MONTGOMERY, AL -- Alabama's long-running electronic bingo "brawl" reached new heights in mid-March when Attorney General Troy King suddenly announced that he would take over the Governor's Task Force on Illegal Gambling ... not at Gov. Bob Riley's request, but in open defiance of Riley's wishes.
King infuriated the governor, his supposed boss, by saying that he would order the taskforce to cease all raids against electronic bingo gamerooms until the Alabama Supreme Court clearly and unambiguously rules the devices to be illegal.
A Nov. 13, 2009, ruling by the high court left plenty of latitude for King and others to believe that under certain conditions spelled out by the verdict, electronic bingos could be operated legally in the state.
As a result of King's plan to commandeer the governor's taskforce, the industry -- and the nation -- may soon witness the spectacle of a governor suing his own attorney general. Immediately after King's announcement, Riley promptly threatened to take the attorney general to court over the matter.
At issue is not just a turf war, but also a profound policy dispute ... not to mention a multibillion-dollar industry and at least 6,000 jobs in bingo parlors statewide.
The policy dispute is stark. Riley says all electronic bingo machines are illegal and should be shut down, period. King says some electronic bingos are illegal, but some bingo machines are permissible under the 2009 ruling.
Earlier this year, the taskforce -- under the leadership of Riley's handpicked taskforce director, Mobile Co. District Attorney John Tyson -- had raided or threatened to raid 22 bingo operations across Alabama. They all shut down, triggering the losses of those 6,000 or more jobs. The shutdowns effectively overrode local regulations in 18 Alabama counties, where officials had approved rules legalizing electronic bingo.
The financial results of the raids proved dramatic. In mid-March, the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper broke an exclusive story that the State of Alabama stands to gain $1.3 million in funds seized during the raids on bingo parlors -- but only if courts rule in Alabama's favor during forfeiture proceedings. (On the minus side of the ledger, Alabama had spent $536,115 in legal expenses over the prior 14 months to pursue Riley's anti-bingo crusade.)
But if the financial results of the bingo raids were dramatic, they paled beside the legal and political results. It seems that putting 6,000 people out of work in the midst of a recession is regarded by many people -- both in government and private industry -- as provocative. Pro-bingo forces didn't take it lying down.
In late February and in March, there were lawsuits filed by large bingo operators and county governments. At least 18 lawsuits are now in the works against the state regarding the bingo issue.
In addition, there were howls of protest from thousands of suddenly jobless citizens and their families. There were still more protests and angry speeches from county commissioners and other hometown politicians who sought to protect their local economies, local charities and local tax sources.
Finally, there was a high-profile visit from political activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Jackson visited Montgomery on March 4, where he met with both Riley and King. Jackson said the governor's aggressive use of pistol-wielding state troopers to close bingo halls was "very provocative and dangerous," and that the issue should be resolved peacefully in court.
Jackson also said he planned to organize a new March On Poverty to protest the 6,000 lost jobs. (The original March On Poverty occurred in Washington, DC, in 1968 and was organized by Jackson's onetime mentor, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was assassinated one month before the event, but the protest was staged regardless to urge Congress to pass national jobs legislation.)
Meanwhile, the Alabama Supreme Court is mulling yet another controversial bingo question: how much authority does the governor's antigambling taskforce really have? Is it empowered to conduct raids in every county in the state, or only in the home county of Riley's pick for taskforce director, Mobile Co. District Attorney John Tyson?
The issue is before the court because Tyson put it there. He appealed a temporary restraining order issued by a Macon County judge on March 5 blocking the gambling taskforce from raiding the VictoryLand resort and video bingo casino, which operates some 6,400 slot-type bingo devices.
Hours later, VictoryLand reopened with its electronic bingos up and running. Tyson fumed that the TRO was "corrupt" and filed his appeal, hoping to have it invalidated. But if the high court's eventual ruling goes against Tyson, it may be the taskforce that is invalidated.
At presstime, the state's second-largest bingo casino had also reopened. Country Crossings, a resort that includes 1,700 electronic bingo machines among its attractions, said it planned to reopen as soon as bingo-friendly Troy King announced he would take over the Task Force (the company later hedged, saying it would hold off until the state Supreme Court had clarified the law). A third large bingo venue, White Hall Entertainment Center, also announced plans to reopen.
The Alabama bingo brawl also continued to roil the floor of the State Legislature in March. On March 3, the Senate voted against legalizing 10 major existing bingo casinos, subject to a voter referendum this fall. After the "no" vote, the legalization bill's leading sponsor said the measure appeared dead.
But in what one Supreme Court justice called the "three-ring circus" of Alabama bingo, nothing is certain.