Draft Honolulu City Council legislation would raise the stakes for landlords who allow illegal gambling in their units.

Two Honolulu City Council members are taking aim at the perennial problem of illegal game rooms by proposing new legislation that would hold landowners accountable instead of just relying on police to crack down on the gamblers.

One bill introduced Wednesday would authorize the Department of Planning and Permitting to impose fines of $1,000 a day, up to $150,000, on landlords who host illegal game rooms. This bill would also empower the Corporation Counsel, the city’s legal branch, to put liens on those landlords, even if prosecutors decline to bring criminal charges.

Another measure would let the Honolulu Police Department and DPP collaborate so police officers designated by DPP could serve penalties for building code violations in places that might not be safe for building inspectors. Targeting building code violations is another tactic that has been used to put pressure on the landowners.

City Councilman Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, speaking during a press conference held across the street from a former illegal gaming room in Kalihi, said the new bills will create more tools to hold landowners accountable for hosting gambling operations. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Council members Tyler Dos Santos-Tam and Andria Tupola hope the measures would prevent gambling locations that have already been busted from hosting new operations. A separate resolution, which is not binding, would urge HPD and DPP to work together and share evidence to stop game rooms.

The city proposals, which are expected to be heard by the full council on Oct. 4, come after the Legislature targeted game room staff by turning the crime of promoting gambling into a felony.

“We want these to end. Full stop,” Dos Santos-Tam said in an interview before a joint press conference about the proposals.

The freshman council member, who took office last year, said he’s been working on this issue for several months after hearing an outcry over the problem on the campaign trail.

“So in areas like Kalihi Valley, in Palama, in Chinatown, and even in Liliha, there are multiple game rooms, and it is like playing cat and mouse to shut them down,” he said. “And part of the issue is that the landlords will feign ignorance.”

If a police raid ousts one gambling operation, he said, landlords often welcome a new one a short while later.

“Obviously what we’ve been doing right now has not been working, and so we want to give a few more tools,” Dos Santos-Tam said.

Tupola, who said there are now 16 active game rooms in her district on the West Side, tried to introduce legislation in 2021 that would prohibit illegal activities in the land use code, but it didn’t work out. So she took a step back, she said Wednesday in an interview.

“When Tyler got elected, he had almost the same exact issues I had, so then we started to work on what other things could we do besides trying to write it into the land use code,” Tupola said.

Tupola hopes that authorizing certain HPD officers to serve code violations on behalf of DPP inspectors would bring swift and safer enforcement.

“There’s no DPP inspector that’s going to go put themselves in harm’s way to go inside a game room, and I don’t think that’s recommendable either,” she said.

Tupola tried to put forth legislation to combat illegal game rooms in 2021, but without luck. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Police Maj. Mike Lambert, who oversees narcotics and vice enforcement, said more than 100 game rooms may be operating across Oahu “on any given day.” He stood by an elementary school, across the street from where a game room had operated, for a press conference Wednesday.

“One of the things that we didn’t do well is to leverage the responsibility of property owners,” Lambert said Wednesday at a press conference with Dos Santos-Tam and Tupola in Kalihi. “The people that do get arrested are just fall guys.”

Current enforcement against illegal gambling rooms carries weak penalties such as a nuisance abatement for landowners, according to an information sheet from Dos Santos-Tam.

“The people that do get arrested are just fall guys,” said Maj. Mike Lambert, who oversees HPD’s fight against illegal game rooms. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Cheryl Inouye, a senior adviser in the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office, did not make a deputy prosecutor handling game rooms available for an interview.

Police have targeted game rooms with raids in the past, but those have failed to end the criminal activity altogether. HPD raided three game rooms on May 10 and another three July 27 in what the department calls Operation Firestorm 1 and 2. One of the game rooms targeted in the latter raid was the building behind Lambert, 2410 Kalihi Street, which appeared empty Wednesday.

Busting just one gambling location can take 1,500 to 2,000 hours of labor, Lambert said. Within the narcotics and vice division, which has about 70 investigators, just eight to 10 are assigned to gambling, he said. Given how involved the process is, he hopes to eliminate 20 game rooms in the next year, he said.

While the city pursues this new tactic against property owners, the people orchestrating the game rooms behind the scenes remain elusive. The operations are often tied to organized crime, with five to 10 factions running all of Oahu’s game rooms, Lambert said. Some operators simply consider themselves businessmen, he said.

Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya, a West Side resident and outspoken critic of game rooms for more than a decade, hopes that these bills will be strong enough to put an end to the problem.

She said a game room that has operated for 18 years in Nanakuli has been associated with gun and drug activity, leaving neighbors afraid to leave their homes.

“The game rooms that are in Waianae coast are landowners that rent out their facility to these people. They know who they rent it out to, so they should be held responsible,” Kahanamoku-Teruya said.

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