Ala. gambling tug of war escalates

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)--After Alabama's attorney general said March 22 he'll take over the governor's Task Force on Illegal Gambling, two casinos that operate electronic bingo machines announced plans to reopen.

Gov. Bob Riley, meanwhile, said he believes the state Supreme Court will support his challenge of the attorney general's move to assume control of the task force.

Formed by the governor in 2008, the task force has conducted raids on casinos based on a state law that outlaws slot machines. The governor and task force members say the machines at issue are games of chance and operate similar to slot machines, while gambling supporters say they are merely electronic games of bingo.

Some Alabama counties have constitutional amendments allowing traditional paper bingo for charity, but the question is whether the bingo machines are protected by those amendments. Riley says they're not, while attorney general Troy King says they could be in some cases.

A circuit judge ruled earlier in March that King had the authority to assume control of the task force, but Riley appealed the case to the Supreme Court, maintaining that the attorney general's authority does not surpass the governor's.

Riley and King both are members of Southern Baptist churches, and they once were political allies. King said he strongly opposes gambling but is taking over the task force because he disagrees with the way the group has enforced the law.

King appointed a Montgomery attorney as the new lead lawyer in gambling litigation March 22 and asked the task force to turn over all of the evidence they have collected regarding electronic bingo machine operators in the five Alabama counties in question.

"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," King said, according to The Alabama Baptist. "I will use this evidence to implement the advice I suggested to the task force."

The attorney general plans to file declaratory judgments in the specific counties to determine whether the bingo machines are legal, and he said he would take action in an expedited manner. King also asked the state's Department of Public Safety and the Alabama Beverage Control Board to refrain from conducting raids on casinos until further notice.

King said the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether electronic bingo machines are legal in some cases.

"As soon as a definitive ruling is obtained, I will lead the aggressive enforcement of the law," King said, according to The Birmingham News.

Last fall the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that electronic bingo machines are in fact an illegal form of gambling because the machines "have none of the elements of human skill and interaction that are fundamental to the game of bingo."

Riley, in challenging King's move to take over the task force, said March 22 he will abide by what the Supreme Court decides.

"The Supreme Court has been very articulate in the last few months," Riley said. "If we ever get to the point where everyone in Alabama begins to understand what the Supreme Court speaks, that should be final. Then we'll put an end to all of this."

King was appointed attorney general by Riley in 2004 and won reelection in 2006. Riley is a member of First Baptist Church in Ashland; Troy King, a member of First Baptist Church in Montgomery.

King, in his remarks at a news conference Monday, said John Tyson, the Mobile district attorney that Riley appointed as chairman of the task force, can refocus his attention on the citizens of Mobile. Tyson, though, said he will not step down from his post as chairman.

"The task force was created by the governor of Alabama, and the attorney general has absolutely no ability to dictate how it will be operated," Tyson said, according to The Alabama Baptist. "I was appointed as commander of the task force by the governor. I serve at the pleasure of the governor. The attorney general has no more right to replace me than do the casino bosses."

Tyson also said King lacks authority to obtain the evidence held by law enforcement officials regarding the casinos, and the attorney general has no authority to impose a moratorium on the enforcement of the law.

"If the attorney general gets his way, then the only thing that will be assured is that the illegal slot machine casinos will get to stay open for months and months as the gambling bosses drag out the litigation that the attorney general says he is going to bring," Tyson said.

"The Supreme Court has issued one clear opinion after another on these illegal gambling issues, but the attorney general refuses to acknowledge those decisions."

Tyson said King corrupts the state judicial system and his office by continuing to claim that the law is not clear. He added that King's actions will allow casino operators to take more money from Alabama citizens through illegal slot machines.

"The task force has won every single issue that has been presented to the Alabama Supreme Court, and the gambling bosses know that the end is near for their ability to continue illegal slot machine gambling," Tyson said.

The Birmingham News said Tyson will argue for the governor's authority over the attorney general in a case before the Supreme Court, and the court has asked that arguments be filed by April 2.

In response to King's announcement Monday, two casinos that had closed to prevent raids by the governor's illegal gambling task force made plans to reopen. Country Crossing has been closed since Jan. 29 but said it will resume operations after recalling workers and restocking restaurants. White Hall Entertainment Center said it aimed to reopen March 24.


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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