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Does the Truth Matter Anymore?

"To say that a man lieth is as much to say that he is brave towards God and a coward towards men"  Francis Bacon, On Truth, qouting Montaigne

Country Crossing was marketed to the public as a bigger and better Branson, Missouri. With great fanfare and the investment of millions of dollars its doors opened in December and were locked in January. The doors were locked because Country Crossing, unlike the family entertainment facility in Branson, was first and foremost a casino.  As the issue of the legality of the Houston County regulation purporting to authorize the licensing of “electronic bingo”continued to come up, Commission Chairman Mark Culver repeatedly assured the public the commission had "acted with due diligence." There was no due diligence.  There was only a conspiratorial collaboration to draft a regulation that had one purpose: to grant a government sanctioned monopoly to operate “electronic bingo” in Houston County.

Now, four months after the doors were locked, with the primary a week away, the question remains: How did it get this far? The public rightfully wants to know the facts and to affix fault when a public-private venture turns into a public boondoggle.

To understand how it got this far one must start at the beginning. Ten years ago Alabama voters had rejected an education lottery by a substantial margin. There was no confusion about "electronic bingo" because no one had ever heard of the term. There was no question about the legality of slot machines-- this was, after all, Alabama, not Nevada.

Numerous attempts have been made to skirt Alabamba’s prohibitions against gambling. Numerous appellate decisions demonstrate a clear and consistent judicial rejection of such attempts. Two attempts in the 1990s involved collaborations between gambling operators and local governmental bodies to inact local regulations purporting to make the gambling operations "legally permissible" under charitable bingo amendments. Both attempts were struck down in appellate court decisions rendered in 1994 and 1997(see City of Piedment v. Evans, 642 So.2d 435 (Ala 1994) and Foster v. State, 770 So.2d 534 (Ala Crim App.1997).

To gambling operators, such as Milton McGregor, this meant Alabama citizens were an un-exploited resource ripe for development.

In 2005 McGregor thought he had discovered a loophole in the law and opened Quincy’s MegaSweeps at the Birmingham Race Course. His scheme eventually ended up being reviewed by the Alabama Supreme Court, after McGregor obtained a favorable ruling from the trial judge who agreed that McGregor had found and successfully exploited a loophole. The Alabama Supreme Court was not fooled, stating: "Alabama's gambling law, however, is not so easily evaded. It is 'the policy of the constitution and laws of Alabama [to prohibit] the vicious system of lottery schemes and the evil practice of gaming, in all their protean shapes. (emphases in original opinion) see Barber v. Jefferson County Racing Ass’n, 960 So.2d 599 (Ala 2007).

Though the Quincy’s MegaSweeps venture experienced only limited success, gambling operators such as McGregor learned a great deal.  First, developing a gambling operation premised on a “loophole” in a large metropolitan area such as Jefferson County was problematic.  The numerous political connections needed to facilitate such a development were more difficult to establish.  The sheriff and district attorney had vigorously prosecuted the case all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court.  Second, he had succeeded in persuading a trial judge to rule in his favor.  This was significant.  If it could be done once, it could be done again. 

The ideal environment to establish a Mega casino was one where relations with all local elected officials could be successfully nurtured.

McGregor refocused his attention on his investment in Shorter, Alabama, a community of less than 300 according to the 2000 census. Shorter is located in Macon County, which was sparsely populated, characterized by chronic high unemployment and ranked last in Alabama in per capita income-- thirty-three percent of its population was considered "below the poverty level."  The same type demographics described Greene and Lowndes Counties.

These counties proved to be fertile ground for cultivating cooperative efforts between the gambling operators and local elected official. The promises were always the same: economic development, jobs, and new sources of tax revenues. 

In return, local resolutions were passed under the guise of regulating charitable bingo.  The resolutions all had this in common: they were essentially grants to each operator of a defacto government sanctioned monopoly to open and operate a casino. These resolutions purported to recognize "electronic bingo" as "legally permissible."

McGregor also developed a relationship with Alabama Attorney General Troy King. In December 2004, King issued the now infamous Findings of his Gambling Review. With no consideration of the cases cited above, nor any of the other body of appellate decisions that have uniformly struck down attempts to skirt the law on gambling, without any reasoned analysis that would withstand judicial scrutiny, King gave his opinion that "electronic bingo" machines were "legally permissible." Although King's "opinion" carried no legal weight and has since been thoroughly discredited by opinions of the Alabama Supreme Court, it had a profound impact. It provided gambling operators with what looked like a legal pronouncement that "electronic bingo" was "legally permissible." Local elected officials wanting to collaborate with gambling operators accepted King's pronouncement as authority to license "electronic bingo."

[date] Attorney General King sent letters to every prosecutor and law enforcement head in every county of Alabama stating his opinion that "electronic bingo" was "legally permissible."  With Alabama’s attorney general having effectively abandoned all efforts to enforce Alabama’s law as it pertains to “electronic bingo,” gambling halls spread and flourished.

Major gambling operators, such as McGregor, became bolder with their operations. Soon, there were billboards all around the state portraying pictures of persons who had won jackpots. Milton McGregor was on television telling audiences "you could be a winner, too!"

