By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—On Friday, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge William Shashy ruled that the electronic bingo machines being played at VictoryLand Casino were legal according to a Constitutional Amendment passed by the people of Macon County, and should be returned to their owners.
In his ruling, he accused the Attorney General’s Office of “cherry picking” its enforcement of gambling laws by shutting down VictoryLand casino over two years ago. In his order, he further instructed that if the Attorney General Office was to appeal, he had 45 days to close the other four casinos operating like-machines across the State.
Within hours of Judge Shashy’s order, Attorney General Luther Strange in a written statement said, “As we have done in previous cases, we are appealing the ruling and will be guided by the Supreme Court.”
With the Attorney General’s statement the nearly decades old war begun by then Gov. Bob Riley seems poised to continue despite Judge Shashy’s ruling.
In 2013, Chief Justice Roy Moore appointed Judge Shashy to preside over the VictoryLand case. In an email response to this publication, the Attorney General’s Office denied Judge Shashy was handpicked by Chief Justice Moore. “Judge Shashy was not ‘handpicked.’ He was assigned the case by AOC when all the Macon County judges recused,” read the email for the Attorney General’s communication’s office.
This statement contradicts court documents and news reports surrounding Shashy’s appointment.
All of the Macon County judges did not recuse themselves. The Attorney General’s office moved to disqualify Judge Tom Young after he refused to issue a search warrant to raid VictoryLand. The remaining judges in the Macon Circuit along with the entire Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Judge Young. But the Attorney General’s office was dissatisfied with that response, they asked the Supreme Court to appoint another judge. The Supreme Court did, in fact, “handpick” Judge Shashy—a former Republican.
Also, the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) in directly under the control of the Chief Justice and is led by Rich Hobson, a long-serving aid to Chief Justice Moore.
In September, the 11th Circuit Federal appeals court found the State of Alabama had no authority to regulate bingo gaming at casinos on tribal lands belonging to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. After the ruling, Strange said he would not further appeal the court’s ruling. In a statement release by his office after the 11th Circuit ruling Strange said, ”From the beginning it has been my goal to settle the question of the legality of gambling at Indian-run casinos in Alabama once and for all…While I do not agree with the Appeals Court’s decision, it provides certainty and guidance to State officials where there was none before… The Appeals Court’s decision makes it clear that the only way for the State of Alabama to regulate the gambling conducted on the PCI’s lands is to enter into a compact with the PCI. That is a decision for the Governor and Legislature, not me.”
When asked if the Attorney General’s Office would follow the same course of action in the VictoryLand case, the Attorney General’s office responded by saying “We appealed the PCI case to the 11th Circuit. The Alabama Supreme court is the state-court equivalent of the 11th circuit. Only an appellate court can issue a decision that is binding on other courts and actually resolves the issue. Judge Shashy’s ruling is not binding on any other judges, so it does not resolve any issues.”
While it is true that Judge Shashy’s ruling is not binding on other courts, to say that the Alabama Supreme Court is the state-court equivalent of the 11th Circuit is factually inaccurate. The “equivalent” court would be the Court of Civil Appeals or the Court of Criminal Appeals. In addition, Judge Shashy’s ruling is binding on the courts in Macon County and the Macon County bingo constitutional amendment.
In January, Strange sent a letter to local law-enforcement, including district attorneys informing them that policing gambling operation would be a matter for the local authorities. He added, “The newly-formed Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) is a valuable resource to assist in the investigation of criminal activity and the enforcement of Alabama law. This new agency has been strategically formed to help coordinate and foster uniform and efficient enforcement of laws. If you need assistance or additional manpower to investigate and enforce our laws, including our gambling-related laws, please contact ALEA. I have been assured that ALEA will assist as possible.”
Gov. Robert Bentley in response to the letter stated, ALEA would not be used to investigate or enforce gambling laws within local jurisdictions. Bentley’s communications director, Jennifer Ardis further stated, “ALEA will not take the lead in any efforts to shut down electronic bingo. It is the responsibility of local law enforcement to investigate and enforce the law. ALEA will assist if they are needed but their role will be just that, to assist,” according to an al.com report.
The State has spent approximately $5,082,922.91 since 2009 prosecuting bingo cases. The Legislature slashed recent appropriations for the Attorney General’s Office by a nearly identical amount— $5 million. This publication asked, given the amount spent to date and the recent cuts to the office’s budget and in light of the January letter, was it a wise use of resources for the AG to continue to prosecute the VictoryLand case. The Attorney General’s press office replied that an appeal to the Supreme Court, “costs us almost nothing—paper and attorney time.”
This response is insulting to the taxpayers of Alabama considering that the State has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars—if not over a million dollars in outside attorneys’ fees. The law firm of Bradley, Arant has made a small fortune in charging the State “attorney time” for drafting documents, drafting appeals, drafting then prosecutor Henry T. “Sonny” Reagan’s questions, and sitting in the courtroom in these cases. In addition, the State continues to pay nearly $20,000 per month in storage fees to house the machines seized from VictoryLand. The three people pushing the fight against electronic bingo in Macon County have all left the Attorney General’s Office under a cloud of suspicion. Reagan left the Attorney General’s office after it was discovered that he was conspiring with Speaker Mike Hubbard’s defense team. Howard “Gene” Sisson, the chief investigator in the VictoryLand case, was fired from Attorney General’s office for similar acts. Kevin Turner, the former Chief Deputy Attorney General, also left earlier this year.
The answers to the Alabama Political Reporter came from the Attorney General’s communications office. It was not made clear which attorney prepared the response or if it was thoroughly vetted by AG Strange.
At least for now, it appears the costly battle against bingo gambling which began in 2008 by Gov. Riley will continue.