By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY— The history of Constitutional Amendment 744 paints a compelling picture of what those, who worked for and against its passage, thought it would mean for the future of gambling in Macon County. Advertisements and statements on both sides made it clear that electronic bingo was at issue.
With the signing of Executive Order 13, Governor Robert Bentley signaled his desire to put an end to the bingo wars begun by Gov. Bob Riley, and continued under the Office of Attorney General Luther Strange.
The clear winners of Riley’s bingo war are the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI), whose gaming operation have grown exponentially as a result of his actions and those of Strange.
The battle over bingo has primarily centered on VictoryLand, owned by Milton McGregor. At the heart of the matter is Constitutional Amendment 744, which was passed, in part, as an effort to allow electronic bingo in Macon County to compete with growing economic threat from tribal gaming facilities, which were first to adopted electronic bingo machines in the State.
The day after signing Executive Order 13, Bentley raised the Constitutional Amendments issue on bingo saying, “We have constitutional amendments in two counties —we have more than that but right now we are talking primarily about two counties and I believe constitutionally you should look at what the Constitution actually says they voted these in counties.”
As a State representative, Bentley voted yes on Constitutional Amendment 744 which, leaders from that community attest, allows electronic bingo or bingo in any form.
Only two counties Greene and Macon have passed constitutional amendments allowing bingo since electronic machines have been available. These counties have held that the people voted to allow electronic bingo or bingo in any form, something that Riley and in recent years Strange’s office have denied.
But Gov. Bentley, a day after signing Executive Order 13, signaled that he draws a different conclusion from Riley and Bentley. However, Bentley has been telegraphing his thoughts publicly and privately that Macon County’s VictoryLand should be free to operate unmolested, because they have a constitutional right to do so.
Among some in law enforcement, including in the Attorney General’s office, this is action by the Governor is viewed as a political alliance of convenience. Of course, the same has been said of the Cornerstone ruling that allowed then Gov. Riley the extra legal authority to become a bingo hunter. Subsequently that power was transferred back to Strange in 2011 with Bentley’s signing of Executive Order 1.
However, voter intent according to court documents, advertisement and even the amendments opponents point to the conclusion that the Macon Count amendment included electric bingo.
Before Amendment 744 was proposed or voted on, PCI had been operating electronic bingo games at it casinos in Atmore, Montgomery, and Wetumpka starting around 2002.
Gambling, in the form of pari-mutuel wagering, had been legal in Macon County for nearly 30 years but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, revenues flowing into the county had begun to ebb, because of the rise of electronic bingo at PCI facilities. This prompted community leaders to look for other forms of gambling according to testimony given by Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford and others.
Electronic bingo games liked those at PCI facilities seem to hold the most promise, so legislation was put forward to approve a constitutional amendment authorizing a vote by the citizens of Macon County to allow such games.
HB660 calling for a vote on Amendment 744 passed the Legislature unanimously. However before the vote there was intense lobbying in and out of the Statehouse. The Christian Coalition of Alabama, lobbied against the bill asking Macon County to “Vote NO on Electronic Bingo Gaming Machines.” Flyers by the Christian Coalition bearing those headline were posted and handed out in the Statehouse prior to passage of HB660. In fact court records show flyers, bailouts, and handouts blanketed the community that said:
“VOTE YES FOR ELECTRONIC BINGO MACHINES ON TUESDAY NOV. 4th. VOTE YES ELECTRONIC BINGO. VOTE YES ON TUESDAY-NOV. 4th TO AUTHORIZE ALL FORMS OF BINGO PAPER CARD, ELECTRONIC CARD AND MACHINE BINGO. VOTE YES ON TUES-NOV. 4, 2003 TO AUTHORIZE ALL FORMS OF BINGO: PAPER CARD-ELECTRONIC-MACHINE BINGO FOR THE BETTERMENT OF MACON COUNTY.”
Before the vote on Amendment 744, the debate centered around four things: the approval of charity bingo for Macon County, the authorization of bingo in all forms the use of electronic games on tribal land which was having a negative impact on taxes generated by gambling at VictoryLand which, in turn, educational funding in Macon County; and a decision by the voters in Macon County to allow the operation of the same games as the PCI.
Here again, Ford and others have claimed that old fashioned paper bingo would not have given VictoryLand the means to compete with tribal facilities making the argument for paper bingo silly.
Macon County’s VictoryLand has remained closed while around the State others facilities operate the same machines without prosecution.
Last month, Circuit Court Judge William A. Shashy dismissed the State’s case against VictoryLand, citing a violation of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.
Strange stated that Shashy’s order did not address the issued raised in the VictoryLand cases, and has asked the Supreme Court to address the matter once and for all. The court seems willing to comply after issuing a stay of Shashy’s ruling pending appeal.
Gov. Bentley raised the issue of equal protection in Executive Order 13 saying, “Recent rulings have raised concern with the unequal enforcement of Alabama’s criminal laws, including gambling laws.” He questioned why the PCI could legally operate the same machines as VictoryLand. Federal Indian Gaming Law does not allow a tribe to operate any games which are not already legal within a state, raising the unanswered question Judge Shashy asked.
According to The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, “the Tribes retain their authority to conduct, license, and regulate class II gaming so long as the state in which the Tribe is located permits such gaming…,” if the machines played at VictoryLand or Greenetrack are slot machines as agents for the Attorney General claimed in testimony, then federal law would make PCI operations illegal as well.
It is worth noting that the lead prosecutor for the State in the case against VictoryLand was Assistant Attorney General Henry T. “Sonny” Reagan and the chief investigator was former AG special agent Howard “Gene” Sisson. Both men were forced from their position because a internal investigation by the AG’s office found they had conspired to undermine the AG’s office and the criminal investigation into indicted Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard.
Gov. Bentley in Executive Order 13 cited the around $9 million in taxpayer’s money that has been spent prosecuting the bingo wars. Much of which has landed in the bank account of the law firm Bradly Arrant.
Now, at General Strange’s request, the VictoryLand case rests with the State Supreme Court. Against a background of political intrigue the State Supreme Court takes center stage. From Cornerstone to the recent Shashy ruling accusation of “activist judges” were heard on the differing sides. But, in the Heart of Dixie, distain for an activist court is generally heard only in measure to how the ruling affirms or denies the rights and wills of the State’s elites. Even strict constitutionalists have been accused of bending the law to fit their personal moral code and not the black letter of the law.
So, it is perhaps fitting in a State, where the sum total of justice is often the percentage of profit gained by certain individuals, that grave suspicions are cast on every act of politicos, judges, as to the issue of VictoryLand.
Gov. Bentley has ever so carefully danced to the edge of calling for a halt to the VictoryLand case, only to retreat and equivocate when pressed.
Attorney General Luther Strange, who is recovering from serious knee reconstruction surgery, has left the matter in the hands of his deputies.
What is certain, is that the opinion of the voters in Macon County have been ignored by everyone in authority.