By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY— “This is not about Milton McGregor or VictoryLand, this is for a principle, we have the right to create economic prosperity, the right to self determination,” so says Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford.
VictoryLand, owned by Milton McGregor, is said to be reopening before the end of the year. This is a cause of celebration for those who are hoping to return to work at the casino, but it is also a cause for worry for people like the mayor.
“If I could say one thing to Luther Strange it would be, ‘Leave us alone,’” said Ford.
The mayor and other leaders in Macon County say they are prepared to take whatever measures necessary to bring back the jobs lost when McGregor closed VictoryLand.
It remains to be seen if there will be a need for Ford and others to take action to ensure VictoryLand’s reopening.
Perhaps, it is the memory of Friday, January 29, 2010, that has people in Macon County worried. That was the day that then-Governor Bob Riley’s Anti-gambling Task Force arrived with hundreds of state police to raid VictoryLand. The task force efforts were thwarted when Circuit Judge Tom Young issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Task Force from confiscating the machines and cash at VictoryLand.
On February 3, 2010, the Alabama Supreme Court lifted the restraining order by a 7-2 vote saying a circuit judge lacked standing to block a raid by the Task Force. That was also the day that Milton McGregor closed down all operations at VictoryLand.
A report by the Tuskegee News, cites McGregor as saying to employees somedays later, “It is a shame what has been done. They [employees] will return to work at VictoryLand and it will be bigger and better than ever. I have a team of lawyers who are currently working on this. Riley did this to eliminate the competition for the Indian casinos.” The report also says that, “McGregor urged employees to ‘stay tuned’ for what is going to take place and be ready to come back to work at some point in time.” “This is my 26th year of doing this. I was here before Bob Riley and I will be here after Bob Riley is gone,” McGregor commented.
Bob Riley has left the governor’s office, but Ford and others fear that his influence is still alive and well in Montgomery. In what many feel was an unprecedented move on the Friday before leaving office, Riley transferred $7.9 million to the Attorney General’s office, ostensibly for Luther Strange to continue Riley’s war on gambling.
In February, 2011, Dana Beyerle, reporting for the Gadsden Times, wrote, “The $7.9 million in unrestricted funds that Riley transferred from the state’s BP oil spill account was earmarked for litigation relating to the oil spill and to anti-gambling efforts, according to a Legislative Fiscal Office memo.”
This transfer was done without the approval of then-governor-elect Robert Bentley and was later returned.
However, Riley, through his associations with Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and their 2014 PAC, is still a major player in Alabama politics. This coupled with the allegation that Riley worked on behalf of the Mississippi gambling interests and the recent revelations that Hubbard and the ALGOP in 2010 used Indian gaming money to take control of state government, has given reasons for suspicion.
However, Ford has expressed confidence in current-Governor Robert Bentley saying, “Governor Bentley has publicly said that if a county has a constitutional amendment that allows them to play electronic bingo, then they should be able to have it.”
Governor Bentley, who does not share the taint of gambling money with Riley, Hubbard and others in the GOP, has been outspoken about his beliefs and commitment to law. Bentley is a devout Christian and because of his beliefs is against gambling. However, as governor Bentley has always said he upholds the laws of the state.
One of Bentley’s first orders as governor was to abolish Riley’s anti-gambling task force.
Chuck Dean reporting for AL.com wrote on November 04, 2010:
“‘Bentley said he would work with attorney general-elect Luther Strange to determine the legality of electronic bingo in the state. Gambling hall operators should not assume they can reopen with no threat of guys with badges and guns showing up,’ he said.”
“’They have to prove to us they are legal,’ Bentley said.”
“’Places that say they are going to open back up, if they are legal they can open back up,’ Bentley said. ‘We have to go with what the law says. We have passed constitutional amendments that have allowed bingo in certain areas. … Now if we want to get rid of that we need a constitutional vote. If they open up and they are legal under the law. There is nothing we can do about that.’”
Mayor Ford and presumedly those advising Milton McGregor, are taking the Governor at his word. Ford refers often to the constitutional amendment that he says gives Macon County the right to play bingo in any form.
For now, it is a waiting game to see if AG Luther Strange authorizes raids or if Macon County will continue as it once did before Riley’s task force broke the peace surrounding this rural county.