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ALE probes illegal poker

By Ritchie Starnes

News Editor

A former Stanfield commissioner and a current Oakboro commissioner are facing the likelihood of misdemeanor gambling charges and the tavern hosting the poker game at risk of losing its ABC permit.

Jason Smith, a former Stanfield town commissioner, and Oakboro Commissioner Ernest Broadway were captured on videotape engaged in an illegal game of poker at Morgan’s Tavern. Part of an investigative story aired on Fox 46 Charlotte news station Wednesday, the telecast included videotape obtained March 28 of Smith and Broadway playing poker for money on a table in the open at Morgan’s Tavern.

Terry Pennington, of Locust and former owner of Wishbone Pub, which is now Morgan’s Tavern and owned by Smith and his wife, gained the assistance of Fox 46 to report on the illegal gambling.

“I have a ton of videotape. I’ve been videotaping illegal gambling for four and a half years,” Pennington said.

He said Smith has been hosting poker games twice weekly, Wednesday and Saturday nights, at his Morgan’s Tavern, a private club at 207 West Stanly St., beside the Stanfield Police Department.

Stanfield police Chief Corrie Faggart said he had no knowledge of any illegal gambling.

“I never knew him (Smith) to be gambling,” Faggart said,

Private clubs, like Morgan’s Tavern, are for members only and typically keep the entrance locked. Such establishments fall under the jurisdiction of Alcohol Law Enforcement, a division of the State Bureau of Investigation. Unlike police departments, ALE can enter private clubs that sell alcohol without a warrant, Faggart said.

“The Stanfield Police Department does not routinely inspect businesses and may not legally conduct a search for illegal activity without probable cause to believe crime is being or has been committed,” the police department said in a statement on its Facebook page. “We often rely on tips from the public to alert us of criminal activity, especially on private property where citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The property’s proximity to the police department does not lessen this expectation,” the statement continued. Although Stanfield police have never charged Smith for gambling, they, along with ALE, have charged him multiple times for alcohol-related charges.

But Pennington expressed no confidence in Stanfield police, suggesting it has given Smith preferential treatment due to his former standing as a town official.

Faggart denies any special treatment toward Smith.

“The public record clearly demonstrates that the current owners of Morgan’s Tavern were appropriately charged on multiple occasions for any and all violations which came to our attention,” the statement read.

“The Stanfield Police Department will not overlook violations of law regardless of whom the offending party may be.”

In the Fox 46 investigation, Smith was asked about the gambling, which he denied.

“No, that’s not true,” Smith told reporter David Sentendrey.

“We haven’t been doing any gambling at the bar,” Smith added even after he was informed of the undercover camera that captured Smith and others gambling at a table covered with cash.

On Friday, Smith told the SNAP that Morgan’s Tavern was closed at the time of the Fox 46 news story.

“Me and my buddies have been playing poker every Wednesday night for 10 years,” Smith said. “We are closed on Wednesday nights so we can play poker.”

He said the bar is open only Friday and Saturday nights.

The game was visible from outside through a window of the tavern, until someone closed the blinds at the sight of cameras.

Broadway, who also serves as the town council’s chairman of the Oakboro Police Department, acknowledged that he had indeed been gambling at Smith’s establishment as observed. He told Fox 46 that he would not do it again.

However, when contacted by the SNAP, Broadway denied making that statement to Fox 46.

“I didn’t think it was illegal,” Broadway said. “It’s a membership thing. On Wednesdays, it’s members only.”

Broadway said he thought members could legally gamble in a private establishment, part of Morgan’s annual dues of $10.

Omar Qureshi, special agent in charge for ALE, said Thursday agents already had enough videotape evidence for a violation related to Alcohol Beverage Control.

The ABC permit for Morgan’s Tavern is in jeopardy. At the very least, it’s likely to be suspended. Given the type of ABC permit at the bar, that’ll affect the service of all types of alcohol, i.e. liquor, beer and wine.

As for criminal charges, agents plan to confer with the District Attorney’s Office, Qureshi said. Pennington said he and his wife purchased Wishbone Pub from Smith in 2011. The ABC permit was in his wife’s name.

“They talked me into coming here. I didn’t want to open a business in Stanfield,” Pennington said. “Jason Smith talked me into it and said he was going to give me protection because he’s a politician.”

Soon after buying the business,

Pennington began making improvements to the business’ infrastructure, he said.

During his ownership, Pennington became the subject of police investigations, he said. He was charged for having illegal video poker machines inside the bar.

While Pennington was being charged, he said Smith had illegal poker machines in a business next door called Jake’s Java, but managed to avoid police scrutiny.

“He (Smith) was running a gambling ring and bootleg joint right beside me,” Pennington said. “At the same time, I was being policed to death.”

After the charge for poker machines in 2014, Pennington sold the business back to Smith, but not before losing $250,000 in the venture, he said.

“The day I sold it to him he put a poker table in it the next day,” Pennington said.

Pennington said he has been collecting evidence of Smith’s illegal gambling because he suspects the former town commissioner used his political clout to bring police down on him to sink his business so Smith could buy it back at a bargain while keeping any gambling suspicions away from himself.

“It’s took four years for me to get here,” Pennington said. “My agenda is to keep the truth going and that’s what I aim to do.”

Stanfield commissioners expressed concern about Smith operating the bar. At the time Smith had charges pending for possession of alcohol beverages without a permit, possession of mixed beverages by an unauthorized person, purchasing more than eight liters of liquor without a permit and transporting more liquor than is allowed.

ABC records also showed Jakes Java was permitted Aug. 5, 2009, to sell malt beverages and unfortified wine, but ABC canceled that permit in December 2010, some three months after the corporation was dissolved by the Secretary of State for failure to file annual reports.

Morgan’s Tavern opened with Melissa Smith, Jason Smith’s wife, on the ABC permit.

Morgan’s Tavern is Stanfield’s only establishment that serves alcohol.

Contact at 704-754-5076 or ritchie.starnes@stanlynewspress.com.