AL US attorney’s gambling inquiry moves on to Indians

Josh Moon, Montgomery Advertiser 1:51 a.m. CDT April 8, 2016

The U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama plans to ask the National Indian Gaming Commission for clarification its position of electronic bingo games being played in Alabama.

U.S. Attorney George Beck requested, and received, clarification from Alabama’s governor and attorney general on the games — they both said state court rulings make it clear the games are illegal in Alabama — and that leaves Beck with one big question.

“I would like to know what the (NIGC’s) position on these games are in this state — whether they are slot machines or something else — and why they are allowed to be played (in Alabama),” Beck said during an interview Thursday afternoon. “There is some question in the statute about what is allowable under the law and what those games are classified as — slots or Class II gaming.”

Beck said his questions about the application of gambling laws in the state stemmed from conversations and repeated questions from citizens. Many people, he said, don’t understand why there have been raids and constant legal battles over electronic bingo games being played in casinos, like VictoryLand, while the Poarch Band of Creek Indians have continued to operate the same machines at three locations in Alabama without interference.

The reason for that boils down to the classification of the tribe as federally recognized and its lands being placed in a federal trust. Under federal law, that removes the Indian lands from state regulations and places them under federal regulations that were created by Congress in 1988 in the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act.

IGRA established basic rules and also set up the NIGC to monitor gaming and control various aspects of gaming law, such as determining if an electronic bingo machine was the same thing as a slot machine.

Despite the games having a similar look and similar mechanics externally, the NIGC found that their internal functions were different enough, and that the electronic bingo machines resembled the traditional bingo games closely enough, to rule that the machines were bingo games, not slots. That designation was important, because also under IGRA, a federally recognized tribe is allowed to offer any of the three classes of gambling on its lands that are also legal anywhere else in the state where the tribe’s lands are located.

Because Alabama has in 16 counties legalized bingo — a Class II game under the definitions created in IGRA — the Poarch Creeks may also offer bingo on its lands. And because the NIGC has determined that the electronic games meet the definition of bingo under the law, those electronic games are also legal.

Beck said there are actions he could take on the games, but he wouldn’t offer specifics or whether those options would involve attempting to outlaw the games on tribal lands or force a change in Alabama laws for private casino owners.

“I don’t want to get into that level of speculation — right now, I’m just asking questions and trying to determine everyone’s stances,” Beck said. “There is an obvious question about the status of the machines as analyzed and defined by state courts in relation to the federal definition. There are statutes that seem to say if it is illegal in the state, it has to be illegal on the tribal lands.”

As far as the state is concerned, Beck said he is not confused about its stance any longer.

“I have received responses to my letters from both the attorney general and the governor, and I’ve read the recent state Supreme Court decision, and I think it’s clear that the state’s position on this is that these are slot machines and illegal,” Beck said. “That seems settled.”

Gov. Robert Bentley sent a letter to Beck on Wednesday outlining his office’s views on the games. In that letter, Bentley said he will follow the definition supplied by the Alabama Supreme Court and follow the law.

He also backed up an executive order he issued late last year in which he removed gambling oversight from the AG’s office and returned it to local sheriffs and district attorneys. At the time, that move was seen as Bentley giving a green light for electronic bingo casinos in Macon and Greene counties to reopen. A spokesperson for Bentley’s office even noted at the time the detrimental impact the closure of VictoryLand had on one of the state’s poorest counties.

To Beck, Bentley wrote that he had charged local sheriffs with “interpreting and applying Alabama law as applicable to any form of gaming or gambling in their respective counties.”

AG Luther Strange also stated in his response to Beck that he believes state court decisions have made it clear that the games are illegal.

Beck also asked Strange about three “memorandums of understanding” his office entered into with the distributors of electronic bingo machines. Those MOUs allowed the companies to come into shuttered casinos and remove the machines that were under the possession of the AG’s office at the time in exchange for the distributors agreeing to not return the machines to those casinos and an acknowledgement that doing so would be a violation of Alabama law.

In his letter to Strange, Beck asked how such an agreement could be legal, considering the distributors are supplying a product deemed illegal by Alabama law, and if the MOUs — which specifically state that the Poarch Creek casinos are exempt from the terms — are a de facto compact between the state and tribe.

Strange responded that the agreements were not compacts and that they required a company to remove the illegal games from the state.

Asked if he was satisfied with that response, Beck said, “I’ll just say that I remain puzzled by those.”

Beck said his goal, despite rumors and innuendo about a possible dig into campaign contributions and monetary influence, was a straightforward one.

“My motivation is strictly to ascertain what the law is so I can eliminate the confusion,” Beck said.

“That is all there is. I have no ulterior motives. At the end of this, it could be a dead end. And honestly, I could care less about the outcome.”