• Electronic Bingo Boogaloo: Alabama's Ongoing Gambling Saga

    Yeah, I probably should get on with figuring out how the city of Birmingham can cure itself of "civic anemia". Or blogging about how Jefferson County is slowly headed down the road to Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Instead, yours truly will attempt to figure out what the hell is up with the state of Alabama and its never-ending quest to embarrass and impoverish itself further by playing hopscotch with whether or not bingo (or more importantly, electronic bingo) should be allowed in the state.

    To start things off, here's a salient fact about the great state of Alabama: it's surrounded on all four sides by states that have some legalized form of gambling. Tennessee, Georgia and Florida have state lotteries, while Mississippi has full-on casinos, with slots, poker, blackjack, etc, etc. And every day, Alabamians leave their great state to visit these seething dens of vice and corruption, thus contributing to the bottom lines of these states, to the detriment of the great state of Alabama.

    Now, you'd figure that the citizens of this great state would want to enact some sort of enterprise that can generate the kind of revenue that these forms of gambling create. After all, gambling is probably the only enterprise outside of exotic dancing where people are literally throwing money at you. Not so for this state, on both religious and legal grounds. Except on Native American reservations within the state -- more on that later.

    In order to work around the legal and religious objections, a number of enterprising groups and companies have instead introduced "charity bingo" as way for people to satiate their desire to gamble while staying on the good side of the law. It's similar to regular bingo, only that instead of the right to shout "BINGO" after you won and possibly a few cheap trinkets as compensation, you receive a cash prize or an equivalent that can be redeemed for cash. According to the charitable gaming laws in the state, it's all legal, and many counties have their own constitutional amendments authorizing bingo for charitable purposes. If the sheriff of your county says it's OK, then for all intents and purposes, it's legal.

    The problem comes with electronic bingo. Instead of paper bingo cards, you have electronic touchscreen machines, some of which may look too much like slot machines for their own good (check the pictures here for an example). Which is a problem, since Alabama does not condone this sort of gambling (check Section 13A-12-20 through 92), nor the possession of such devices used to facilitate gambling. The end result is a constant game of "is it or is it not", where state troopers drop by to close up your place of business and confiscate your machines, while you do battle in court, hoping the judge will determine that your machines are kosher and hopefully give them back so you can set up shop, again.
    (More after the break)

    In counties where electronic bingo was considered legal, bingo parlors proliferated. I've personally seen scores of these establishments spring up from vacant store buildings in and around Fairfield, AL, and in other parts of the state. These places injected the cities they operated in with the extra revenue that most of these cities desperately needed. You didn't hear much about crime being a problem in these areas, either (feel free to correct me on that).

    Of course, there's a corruption angle to this. Electronic bingo wasn't considered much of a problem until the last year of Gov. Bob Riley's final term, when he assembled an anti-gambling task force, first headed by David Barber until he won a tidy sum from an Indian casino, and later Mobile County Attorney General John Tyson Jr. One of the task force's biggest casualties was VictoryLand, a greyhound racing park and entertainment complex with extensive electronic bingo gambling. VictoryLand isn't entirely innocent -- as it turns out, they never did contribute much of their earnings to charity as they were supposed to.

    0.5% to 0.8% of your earnings isn't much to give to charity, especially when you're operating a "charity bingo" enterprise. In the end, the Justice Department took interest in all of this and owner Milton McGregor and 10 other state senators and lobbyists were placed under arrest for a number of charges, including conspiracy, bribery and fraud. Nearly all of these people were Democrats or affiliated with the Democrat party.

    The other casualty was Greenetrack, a similar facility in Greene County, AL. The stakes were much higher, as Greenetrack was the biggest employer in the county. Raiding and shutting down the facility meant screwing with people's livelihoods here. It got so bad that Greene County Sheriff Ison Thomas, who considered electronic bingo legal according to the aforementioned statues, prepared for a showdown with state troopers over Greenetrack by deputizing as many people as he could find.
    "No one is above the law," said Thomas, as reported by The Associated Press, "including the Task Force. And should they come to Greene County, I cannot allow them to raid legal businesses."
    It all came to naught, as the state confiscated all of Greenetrack's machines. And since the facility contributed a great deal to the county's economy, it's hurting pretty bad these days. Some have called the blow to this largely-black county "economic racism".

    The problem with all this? As it turns out, the governor had a stake in all of this going down. Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff directed Mississippi Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin to spend $13 million to elect Riley in 2002, "to get the governor of Alabama elected to keep gaming out of Alabama so it wouldn't hurt . . . his market in Mississippi." Around that time, then-incumbent governor Don Siegelman was pushing for a state lottery. Siegelman ended up in the clink shortly afterwards on bribery and conspiracy charges stemming from taking $500,000 in campaign donations from former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy in return for his appointment to the Alabama Certificate of Need board.

    Oddly enough, the U.S. District Attorney who made this happen was Leura Canary, who served under former president George Bush and current president Barack Obama. Now, this bit of info isn't exactly remarkable, until you find out that Leura's husband, Republican campaign consultant Bill Canary, was Riley's chief of staff. Canary retired in late May 2011, presumably in hopes of avoiding a federal investigation into how she handled the bingo prosecution. And the Choctaws themselves haven't been immune to all of this, either -- last month, the FBI raided two casinos at the Choctaw-owned Pearl River Resort in Mississippi.

    This may explain why Riley took a sudden interest in cracking down on gambling in the state, after spending the vast majority of his first and second terms ignoring it. He had a debt to pay back and he decided to pay it in a big way.

    Current governor Robert Bentley put an end to the anti-gambling task force on his first day in office, but the damage was already done. VictoryLand and Greenetrack have since reopened, but only with horse and dog racing -- Alabama's gambling ordinances somehow make these two activities legal to bet on. No one's sure about the legality of electronic bingo -- some places have reopened their doors while others have been raided. Recently, a judge ordered state officials to return electronic bingo machines confiscated from Greenetrack. Who's to say that if those machines were put back into operation that they wouldn't be snatched up again? And the people who were prosecuted over bingo-related charges? Turns out those cases are far from over.

    A proposed referendum was put through the state House and Senate in early 2010 that would have added language to the state constitution stating that electronic bingo machines were legal. The bill passed the Senate, but died in the House without enough votes. Some legislators balked at how the bill would have allowed legislators and the state gaming commission that would have been established to pick and choose how many casinos would be able to operate and where they could operate.

    Personally speaking, I doubt Alabamians would vote "Yes" on electronic bingo if given the opportunity, now that it's been "tainted" by this ongoing saga. And an opportunity to generate more tax revenue for the state's been squandered, for all intents and purposes. The only thing left for the state to do is see how many automobile plants it can woo to continue generating revenue.