By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has reignited the electronic bingo fight.
Marshall on Wednesday announced five lawsuits filed in counties around the state – Macon, Morgan, Lowndes, Houston and Greene – aimed at stopping existing gambling operations in those counties. The filings also request injunctions against the casinos to force them to stop operations immediately.
“It is the responsibility of the Attorney General to ensure that Alabama’s laws are enforced, including those laws that prohibit illegal gambling,” a release from Marshall’s office said. “Through multiple rulings in recent years, the Alabama Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that electronic bingo and the use of slot machines are illegal in all Alabama counties.”
Not surprisingly, officials at the casinos targeted by Marshall do not agree.
GreeneTrack CEO Luther Winn issued a statement saying his casino plans to “vigorously fight” the lawsuits and “protect the constitutional amendment that voters in Greene County ratified.”
“Marshall’s actions have real-life consequences,” Winn said. “By his own hand, Marshall has now jeopardized the jobs of 115 mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Marshall’s lawsuit also jeopardizes Greene County’s E-911 service and fire protection for the entire county, both of which rely completely on bingo revenue.”
Sheriffs in both Macon and Greene counties have also vowed to protect the casinos. According to the constitutional amendments adopted in both counties, the sheriffs are granted authority to determine which games are legal. The sheriffs have certified games at GreeneTrack and VictoryLand as legal.
Marshall’s lawsuits signal a new fight over an issue that had seemingly died near the end of Gov. Robert Bentley’s tenure. Before he was forced to resign over campaign finance issues, Bentley had made it clear that his office was moving past the electronic bingo issue and allowing casinos in the counties in question to continue to operate.
Gov. Kay Ivey, who took over after Bentley’s resignation, has similarly shown no appetite for the old bingo wars that plagued Gov. Bob Riley’s administration.
In fact, sources told APR that Marshall approached Ivey several weeks ago to ask the governor to use Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) troopers in raids on casinos around the state. Ivey denied the request.
Sources close to Marshall said he was determined to pursue the action, believing it would bring desperately needed name recognition around the state. Internal polling has shown fewer than 10 percent of likely voters in the 2018 AG’s race know who Marshall is.
The idea also has been pushed by Marshall’s campaign consultant, Jon Harbison, who also has recently worked for the Faith and Freedom Coalition. That Coalition was started and is operated by former Christian Coalition front man Ralph Reed.
Reed has made a fortune opposing gambling in Alabama. As uncovered by a U.S. Senate investigation led by John McCain, Reed was part of an elaborate scheme concocted by lobbyist, and convicted felon, Jack Abramoff to use Choctaw Indian casino money to fight gambling expansion in Alabama.
According to McCain’s “Gimme Five” investigation, Reed hauled in millions in Choctaw money, kept most of it and funneled the rest to churches in order to stop a gambling expansion that would have hurt the Choctaw’s casinos.
“This is a dumb idea by a desperate politician, and he’s in serious danger of starting another Ferguson over it,” said a longtime and prominent elected official who asked not to be named. “You’re talking about shutting down the only real businesses in some of the poorest counties in America, counties with a very high population of African Americans. I hope Steve Marshall is smart enough to just drop this and move on.”
Late Wednesday evening, Marshall’s office responded to several questions from APR. While spokesman Mike Lewis declined to address questions related to Harbison and what role, if any, his relationship with Reed played in the decision, Lewis denied that Marshall met with Ivey about procuring ALEA troopers for raids.
“That is incorrect,” Lewis said in his response. “(Marshall) has never asked the governor for any assistance in conducting raids. His strategy has been to seek a legal remedy through the courts to enforce the law.”
APR stands by its reporting on the issue.