The sheriff in Greene County has filed a lawsuit against several casinos in the county and the charitable organizations that operate them, alleging that the casinos are in violation of the constitutional amendment that allows for electronic bingo in the county.
Sheriff Jonathan Benison, who, as sheriff, is tasked by the constitutional amendment with enforcement of county bingo laws and rules, filed the lawsuit earlier this month. In it, he states that he established new electronic bingo rules, called “Bookend Bingo,” which comply with mandates set forth by the Alabama Supreme Court, and is requiring that all casinos in the county remove or reprogram machines that fail to comply with the new regulations by Nov. 24, 2023.
Benison is asking the court to intervene because he doubts that the casinos and their operators will comply. As evidence, he cites a number of specific examples in which the casinos have defied him and local laws.
“For example, White Sands and Winter Sky (casinos) have defied the sheriff’s requests and directions for them to provide to all licensees equal access to its library of bingo games while the Palace has continued to advertise and offer ‘jackpots’ that exceed (the local constitutional amendment’s) $10,000 per session cap on prizes,” the lawsuit states. “This defiant intransigence foreshadows further insubordination.”
The lawsuit also gives insight into Benison’s true motivation – to keep electronic bingo casinos operating in the county in the face of a long-running lawsuit filed by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.
That lawsuit, Alabama v. Pen-Tech LLC., alleging that the bingo casinos are a nuisance under Alabama law, has been stalled in the preliminary stages for more than six years, as the two sides argue over various issues in front of a Green County Circuit Court judge.
Recently, the judge in that case ruled the state couldn’t present certain evidence collected about bingo play at some casinos because the AG’s office investigators failed to notify the casinos before showing up to play the games and take videos of the operations. The AG’s office argued the investigators behaved as normal customers, but the judge ruled that under the rules governing civil trials, it had a duty to notify the casinos before showing up to gather evidence.
More than any other location around the state, Greene County is a case study in the way Alabama’s vague and varying gambling laws, light punishments and uneven enforcement has turned the state into something akin to the wild west when it comes to gambling. Despite rulings from the state’s highest court, there are several electronic bingo casinos operating in the county – while the state’s second-oldest bingo casino, GreeneTrack, is now shuttered after various court rulings and enforcement actions forced it to close. Greene County Entertainment, operating historical horse racing machines, has now opened in the former GreeneTrack location.
In addition, GreeneTrack also was hit with a more than $100 million tax bill after the state claimed it improperly calculated tax rates for offering electronic bingo. The proper tax rate was more than the profit gained from the machines, which would leave the current bingo casinos operating at a loss.
APR was told in January by the Alabama Department of Revenue that “all electronic bingo casinos in Greene County are subject to the same tax laws.” Yet, somehow, the casinos remain in operation, with a new electronic bingo casino set to open soon.
The AG’s office failed to answer several questions sent by APR regarding the ongoing gambling issues in Greene County and the AG’s efforts, or lack thereof, to enforce the laws. Specifically, APR asked if the AG’s office planned any additional legal actions in light of Benison’s admissions that the casinos are in violation of state laws; why has the AG’s office handled the nuisance lawsuits seemingly less aggressively than similar lawsuits against GreeneTrack, VictoryLand in Macon County and casinos in Lowndes County; and can gambling in the state be satisfactorily regulated without legislature passing new laws and stiffer penalties?
These same questions have been raised by state lawmakers working on gambling committees with an eye towards passing comprehensive gaming legislation during the 2024 legislative session.
Benison’s lawsuit, which was filed by former Alabama AG Troy King and that will undoubtedly serve to lengthen further the ongoing nuisance lawsuit filed by the state, will certainly raise new questions. Some of those questions will focus on Benison himself, who has raised eyebrows with his relationship with some of the Greene County casinos.
In May 2022, APR reported that state officials were investigating Benison and his campaign over several donations the sheriff received directly from The Palace casino and a charity tied to The Palace. Former Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said at the time that he believed some laws had been violated and that his office had turned the investigation over to the AG’s office. It’s unclear if any action has been taken since.