Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gary Palmer: Two more rulings in bingo battle

  The latest rulings on the legality of electronic bingo in Jefferson and Walker Counties raise serious questions about the legality of these operations in other parts of the state. These rulings, along with the ruling in September by Federal Circuit Court Judge Lynwood Smith, have strengthened the legal case that many believe will result in the Alabama State Supreme Court declaring electronic bingo illegal in this state.

  While these rulings apply only to the jurisdictions in which they were rendered, all three established a significant baseline that will very likely impact gambling operations in other counties. Essentially, all three judges concluded that so-called “electronic bingo” is not bingo as understood by Alabama state law.

  In the Walker County decision rendered by Alabama Circuit Court Judge Robert Vance, Judge Vance wrote, “To simply drop money in an electronic machine, push a button to start the game, and passively stare at the machine for six seconds to see if you’ve won anything is not ‘the game commonly known as bingo.’” In the Jefferson County case, Circuit Court Judge Scott Vowell ruled that the machines seized in 2008 from an assembly facility in Kimberly, Alabama are illegal gambling devices and slot machines.

  In all three decisions, the judges upheld the supremacy of the Alabama Constitution over local ordinances. Consequently, there is a great deal of anticipation building regarding how the Alabama State Supreme Court will rule on the cases now before it. And there is also a lot of anticipation starting to grow regarding the next legislative session.

  If the State Supreme Court rules that the so-called electronic bingo machines are illegal gambling devices and orders them removed or confiscated, there will be unprecedented pressure placed on the members of the Alabama Legislature to pass an amendment to the Alabama Constitution to legalize the machines. The pressure tactics have already begun with some Republican legislators who were warned that they will pay a price in the next election if they continue to oppose gambling.

  Most legislators know that flip-flopping on gambling in an election year would have a devastating impact on their re-election chances. This is especially true for the Republican members of the legislature who have consistently opposed gambling. Caving to pressure from gambling interests would virtually ensure their efforts to gain a majority in the legislature would be a miserable failure.

  While charity bingo may not sound like big-time gambling, it has a long and sordid history. Charity bingo is a major gambling enterprise nationwide with operations in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Almost from the beginning, charity-operated bingo has been involved in corruption and controversy. According to a 1993 report by the National Conference of State Legislators, “Since the 1930s when Vincent ‘Jimmy Blue Eyes’ Alo, a Mafia lieutenant in the Vito Genovese La Cosa Nostra family in New York, began in a bingo parlor in Broward County, Fla., the Mob and countless local racketeers have been deeply involved in charity-operated bingo games.”

  This is not to say that organized crime is involved in any of the charity-operated bingo operations currently open or proposed in Alabama or that any of these current or proposed operations are connected in any way to organized crime. It is only to make a point that charity-operated bingo is generating big-time profits for gambling interests including huge gambling conglomerates that are willing to pour millions of dollars into public relations campaigns and elections to influence public officials. Moreover, whether or not organized crime is involved in any of the current or future gambling operations in Alabama does not diminish the fact that these operations have already been flaunting Alabama state law.

  Nationwide, problems with criminal activity and public corruption related to charity-operated bingo gambling is widespread. As evidence of how lucrative charity-operated bingo gambling is, even in a state noted for its casinos, the Mississippi Gambling Commission reported for the fiscal year 2007 charity-operated bingo games played with paper cards generated almost $116 million in revenue. According to a May 7, 2008 article in the Jackson Free Press, even the charity-operated, paper-card bingo gambling has been beset with criminal fraud and corruption. The article claimed that despite more than 70 potential criminal violations, Mississippi has ceased trying to enforce the law because of pressure from influential people including legislators and other elected officials.

  Alabama, which already ranks fourth in the nation in public corruption, does not need to do anything to solidify or raise that ranking.

  Make no mistake, the gambling interests involved in Alabama’s so-called charity-operated electronic bingo are really running major gambling operations that bring all the economic, social, corruption and crime problems of big-time gambling operations to our communities. Three judges have now issued rulings that set the stage for closing them down. Hopefully, the Alabama State Supreme Court will shut the gambling joints down and the state legislature will keep them shut.

    About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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