Judge holds August 14th pre-trial conference on State of Alabama vs electronic bingo operators; next hearing set for November 2nd

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.

Alabama Legislature considers Lottery and Bingo bills that impact Greene County

News Analysis by John Zippert, Co-Publisher

The Alabama Legislature is considering several bills concerning a statewide lottery and changes to Constitutional Amendment 743, allowing charity bingo in Greene County, which may affect the future of gaming and the distribution of revenues from electronic bingo in the county.
Initially there were two lottery bills before the Alabama State Senate Tourism Committee to allow for a statewide lottery and multi-state games like Powerball and Mega Millions.
SB 220 sponsored by Senators Albritton, Glover and Hightower provides for a paper lottery, similar to that in neighboring states, with the proceeds going primarily to the state’s General Fund, after paying for $180 million in loans from the Education Trust Fund, borrowed over the past three fiscal years to balance the state budget.
SB 130 sponsored by Senators McClendon, Singleton and others provided for a statewide paper lottery and “virtual lottery terminals” at designated places in Mobile, Macon, Jefferson, Greene and Lowndes counties, that previously were licensed for pari-mutuel betting on dogs and horses. This lottery bill would have generated more revenues for the state and local entities.
In Greene County, the McClendon and Singleton lottery bill would only allow “virtual lottery terminals” at Greenetrack. The bill also provided for the virtual lottery terminals to replace bingo terminals over a one-year period. There was no mention of the future of the other bingo operations in Greene County.
SB 220 (Albritton’s bill) for a basic paper lottery was approved by the Senate Tourism Committee and by the full Senate in a vote of 21 to 12. As a Constitutional Amendment it required a super majority, 60% vote, which it did achieve.
Senator Singleton’s bill providing for “virtual lottery terminals” was not considered by the Senate Tourism Committee. Senator Singleton tried to amend the Albritton bill on the floor of the Alabama Senate but he was unsuccessful.
Senator Linda Coleman-Madison amended the bill with language that the bill would not affect counties, like Greene, that had Constitutional Amendments prior to 2005 permitting charitable bingo. “ I was trying to make sure that this lottery bill did not interfere with bingo, in places like Greene County, that had established Constitutional Amendments permitting bingo,” said Senator Coleman-Madison.
The Albritton Lottery bill is now in the Alabama House Tourism Committee awaiting a vote. It will have to be approved by 63 Representatives, a 60% super majority to move forward. You can also expect efforts to add “virtual lottery terminals” in the House to the bill. Some House members have raised the concern that the revenues generated by the lottery do not go to support the Education Trust Fund.
If the lottery bill passes both houses of the Legislature and is signed by the Governor, it will face a statewide referendum on the March 3, 2019 Presidential Primary ballot before it becomes part of the State Constitution and tickets can be sold.

Singleton’s Bill to change Amendment 743

Senator Bobby Singleton in the wake of failing to add “virtual lottery terminals” to the Lottery bill was able to pass SB321 which repeals and replaces Greene County’s Bingo Constitutional Amendment No. 743. Singleton’s bill is in the House Tourism Committee awaiting a vote. If this bill passes the House, it will require a referendum by the people in Greene County before it takes the place of the current amendment.
Singleton’s proposal would substitute a five member Greene County Gaming Commission to “regulate and supervise the operation and conduct of bingo games” for the role of the Sheriff of Greene County, who administers bingo under the current Constitutional Amendment 743. The five members of the Gaming Commission would be chosen by the area’s legislative delegation including State Senator Singleton and Representatives A. J. McCampbell and Ralph Howard.
Singleton’s proposal would levy a 2% tax on the gross receipts of bingo to go to the State of Alabama and a 10% local tax on the gross receipts to go to the Gaming Commission, Greene County Commission and municipalities. A portion of the tax is also allocated to the Greene County Board of Education (2%); Greene County Firefighters Association (1/2 %); Greene County Hospital (1%); E-911 (1/2%); Greene County Industrial Board (1/4%); Greene County Ambulance Service (1/4%); Greene County Housing Authority (3/4%); and the remaining (3/4%) to non-profit agencies in the county.
These taxes on the gross revenues, which are defined as the total wagered minus prizes and promotions, would take the place of the current $225 fee per machine, per month, paid to the Sheriff and on to the county agencies and charitable organizations.

