AG, VictoryLand attorneys fight over legality of electronic bingo

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Two sides in a high-profile fight over gambling in Alabama are arguing their side in a much different venue.

Attorneys for Attorney General Luther Strange and VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor are arguing their cases about the legality of electronic bingo after Strange’s office contested the liquor license for the casino.

Attorney Joe Espy addresses the media on front of his client, VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor, during a 2011 federal trial. (Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser)

Joe Espy, attorney for McGregor, has said this is a paperwork case and that the legality of electronic bingo is not going to be determined in a hearing before the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

A hearing commission began listening to arguments from the two sides at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The commissioner overseeing the hearing said he did not expect the commission to decide the case on Wednesday, but said they would if they were able.

The hearing room was full and an overflow room for people to watch a video of the proceeding was near capacity.

Espy said the casino had a license for years before closing in August 2010 and that there were never any issues, and said the attorney general protesting a liquor license is unprecedented. He said the attorney general does not have the legal authority to contest the license.

Espy said no local authorities, government representatives or residents contested the license.

“They’re all here and all support this application,” he said of local officials and residents.

Deputy Attorney General Sonny Reagan, however, said that VictoryLand has a history of skirting Alabama laws on gambling and outlined state gambling laws and court rulings to the hearing commission.

“The casino and its agents have a history of skirting Alabama law on illegal gambling,” Reagan said and added that history continues.

Reagan said ABC rules state that only reputable entities shall receive liquor licenses and that ABC rules prohibit people from profiting from gambling and from possessing illegal gambling devices.

Reagan pointed out that those operating VictoryLand lost a federal civil case accusing them of participating in efforts to monopolize gambling.

Reagan said the local amendment in the Alabama Constitution that allows bingo in Macon County does not refer to electronic bingo and said the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that bingo in Alabama must be the game commonly known as bingo.

Reagan said the machines at VictoryLand do not meet a six-point test outlined by the Alabama Supreme Court in a case out of Lowndes County.

“It’s the law in Lowndes County. It’s the law in Macon County. It’s the law throughout the state,” he said.

Espy has said previously that the ruling does not apply to Macon County, which has a different constitutional amendment than Lowndes County.

During much of Wednesday morning, Reagan questioned an undercover agent with the attorney general’s office who went into VictoryLand with another agent on Jan. 7 and recorded two hours of video along with his partner with an undercover camera. Reagan utilized the undercover agent to point out how he played the machines and how they differ from paper bingo. The agent said no one was calling out numbers and that the players did not call out when they won.

VictoryLand already has a liquor license for the portion of the facility where people can watch simulcasts of horse and dog races, but operators applied for a special retail license for two bars downstairs in the casino.

An ABC agent who inspected the facility on Dec. 12 said he did not see any violations of state liquor laws.

“We have complied with the ABC process. We have done everything that ABC law enforcement have asked us to do,” Espy said. “ … We have complied. We have cooperated.”

When asked, the ABC agent told Reagan he saw gambling machines at the casino, but did not test them.

Espy said the law enforcement division at the ABC Board approved the application on Dec. 14, but it was delayed after a last-minute protest from the attorney general’s office.

Espy said local law enforcement, Macon County Sheriff David Warren, who oversees bingo in the county by virtue of his position, has certified the machines are legal after an international testing lab certified they met state and local laws and regulations.

Reagan said the testing by BMM Compliance for the Macon County sheriff ignores rulings by judges in other recent gambling cases in Alabama.

– posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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