Freedom Bingo? 

The Free Speech Foundation ("dedicated to the preservation of the First Amendment") of Washington, D.C., has a diverse mission: Among their "projects" listed on their Web site is "Conservative Campus," wherein they state that they hope to take back America "one mind at a time."

"For decades, liberal professors and administrators have dominated political thought and stifled conservative expression on college and university campuses. Liberal indoctrination is the order of the day," their Web site declares.

But that's not all. They also claim to have a "New Media Project," with which they say, they are "training the next generation of journalists in America."

What they don't advertise much is a bingo operation in Garden City, Idaho.

That's because the Free Speech Foundation running the oldster-gambling operation in Idaho is a whole 'nother animal. And it's under heavy scrutiny—and now, a federal conspiracy sentence.

The guys who ran the Garden City bingo operation, William Tway and Robert Ford, were sentenced earlier this month in federal court for conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service through the operation of Big Bucks Bingo.

The Idaho secretary of state lists a "Free Speech Foundation" based in Boise that has since been dissolved. Tway and Ford are listed as officers.

Officials at the U.S. Attorney's Office here in town doubted that the outfit is really dedicated to games for senior citizens.

"I suspect it's a different kind of free speech we're talking about here," said Jean McNeil, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Ford and Tway started Big Bucks Bingo in 1996, when they first filed to operate bingo games under the aegis of the Free Speech Foundation. They did this every year until 2001, according to state documents.

Idaho law says that bingo and raffle games have to send at least 20 percent of their annual gross revenue from the games to a charitable or nonprofit organization. But in April, Ford and Tway were found guilty of conspiring to file false returns with the IRS in 1999 and 2000, because they were "substantially overstating" the bucks they gave to charity.

Ford and Tway were sentenced last week in federal court in Boise for conspiracy to defraud the IRS. U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin sentenced each man to six months of incarceration followed by nine months of home detention. He also ordered each of them to pay a fine of $30,000.

The sentences, and the judgments are under appeal, according to Tway and Ford's attorney, Larry Sirhall.

"I don't see how a series of legal acts can be transformed into an illegal end result," Sirhall said. "We should win on appeal."

He's already got a start. The judge turned down two of six counts in the indictment.

In sentencing Ford and Tway, Judge Timlin called their activities "an elaborate and prolonged scheme designed to generate substantial income" for them, and said they had "undermined the functions of government" by defrauding the IRS.

According to the government's trial brief, the stated purpose of the foundation was to "promote Freedom of Speech by seminars, lectures, assistance to persons or organizations whose Freedom of Speech rights have been violated." Sounds noble enough.

According to filing documents, the foundation's board of directors consisted of Tway, Lamar Larsen and Karen Lockner. Over the years, various other individuals served on the board, including David Weeks and Kristine Tway. The filings with the Secretary of State's Office show that the corporate officer positions in the foundation also rotated among various individuals.

It was, U.S. Attorney's Office contacts said, a complex scheme.

Ford and Tway submitted an application to the Idaho Lottery Commission to get the state's OK to run bingo games. They got the green light to run the games three days a week.

For the years 1999 and 2000, the group's tax returns say the foundation spent almost $215,000 on "program services." These are the services a nonprofit entity is supposed to pay to support its tax-exempt status.

But the IRS investigation asserted that they spent "substantially less" than that.

And it gets better: Investigators found two scholarship payments by the foundation. Normally, scholarships are part and parcel of a nonprofit's work. But prosecutors assert these were different: In 1991, they found a payment of $1,200 to Travis Tanner, a brother-in-law of Kristine Tanner, who is the daughter of William Tway. And investigators identified a 1998 payment of $1,000 to Susan Kelly Robertson, whom they said was a daughter of an employee of a board member. In addition, the foundation produced promissory notes that purport to document money paid by the foundation to Tway and Ford for a "legal self-defense project."

Sirhall said that project was a book, to be written by Tway and Ford, and that the government investigators never bothered to ask to see it.

"The manuscript was in publishable format," Sirhall said. "The work had been done."

But the Free Speech Foundation wasn't the only group filed to run bingo games: the Sons and Daughters of Idaho and USA Boxing were other front groups running bingo games, government lawyers assert.

"The Idaho Constitution makes it clear that bingo is only authorized when it substantially benefits a charitable organization, not just its operators," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Haws.

Other payments are in question: The group claimed to have spent $1.7 million on charitable activities. Investigators said they were only able to find $109,000 in such payments.

"Today's sentencing demonstrates that those who willfully attempt to undermine our tax system by playing fast and loose with the rules will be held accountable regardless of how complicated a scheme they devise," said Paul Camacho, the acting IRS special agent in charge for Idaho.

Sirhall said the pursuit of criminal charges is misleading.

"This should have been handled as a civil matter, not criminal," he said. "The conviction should be overturned."

The appeal of the sentence is pending.

Tell BW your true crime stories. E-mail Editor@boiseweekly.com.

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