WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A WIS investigation into a series of audio recordings of Lexington town councilman Danny Frazier has given the public a look inside an underground video poker business that shines a light on a state senator and a county sheriff.
Our investigation started with a secret recording provided to WIS by a source who posed as a businessman interested in starting an illegal sweepstakes gaming business. The conversation happened nearly six months ago between Frazier and the informant. Frazier walks the informant through the process of starting the business, how to hide it under Frazier's LLC and him where to put the machines where law enforcement won't touch them.
That place is West Columbia. "Dennis is the police chief here. Dennis is not touching it," Frazier tells the informant. Frazier's talking about West Columbia Police Chief Dennis Tyndall. Barr: "He mentions you by name and he says quote: 'Dennis Tyndall is not going to touch them." TYNDALL: "He didn't say that I said that." BARR: "No, but he's telling the informant that you're not going to touch them. Why would Danny Frazier tell this man that?" TYNDAL: "I don't know. I really don't know."
Frazier initially told WIS he couldn't recall statements made on the recording where he's outlining an underground video poker business. In a statement days later, Frazier claims he made the whole scenario up.
Frazier tells the informant he's earning $3,900 a week at Gator's One Stop Party Shop, a West Columbia video poker business. The business' Facebook page shows at least 10 machines inside. The business is one block away from the West Columbia Police Department, on a corner officers pass multiple times a day.
It's a police force Frazier said he isn't worried about.
Gator's One Stop isn't the only sweepstakes business within a stone's throw of police headquarters. At the corner of 12th Street and Augusta Road sits Minute Men Sweepstakes, which is located a few hundred yards behind Gator's, even closer to the police department.
BARR: "One block over, there are two businesses with 20 of these machines that—it looks like you can purchase phone minutes, but you go behind it and you can play poker games and they are paying out cash money here. Would that surprise you?" TYNDALL: "It would. It would. I'm not aware of that."
We found that information out after asking the man working the Minute Men business, what's inside, "We don't have the computer games, though. We have the phone card machines," the unidentified worker told WIS.
The phone card machines work like the Magic Minutes machines that were seized and destroyed in Kershaw County in March. They offer a player the chance to buy phone minutes, then allow them to play multiple poker games for a chance to win cash.
Minute Men even got a business license from the city, "We went through the process. He (the business owner) was clear about what he was doing, you know; a lot of them say, like business services. We didn't do any of that, he put "sweepstakes" and he was open with everything he was doing and they issued a business license," the worker said.
Tyndall said the business was licensed for an Internet café, "As I understand it, when they came down to get their license—was for people to come in and be able to get down, sit on the Internet, drink coffee and do whatever they need to do," Tyndall told WIS. The State Law Enforcement Division found the café businesses have an added feature; online gambling for cash pay outs.
BARR: "Have you or your investigators any knowledge that that's going on there?" TYNDALL: "No, absolutely not. I have not been in there, myself, but that is not what they were licensed for, either. So, now that you tell me that, that's good information to have."
"No question about it. It's made a comeback, no question," SLED Chief Mark Keel told WIS, "What we see today is, again, we see a proliferation of it, just like it was in the early days and it seems to get worse and worse."
Keel knows, his agents have conducted weekly raids since March, seizing more than 750 phone card video poker machines and Internet Café terminals across the state. Just last week in Greenville County, SLED agents took 102 Internet Café gambling terminals from a single business.
When Keel took over SLED in July 2011, he said he started fielding calls from sheriffs and police chiefs across the state, asking for help combating the video gaming industry. Keel said he called a meeting with the SC Convenience Stores Association earlier this year let them know SLED was back enforcing the state's video poker ban, "We weren't trying to catch people off guard. I wanted to let them know we were going to come back out and we were going to attack the problem."
After that meeting, Keel said he met with SC Attorney General Alan Wilson to get a formal opinion as to whether the sweepstakes machines were a violation of the video poker ban. Wilson issued an opinion following that meeting, then SLED rebuilt its alcohol and video poker unit to conduct statewide take downs.
"Since March, I will tell you, that we have not lost a case," Keel said, "We're pretty dog-gone serious because we've been out every week since March -- I don't think there's probably been a week gone by since March that we haven't been out seizing machines."
Despite the information on the recording, Frazier has denied any involvement in any Lexington County video poker businesses. Although he said on the recording that he's got intimate knowledge of the industry and locations of video gambling machines, like the cache of machines, hidden away inside a Lexington gas station, "You know where the Kwik Way service station is? Go into Kwik Way, walk in the door, turn left to the coolers, walk straight back and you'll see some bathrooms on your right. Then you'll see a door straight in front of you. Open that door, walk in that room right there."
Following Frazier's directions, we found five video poker gambling machines in an unmarked room inside the Augusta Road Kwik Way gas station. The room was partially a storage room, but had machines lined up along a wall with bar stools in front of each one. The machines were plugged in, turned on, and ready for business.
Frazier tells the informant to go take a look for himself, and what to do if he's caught looking around, "You'll see all the machines in there. There'll be people in there playing them. Close the door back and say, 'Oh, I thought this was the bathroom.'"
As for prosecuting the businesses in West Columbia, Chief Tyndall said he's not protecting any of them. BARR: "The fact that he (Frazier) said that you, as the police chief won't touch it here in West Columbia, is there any protection being offered to these businesses, given the numbers that are so close?" TYNDALL: "Absolutely not. To my knowledge, he didn't say on that tape—I can tell you with certainty he didn't say Dennis Tyndall said that. I don't know where he got that from; he didn't say I said that."
Tyndall said he plans to address the gambling businesses in West Columbia and has sent an officer to SLED training to enable his department to prosecute illegal gambling businesses in town.
Keel said his agency is aggressively pursuing video poker and players, as well as machine owners, are taking a gamble that they won't get caught.