AG takes over Gov.’s task force

Published 3:58 pm Monday, March 22, 2010

Good afternoon. On December 29, 2008, 448 days ago, Governor Riley announced the formation of a Task Force on Illegal Gambling by Executive Order Number 44. At the time, Governor Riley said the Task Force would, quote, “bring the State’s resources to bear in ending once and for all what has become a growing epidemic in Alabama.”

Even before the Governor’s announcement, many Alabama law enforcement agencies, including my Office, had dedicated thousands of hours and tremendous amounts of manpower to combating the spread of illegal gambling. This work was not easy. For example, Alabama law classifies all gambling crimes as misdemeanors and sets the maximum fine faced by gamblers so low that it provides little to no deterrent to illegal operations. Neither is state law as straightforward as one would like with respect to electronic bingo – a constitutional ban on lotteries and statutes and court decisions outlawing slot machines existed side-by-side with valid local constitutional amendments and rules defining gaming in specific counties. Even these local laws differed from county to county in important ways. The Alabama Supreme Court had not then nor has it since ruled definitively on whether electronic bingo is legal anywhere in our state.

The launch of the Task Force finally promised to harness the great resources of state government to address this problem and raised expectations that illegal gaming would be clearly and finally defined by the courts and brought under control. We had an opportunity to replace ambiguity with certainty.

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It is no wonder that the people of our state are frustrated and confused. Regrettably, in the 448 days since the establishment of the Task Force, the chaos has not been resolved and the core questions remain unanswered. Warrantless pre-dawn, attempted raids on an unprecedented scale, and the resulting legal fallout, produced more, not less, confusion and litigation. Rather than finding a path to a peaceful resolution of this issue, the actions of the Task Force led to the threat of an armed confrontation between law enforcement agencies so that the law enforcement family now finds itself divided into armed camps. District Attorneys in Greene County and Macon County are at odds with the tactics and the conclusions of the Governor’s Task Force, a Task Force that was created to be an invited partner and a resource for local law enforcement. The Houston County District Attorney uninvited the Task Force’s involvement in his county. The Macon County District Attorney has sued the Task Force. The bingo hall in Lowndes County was successfully raided and now, a year later, remains closed and awaits a court decision on the legality of its operation. The hall in Houston County chose to close. The hall in Greene County never closed but instead defied the Task Force. The hall in Macon County chose to close but has now reopened. Even the procedural matters that have made their way to the Alabama Supreme Court have failed to produce a clear definitive ruling.

This is not to say there have been no significant developments. There have been. The Supreme Court has recently created a six-part test outlining the characteristics that a bingo game in Alabama must possess. Some of the largest operators say the machines in their facilities have been modified to pass this test. The Task Force says it has gathered evidence that even the modified machines are still illegal. All of this points to the need for a new approach.

Court decisions to date have not provided a clear answer to two critical questions: Can electronic bingo be played in Alabama and, if so, which of the many existing constitutional amendments permit it? Simply telling the news media that the Court has ruled definitively and decisively does not mean it has, in fact, done so. For all the drama and rhetoric of the past several months, these two central questions remain unanswered.

The people have a right to expect that these issues will be handled in a responsible and legal manner that respects the dignity of the law, the dignity of the people on the front lines of law enforcement, the dignity of our citizens, and the dignity of our Court system.

Despite the raids and the expenditure of untold hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the fourteen months since the creation of the Task Force to enforce the criminal laws of Alabama, no arrests have been made and no convictions have been won. Not a single one. In fact, in the only location where a raid succeeded, at White Hall in Lowndes County, the failure of the Task Force to obtain indictments based on the evidence seized during their raid, has allowed the statute of limitations to expire on these offenses.

Throughout the last fourteen months, I have consistently and patiently worked to find a solution that will move this dispute from parking lots, press conferences, and middle of the night raids to courtrooms and the bright light of day where these matters should be decided. All of my advice has been rejected.

Thirty-three (33) days ago, against this backdrop of warrantless, aborted raids, hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent, and no arrests or convictions, I publicly asked the Task Force to alter its approach. I suggested that they should follow a path that better respects the law and answers the fundamental, bottom-line questions relating to electronic bingo.

In my efforts to find common ground and to negotiate a sensible resolution to this issue, I engaged in further conversations with Governor Riley. I spoke with his lawyers as recently as Saturday. I have candidly told them that we have tried it their way for fourteen months. It is now time to try it a different way.

Today is a new day, and we will take a new approach, an approach designed to bring order to this chaos. The Governor and I now find ourselves in agreement on another thing, after 448 days, “enough is enough.” This task will not be as easy as some suggest. “Enforcing the rule of law” is not a political slogan nor is it a justification for actions that border on lawlessness. It is now time to do the serious business of establishing and enforcing the rule of law in the proper way and in the proper venues. I intend to do so.

