, too. Sylvia Zarate said she was on a roll. She won more in one week than the Columbian Ladies gave gave their charity in quarters 1, 2 and 4 combined.
Their 2nd quarter, the charity earned less than $7 per session. "The charity's getting $6.74 per session," we pointed out to the group. "Is this really the best way to raise money for a charity," we asked. "No its not, no its not," admitted Columbian Ladies Secretary Rachel Lozano.
The women admit they formed the charity to start the bingo and do not fund raise in any other way. Constante said it's an easier way to fund raise than hosting a barbeque would be. "You don't think you'd make more than $6 for a barbeque," we asked. "Its more work, its a lot of work on the barbeques," she replied.
It also wouldn't pay them. At $75 per session, the bingo operator earns about $30 dollars an hour.
With 157 sessions last year, that position alone paid almost $12,000. Usually, we're told, the group's President Minnie Pena works as bingo operator. "That's $11,775 dollars," we pointed out to the group,. "But almost all the operators here earn that amount," Pena responded.
They are right, most the charities playing charity bingo contribute very little to the charity itself.
The Texas Lottery Commission is supposed to validate the numbers, the Columbian Ladies are being audited now, because they have not contributed enough.
A 2012 Sunset Advisory Commission report found bingo to have "very real opportunities for fraud." It also called the Charitable Bingo Operations division out on having "an inefficient audit and inspection process."
Our calls and emails to the commission went ignored.
Meanwhile, back at the bingo hall, the charity with the lowest payout in the coastal bend insists they are here for the right reasons; they say they do it for the charity, but, the economy and 8-liners are cutting into the charity's profit. It brought Lozano to tears. We asked her why she was getting emotional. "Not being able to give like we have," she said. She told us she's seen the charity do good things for the community.
The women tell us they may end up contributing more when the audit is complete, an accounting issue may be to blame for the shortfall in 2012.
By the way, one of the scholarships awarded by the charity in year's past, went to President Minnie Pena's own son, she also earns $75 each session to operate the bingo.