Alabama citizens began to sense confusion about the legality of slot machines.  There had been no vote on gambling since the education lottery was defeated, yet, there were those billboards advertising Quincy’s 777 Casino.  Most Alabamians still were not familiar with the term “electronic bingo,” as that was more a term of art incident to the loophole the casinos were purporting to operate under.  Every machine in the various “bingo” halls looked, sounded and acted like slot machines. 

It was against this back drop that Ronnie Gilley formulated his vision for Country Crossing.

Gilley first pitched his vision in Coffee County. This was his home, where he grew up, where he conducted business.  However, he could not get the support of the people in Coffee County.

He found a willing collaborator in Houston County Commission Chairman Mark Culver who assured Gilley Houston County was progressive and pro-development. Soon, the Houston County Commission and others were being impressed by Gilley’s command of facts, figures, projections, his knowledge of the Branson, Missouri, development and the positive comparisons he drew between the demographics of Southeast Alabama and those of Branson, Missouri. Efforts to reduce visions to plans were soon underway.  The concept of a Branson type development in Houston County was floated to the public and drew immediate excitement.

But behind the scenes, among the collaborators, was the issue of gambling. This was Houston County, not Macon County. All of the representatives of Houston County participating in the collaboration knew there would be public opposition to a casino. All agreed the success of the collaborative effort would depend on generating public enthusiasm for the Country Music/Branson Missouri theme while discretely devising a resolution that would effectively grant Ronnie Gilley Properites, LLC a government sanctioned monopoly to operate an "electronic bingo" hall.  The collective wisdom of the collaborators was that once the project was up and running the public would see the benefits and would come to support the project.

January 24, 2008, one month prior to the Houston County Commission meeting when the bingo resolution would be enacted, Ronnie Gilley hosted a party honoring Attorney General Troy King and attended by country music stars George Jones and John Anderson. The presence of the country music stars demonstrated Gilley could "deliver the goods."  The presence of Troy King tended to lend an air of legal legitimacy to what was about to transpire.  It also provided an opportunity to talk face to face with the Attorney General about the "legally permissible" gambling in Macon and Greene Counties and his attitude about the legality of the proposed Bingo Pavilion.

The connection with Attorney General Troy King led to a referral to attorney Kenneth Steely, who had worked extensively with Troy King as a staff attorney with the AG’s office. They were closely connected. Steely had been manager for Troy King’s reelection campaign. He was considered by insiders in the A.G. office as the “guru” on gambling issues.  And, he was a registered lobbyist for gambling magnate Milton McGregor. He could be counted on.

The county commission by-passed the services of County Attorney Gary Sheerer and retained Steely to come up with a legal strategy for drafting a bingo resolution that would enable the Houston County Commission to grant Ronnie Gilley Properties, LLC a monopoly to operate "electronic bingo" in Houston County.   That the Steely “opinion” may have been sought, not as legal advice, but, to provide a color of authority is suggested by the date of the final draft, February 25, 2008, the same date the commission was meeting to enact the bingo resolution.

The Steely “opinion letter,” like the 2004 pronouncement of Troy King, was devoid of generally accepted legal analysis.

February 25, 2005, at 10:00 A.M., Chairman Culver called the commission meeting to order, noting that it was the largest crowd he had seen attend a county commission meeting.

The first item on the agenda was the bingo resolution.  The only persons to speak on the resolution were Mark Culver and six prominent members of the community.

The six members of the public who spoke pleaded with the commission to postpone its vote so that the public might have a chance to digest the contents of the eighteen page bingo regulation. Two of those persons, former state representative Riley Seibenhener and businessman John Downs testified they had sought copies of the bingo regulation the previous week but were not provided with a copy until just prior to the meeting that morning.

A review of the minutes of that meeting demonstrate no less than twelve misrepresentations made by Chairman Culver with the intent to mislead the public. He stated “he had asked Attorney Sheerer, County attorney, to investigate... [that] he has done exhaustive research on rulings and opinions.”  No such ‘exhaustive research’ was conducted. 

He showed a map of bingo halls in Walker County as an example of a county where “without regulation, the expansion of electronic bingo has been rampant.” Even as he was citing Walker County, the elected officials of that county were taking legal steps, not to introduce “electronic bingo,” but to rid the county of it.  Ironically, as our commissioners were opening the doors of Houston County to “electronic bingo” Walker County was shutting the doors of the their illegal operations; by the time Country Crossing started operating, all “electronic bingo” operations in Walker had been shut down, permanently.  The Walker County charitable bingo enactment is substantially the same as the Houston County charitable bingo enactment.

Chairman Culver assured the public that the proposed regulation was "an attempt to fill the gap" that “extensive legal research [indicated] electronic bingo can be done if the county does absolutely nothing.” He assured the public “the commission is not setting it up for a monopoly but they were setting it up to be difficult for anyone to do this.”  The truth is the bingo resolution had but one purpose, to grant Ronnie Gilley Properties, LLC a defacto monopoly to operate a casino under the guise of calling it charitable bingo.

