By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, the Alabama state ABC Board Hearing Commission heard arguments and testimony to determine the fate of an alcohol license for the casino portion of VictoryLand.
Joe Adams serving as Chairman of the ABC Board Hearing Commission said of the contested hearing, “The hearing will be conducted as closely as possible to the rules governing a non-jury civil case. We will be as informal as possible, however, Alabama state law has established certain rules that we must follow.”
What continued for the next eight hours was not a hearing about an ABC license but a battle over the legality of the eBingo machines at Milton McGregor’s VictoryLand.
Deputy Attorney General Sonny Reagan, representing the absent Attorney General Luther Strange, came armed to not only deny VictoryLand a ABC license but to put on trial the very heart of gaming in Alabama.
In return, McGregor’s super attorney Joe Espy and company came to the hearing ready for all eventualities, and prepared to answer any challenges. Reagan, considered a stellar representative of the AG’s office, seemed to be no match, substantively or in preparation to the Espy team. The AG’s star witness Larry Crocker, a special agent in Attorney General’s Office made a dismal appearance, submitting two supposedly simultaneous recorded secret video surveillance tapes of VictoryLand in which the time stamps disagreed. The law enforcement expert said he had only played bingo recreationally in Mississippi in the 1990s and again on a cruise a few years later. His outing at VictoryLand was his first undercover infiltration of a gaming facility in his career. On cross examination by Espy’s second chair, John Bolton, Reagan’s witness star admitted that he did not have any training in computer hardware, software, programing or any of the key elements necessary for him to understand or evaluate the eBingo machines at VictoryLand.
During testimony before the commission, Crocker, and the AG’s office presented pictures of machines that were nothing like the ones at VictoryLand, and still the ABC Chairman allow the evidence to be placed into the record. One former member of the judiciary, who would not comment with attribution said, “It was the worse case of evidentiary admission I have ever seen.”
Never during the hearing were the Attorney General’s representative substantively questioned by the board. However, Espy and company seemed to be questioned repeatedly.
The hearing came down to a few simple questions, “Are the machines legal? Can bingo played on anything other than paper cards to be considered bingo according to Alabama law?” The argument present by the AG’s office, said that anything other than paper was not legal. An argument, that would seem to suggest, that the world of bingo had stopped turning in the 1950s, that eBook, eMail and that the universe of smart phones, computers and a software based society did not exist.
Under cross examination by Bolton, the AG’s witness Crocker, went so far as to say he didn’t know if bingo could be played on a computer.
One of the more surprising moments in the hearing was when attorneys for the AG’s office were asked if the Poarch Creek Indians who operate eBingo casinos in Alabama had an ABC license. The attorney’s for the AG’s office did not have an answer but Joe Espy rising quickly from his seat said, “The answer in an unequivocally yes.”
Espy later argued that not only did the Poarch Creek Indians operate eBingo casinos with an ABC license but so did GreeneTrack in Greene County. Chairman Joe Adams took exception to Espy use of the Poarch Creek as an example saying, “Just because the Indian tribes are doing it, we shouldn’t allow it here if it is in fact illegal.”
Deputy AG Reagan indicated that his office would be protesting the Poarch Creek ABC license in the future.
At the end of the hearing Deputy AG Reagan said, “I am glad that we got our evidence in and we were able to demonstrate to the commission everything that we wanted them to see. We got our undercover video in as clear evidence about how the machines operate from the player perspective. From that perspective I feel good.”
VictoryLand attorney Bolton said, “I think what we established is that the basis for the state’s protests has no foundation. Everywhere they tried to show that VictoryLand had not complied with law we put on evidence that we had. We actually offered evidence to disprove what they had put in their protest letter.”
Both sides put on a brave faces concerning the case they had presented, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to guess what was on the minds of the hearing commission. One thing seemed to be clear for most of the standing room only crowd gathered at the ABC hearing, this trial was about Milton McGregor and not necessarily about the law.
A decision on the liquor license is expected in 15 days.