Pat Bowlen's Bad Bet

The Broncos' owner may have lost big when his bingo partner cashed out.

With John Elway finally acknowledging that he's become too creaky for football, the Broncos find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to gamble on a new quarterback. It won't be the first time that Pat Bowlen has tried his hand at a game of chance.

But here's hoping the Broncos' owner enjoys better luck with his football team than he's had playing bingo in the past two years.

Bowlen's foray into the world of Colorado's $250 million-a-year bingo business is documented in the personal bankruptcy filing of Robert Keith Hampe. Hampe worked as Bowlen's chief operating officer until 1997, when he struck out on his own. Six months ago Hampe filed for protection from his debtors in federal court. During that time, he jumped headfirst into the world of bingo and ran up a pile of debt.

Indeed, Hampe caused a ruckus in Colorado's tight-knit community of bingo-hall owners, suppliers and players when, in 1997, he quickly snapped up three halls and then built up his own equipment supplier, Payless Bingo Supply. According to court records, Hampe formed a holding company for his bingo operations called Chance Northern Ltd., which was listed as the owner of all four operations.

The bankruptcy files show that Chance Northern has three partners. Hampe and his wife, Jane, together own 90 percent of the company. The remaining 10 percent interest is held by Pat Bowlen.

Hampe declines to discuss his famous football bingo partner ("I never discuss our directors"), so it is unclear how the two men teamed up to tackle a business having very little to do with football. Hampe also won't elaborate on his personal bankruptcy filing last November, and he will talk about his rough ride through the bingo world only generally. "Over time, we've either sold or closed businesses that lost interest in the market," he says. "The economies didn't work out as we'd hoped." He also suggests that a disagreement with a Cleveland supply manufacturer, Arrow International, Incorporated, contributed to his financial woes. That dispute is the subject of a lawsuit pending in Denver District Court.

Because it is a cash-rich business that seems simple to grasp, bingo calls out to many people as a way to earn easy money. John Mulligan, owner of the Denver area's largest supply company, The Bingo Company, is a former police officer. He discovered the business while moonlighting as a security guard at a bingo hall and quit the cop shop when he saw the profit potential. Last year, Jerry Galindo left his job as a bingo inspector for the secretary of state's office, which regulates bingo in Colorado, and stepped over to the other side of the fence, buying the Pot 'O Gold bingo hall in northwest Denver for the same reason.

Yet those who do it for a living say that running a successful bingo enterprise is far from simple. It takes a lot of time and work, and there is no guarantee of a big payoff. The business has become extraordinarily competitive here, with many halls vying for a relatively flat number of players. The growth of legalized gambling outside of Denver also has cut into the amount of money people spend on bingo.

Still, sources say Hampe--and Bowlen --leapt into the business after a chance meeting at a social function between Hampe and a man named Vic Ciccerilli. Ciccerilli had been making a successful living off of bingo for more than a decade, building his business up to four bingo halls that hosted hundreds of bingo games each week.

Now in his sixties, however, Ciccerilli was looking to retire. Hampe seemed eager to take over. "He really believed he was going to come into the market and take it by storm," says one person who has worked in the local bingo industry for several decades.

In 1997, Hampe reportedly paid Ciccerilli a premium price for two of his halls, Turn of the Century I and Turn of the Century II. Later he purchased another local hall, Circle Bingo. And in what insiders say was his financial downfall, Hampe started his own supply company, Payless.

"He got into uncharted waters," says one source. According to people in a position to know, Hampe burned through nearly $1 million before deciding to shutter the new company. In the meantime, he was forced to close down one of the halls he'd purchased from Ciccerilli.

At the same time he was apparently losing money, Hampe was also losing friends, and the bankruptcy filing hints at the contentious path he cut through the industry in just two years. According to court records, Hampe's bingo companies managed to get entangled in a half-dozen lawsuits in that short time. Half of those involve equipment suppliers. How much of Hampe's losses came out of Pat Bowlen's pocket isn't clear. One source says the Broncos' owner co-signed on a six-figure business loan. Bowlen did not return Westword's calls.

What is certain is how deep a hole Hampe has dug for himself during his short career as a bingo magnate. His bankruptcy filing lists more than $2 million in debts, including several hundred thousand dollars owed to bingo suppliers, nearly $100,000 in back taxes to the IRS and about $50,000 in back taxes to the State of Colorado.

It's a mystery, says one source. "Everybody in the industry is asking, 'Where did the money go?'"

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