By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—What began as a war on bingo by former Gov. Bob Riley, was rooted in power, politics and greed, with both sides claiming legal and even moral authority over what constitutes legal or illegal bingo in the Alabama.
The latest episode in this much-sordid affair is the State Supreme Court’s intervention in a lower court’s ruling, concerning the legality of machines played at Greenetrack in Greene County.
In June, Circuit Judge Houston L. Brown gave the State 30 days to return the 825 bingo machines it had seized in a controversial raid six years ago. The State had already returned all of the money it seized from Greenetrack in that raid.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Brown was appointed “special circuit judge” to preside over bingo cases, generally in Greene County, by former Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, in May 2011.
In his recent order, Judge Brown found that Greenetrack was legally operating under Amendment No. 743 of the Alabama Constitution, which authorizes bingo in Greene County. Judge Brown ruled that Amendment 743 allows electronic bingo games.
In December 2003, voters in Greene County overwhelmingly approved the Amendment which allowed bingo through “electronic marking machines.” It also specified the sheriff of Greene County as the sole regulator of bingo in that county.
Current Gov. Robert Bentley signed Executive Order 13, in November 2015, which overturned former Gov. Riley’s Executive Order 1, and disbanded the Governor’s Task Force on illegal gambling. Gov. Bentley also directed Alabama’s Attorney General to enforce the laws related to gambling.
Executive Order 13 stated that the responsibility for enforcement of Alabama’s criminal laws related to gambling, lies with the elected sheriffs and district attorneys of each Alabama county, in their capacity as constitutional officers and officers of the courts.
Rather than accepting Bentley’s order, General Strange has continued to use the power of his office to battle the lower court’s judge’s ruling. Last week, Strange asked the State Supreme Court for a stay in the Greenetrack case. Greenetrack’s shareholders were shocked by the unprecedented move, in which the Supreme Court granted the stay, even before the deadline for a response from the attorneys for Greenetrack had expired.
When Bentley signed Executive Order 13, Strange said, “Governor Bentley’s executive order is in line with my January 7, 2015, memo to Alabama District Attorneys and local law enforcement encouraging them to investigate and enforce our anti-gambling laws.” However, Strange made it clear the order did not affect pending litigation saying, “I have been assured by the Governor’s legal advisor that this executive order has no impact on the State’s pending litigation, which I expect will further clarify the law to the benefit of State and local law enforcement.”
The Attorney General’s Office has continued the cases against Greenetrack, because they were “ongoing,” according to the office.
Greenetrack CEO, Luther “Nat” Winn, sees the latest moves by the Attorney General as a continuance of former Gov. Riley’s war on bingo, and part of a larger, racial issue facing our entire country. It cannot go unnoticed that the war on bingo has been a war on constitutional amendments, adopted by counties with majority black populations in Alabama, that provided good paying jobs.
Winn and others believe the motivation for Riley’s sudden realization that bingo was illegal has its origins in 2006, when a US Senate Committee found that Mississippi Choctaw spent $13 million to help elect Riley as Governor. Greenetrack is a direct competitor with the Choctaw, who operate a casino right across the State line not far from Greene County. In the report, former Lobbyist Jack Abramoff confirms that the Choctaw were spending the money to support Riley to prohibit any gambling competition in Alabama. Riley issued Executive Order 44, forming his Gambling Task Force on December 30, 2008. Days later, Pearl River Resort (Mississippi Choctaw casino) announced 570 layoffs, and that it was closing on weekdays.
On November 13, 2009, in Barber v. Cornerstone, the Alabama Supreme Court issued an opinion related to the Lowndes County bingo constitutional amendment, stating the court must look to the “history of the times, the existing order of things, the state of the law when the instrument was adopted, and the conditions necessitating such adoption” to determine whether the Lowndes County bingo constitutional amendment authorized the type of bingo games seized in that case. The Court adopted a six-factor test to determine whether a machine is playing the game of “bingo.”
The Cornerstone case, as it has come to be known, has become the fulcrum used by the State Supreme Court to overturn lower court findings. In his ruling, Judge Brown found that expert testimony given in the Greenetrack case proved that the machines played at Greenetrack met the Cornerstone standards. The State did not offer any expert testimony to dispute that testimony. Instead, the State presented a witness who had been indicted earlier by a grand jury for making allegedly false statements to a judge. The Attorney General’s Office took over that case from the local district attorney, sealed the files and then made the indictment disappear.
During the proceedings before Judge Brown, the State didn’t offer any expert testimony. The State agent, Thomas Whitten, who specializes in computer forensic analysis, admitted under oath that he was qualified to perform a forensic analysis of the seized bingo servers. However, he admitted that neither he nor anyone else employed by the State had ever performed any analysis, and no one from the State ever asked him to perform any analysis.
Some would say, it is in that divide between pro and anti-gambling proponents, where the enticement of money and power lie. The State has spent millions of taxpayer’s money to prosecute gambling. Not only has the Attorney General’s Office used valuable State money and resources, but it has also paid millions to private law firms. For Greene County, electronic bingo also meant money and power: the money to provide jobs and critical services to the poorest of the poor in Alabama. The power to have their votes mean something.
Greenetrack is owned by over 150 employees, former employees and heirs of former employees. Greenetrack meant over 400 jobs in a poor, Black Belt county, whose only other major employers are catfish farms and catfish processors.
What began under Riley and continues today, under Attorney General Strange, is a long, costly struggle, with the poorest counties in the State being deprived of jobs and, some would say, hope.
Is this a question of law, or ideology, or is it like so many things in State government….all about power, politics and greed?