MONTGOMERY, Ala. --- The governor of Alabama has ordered the state's attorney general to cease efforts to interfere with the Task Force on Illegal Gambling as a battle over the legality of electronic bingo machines continues to escalate.
Attorney General Troy King said in March he would take over the task force, which was established by Gov. Bob Riley in 2008 to enforce the state's gambling laws.
On April 7, Riley sent a letter to King advising him that he is exercising the supreme executive power granted to him under the state constitution, overruling King's directives to the task force to turn over all of the evidence they have collected regarding electronic bingo machine operators in the five Alabama counties in question.
"The attorney general has apparently forgotten what our constitution says," Riley said April 9. "Let me remind him. There are three coequal branches of government. I'm not over the judicial branch or the legislative branch, but the constitution gives me supreme authority over the executive branch. The attorney general is a member of the executive branch."
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Both men are members of Southern Baptist churches, and they have been at odds over electronic bingo machines, which the governor says are illegal and the attorney general says could be legal in some cases. Riley's task force has raided some Alabama casinos, a move King says is wrong.
Riley instructed task force members to ignore a letter from King and to continue to fulfill their assigned duties. The state Supreme Court is due to take up the dispute between the governor and the attorney general.
Meanwhile, a federal investigation into possible corruption in the Alabama legislature pertaining to gambling has begun. The state Senate passed a bill that supposedly would allow voters to decide whether electronic bingo machines, which are similar to slot machines, should be legal in the state, and the legislation is awaiting a vote by the House of Representatives.
The Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating reports that certain legislators were offered substantial campaign contributions in exchange for their votes in support of bingo legislation, The Birmingham News said April 11.
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At least two lawmakers reportedly were asked by federal authorities to wear listening devices to eavesdrop on conversations with fellow lawmakers, lobbyists and others who support gambling legislation, the newspaper said.
Riley noted that the Senate bill doesn't call for an "up or down vote" on gambling because even if voters overwhelmingly rejected the ballot measure, casinos would not be forced to close their doors. He complained that it is a win-win ballot initiative for casino owners.
"What I want people to know is this is not an up or down vote on gambling," Riley said. "This is not a yes or no vote on gambling. If it was, I'm not too sure too many people would oppose it. But that's not what it is. This is about a bill that is corrupt to the core."
The Senate bill redefines bingo to include machines that perform the game without player interaction and allows an unlimited number of gambling operations around the state. It also establishes a five-member state gaming commission appointed under the heavy influence of the Senate.
The electronic bingo bill is the first issue scheduled for debate in the House April 21, the next-to-last day of the 2010 session. The bill must receive 63 votes in the 104-member House to go to voters for a statewide referendum in November.
The drawn-out battle over gambling in Alabama has generated thousands of dollars in taxpayer expenses. The governor's office has spent more than $536,000 on legal fees from gambling cases and has requested another $600,000 to cover future expenses, The News said.
Todd Stacy, the governor's press secretary, said casino owners are responsible for the legal costs, not the governor.
"They want to delay the final ruling on their machines as long as possible, so they file bogus lawsuits and insist on the longest path that will cost the taxpayers the most money," Stacy told The News. "That's how they hope to win: Drag it out and ratchet up the costs to discourage the state from continuing."
Last fall the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that electronic bingo machines are in fact an illegal form of gambling because the machines "have none of the elements of human skill and interaction that are fundamental to the game of bingo."
Alabama's constitution explicitly forbids slot machines, but some counties have passed constitutional amendments allowing traditional paper bingo for charity.
Casinos have cropped up in Alabama to compete with Mississippi's Gulf Coast complexes, and millions of dollars have been poured into the industry, with some casinos resembling those in Las Vegas. Glitzy high-rise hotels and other attractions are meant to make Alabama a vacation destination, the gambling industry says.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.