Let me be clear. I am not assuming control of these matters because I support gambling. Personally, I strongly oppose it, but the rule of law does not allow me to enforce my opinion. Instead, I assume control now because I have sworn an oath to uphold the law. It is not enough to simply do the right thing. We must also do it the right way.

I continue to believe that Alabama law may allow bingo to be played electronically under certain conditions. I also believe the newly created six-part test from the Alabama Supreme Court makes it very difficult for a machine to be legal. However, no court at any level has ruled that the machines in operation in all of the counties of the state are in violation of this test.

The Court has not answered this central question, in part because of failures in the way the Governor’s Task Force has handled the legal issues as well as the enforcement issues. I assume control of these matters to correct that.

There can be no doubt that the Alabama Supreme Court’s six-part test significantly altered the understanding of what games may be lawfully played in Alabama. Whether I agree with their test is not an issue, for I have never defied a decision of the Alabama Supreme Court and I will not do so now. But the place to see whether electronic bingo is legal and whether the machines in operation meet the test of the Supreme Court is in a courtroom, not at a press conference.

So to bring order out of the chaos that now exists from the operation of the Task Force, today I am announcing the following actions:

1. I have written John Tyson and advised him of my decision to exercise my authority as Attorney General of the State of Alabama. He has had his chance with unrestrained authority and unlimited resources. He has failed. Pursuant to my authority as Attorney General, I have relieved him of his duties relating to the Task Force. I have also directed him, within twenty-four hours, to turn over all of the evidence gathered by the Task Force in Greene County, Houston County, Jefferson County, Lowndes County, and Macon County, during the past fourteen months. Despite several past offers by the Task Force for me to join it, and numerous requests by me to see the evidence it has collected, none has been shown to me. Judging by the dramatic nature of the events that the Task Force has taken based on this evidence, I can only anticipate that the evidence is overwhelming. I will use this evidence to implement the advice I suggested to the Task Force. Upon receipt of this evidence we will prepare declaratory judgment actions asserting the governor’s position in court so that this matter can be finally, and definitively, settled. Delays in providing this evidence will delay our court filings and could even allow the two halls that voluntarily closed to reopen.

2. I have written to Emory Folmar, Administrator of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, and Chris Murphy, Director of the Department of Public Safety, and advised them that I have assumed direction and responsibility for determining the illegality of electronic bingo machines throughout Alabama. While neither of them answers to me, I have advised them to refrain from conducting additional raids until further notice. The temporary moratorium on raids will provide a strong incentive to bingo operators throughout Alabama to avoid legal delaying tactics that will prolong our attempts to answer these important questions.

3. I am proud to introduce you to Douglas McElvy. Mr. McElvy will serve as the lead lawyer for the State on this matter. I selected him because of his impeccable credentials. He is a past president of the Alabama State Bar Association. I know him to be a man of uncompromised devotion to the law. Douglas will not only do the right thing, but he will do it the right way.

To those across Alabama who, like me, oppose the expansion of gambling, I ask for your patience. Our moral convictions are unbending. One of those convictions though must always be a fidelity to the law that governs us. We must never allow personal views to interfere in the execution of our laws as written in every instance, whether we agree with them or not. As soon as a definitive ruling is obtained, I will lead the aggressive enforcement of the law.

I am mindful of the problems this uncertainty has created for those who found employment in an Alabama bingo facility and who now face the difficult challenge of providing for your families. To you I say, “you have waited long enough for finality to be brought to this issue in a responsible manner.” I will now seek answers from the Supreme Court that will let you know the future of the facilities that employed you.

To every citizen on both sides or neither side of this issue, you have every right to expect that we will do your business effectively and efficiently. In this regard, the Task Force has failed you. I will do what they have not – not just take a legal position but take a legal position to court and press it to a final determination. No more delaying tactics. No more legal doublespeak. No more spin. We will do whatever is necessary to put the Governor’s position in court, test it, and we will not relent until we settle this matter. Hopefully, by doing so, we can turn our attention and the resources of state government to other important issues of the day.

This issue has divided our State for long enough. It is my earnest hope that Governor Riley will embrace this approach and not delay the resolution of this issue with additional needless legal maneuvers and turf battles. The Task Force has had fourteen months to try its approach and we have little to show for it other than more questions and a deeply divided Alabama.

I will close with a word of warning to any who would attempt to impede and delay the implementation of my directions. I will use every legal process available to me to stop you from doing so. The people of Alabama deserve to have this issue resolved. That is what the oath I took requires. I will be faithful to my oath. It is my sincerest hope that, upon the completion of our work, Alabamians will not only have confidence in the conclusions that we have, but also in the process by which we obtained them.

Thank you.