State authorities are investigating a number of questionable campaign donations received by Greene County Sheriff Jonathan Benison and a potentially improper relationship between a political action committee, a Greene County bingo charity and a Greene County casino, according to Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.
APR was provided copies of campaign finance filings and other materials and raised questions with Merrill’s office. Merrill confirmed that his office reviewed the materials and found that “some laws have been violated, we believe, and there are some other problems here as well.”
Merrill said his office lacked jurisdiction on the potential issues, but that he referred the potential criminal portion to the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and the other matters to the Alabama revenue office for investigation.
“I fully expect that this will get a lot of attention, because the problems here are very obvious,” Merrill said. “We spoke to our contact person at the AG’s office and passed along everything to him, and I feel confident after that discussion that this will be investigated thoroughly.”
At issue are donations to Benison flowing through the Citizens For Lawful Government PAC, which was formed in February by attorney James Liddon. Liddon has represented Benison in legal matters in the past.
As the sheriff, Benison is identified by the Alabama constitution as the primary regulator of bingo games in the county. In Alabama, in order to operate bingo games – whether on paper or electronic – a licensed casino must meet certain regulations and also must affiliate itself with an authorized charity. It is the sheriff’s responsibility to authorize the charities and oversee the gaming, according to Alabama law.
Unlike most other Alabama counties, Greene County has a number of operational electronic bingo casinos. Each of those casinos is aligned with one or more charities. Those casinos and charities must report earnings and donations to Benison, who ensures that the casinos are meeting their obligations under the law.
The Citizens for Lawful Government PAC has taken donations from just three sources: WWCH, LLC., a business owned by Tuscaloosa accountant Donald Wood; The Palace casino located in Greene County; and TS Police Support League, the primary charity supported by The Palace.
TS Police Support League gave $18,800 on March 18. The Palace chipped in $10,000 on April 6. And WWCH added $1,000 on the same day.
The Citizens for Lawful Government PAC has, in turn, donated to just one candidate: Benison. Benison got $18,800 from the PAC in two payments, on March 20 and 25th. He also received another $7,500 the day after The Palace and WWCH made their donations on April 6.
All of that, of course, raises legal questions concerning conflicts of interest for the sheriff. Numerous attempts to reach Benison were unsuccessful. A message left with a sheriff’s office employee last week went unreturned.
Making matters worse, TS Police Support League is registered as a 501(c)(3) charity, and as such should have no political involvement at all. Making political donations has, in the past, cost other 501(c)(3) charities their tax exempt status.
Merrill said the activity of the charity will be investigated by the Alabama Revenue Department and its findings passed along to the Internal Revenue Service.
Benison’s contributions in this election cycle, which total more than $37,000 so far, have come almost entirely from entities with ties to electronic bingo. In addition to the $27,300 Benison received from TS Support League, The Palace and WWCH, he also took in $10,000 from Christopher Fellows, who owns Diamond Amusements, a company that supplies electronic bingo machines.