Chairman Culver assured the public the commission did not want to bring class III gambling (slot machines) into Houston County.  That is exactly what they did by licensing the Bingo Pavilion.  Furthermore, once it became clear that the law was going to be enforced, that the “electronic bingo” operation was illegal, Culver and others began vigorously lobbying the legislature to pass legislation that would legalize the very thing they were trying to convince the public they were trying to “control.”

The remaining members of the commission sat silent though all the representations made by Chairman Culver.  None of the commissioners spoke.  The question was called and the motion carried unanimously.

Two weeks after the passage of the bingo regulation attorney Kenneth Steely was awarded a lucrative contract by his former boss, A. G. Troy King, to perform legal work for the Office of the Attorney General.

There was an immediate outcry from the public.  Senator Smith, joined by Representative Lewis cried foul and began efforts in opposition to the actions of the commissioners.  A delegation of concerned Dothan citizens traveled to Montgomery and met with the governor, who referred them to the Office of the Attorney General, who had nothing to offer.

Not long after the commission meeting, community leader John Watson tried to persuade chairman Culver as to the illegality of what the commission had done and urged him “to shut it down now, before somebody spends a lot of money out there.”  Chairman Culver did not listen.

Many loud voices have criticized Governor Riley, including the Editorial Board of the Dothan Eagle, characterizing the governor as sanctimonious and heavy handed.  The facts are that the spread of gambling into Walker and Houston Counties prompted an outpouring of protests from members of those communities and requests for action. Governor Riley listened and acted.

December 29, 2008, Governor Riley issued an executive order empaneling the Task Force on Illegal Gambling. 

February 10, 2009, concerned how the Task Force on Illegal Gambling might impact plans to develop Country Crossing, another Dothan delegation, consisting of Chairman Mark Culver, Mayor Pat Thomas, Matt Parker and Bob Hendrix, traveled to Montgomery to discuss their concerns with Governor Riley.  At that meeting Governor Riley brought in members of his legal staff who explained in great detail why “electronic bingo” was illegal.  It was made clear during this meeting that the Task Force would enforce the law in every county in Alabama.

Nevertheless, Chairman Culver and company were determined to ignore what the governor’s legal team had told them.  Nor did they request County Attorney Gary Sherrer to communicate with Governor Riley’s legal team to see if he thought their position had merit.

March 19, 2009, the Task Force executed a search warrant on Whitehall Entertainment Center in Lowndes County, seizing 105 slot machines, over $500,000 in cash and financial records.  This event was widely reported in the news.  That same day officials held a ground-breaking ceremony at Country Crossing.

November 13, 2009, the Alabama Supreme Court rendered its decision in Cornerstone Community Outreach (“Whitehall”) case.  This decision approved the Task Forces search and seizure of the “electronic bingo” machines.  It also included the “six characteristics” of the game of bingo.

November 25, 2009, the Houston County Commission initiated a request to Gaming Laboratories International,  an “independent laboratory,” to obtain certification that the “Bingo Systems” in use at the Bingo Pavilion at Country Crossing were compliant with the six characteristics articulated in the recent Alabama Supreme Court decision.  However, a careful reading of that request reveals that the actual “characteristics” articulated in the body of the request were not the six characteristics articulated in the Court’s decision.  They were simply a restatement of the existing operating functions of those machines.  Thus, the “certification” which Chairman Culver literally waved before the media as he repeatedly assured the public “these machines are legal” provided no such certification.

Every Houston County Commissioner is seeking re-election. Each continues to repeat the absurd notion that the collaboration with Ronnie Gilley was necessary to prevent the rampant spread of "electronic bingo." Such was implied by Francis Cook in the Dothan Eagle last week: "[Is] keeping it out of convenience stores and McDonald’s so wrong?" 

So, How did it get this far? The Houston County Commission and others bought into the promises of Ronnie Gilley.  Noone checked his figures or the validity of his projections.  No one considered whether there would be any adverse impacts resulting from casino style gambling. Wary of public opposition, they decided to proceed in secret.  The history of apparent success with such operations in Macon, Greene and Lowndes Counties along with the tacit support of Attorney General Troy King encouraged them to think the only practical obstacle would be public attitudes toward gambling.

Having undertaken a course of deception, they have continued down that course.  That many people still express confusion is a testament to the efforts to mislead, rather than enlighten the public.  It is contributed to with one-sided reporting by area print and broadcast media.

Throughout all of this there has been no public debate on whether Gambling is good or bad, as though it were merely a moral issue.  A modest internet search of terms such as “gambling affect on economy,” “gambling affect on politics,” or “gambling affect on community” will produce ample independent studies and reports that, at the least, will demonstrate it is not the win-win scenario Ronnie Gilley or Milton McGregor describe.  An honest public debate is what should take place if there is significant interest in opening our state to casino gambling.

Honesty and trust in elected leaders is what the coming election should be about. We teach our children to be truthful. We should expect the same from elected officials.  As voters we are the ultimate shepherds of good government. It is our responsibility to hold elected officials accountable. Ultimately, the government we get will be no better than what we require.

I have taken the trouble to publish this expose because I believe truth matters.

Michael J. Gamble