MONTGOMERY, AL -- Following the Alabama Senate's 21-13 vote on March 30 to allow a public referendum on electronic bingo, the voting bill is now under consideration by the House Tourism and Travel Committee.
Charges of bribery have surfaced in connection with the measure, adding electricity to a years-long controversy that was already stormy. According to the Birmingham News, state Sen. Paul Sanford said that Jarrod Massey, a lobbyist for the Country Crossings resort and bingo hall in Houston County, offered him $250,000 if he voted to legalize the machines.
The FBI is now investigating this and similar charges in an "ongoing investigation," according to attorneys with Public Integrity division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Alabama Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills) said federal officials have advised the state's leading elected officials that they possess "substantial evidence of public corruption on the bingo issue."
Pro-bingo Senate Democrats were not impressed. "This is a blatant attempt to undercut the people's right to vote on the bingo issue, something a majority of citizens support, and to ensure the death of the legislation," said five leading senators in a statement. "This is about intimidation and killing bingo. The timing proves it."
Bingo supporters charged that the FBI probe was occurring at the behest of Gov. Bob Riley, an unwavering bingo opponent. Supporters also said that Alabama's Poarch Creek Indian casinos, which view bingos as unwelcome competition, donated $10,000 to a Riley political action committee. An administration spokesman did not deny that Riley's PAC received the money, but insisted that the governor had done nothing wrong.
Beyond the state capital, five small bingo operations near Birmingham were raided on April 7. Some 22 bingo venues, including multimillion-dollar resorts that operated up to 6,400 of the controversial devices, shuttered in January under pressure from the Riley administration.
The legal status of electronic bingo machines has turned into a "three ring circus," according to one justice of the state Supreme Court. The high court issued a ruling last November that bingo is legal if it meets certain tests, but the verdict failed to say explicitly whether electronic versions of the game are legal or not under Alabama law.
While the governor has called the electronic bingo machines illegal slot games, Alabama Attorney General Troy King has said he believes some bingo machines may be legal.