Some implicated in Hanahan poker raid also charged in Mt. P.

Bob Chimento

Bob Chimento has been dealt this hand before.

In 2006, Chimento was playing poker at a Mount Pleasant home when police stormed through the door and charged him and 23 others with illegal gambling.

Fast forward two years to another night and another home — with the same result.

Cards, chips, multiple arrests. Once again, Chimento's name is in the pot.

And he's not alone. Several people implicated this week in a sophisticated Lowcountry gambling operation also were charged in the infamous Mount Pleasant raid that drew national attention and reinvigorated a debate over the fairness of South Carolina's anti-gaming laws, authorities said.

Investigators have obtained 191 warrants to charge 65 people in connection with the 10-month investigation into a high-stakes poker circuit run from four area locations. The probe culminated with a raid Friday at Martin Orlando Reyes' Hanahan home, where cards, chips, poker tables and $40,000 were seized.

Chimento said he did not frequent the Hanahan home; the stakes were out of his price range. But he has heard there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest in connection with some other facet of the gambling investigation, he said.

Chimento is among five of the Mount Pleasant players still awaiting trial in the 2006 case. Eighteen of the 24 arrested challenged the charges, some have since pleaded guilty.

Chimento doesn't seem particularly cowed by the prospect of facing new charges. In fact, he wants his day in court on this issue. He hopes it will galvanize support for changing the 200-year-old state law that bars card and dice games.

"We as individuals want the right to play cards," he said. "This is strictly for fun. I'm just a guy who wants to play cards in his home and enjoy myself without being arrested."

Chimento's statements were the latest volley in an ongoing public relations battle between the card players and the investigators pressing charges against them.

In media interviews, Reyes, his wife and others have painted an image of a friendly group of card enthusiasts just trying to enjoy a harmless hobby in the privacy of their homes. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon and investigators have countered with descriptions of a well-heeled and organized gambling operation where paid dealers worked the tables and large sums of money routinely changed hands.

Half of those implicated in the Hanahan raid have yet to set foot in court or be served with warrants, but that hasn't stopped the two sides from jockeying for public favor through print, Internet and the airwaves.

A Charleston police officer, a veteran prosecutor, a school teacher and a host of other professionals have been implicated in the case. And the taint has touched some unintended targets as well.

George Gardner, who runs a Summerville accounting business, said he has lost some customers after they mistakenly assumed he was the same George Gardner charged in the gambling probe. He is not. "I don't even gamble," he said.

State Rep. Wallace Scarborough, R-James Island, said the debate has breathed new life into his proposal to loosen state law to allow casual poker games and church raffles — as well as to clarify that games such as Monopoly and Yahtzee are legal. The bill had been stuck in a legislative subcommittee for months, but he received word Tuesday that the measure will finally get a hearing next week.

"People are outraged by what is going on in Charleston," he said. "This is an outdated law. It needs to be fixed."

Chimento said the law, as it is currently written, is unconstitutional and leads to selective enforcement against aficionados of poker, which he maintains is a noble game of skill. "We are serious players, poker enthusiasts, and it's not wrong to be that way."

While the law might not change, the case already has brought about some retooling of the Sheriff's Office policies concerning the use of ski masks to protect the identities of officers during raids and other operations.

Cannon first expressed concern about the practice after a December raid at a Hanahan restaurant to seize video gambling machines. Some customers said they were frightened because they mistook the officers for robbers. Some card players at Reyes' house had similar complaints.

The Sheriff's Office also took some jabs on talk radio for having masked investigators who resembled ninjas on hand to process poker suspects who surrendered at the county jail on Monday. One attorney dubbed it a "costume party."

Sheriff's Maj. John Clark said undercover officers have real concerns about protecting their identities, particularly if that might compromise ongoing cases. But in poker raids and similar vice operations, the Sheriff's Office will try to substitute uniformed deputies for those officers to avoid using the masks and creating confusion, he said.