CAMDEN, SC (WIS) - A Kershaw County judge declared a new type of machine that allows users to purchase long-distance calling cards and then play poker games for money violates the state's anti-video gambling laws.
The "Magic Minutes" machines, which are considered to be illegal poker machines by the Attorney General's office and State Law Enforcement Division agents, can be found in approximately 200 stores and bars in South Carolina.
Magic Minutes owners maintain that machines seized by the Kershaw County Sheriff's Department on Jan. 26 conform to the state's video gaming statute.
"These machines are nothing more than the old Pot O' Gold machines," Kershaw County investigator Jamey Jones said in early February. "If you take these Magic Minutes stickers off, you can see this is the Lucky Sweepstakes Pot O' Gold." The machines, according to Jones, were repurposed illegal gaming machines that use a calling card purchase as a front to play outlawed video poker.
"It's clearly a scam," Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said. "There is a huge amount of money behind this whole thing. There's a lot of influence peddling going on in a lot of areas, including law enforcement. And, what they have done is taken an old video poker machine, they've put a new box on it, they put some stickers on it to say this is not a gambling machine, and that's supposed to make it legal."
The Magic Minutes business admits their machines are one of the ones confiscated by law enforcement departments across the state. The problems started in Horry County back in August. Several Magic Minutes machines have also been confiscated in Darlington, Chesterfield, Florence, Richland, and Lexington counties.
By law, any gaming machines must be inspected by a magistrate if law enforcement believes the machine violates the state's poker machine ban.
Magic Minutes' owners have magistrates' opinions from all counties, finding Magic Minutes' machines comply with the video poker laws.
That's until early February when an Horry County magistrate took a look at a Magic Minutes machine and ruled that the machine was an illegal video poker machine. It was the first ruling against Magic Minutes.
"Our intention is not at all to try to legalize gambling," Magic Minutes owner LW Flynn said. Flynn founded the company, with his wife Kathy listed as the co-owner. Flynn is a former 5th Solicitor's Circuit investigator under former solicitor Barney Giese, and Mrs. Flynn is a former Richland County K-9 officer under Sheriff Leon Lott.
"I made sure with everyone that I could that what I was doing was not illegal at all," Flynn said. Flynn's machines allow a user to purchase phone minutes, then gives the player a chance to play various "sweepstakes" games. The games are poker-based "games of chance," which are forbidden under the state's video poker ban.
Flynn hired Columbia attorneys, Lir Derieg, and Josh Kendrick to fight his business' court battles. Flynn and Derieg worked together under Giese's office in Kershaw County, until Giese decided to give up his office in 2010.
"You buy long distance, you can never lose that long distance. You can never lose your money," Derieg said. Derieg said Flynn's machines merely offer "promotional games" customers can play only if the customer chooses to play once they purchase long distance minutes. Once a player enters a game, he cannot add additional money to the game, as you would with a traditional poker machine.
Derieg admits Magic Minutes' machines do offer players a chance to enter "games of chance," which state law prohibits, but likens them to McDonald's Monopoly promotions. "If you get a Coke out of a Coke machine and you unscrew the cap to see if you won a free Coke or $10, that's a game of chance. Sweepstakes are a game of chance."
"It started feeling too good to be true and, you know, it was just too good to be true," Josh Davis, the owner of Doc's Old Country Store in Camden, said. Davis had a Magic Minutes machine inside his store in January, but several weeks ago, he told Magic Minutes to "get it out of this store."
"They came in and said, 'Hey, we've got a money-making deal. It's 100 percent legal.' [They] showed me a court order and it was a way to make money, so I went with it," Davis said. The deal allowed Davis to pay Magic Minutes a weekly fee of $100, and a share of the money the machine made.
"It paid out. I'd say the largest payout I made from this machine was around $300 and people knew what this machine was all about," Davis said. "They sure weren't in here buying phone minutes, I can assure you of that."
Davis turned his machine in after hearing of court cases cropping up around the state and store owners being charged with having them. "Everything looked legit. Everything looked great on it, but there was still something fishy about it. It looked great on paper, but it didn't smell too great," Davis said.
Magic Minutes' machines are in stores across the state. The company hands out a "legal packet" to store owners, containing the orders where magistrates have ruled in favor of the machines.