By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
In what he says will be a regular occurrence Alabama’s Attorney General Luther Strange held a freewheeling press conference with the capitol news corps on Wednesday.
Television cameras lined the back row of chairs placed for journalist. Top political reports from various news organizations took part in the discussion. Before beginning the presser the AG greeted many in the press corps shaking hands and welcoming the group of around 20 reporters. The room was flanked by smart looking young men and women in dark professional attire.
The affable AG was relax and personable in gray suit and sober tie as he took the podium.
The first subject was the recent raid in Houston County at Center Stage formerly owned by convicted felon Ronnie Gilley’s Country Crossing.
“We had given them an opportunity to cooperate and either remove their machines or go into court and get a legal decision on whether they are traditional bingo or not,” said Strange. He said that for over a year the owners had ignored his offices letters and that the time had come to take action.
Strange says that his office has given those who operate such facilities an opportunity to either close or prove in court that they have a legal right to do business but that he will not give them another choice. He says if they do not take his offer then, “We just do it the old fashioned way which is just taking normal law enforcement action.”
Strange was ask about his plans concerning Greentrack he said, “Our plan is to treat them all the same. The same way we treat Jefferson County, Madison County, Walker County or other counties where there are these amendments and we work with local law enforcement in almost all cases.”
He express his frustration with the lack of teeth in the current law which makes operating illegal gambling operations only a misdemeanor.
“The problem with gambling in these cases is that the money involved is so great and the penalties are so low–minimal–that there is a tremendous incentive to continue to operate,” Strange said. “So my advise to the legislature has been if you want to solve this problem and take it off of the state radar and allow law enforcement to move on to other things, the best thing to do is, or could possibly be done, is to simply increase the penalties for existing laws.”
A bill was before the legislature in the 2012 session that would have added greater penalties for those who operated illegal gambling but it never made it to the governor’s desk.
Strange says the fix is very simple for the legislature “they wouldn’t have to change the law, just increase the penalty to a felony and I am confident that would put an end to these issues.”
He said that his office has or is in the process of notifying “everybody within the state what our position is and we have let the law enforcement in those areas know that.”
Strange says that the law is very clear “and we have said so in our letters to law enforcement so everybody knows what the rules are, nobody is surprised.”
“In Alabama, slot style machines are illegal in all counties,” said Strange. “Even in the counties that have charitable bingo amendments that’s the law.”
He continues, “It has to be traditional bingo, there is a 6-point test the courts have already talked about. It has to be for charitable purposes and it has to be operated on a nonprofit basis.”
Strange then challenged the media present, “I think that you guys as members of the media, you have been to these places, you can judge for yourself.”
He says that his office has had “trained investigators and in virtually every case we have found that they are not meeting those criteria, set by the court.”
When asked about onetime casino operator Milton McGregor, Strange responsed, “My message is whatever you do, make sure you are following the law, that what you are operating is legal. If he is operating a legal, charitable bingo operation that is consistent with the law, then he should be able to do that.” But, he adds if McGregor or anyone is “operate slot machines, or any other thing that is against the charitable bingo amendment, then they are going to have trouble.”
Strange is reminded that when then candidate Bentley was running for office he made a point in some counties of saying that if elected governor he would like to see a clear up-or-down vote on gaming. However, recently, the governor’s staff has sought cover from his campaign speeches by saying that the governor can not introduce legislation. When in fact all governors have routinely had legislatures who would carry laws for the governor.
Strange doesn’t directly answer the question, but says, “I’m all for clarity in the law. I think that the law is clear now. I don’t think there is a need for any vote to determine the issue because I think it is very clear what is going on is illegal.” He does say that he “never has a problem with people voting on an issue.”
When pressed on the up-or-down vote he says, “An up-or-down vote is a complicated and expensive proposition. It would probably require some constitutional amendments, it would require some sort of statewide vote on a constitutional amendment, a much more expensive proposition.” He says that he believes, “We can solve the issue by just simply change two words in the statute which exists right now which is a “felony” instead of a “misdemeanor” to have illegal slot machines.”
Strange was asked about what if anything, his office is doing with regards to the Poarch Creek Band of Indians who recently announced the expansion of their facility in Wetumpka. The question was, “Is the AG’s office hands off on this situation?”
“Tribal gaming in the state is subject to the laws of Indian Gaming Commission, they are a sovereign nation in that respect, however, my position has been from the beginning that if it is illegal in the state of Alabama, then it should be illegal on the reservation,” said Strange.
He says that as a states attorney general he does not have jurisdiction to enter tribal land even to enforce that law. “What we have done is go to the federal government and ask them to make sure that the tribes are compliant with the law. Up until now, they [the Federal Government] have said, “Until you fix the law in the state of Alabama we are not going to intervene on the federal level.’”
Strange says that his position is that they, [the tribe], “should not be doing things that are illegal in the state.”
Strange says his office has sent letters to the government and is looking at, “all the options,” even, “some federal legislation and some supreme court cases that we have looked at that bring into question what is federal land and what is protected.”
In part two Strange talks about immigration and the oil spill cases.