May 4th hearing on State of Alabama’s case against electronic bingo in Greene Co. sets mid-October trial date

Special to the Democrat by John Zippert, Co-Publisher

Retired Birmingham Circuit Judge, Arthur J. Hanes convened a status hearing on the afternoon of May 4, 2023 in the William M. Branch Courthouse, on the State of Alabama’s lawsuit against “illegal gambling machines” operated by four electronic bingo establishments in Greene County. The Sheriff licensed these electronic bingo places under his authority in Constitutional Amendment 743 providing for bingo in Greene County.

At a prior hearing in November 2022, Judge Hanes asked the parties to the lawsuit to engage in a mediation session to see if they could reach a negotiated settlement. The mediation sessions were held earlier in 2023 without a positive result.

At the November 2022 hearing, Judge Hanes dismissed Greenetrack from the lawsuit, since Greenetrack no longer operates electronic bingo. Greenetrack currently has “historical racing machines” under its parimutuel license with the Greene County Racing Commission.

Judge Hanes, who was appointed out of retirement by the Alabama Judicial System, to hear the Greene County electronic bingo case, said the May 4th hearing was to hear from the State of Alabama and the parties, to schedule hearings on outstanding issues and schedule the trial.

State Attorney General Steve Marshall, who originally filed the suit against Greene County electronic bingo machines in 2017, as “nuisance illegal gambling machines” was represented by Assistant Attorney General John L. Kachelman III. Kachelman exhibited some dismay over the delays in the case and kept pressing for a prompt trial and resolution of the case.

Kachelman and the Judge kept referring to the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court in other electronic bingo cases, involving Macon, Lowndes and Jefferson counties, that “bingo is exclusively a game played on paper cards, with five rows and five columns of numbers, wherein the players had to keep up with their numbers manually”, as opposed to the electronic bingo played on machines in Greene County. The State of Alabama is asserting that electronic bingo machines operate like “illegal slot machines”, not a paper card game, specified and defined by the Alabama Supreme Court.

Attorneys were present representing Frontier, Rivers Edge, Bama Bingo and the machine company associated with Palace Bingo. The bingo charities and Sheriff Bennison were also represented by attorneys.

Attorney Hank Sanders, representing the Greene County Health System (GCHS), which receives $67,000 per month in bingo funds to subsidize its operations, was also present. Sanders has filed motions to intervene in the case on behalf of GCHS to protect its interest in the Greene County bingo operation.

Judge Hanes asked Attorney Sanders did he have arguments beyond “the cruelty of closing the bingo facilities because of loss of funding for health care”. Hanes said he was fully aware of the community job losses and revenues that would be lost by government and non-profit organizations by the closing of bingo.

Attorney Sanders said there might also be a violation of health statutes and the American Disabilities Act by closing bingo, based on funding generated for the GCHS including the hospital. The Judge gave Sanders, 30 days to file a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of GCHS and said he would consider the motion.

In response to questions from other attorneys, Judge Hanes asked 
AG Kachelman about “the discovery” he made available to the other parties in the case. Kachelman said he had sent 15 giga-bytes of information on the state’s investigation of electronic bingo, including “under-cover agents, who played the bingo machines”, to all the lawyers and was open to questions but this was the information that his case against the bingo machines would rest upon.

Judge Hanes ruled that he would accept motions and challenges questioning the discovery and asking for other information over the next 60 days, with a 30-day period to respond.

In the course of these discussions, the lawyers raised several other issues. The lawyers said the actions of the Attorney General were “arbitrary and capricious” with regard to gambling in Greene County. The AG is now in charge of licensing sports betting in the state, a multi-million-dollar gambling business. They also pointed out that the AG’s office had reached an agreement with Houston County bingo to remove machines and play only on paper cards, but that the machines have continued in operation in that county, without follow-up enforcement by the AG. The lawyers also said the State of Alabama was doing random tax audits of the electronic bingo establishments, which they felt was unfair during the litigation over the machines.

Kachelman kept coming back to the Alabama Supreme Court decision ruling that electronic bingo was an illegal use of gambling machines and the only legal form of bingo was on paper cards.

Judge Hanes said he would schedule a pre-trial hearing in August on all motions and concerns and a trial date, 60 days thereafter by mid-October 2023. While justice is moving slowly, it is clear that the future of electronic bingo is unclear after this year. However, the trial works out, the other side will likely appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, which seems to have an immovable position on electronic bingo.