Special to the Democrat by John Zippert, Co-Publisher
Retired Circuit Judge Arthur J. Haynes held a pre-trial conference in the case of the State of Alabama vs. electronic bingo operators and charities in Greene County. The purpose of the hearing was to hear pre-trial motions and concerns from both sides.
The State of Alabama has been pushing to close down electronic bingo in Greene County, because they consider the bingo machines to be “nuisance illegal slot-machines” operating in an illegal manner. The State, backed by an Alabama Supreme Court decision that bingo is “a game played on paper cards, with five rows and five columns of letters and numbers”, has closed bingo operations in Macon, Lowndes, and Jefferson counties, which are all jurisdiction controlled by Black voters.
The voters of Greene County, another majority Black County, voted overwhelming in favor of Alabama Constitutional Amendment 743, in 2004,
which allowed for “electronic forms of bingo” to be play under the supervision and regulations of the Sheriff of Greene County. The county and municipal governments, school system, hospital, Sheriff’s office and assorted smaller non-profits and charities benefit from the gaming industry in Greene County, which generates $600,000 a month in fees for these agencies.
The four currently operating electronic Bingo facilities in Greene County – The Palace, River’s Edge, Frontier and Bama Bingo – employ 300 to 500 employees, who will lose their jobs if the State of Alabama succeeds in closing these establishments. The Governor, Attorney General and other officials of the state have offered no potential alternative employment for those who will likely lose their jobs if the State of Alabama wins this lawsuit.
Greenetrack, which previously led and was involved in electronic bingo, has ceased bingo operations, and been dismissed from the case. Greenetrack, now operating as Greene County Entertainment, conducts simulcasting of dog and horse racing at other tracks as well as operating “historic horse racing machines” under its parimutuel wagering license.
Attorney and former Circuit Judge John H. England, Jr., who is one of the attorney’s representing River’s Edge Bingo, said, “There are still many unanswered issues relating to this case, some of which were raised at this hearing. Judge Haynes set another hearing date for November 2, 2023, for questions and issues related to the case. He hoped to set a trial date at that conference, but no date was set at this hearing.”
England indicated that questions were raised about the State of Alabama’s treatment of bingo in Houston County, a primarily white controlled political area as opposed to their treatment of areas like Greene, Lowndes, and Macon counties, which have Black voting majorities. England said, “Many issues were raised about the unequal treatment of Greene and other Black controlled counties, in comparison to Houston County, which also has electronic bingo machines, but was offered a settlement, by the State of Alabama, which the state has not enforced, until the issue was raised in the May 2023 hearing on bingo in Greene County.”
Attorney Gregory Yaghmai, who represented the Bama Bingo establishment at the hearing, reported at the hearing on his visit to Houston County to play the machines.
Yaghmai explained, “The State of Alabama has treated electronic bingo differently in Houston County than they way they are trying to do in Greene County. First, Greene County has a stronger Constitutional Amendment, 743, which recognizes electronic forms of bingo in its wording which Houston and other counties do not have.”
Yaghmai indicated, “That the State of Alabama reached a settlement agreement in 2019, with Houston County, which allowed them to keep operating their electronic bingo machines. No similar settlement has been offered to Greene County. Further, the State of Alabama did not visit Houston County to review and enforce the agreement for four years.”
Yaghmai said, “When I went to Houston County to play the machines recently, I learned the state had visited in June after our May 4th hearing in the Greene County case, to advise Houston County gaming officials how to modify the machines to make them ‘machines of skill’ rather than illegal slot-machines. The machines now have additional buttons to push, which the state says requires skill and the checkout process requires a paper bingo card. These changes were adopted recently after, we raised issues about unequal administration and protection of the laws by the State Attorney General.”
Yaghmai also complained, “All Greene County bingo establishments have been ‘randomly’ audited by the Alabama Department of Revenue after the May 4th court hearing. This is not fair, and the State seems to be using the Revenue Department to enforce the Attorney General’s rules on gambling. The State has not responded to these complaints.”
Attorney Hank Sanders, who represents the Greene County Health System at this hearing said there are still many loose ends in this case and that the earliest a trial could be held is December 2023 or next year.
Sanders said that Judge Haynes denied his motion to intervene in the case but invited him to submit ‘friend of the court briefs and other motions on behalf of his clients. Sanders said, “The State has never answered our motions that closing electronic bingo would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act because blind people cannot play bingo on cards, but they can listen to the electronic bingo machines and know when they are winning.”
Sanders said at the trial, it may come down to the strength of Constitutional Amendment 743 and its provisions allowing “electronic forms of bingo” over the contentions of the State of Alabama that the machines are merely illegal nuisance slot machines.