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State’s top officials say they have rediscovered common ground on illegal gambling issuecomment (0)

June 2, 2011

By Sondra Washington

Alabama’s gambling scene has been rather quiet lately with the public corruption trial fast approaching. But gambling opponents can’t tell whether this means things are under control or being neglected, and the rumor mill is running wild. After all, many have realized through years of witnessing the state’s back-and-forth battle with this industry that a lack of activity on the surface doesn’t mean powers aren’t at work behind the scenes — both for and against gambling.

In the end, opponents have been left hoping Alabama’s top legal authorities will enforce the law. But, Attorney General Luther Strange assures Alabamians that he will do his job even though the state’s current system for enforcing its gambling laws was recently called into question.

Before former Gov. Bob Riley left office, his system for enforcing the law related to illegal gambling, the Task Force Against Illegal Gambling, forced casino bosses across the state to shut their doors or face law enforcement actions. But when Gov. Robert Bentley came into office in January, his first action was to dismantle the task force and “fully support” Strange’s authority to lead Alabama’s fight against illegal gambling.

Soon Greenetrack casino in Eutaw opened its doors with no opposition, and Bentley’s legal adviser, Cooper Shattuck, made a statement to The Birmingham News, which at least one Alabama senator says “appeared to be something of a policy statement backing away from raids.” That’s when all the excitement began.

Jefferson County Chief Deputy Randy Christian said the Sheriff’s Office contacted Bentley and Strange for law enforcement support but “the governor’s staff relayed the message to us from the governor that they would not provide any support.”

He added, “We asked the governor for support from state troopers and were turned down on two occasions. The second request was for a support of 10 troopers to work the perimeter and provide backup when the search warrant was executed at a gambling establishment in Brighton. We asked the attorney general for assistance with the actual investigation and prosecution and his office was instrumental in assisting us.”

Christian said, to his knowledge, no one from the governor’s office ever responded explaining the denial of the requests.

Bentley’s communications director said both he and, later, Shattuck would give The Alabama Baptist comments on this matter, but neither responded by press time.

The Jefferson County refusal led some people to question whether Bentley had also refused law enforcement support for Strange’s efforts against gambling. Strange would not comment on discussions he and Bentley have had but said, “He (Bentley) promised to support me, and I expect that he will keep his promise.”

Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, who played a major role in the crackdown on illegal gambling as Riley’s policy director and legal counsel, also had his concerns. Taylor was so uncertain that Bentley would allow Strange access to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) to fight illegal gambling in the state that he drafted Senate Bill (SB) 468 to make sure Strange had the power he needed to enforce the law. The bill “would authorize the attorney general, upon written notice to the governor, to assume supervision and control” over DPS and establish the ABI as a “division of the office of the attorney general.”

“I don’t want the Legislature to go home in June and all of a sudden the attorney general doesn’t have authority to do exactly what the governor said that he wanted him to be able to do,” Taylor told The Alabama Baptist. “I believe there is no greater threat to the integrity of our elections, our campaign finance systems and good government than the gambling interest. This is a billion-dollar, all-cash, unregulated industry that creates political kingpins. We’ve already seen it with the trial that’s coming up in June. We’ve already seen the reach of corruption in state government, and I believe it filters down particularly to the local government level. … When you have so much money in cash going into the pockets of so very few, it appears that it’s giving them the ability to stand above the law; and in Alabama, nobody should be above the law.”

Strange purposefully steered clear of this bill stating, “My position is to stay out of a dispute between Gov. Bentley and Bryan.”

Taylor said he unsuccessfully tried to contact Bentley about his concerns before filing SB 468, but hearing from the governor was not a problem after the bill was on the books.  

On May 4, Bentley sent Taylor a letter, which Taylor said he didn’t receive until after Bentley sent it to the media.

In the letter, Bentley said he informed his “legislative team to make sure this bill never passes.” Bentley called the bill “ill-advised and misguided” and said it “could disrupt the chain of command of the Department of Public Safety.” Bentley noted that Taylor, “an officer of the Alabama National Guard,” should recognize that as a problem.

One day later, Taylor responded that his bill was not a distraction to anyone since there was no way it could have been considered or passed before the Legislature’s two-week break in mid-May. He said his proposal is not unusual and does not disrupt the state’s chain of command since the bureau of investigation in other states is a division of the attorney general’s office; and on a national level the Federal Bureau of Investigation is a division of the U.S. attorney general’s office.

“Yesterday morning, as a courtesy, I notified your legislative staff that I had introduced the bill and asked for a meeting with them to discuss it,” Taylor told Bentley in his letter.

“My request was declined. Curiously, in the midst of the unprecedented natural disaster facing our state, you chose to inject this issue in the media rather than simply directing your staff to meet with me over the coming weeks to discuss your concerns with this bill. I also note that you had time to call numerous other state officials about the bill yesterday (May 4), but I was not among them.”

Taylor added that the transfer of primary responsibility for statewide law enforcement to Strange “would be meaningless … if the attorney general is not also given the statutory authority to direct and supervise state law enforcement officers when necessary.”

Eventually, Taylor said he was able to meet with Bentley’s chief of staff and chief legal adviser.

“It was a productive meeting,” Taylor told The Alabama Baptist. “I’m assured that Gov. Bentley and Attorney General Strange are on the same page, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that anybody who is interested in reopening or continuing to operate a casino is on notice that the state is going to enforce the law. I agreed with the governor that I would not press forward with my bill at this time, and he has agreed to support two bills I have.”

One, SB 234, changes the severity of possessing a gambling device from a class A misdemeanor to a class C felony, which could result in one to 10 years of imprisonment and up to a $15,000 fine. The other bill, SB 449, allows Alabama Supreme Court justices and appeals court justices to issue search warrants.

Taylor said the first bill sends a clear signal that “breaking the law will be very serious with significant jail time for operating an illegal casino.” He said SB 449 will be helpful in areas of the state where “judges seem to be very reluctant to authorize a search warrant.”

Strange supports both of these bills, which were on the May 26 Senate calendar at press time.

Just in case any questions remain about the state’s position on gambling, a May 16 memo sent from Strange to Alabama district attorneys and law enforcement could provide answers. In the memo, Strange explained his office’s legal position for “investigating and analyzing the legality of gambling activities in Alabama.”

Strange provided the Alabama Constitution prohibition against gambling and slot machines, the Supreme Court’s six-point rules regarding legal bingo and the requirement that all bingo whether electronic or paper be operated for charitable purposes.

“Under the previous attorney general, an advisory opinion was issued that in effect gutted these requirements,” Strange wrote. “I have revoked this opinion. This office will place a substantial focus on ensuring that any bingo facilities operating pursuant to a constitutional amendment meet each and every operational requirement contained in the applicable constitutional amendment. These requirements will be literally and strictly applied.”

Strange told The Alabama Baptist, “There is no question. We are going to enforce the law.”

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