Alabama’s bingo conundrum

Published 11:00 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The state’s aggressive campaign against electronic bingo began in late 2009 when former Gov. Bob Riley appointed former Mobile prosecutor John Tyson Jr. to head a special task force to ferret out illegal gambling. It wouldn’t take much ferreting to find the gambling Riley had in his cross-hairs – electronic bingo games were in operation at VictoryLand in Macon County, and in other parts of the state. And here in Houston County, developer Ronnie Gilley was quite vocal about the imminent opening of Country Crossing, a multimillion-dollar music-themed complex crowned by an electronic bingo casino.

The trouble, as would soon become apparent, was that the legality of the games was a matter of opinion. Riley, et al. saw the games as slot machines prohibited by the state constitution. Casino operators saw them as bingo games, allowed in various counties by constitutional amendment.

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The matter was further complicated by tribal casinos operating the same games in the state, although tribal gambling is regulated by federal law, not state law.

Fast-forward to today, and the question remains: Are electronic bingo games legal, or illegal? There have been several contradictory court rulings, a blueprint from the Alabama Supreme Court, raids, seizures, and crippling of businesses operating electronic bingo machines.

Victoryland saw its electronic bingo machines confiscated by the state in 2013, along with about $200,000. A state court ruled that the state must return the machines and money, but last month, the Alabama Supreme Court overruled that decision.

Meanwhile, Victoryland owner Milton McGregor announced that he had arranged to get more electronic bingo games, and would soon re-open his bingo operation.

In late March, George Beck, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, wrote a letter to Attorney General Luther Strange and Gov. Robert Bentley asking for clarification of Alabama’s gambling laws.

“I’m just trying to understand the state’s position,” Beck told the Montgomery Advertiser. “This thing has been inconsistent.”

In more than six years, the state of Alabama has spent millions chasing after electronic bingo operators, disrupting business and eliminating jobs, but has yet to charge a single person with operating an illegal gambling operation. Even the federal prosecutor is confused by the mission.

Is it any wonder that everyone else is, too?

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