To measure the impact of these changes, you have to estimate the current gross revenues of bingo in Greene County, which is a figure that has never been revealed by the bingo operators.
Since Senator Singleton has been heavily influenced by Greenetrack and its CEO, Luther ‘Nat’ Winn, other bingo operators feel this amendment changes the whole structure of charitable bingo in the county and does not guarantee that the new Gaming Commission would recognize current licensees. There is no mention of “grand-fathering-in” any of the existing bingo operations under this new amendment.
A Letter to the Editor from Billy McFarland, connected with the TS Police Support League, a charity connected to the Palace Bingo operation is included in this week’s paper, which is critical of Singleton’s proposed new bingo amendment.
The Democrat invites our readers and others to comment on these developments affecting electronic bingo in the county so we can evaluate the proposals and make the best, most informed and democratic choices about bingo in Greene County going forward.

Eutaw City Council pays bills, approves policies and agrees to July 20-22 Sales Tax Holiday

In its regular meeting on March 13, 2018, the Eutaw City Council agreed to pay bills and enact some important policy decisions.
The Council agreed to transfer $50,000 from its Capital Improvement Fund to the General Fund to pay routine bills and obligations for the month of February and those received during the first part of March.
Councilwoman Sheila Smith voted against the transfer of the funds, which she feels should be retained and used only for capital improvements as originally planned. The funds in the city’s Capital Improvement Fund were derived from electronic bingo funds provided to the City under the administration of Constitutional Amendment 743, permitting bingo in Greene County.
The Council approved a policy for the provision of public records to individuals, businesses and organizations and a form to request public records such as meeting minutes, ordinances, licenses, permits, front side of arrest records; original bids and documents on the awarding of contracts; and names, titles, resumes and compensation of city employees. There will be a $25 per hour research fee and 25 cents a page for any copies to be made as a result of request for information.
Agreements between the City and the Greene County Emergency Management Agencies to provide the City Hall and National Guard Amory facilities when needed, in an emergency, as health care and community shelter facilities, in the event of a biological, chemical or other attack on Greene County, were approved by the Eutaw City Council.
The City Council also agreed to approve the July 20-22, 2018 weekend, as a Sales Tax Holiday for the purchase of school related clothing and supplies before the start of school in August.
Mayor Steele reported that he was closing out the water improvement project and that the County Extension Service had helped plant crepe myrtle trees around the lagoon and other places in the city

In the public comments section of the meeting, Sheila Smith asked that the city utility workers check Gilbert Norwood’s water meter at 509 Johnson Street since it seems to be too deep in the ground. Latasha Johnson asked for water for gardens. LaJeffrey Carpenter said there were continuing drainage problems on O’Neal Street and there was a need for a refuse site within Raintree Apartments so trash was not placed at the roadside.
A request was made by the Cub Scouts to get use of the National Guard Armory on Saturday, March 31 for an Easter Carnival, at the non-profit organization facility use rate. This was approved.
Molly Rowe, Director of the Eutaw Housing Authority reported that some of the buildings were re-roofed in Carver Circle and that the City Inspector was to be commended for working with the contractors on this project. The City Housing Authority held a poster art contest around the theme “What Home Means To Me”. Ms. Rowe requested to display some of the artwork in City Hall. The Mayor agreed to the art exhibit provided that non-paint removing tape was used to hang the artwork.
Evelyn Isaac Esson complained that the management at the Eutaw Elderly Village was threatening residents and had placed bed-bug infested furniture on the street without proper notice that may have endangered the public. Jerome Esson asked the city to check his new water meter to determine if it was correctly installed.
David Spencer tried to be recognized for a public comment but the Mayor did not recognize him.

