County hears bingo debate

Published 11:59 pm Monday, June 8, 2009

A former judge warned Covington County commissioners Monday that they could lead the county into a legal quagmire if they adopt rules governing electronic bingo, and a former commission chairman said electronic bingo is needed to “save the county.”

After listening to the two men for 45 minutes, county commissioners only said they’ll discuss it in a workshop meeting in the future.

There was standing room only at Monday’s meeting, with an estimated crowd of more than 100 people.

Former Covington County Circuit Judge Jerry Stokes, serving as the spokesperson for the Covington County Coalition Against Gambling, said he believes electronic bingo is illegal in Alabama.

“I have seen nothing that indicates that anyone (on the commission) has really come to grips that it may clearly violate the constitution of Alabama and the Criminal Code of Alabama for us to bring electronic bingo in,” Stokes said.

Stokes said the county’s enabling legislation, passed by the Alabama Legislature in 1993, puts severe restrictions on charitable bingo, such as preventing any charity from operating bingo with the use of anything other than volunteer help.

Stokes added that action of the state’s Supreme Court is consistent with the idea that electronic bingo machines are slot machines.

“Bingo by those amendments is narrowly interpreted and limited to the traditional paper-and-card type bingo that has been around for a very long time,” he said. “So the commercialization of the bingo process has been struck down by the (state) Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals every time it’s been before them.

“And I don’t want to see us in the news like White Hall and some of those other places,” he said. “I see no indication that the Supreme Court it is going to change its mind.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Bob Riley’s gambling task force seized machines from the gaming facility in White Hall in rural Lowndes County, claiming the machines were illegal. Nonetheless, White Hall continues to operate.

Stokes also encouraged the commissioners to consider the intent of the constitutional amendment approved by local voters in 1994 that allows charitable bingo.

“Are you doing what the people of Covington County want you to do,” he asked. “I don’t think our people intended to bring casino-type bingo into Covington County. You should ask if you are committing a breach of faith by allowing electronic bingo.

“Everyone indicated they wanted to have their charitable bingo in a traditional, club atmosphere type fashion and the people decided to let them do that,” he said. “The electronic bingo, or the commercialization of bingo or the casino-type operations was not even breathed into that campaign to pass our amendment.”

He also encouraged commissioners to practice transparency, and allow local residents to review proposed bingo rules before acting on them.

“Give the people of the county a true opportunity to see it, to review it,” he said of the proposed rules and regulations. “Our laws require transparent government, and a lot what I’m sensing around the county is that people feel they are being excluded from a fair participation in the process.”

Commissioners were expected to have the proposed bingo rules on their May agenda, but removed them at the last minute. At the time, they said they expected to have rules ready in June, but on Friday again said the rules weren’t completed. Both The Star-News and the coalition against gaming have made requests for copies of the rules but have not received them.

Stokes also said people should realize that most of the monies raised do not benefit a charitable organization.

“Constantly we hear about all the money that is going to come in to the county coffers or charities,” he said. “It occurred to me to hunt up what I could on the financial reports of the charities that have started operating the bingo games. White Hall’s is Cornerstone Community Outreach, Inc. What I see for every dollar taken into White Hall, less than a dime makes its way into the charity; it might not even amount to more than a nickel.

“This is a very sophisticated financial set up,” he said.

Most of the money, he said, goes to rent bingo software. In the case of White Hall, 60 percent of the money generated by the operation of the electronic machines was for software rental.

“That money didn’t go to charities, to Lowndes County or to the citizens. You need to ask whether or not these casino operations … are they going to bring money in or send money out?”

Stokes cited both the governor’s task force and the position taken by Covington County district attorney Greg Gambril, who has said he will prosecute anyone who puts in electronic gaming.

“Gentlemen, be careful before you go there,” Stokes said.

Referencing potential bingo operations, he said, “If they’ve got something good, they ought to be willing to get out in the open and they ought to be willing to show their books and records and point to other operations they’ve operated so you can go and make sure it’s clean.”

But former commission chairman Johnny Mac Weed urged commissioners to look at electronic bingo as a means to “save the county.”

“What has happened is that this county has went down for the last 14 years on account of some bad decisions that were made,” he said. “(Commissioners are) trying (now). They’ve made cuts, but we have to help get this county back.

“If it’s not legal, I’m not for it,” he said. “If it’s legal, we’re taking away the rights of the people who play bingo. My concern is this county is $18-19 million in debt. Regardless of the crowd here (Monday), if people are gambling, they’re going.

“My concern is the people that play bingo and gamble, they’re not here today,” he said. “We don’t want a group of people to tell us what to do. It seems like to me, we’re trying to tell them where they can spend their money and where they can’t. And that’s not right.”

Commissioners didn’t make any comment about proposed rules, nor did they answer any questions posed by Stokes. Commission Chairman Lynn Sasser said proposed rules will be discussed in a future workshop meeting, tentatively scheduled next Tuesday.

In other business, the commission transferred a beer license to Jerry Qualls at Horn Hill Grocery, announced it will revert back to meeting on the second and fourth Monday of each month, and heard from Joe Faulk, president of the state association of county commissioners.