By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Recently, the Christian Coalition of Alabama sent a letter to Attorney General Luther Strange asking among other things that he seek to revoke the ABC liquor licenses in all casinos owned by Indian tribes in Alabama.
“Greetings from the Christian Coalition of Alabama. Thank you for your initial steps toward carrying out the will of the majority of Alabamians, who oppose all gambling in all forms, whether slot machines, slot machines called bingo machines, or other forms of casino gambling, whether in Indian casinos, at dog tracks or any other gambling venue,” wrote the groups Executive Director, Reverend James R. Henderson.
In the January letter, Reverend Henderson continues by saying, “We are aware that if you as the chief law enforcement officer for Alabama deem that a business operation, such as Indian casinos, must operate under the laws of Alabama regarding their legality, and you determine they are operating illegally, then your office is compelled to make sure that no state agency such as the ABC Board confers on them any legal status by continuing to grant them liquor licenses. We understand that Victoryland voluntarily surrendered their license because of the state’s authority to regulate them. We believe that denying liquor licenses to both Indian and non-Indian gambling establishments should be pursued as part of a zero tolerance policy against gambling in Alabama.”
As odd as it might seem, Alabama super attorney Joe Espy, who represents Milton McGregor’s Victoryland, agrees with the Christian Coalition, sort of.
“Since the ABC hearing I have had more people stop me and say, ‘Mr. Espy I agree with you. VictoryLand is being treated unfairly, this is obviously pure politics. If Mr. Strange is going to do this to Victoryland then he needs to do it to the Indians too,’” said Espy.
In fact, federal laws makes it clear that Native Americans may only operate gaming on their land that is legally permissible within the state. If bingo or eBingo, is not legal in the state then it is also illegal of tribal lands.
In December, Victoryland owner Milton McGregor had applied for an ABC license for the eBingo portion of the casino but the license was withheld pending a hearing after Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange filed a protest with the ABC Board. For the first time in state history the state’s top cop inserted himself openly into a request for an ABC license.
In his letter to the ABC Board, Strange wrote that he was concerned that a liquor license would “perpetuate the kind of criminal gambling activity we have seen in previous iterations of so-called ‘electronic bingo’ at this and other locations. However, VictoryLand nor its owner, McGregor, have ever been charged or found guilty with “criminal gambling” activities as alleged in Mr. Strange’s letter. At the ABC Board hearing in late January, Deputy Attorney General Sonny Reagan, representing the absent Attorney General Luther Strange, put forward that the machines at Victoryland were illegal and therefore no ABC license should be granted.
In eight hours of testimony, Espy made the case that the machines were legal, also pointing out that the Indian casinos had a ABC license.
In a recent interview, Espy said that the federal lands issue has nothing to do with a state liquor license saying, “The ABC board is state and you have to go to them [for a liquor license], so if Luther Strange believes the Indians’ games are illegal then he should make the same protest. This is a state matter completely, this is strictly a state law issue.”
The Christian Coalition would seem to agree, saying, “Further, we encourage you to combat gambling at the Indian casinos as vigorously as your efforts at the dog tracks. One immediate opportunity is to ask the ABC Board to not issue liquor licenses to Indian gambling entities on the same basis as not issuing liquor licenses to the dog tracks. While we recognize the difficulty of dealing with the federal government and the sovereignty issue for Native Americans, we believe the people of the state expect both Indian and non-Indian gambling to be forcefully and equally challenged by your office, not only with tough new legislation, but eventually to challenge Indian gambling in federal court.”
Espy questions the Attorney General’s motivation in his prosecution of Victoryland, and like many people, believes this is a war being waged on one man, Milton McGregor.
“Is this a credibility thing? Are you doing this because it’s the right and legal thing to do or are you doing this with some other kind of motive, i.e. political?” said Espy. “The credibility of the Attorney General was lacking because if he truly was doing it for legitimate reasons he would have attacked the other facilities as well and not just VictoryLand.”
Reverend Henderson says that, “We stand ready to support any aggressive plan to limit, or eliminate gambling in Alabama, which is a serious threat to the families of our state. We welcome the opportunity to meet with you before the start of the legislative session to discuss your plan of action for dealing with gambling in Alabama.”
Espy recounts how people have come up to him all over Montgomery and said, “We need to have a vote and be done with this once and for all and put this behind us.” He says he believes that even “people who may be opposed to electronic bingo want to see this be fair, and they are tired of all of the politics. They would like to see it resolved, and want the Indians treated the same way.”
The ABC Board said they hoped to issue a ruling within 15 days of the hearing. The clock is ticking and all parties are anxiously waiting.