Countywide meeting held to support and defend Greene Co. Constitutional Amendment 743 for ‘electronic bingo’

groupMore than 250 people attended Tuesday’s countywide meeting at the National Guard Armory to discuss the recent decision of the Alabama Supreme Court deeming ‘electronic bingo’ in Greene County to be illegal. This decision made on an appeal by the State of Alabama on the 2010 raid which confiscated 825 electronic bingo machines from Greenetrack.The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that it has defined bingo as a game of chance played on paper cards and that the electronic bingo machines used at Greenetrack and other gaming facilities in Greene County are “illegal slot machines”.
This decision comes despite the 2003 vote by Greene County residents to enact Constitutional Amendment 743 authorizing electronic bingo. Greene County voters approved this amendment by an overwhelming vote.
Luther “Nat” Winn, CEO of Greenetrack presided over the meeting and introduced the county and legislative officials who spoke.
Winn said, “This decision by the Supreme Court is an illegal decision, they went against a Constitutional Amendment that we that we worked hard and legally secured for Greene County. The voters of Greene County have lost our basic right to vote and make decisions to help ourselves and build our county. The Supreme Court is taking 300 jobs from Greene County and millions of dollars of support for county government, municipal government and vital services. They have given us nothing in return. We are not going to accept this decision, we are going to fight it.”
Mayor Raymond Steele of Eutaw said,” This is going to be devastating for Eutaw and Greene County. There is no growth or new business in our area besides gaming. If the Supreme Court and the State take away bingo what will we have left. Do not touch Greenetrack until you bring us some jobs and revenues to replace it.”
Elmore Patterson, CEO of the Greene County Health System, warned that the hospital and nursing home would be forced to close without the jobs and revenues from bingo.
Hodges Smith speaking on behalf of the Greene County Firefighters Association said, “ We got tired of selling hamburgers and fish sandwiches to support our voluntary fire departments in Greene County. We supported Amendment 743 and went to the Alabama Legislature to get it passed because of the revenues that have been generated to support 14 fire departments across the county.”
Dr. Carol P. Zippert, District 1 School Board members said, “I cannot speak for the Board, but I can speak for the children of Greene County. We have not received enough funds from bingo but what we have received has helped the children of the county. This is a voting rights issue; the Alabama Supreme Court is taking our votes away. I had hoped that we had made some progress since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s but it seems that our children will have to fight the same fights all over again to protect our rights.”
Lester Brown, Greene County Commissioner said, “ We need to support Amendment 743. It provides that matching funds for roads and bridges in our county. It provides jobs for our people. The Supreme Court wants us to cross a bridge with out the money to build it – that won’t happen!”
State Representatives Ralph Howard and Artis McCampbell who represent Greene County in the Alabama Legislature also spoke. “We have Constitutional Amendment 743, what else do we need to have? We need to stand up for the rule of law… it is worth fighting for,” said Howard.
Kennard Randolph, Blackbelt Outreach Coordinator for Congresswoman Terry Sewell said the Congresswoman was supportive of gaming in Greene County and would help in any way she could.
State Senator Bobby Singleton addressed the group and said he had been involved in the original debates over bingo in Greene County and helped insert the language for ‘electronic bingo’ in the legislation for the Constitutional Amendment referendum in 2003.
“This whole fight against bingo is a conspiracy between AG Luther Strange, the Republican Supreme Court and the Republican Party. There is ex parte communications between Luther Strange and the Supreme Court. The Republican Party wants to cut out all possible sources of campaign funds for the Democrats. They went after the teachers (AEA), unions, state employees, trial lawyers and gaming, “ said Singleton.
Singleton said he serves on the Governor’s Task Force on Gaming and he learned, “That this issue of electronic bingo in Greene County stands between the state giving the Native Americans exclusive rights to gaming in the state; a state lottery and other issues. I am fighting for the people of Greene County, not just Greenetrack. We need jobs at livable wages and revenues from gaming to support needed government and community services.”
Near the end of the meeting, Probate Judge, Judy Spree asked Winn what was his plan of action. Winn said, “ We are going to fight to protect bingo but if you know people in high places then contact them and ask them to help Greene County.
Others suggested using social media like Facebook to spread the word of the impacts of the Supreme Court’s decision on Greene County people. A more detailed strategy of resistance and fighting back was left to future meetings.
Noticeable absent from this countywide meeting was Sheriff Benison, who is the county official who supervises bingo under Amendment 743, makes the rules and administers the funds coming from bingo. Also missing were representatives of the owner-operators of the other bingo parlors in Greene County – Green Charities, Rivers Edge and Frontier.

