State officials have won a $36,300 federal homeland security grant to keep terrorists out of Kentucky bingo halls, although not everyone agrees that's much of a threat.
"It's almost ludicrous," said Rick Bentley, a Henry Clay High School sports booster as he volunteered last Thursday at a noisy, smoke-filled Lexington bingo parlor. "The thought would never even enter my mind."
The state Office of Charitable Gaming, which regulates more than 1,300 organizations that are licensed to raise money through gambling, says it will use the grant to guarantee that money from bingo and pull-tab games does not fund terrorism.
Charitable gaming in Kentucky raises big money -- $51 million in 2003 alone.
As for whether any of it goes to terrorists, "as far as I know, absolutely not," said John Holiday, enforcement director at the Office of Charitable Gaming, who applied for the grant.
"But the potential there, to me, is just huge. You can earn a lot of money very fast and deal entirely in cash," Holiday said. "I actually went on the Web and did a lot of research about this. There are articles that have linked terrorism to charitable gaming."
Holiday said he plans to use the $36,300 to provide his five investigators with laptop computers and access to a commercially operated law-enforcement data base. Also, if the grant stretches far enough, he wants to offer forensics accounting training to his 10 auditors.
The grant is only one drop in the bucket of federal homeland security money that has poured into Kentucky since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Each year, several tens of millions of dollars flow through the state Office of Homeland Security to state and local agencies to pay for myriad projects, or to Somerset, where U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers has established the Kentucky Homeland Security Consortium and the National Institute for Hometown Security.
Rogers, a Republican who lives in Somerset, is chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee for homeland security.
The amount being spent by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in rural states that are not considered much of a target for terrorists is a sore point in cities such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles, where key facilities remain vulnerable for lack of funding, experts say.
But state and local governments understand the politics, so they cite terrorism whenever they apply for homeland security grants, even if they intend to use the money for other reasons, said James Jay Carafano, a national security expert at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
For example, fire departments use the grants to bulk up their hazardous-material units, which are far more likely to respond to methamphetamine labs than anthrax attacks on Main Street, Carafano said.
"The federal government should be preparing for the catastrophic incidents that only the federal government can respond to," Carafano said. "I'm not sure the federal government needs to be paying for more routine, day-to-day law-enforcement issues on the state level using homeland security dollars."
Allen Trimble, commonwealth's attorney in Whitley County, said he agreed that more official attention should be paid to "bingo pirates," who ease their way into charitable gaming operations and start pocketing cash intended for worthy causes.
Trimble said he has prosecuted a half-dozen such cases in his county, where a huge volume of Tennesseans cross the state line for legalized bingo. But he doesn't consider it a national security threat.
"Terrorism, I've never even heard a whiff of that," he said. "We tend to have our problems with people who have lived here in the community forever. While I don't like what they do, I'd hesitate to define it as terrorism."
But Holiday, at the Office of Charitable Gaming, said it's better to block the flow of Kentucky bingo money to terrorists before it can start.
"Every law-enforcement agency has a role to play in homeland security," Holiday said.