Alabama’s biggest electronic bingo casino closes as deadline looms in legal case over raid

Monday, August 9, 2010

Alabama’s biggest casino closes as raid looms

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s largest electronic bingo operation closed Monday as its owner tried to prevent a raid by the governor’s anti-gambling task force on the last non-Indian casino still doing business in the state.

Victoryland owner Milton McGregor was awaiting word on a court ruling that could clear the way for a raid similar to those in recent months, when Gov. Bob Riley’s task force and its commander, John Tyson, shut down the casinos and authorities hauled out dozens of the bingo machines.

Many of the casinos were in poor, mostly black areas of the state, and the raids have spurred protests in the past.

“It is apparent from Tyson and Riley’s latest legal shenanigans and threats that they will stop at nothing to put on a show and attempt to raid Victoryland to garner one last bit of publicity before Czar Riley leaves office and the task force is disbanded,” McGregor said.

Riley and Tyson contend court rulings have made it clear the casino is an illegal slot machine operation.

Tyson said a raid could still happen if the Supreme Court includes language allowing the seizure of bingo machines. A ruling is expected within a few days.

“The law is crystal clear. It’s so clear Milton McGregor decided to close down today because he can anticipate what the ruling is going to be,” Tyson said.

Victoryland, located 15 miles east of Montgomery in the Shorter community, started 25 years ago as a dog track. In recent years it added traditional paper bingo and then electronic bingo machines. The machines feature flashing lights and rapid play similar to slots, but McGregor contends they are simply an electronic version of paper bingo, which is legal.

The machines have been a huge success, making Victoryland the largest employer and largest taxpayer in rural, mostly black Macon County. Monday’s closing idled 6,000 machines and 600 workers.

The privately operated games were supposed to benefit charity. But court records show that Victoryland’s games grossed $503 million over five years and gave $4.4 million to charity — less than 1 percent per year. The casino’s net profits, after expenses are deducted, were not disclosed.

“One Percent McGregor talks a big game about how his slot machines aren’t really slot machines, but when it’s time to lay his cards down on the table, he folds and runs away like a scalded dog,” said Jeff Emerson, the governor’s spokesman.

Macon County’s district attorney and sheriff have contended the casino is legal. Late Monday afternoon, their lawyers urged the Alabama Supreme Court not to grant Tyson’s request to raid Victoryland and confiscate its bingo machines. They argued that the governor and Tyson are usurping the power of local officials.

“There is no emergency and no reason to change the law for Tyson’s benefit,” District Attorney E. Paul Jones said.

Raids and the threat of raids have forced other casinos to close at least temporarily, including Greenetrack in Greene County, where protesters were arrested, and Country Crossing at Dothan, which investors had planned as the centerpiece of a country music-themed entertainment complex.

Indian casinos at Montgomery, Wetumpka and Atmore are under federal regulation, not state, and have continued to offer electronic bingo. The crowds at Indian casinos have swelled, with parking lots jammed on weekends. Indian and non-Indian casinos in Mississippi, which allows a full range of games, have also aimed marketing campaigns at Alabamians looking for another place to gamble.

After some changes, Victoryland plans to reopen its dog track Thursday without electronic games. Victoryland attorney Mark White said the future of its bingo machines depends on two things: the outcome of a federal lawsuit and who is elected the state’s next governor.

The lawsuit accuses the task force of violating the Voting Rights Act because Macon County citizens had previously voted to allow bingo there.

Meanwhile, Riley is term-limited and a new governor will take office in January. Both the Democratic and Republican nominees have pledged to fire the task force’s commander and put gambling to a statewide vote. Democratic nominee Ron Sparks says he will allow closed casinos to reopen until that vote takes place.

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