A lucrative and controversial radio bingo has volunteers bickering on Bell Island

A popular and very lucrative radio bingo on Bell Island has been cast into turmoil, with two volunteer groups, headed by some outspoken and influential people, bickering over control of the fundraiser.

As supporters of Radio Bell Island fight to have their licence renewed following a scathing audit by the provincial government, another community group, the Kiwanis Club of Bell Island, has swooped in and successfully obtained a bingo licence.

That's created a very unique circumstance, with one group having a community radio station, but no bingo, while another group has government approval to operate a bingo, but nowhere to broadcast, at least for now.

Terry Roberts/CBC

Caught in the middle are those who enjoy playing this game of chance, and the community groups that have benefited from more than $1 million in donations in recent years.

The complex dispute features some very prominent names on the island who have a long history of animosity, including Town of Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine on one side, and Deputy Mayor Henry Crane on the other.

Crane is also the voice of Radio Bell Island, and a strong defender of the group's actions in past years, while Gosine is Kiwanis Club president, and now holder of a coveted media bingo licence.

Both have butted heads on numerous occasions on a wide range of issues.

Terry Roberts/CBC

It's a complex and controversial story that involves large quantities of money, big donations, an audit that has cast a dark shadow over the operations of Radio Bell Island, and a reawakened Kiwanis Club that wants to raise much-needed revenue for youth on the Conception Bay island.

Both sides are going to great pains to stress this is not about personalities, but about helping a community that has endured more than its share of challenges.

"We're only out to get what's best for the children," said Gosine. "All we did was apply. We didn't do nothing against Radio Bell Island. All we want them (to do) is to help us help the children of Bell Island." 

"This is about helping the youth of this island, who are right now struggling," added new Kiwanian Dwayne Yetman.

Crane 'blindsided' by competing licence

But Crane said he was blindsided by news that Gosine's group was granted a licence.

"This is hitting us broadside. We know nothing of this. Absolutely nothing," Crane said of the new licence.

And Crane blames Service NL for the turmoil.

"I'm trying to dance around here, but I"m not going to be able to. I consider it a bit of a vendetta. We have been picked on and picked on over things that are so nitpicky that I can't believe it," he said.

Terry Roberts/CBC

So here's where things stand: Radio Bell Island has rejected a request by the Kiwanis Club for airtime to broadcast its new bingo, saying it is negotiating with Service NL for a licence renewal.

"We will continue to fight for ourselves because it casts a long shadow on some really good volunteers, and I'm one of them," said Crane.

Meanwhile, the Kiwanians are exploring a Plan B, with hopes of holding its first bingo on Dec. 8.

"We're looking at doing a low-powered signal across the island.… It works, actually, on a 10-kilometre radius," said Yetman.

All this is playing out in a small island community in Conception Bay, with the protagonists occupying office space in the municipal building, separated by a single wall and a short hallway.

And the stakes are huge. Radio Bell Island has donated just under $1.1 million to various groups on Bell Island, and awarded some $370,000 in prize money.

Audit reveals troubling details

But radio bingo has been off the air since last spring, following an investigation by Service NL auditors that revealed some troubling details about how Radio Bell Island was handling vast amounts of money.

For example, Radio Bell Island had donated some $200,000 to another community group, Tourism Bell Island, over the years. Turns out that's a no-no, because Tourism Bell Island is not a charity.

And the man in charge of Tourism Bell Island? Henry Crane.

The organization does not operate through volunteerism alone, but also through rewards to its members. - Service NL audit of Radio Bell Island

Other violations included paying a salary to a station manager from bingo proceeds, which is also a violation of the lottery rules.

What's more, the audit revealed that financial reports submitted by Radio Bell Island "have been incomplete as well as repeatedly and significantly revised without explanation."

And in yet another indictment of Radio Bell Island, the audit found that "with expenditures on reported salaries, gifts, dinners and regular cheques issued to the same individuals, the organization does not operate through volunteerism alone, but also through rewards to its members."   The audit determined Radio Bell Island "strayed significantly from the object and purpose articulated in its original incorporating documents."

We were audited twice, three times by Service NL, about money, and we've never had a cent go astray. Never. This was about rules and regulations of how to run your bingo. - Henry Crane

Crane does all the talking for Radio Bell Island, and admits the group was naive in the beginning, and made some mistakes.

But he denies there was any financial wrongdoing.

"We were audited twice, three times by Service NL, about money, and we've never had a cent go astray. Never. This was about rules and regulations of how to run your bingo," said Crane.

"I've yet to receive a cent from Radio Bell Island," Crane added.

But the Kiwanians believe they have the support — and trust — of the community.

"Right now we have a licence," said Yetman. "The big question is, why don't they have a licence?"

Money good for the town, says deputy mayor

Crane said Radio Bell Island has attempted to comply with every directive from Service NL, and deserves to have its licence renewed.

"We want this fundraising arm, because of the money that is good to this town," he said.

Meanwhile, Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh declined an interview request.

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