Gov. forms task force to probe gambling

Published 7:52 pm Monday, December 29, 2008

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Bob Riley created a task force Monday to investigate gambling operations statewide and picked a veteran antigambling prosecutor to lead it.

Riley bypassed state Attorney General Troy King to create the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling, headed by former Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber. Riley initially appointed King in 2004, but they now disagree about Alabama’s gambling laws.

Riley said King believes there are loopholes that permit electronic gambling machines in some locations, but Riley considers many of them to be illegal slot machines.

“I believe what is going on in many of these halls all over the state is illegal,” Riley said at a news conference in the Capitol.

Neither Riley nor Barber would single out any operation they consider illegal, but Riley said the legal argument for electronic bingo halls in Walker County “goes against well-established judicial precedent.”

The attorney general said later that he and the governor are both opponents of gambling, but he must abide by state law on gambling.

“We are constrained not by how I would like the law to be, but by how the law is,” King said in an interview.

He said his office had helped shut down more than 30 illegal gambling operations without assistance from the governor’s office.

“Fighting illegal gambling is expensive and time-consuming. I wish all these resources coming available now had been available earlier,” King said.

Electronic bingo machines operate at the dog tracks in Macon and Greene counties and at gambling halls in Lowndes and Walker counties. A resort featuring electronic bingo machines is being constructed in Houston County, and other gambling halls are planned elsewhere.

These electronic bingo games operate under state constitutional amendments permitting bingo that benefits charities. They do not pay any state tax.

Some legislators have discussed expanding gambling and levying state taxes to help ease budget cuts, but Riley said he will oppose that when the Legislature convenes Feb. 3. He said the proposed taxes would be “table scraps” when compared to the operators’ profits from more gambling.

“The gambling axis in Alabama is not interested in rescuing Medicaid or education. They could care less,” he said.

In addition, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians operates electronic bingo gambling in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery. Those machines operate under federal supervision rather than state supervision, and they also do not pay state taxes.

Barber spent 24 years as the district attorney in Birmingham. He successfully fought electronic games that offered $5 gift certificates to winners, and in 2006, he won a case at the Alabama Supreme Court that shut down video sweepstakes games at the Birmingham dog track.

Milton McGregor operates the dog track in Birmingham as well as the dog track in Macon County, which has the state’s largest installation of electronic gambling machines. He was out of his office Monday and not immediately available for comment.

For several years, the Legislature has considered bills to allow electronic bingo machines at the dog tracks in Birmingham and Mobile in return for them paying a tax, but the legislation has never passed.

In six years as governor, Riley has appointed many task forces to study issues and recommend solutions, but he is taking a new approach by creating a task force headed by a prosecutor who has backup from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Riley said Barber retains legal authority as a “supernumerary” district attorney who can be called back into service by the governor. He said Barber will have statewide authority and can bring civil or criminal actions.

Barber said he will work with local district attorneys and sheriffs, some of whom already have court cases pending over the legality of bingo operations in their counties.