Gov’s task force raid of Ala. bingo center stopped by last-minute court order sought by county

By Phillip Rawls, AP
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Judge halts state raid of big Alabama bingo center

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A rural Alabama county hungry for economic development staved off a state raid on a big, new bingo and entertainment center it helped create, winning a round Wednesday in a gambling confrontation with Gov. Bob Riley.

Houston County won a middle-of-the-night court order barring the raid even as agents from the governor’s antigambling task force were massing near Country Crossing, an $87 million bingo and country music complex near Dothan, in the state’s southeast corner.

Houston County Commissioner Mark Culver got the order from a judge’s home at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday and personally delivered it to the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling as it was assembling for a pre-dawn raid. He said he was trying to save 1,300 jobs in a county with 8.7 percent unemployment.

“We are going to do everything we can to protect the jobs of the people of Houston County and the Wiregrass,” Culver said.

The governor was in Pasadena, Calif., to watch the University of Alabama play the University of Texas in the football championship game, and did not have any immediate comment.

His press secretary, Todd Stacy, said the task force was not allowed any input before the judge issued the court order. He compared the events to the illegal gambling that operated in Phenix City, Ala., in the 1950s under the protection of some public officials.

“The obstruction of law enforcement that took place in Houston County this morning should be a wake-up call to the people of this state about the power of organized gambling and casino bosses,” Stacy said.

Country Crossing opened last month with 1,700 electronic bingo machines, celebrity-themed restaurants and other attractions that carry the names of country music stars that developer Ronnie Gilley involved in the project. They include George Jones, Lorrie Morgan and Randy Owen, lead singer for the band Alabama.

Alabama’s Republican governor has challenged the legality of Country Crossing and similar developments, claiming their electronic bingo machines are really illegal slot machines. He maintains that Alabama laws allowing bingo in some counties, such as Houston County, are designed for traditional paper games played for charity.

Electronic bingo machines resemble slot machines with their flashing lights and rapid play. Operators, including Gilley, say they are legal under Alabama’s bingo laws because they compete against each other like players using paper bingo.

Bill Eadington, a gambling expert at the University of Nevada at Reno, said investors in Alabama casinos built them using questionable laws, but the casinos become harder to close when amenities such as restaurants and hotels are added that produce lots of jobs.

“It’s a very interesting political strategy,” he said.

The Houston County Commission approved the construction of Country Crossing in 2008 and created a method for it to issue up to $70 million in bonds for construction. The commission and Country Crossing sought the order stopping the raid, contending it would harm the bond issue that’s supposed to be paid off with bingo revenue.

Circuit Judge P.B. McLauchlin agreed it “would do irreparable harm” to the bond transaction and blocked any raid pending a court hearing Jan. 20.

Country Crossing had shut down at midnight Tuesday in anticipation of the raid, but reopened Wednesday afternoon.

Gilley, the developer, accused the governor of trying to shut down all privately owned gambling businesses that compete with Indian-owned casinos in Alabama and Mississippi.

“This is an obsession by a governor to eliminate an industry,” he said.

The governor is using a court battle from a raid last year on a gambling hall in White Hall, 20 miles west of Montgomery, to try to win a state Supreme Court ruling shutting down the games statewide. That is the same approach used in South Carolina to stop video poker in 2000.

Unlike South Carolina, Alabama gambling centers have been expanding with hotels, restaurants and other attractions and portraying themselves as economic development projects that are providing badly needed jobs in a recession.

“A large capital investment in a diversified development is definitely different than storefront machines,” gambling industry analyst Eugene Christiansen of New York said Tuesday.

The governor’s press secretary said Riley sees it as a crime issue, not a jobs issue.

“Governor Riley will not tolerate criminal activity from anyone — no matter how powerful or politically connected they may be,” Stacy said.

Gilley said the stymied raid would intensify efforts by him and other casino owners to get legislation passed that would remove any legal questions about electronic bingo. That push will begin when the Legislature convenes Tuesday.

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