AG: ‘Not picking on Florala’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Alabama attorney general said Friday he wasn’t “picking on” Florala or Covington County when he issued a letter Thursday about the legality of electronic bingo in the city.

Instead, he said, it’s a technicality in the legislation allowing bingo in Covington County — specifically the word “card” — that limits bingo here in a way other counties aren’t limited.

As electronic gaming has spread in other parts of the state, King and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, both Republicans, have publicly feuded over the issue. Riley contends that all slot-machine-like electronic bingo machines are illegal in Alabama, while King maintains that the law isn’t so clear-cut.

The electronic devices look and play much like slots, which are illegal in Alabama, but determine winners and losers through rapid games of bingo, which is legal in parts of Alabama.

Riley has appointed a gambling task force to stop electronic bingo, and that task force has been attempting to raid Houston County’s Country Crossing, one of the state’s largest casinos, where there are 1,700 machines. Friday, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the case filed by the Houston County Commission that sought to prevent the task force from seizing machines at Country Crossing.

Earlier this week, the governor and the attorney general exchanged sharp letters over the issue, with Riley calling on King to assist in the fight in Houston County, and King responding with letters stating he was “staying out” of Riley’s fight “at this time.”

But King is interested in Florala’s attempt to regulate electronic bingo.

In the early 1990s, Alabama voters approved constitutional amendment 565, which gives the county commission the authority to “promulgate rules and regulations for issuing permits or licenses and for operating bingo games within the county.”

Act No. 93-886 of the Alabama legislature allows that “a bona fide religious, educational, service, senior citizens, fraternal or veterans organization” which operates without profit may be permitted to conduct bingo.

The act also defines bingo as “the game where numbers or symbols on a card are matched with numbers or symbols selected at random.”

And it is that sentence that King says makes Covington County’s situation different.

“We have not singled out Florala or Covington County,” King said of the letter he sent to Florala city attorney Wes Laird on Thursday. “One of the responsibilities the attorney general has is to do what he can to keep government out of litigation. We believe they are about to engage in conduct we think is illegal.”

The attorney general said he previously sent letters to Etowah County and to the city of Prichard in Mobile County.

“If they don’t want to take my advice, that’s fine,” he said.

He said there are 16 different amendments to Alabama’s constitution making bingo legal in specific counties, and 16 different enabling acts, or legislation governing how bingo can be played. Houston County is different, he said, because its legislation didn’t specify bingo as a game played with a card. About 18 months ago, he said, the county commissioners there stepped in and defined special permits for bingo, which he argues makes Country Crossing a legal venture.

“The same would be true anywhere,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t conflict with the constitutional amendment.”

Laird has taken the position that Florala’s ordinance passed earlier this week didn’t enable bingo, but instead limits how it can be played in Florala if a charity has a permit for it, much the way that other municipal ordinances govern where certain businesses can locate.

For instance, Laird said, because the city has the ordinance in place, a charity couldn’t open bingo — paper or electronic — in a storefront, as has been the case in Walker County.

“I believe the city attorney is wrong,” King said. “The (legislation) uses the word card.”

He said the legislation gives the power to regulate bingo to the county, not municipalities.

“The city doesn’t have any authority,” he said.

When asked if the city could limit where traditional paper bingo could be played and if it could tax an organization planning to open a business in which paper bingo were played, King had a slightly different view.

“I wasn’t anticipating that question,” he said. “But as a general rule, a city has independent zoning authority. They have the ability to impose their zoning restraints on where you can conduct this kind of business.

“Off the top of my head, the answer is yes,” he said. “The city, within the city limits of the city, can set rules for business licenses, common-sensically.”

Asked if he would take action against Florala or a business that operated electronic bingo in Florala, King said his letter doesn’t say “I’m loading up the car, coming down and kicking in doors. It’s just legal advice.”