Alabama Supreme Court rules against electronic bingo in Greene County

On Friday, December 23, 2016, the Alabama Supreme Court issued two rulings, which Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange states, “These rulings show that electronic bingo is illegal in the state of Alabama.”
In the case State of Alabama v. 825 Electronic Gambling Devices et al (Greenetrack), the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State, reversing a lower court judgment siding with the casino. As a result, the State of Alabama is allowed to destroy the electronic bingo machines it seized from Greenetrack in 2010.
In its 29-page ruling released Friday, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its March 31, 2016 ruling in a similar case involving the legality of electronic bingo machines.
“There is no longer any room for uncertainty, nor justification for continuing dispute, as to the meaning of [the term ‘bingo’]. And certainly the need for any further expenditure of judicial resources, including the resources of this Court, to examine this issue is at an end.
All that is left is for the law of this State to be enforced,” the Supreme Court said.
In a separate case (Macon County Greyhound Park, Inc., d/b/a Victoryland v Marie Hoffman), the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a right to sue illegal gambling institutions.
“Because the ‘contracts’ containing the arbitration provisions in these cases were based on gambling consideration, they were based solely on criminal conduct, and are therefore void. Consequently, the provisions of those ‘contracts,’ including arbitration provisions are void and unenforceable,” the Supreme Court ruled.
Attorney General Strange emphasized that these rulings, combined with the Supreme Court’s March 31, 2016 ruling against Victoryland, remove any doubt that electronic bingo in all its forms is illegal in Alabama and that local law enforcement should do their duty to enforce the law.
“Local sheriffs and police officers in most parts of the State are enforcing our gambling laws. The sheriffs in Greene and Macon counties must uphold their sworn duty to enforce the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court and not continue to sanction this illegal activity.
“My office stands ready to render any required assistance to enable them to carry out their duties,” said AG Strange.
The Alabama Supreme Court decision ignores the intent and support of the voters of Greene County to overwhelmingly approve Constitutional Amendment 743, which allows for electronic forms of bingo, say knowlegable observers in Greene County.
The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled in previous decisions that bingo is a game played on paper cards, with five numbers across and five down. The players must mark their cards and call out a bingo when they have it on their cards. The Alabama high court decision overlooks the changing digitalizing and electronic adaptions of all devices in our society.
“ I am sure that every member of the Alabama Supreme Court has a cellular phone in their pocket and they would not rule that the cellular phone is not a telephone, but they have ruled that electronic bingo machines are not bingo,” said a member of the Greene County school board, which is a major recipient of bingo funds.
“This is a voting rights issue for us now in Greene County. The Alabama Supreme Court should not be allowed to overrule the voters of Greene County who approved electronic bingo. This high court should not be able to strip Greene County of revenues and jobs from electronic bingo,” said Lester Brown, Greene County Commissioner District 1.
A countywide meeting will be held on Tuesday, January 3, 2017 at 6:00 PM at the National Guard Armory for citizens of Greene County to discuss the impact of this decision and plans for going forward to defend Constitutional Amendment 743.