For any gambling bill to have a chance of passing the Alabama Legislature during the 2024 regular session, many state leaders and law enforcement officials say it must include robust enforcement mechanisms and regulations to end rampant illegal gaming currently plaguing the state.
One official who spoke to 1819 News said, "It is no secret; Alabama has had a long, complicated history with gambling, and saying different would be a monumental understatement. Illegal gambling is ongoing in all 67 counties, and in most, it is going unchecked."
An ad hoc committee of about nine House members was assembled last June to study gambling practices in the state and possibly introduce a bill in 2024 to present state-regulated gambling options.
State Rep. Andy Whitt (R-Harvest), who sits on the committee, told 1819 News in a previous interview that the committee continues to look at the gambling operations already in the state and delivers regular reports to House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) on the committee's progress.
“This job was given to me by leadership, and the only way I know to solve an issue is to stick my head under the hood and fix the problem,” he added in a follow-up with 1819 News. “Our State constitution prohibits lotteries in most forms of those gambling, but we also have 18 constitutional amendments. We also have 67 sheriffs and district attorneys reading the laws and interpreting the laws differently.”
Whitt estimated there were nearly 500 of these facilities across the state. He said he had written a letter to all 67 county sheriffs asking if gaming was occurring in their county and what kind. He only received two responses. A second letter received only four responses for a total of six.
1819 News was met with the same silence when reaching out to various cities, counties, sheriffs and police departments.
Attorney General Steve Marshall agreed that certain officials in Alabama are not enforcing the law.
“Enforcement of Alabama’s anti-gambling laws requires a partnership between state and local officials," Marshall said. "Where those partnerships are strong, as we’ve seen, enforcement is effective. Where those partnerships are weak, enforcement is more difficult. What we need is stronger leadership in some areas of our state. You cannot cure corruption with legalization.”
1819 News spoke to District Attorney Pamela Casey of the 41st Judicial Circuit, who said, “DA’s hands are tied in these situations. If deputies or officers make arrests, we prosecute them.” She added, “I’ve sent warnings to businesses, and most cease to operate, but if they refuse, we will prosecute them.”
Not all DAs or sheriffs operate the same way, according to Whitt, who said, “My number one goal has been and always has been we've got to shut down these illegal gaming and out-of-state entities that are coming in.”
He added, “It looks a lot like prohibition, it's the Wild West in Alabama in gaming. We have people from Ontario. We have people from Ohio, New Jersey, Georgia, Mississippi, and the list goes on and on that owns and operates casinos in Alabama. They own the real estate, own the machines, registered LLCs.”
Whitt also spoke about how enforcement may work and be included in upcoming legislation. He said after speaking with various other legislators and members of law enforcement, he believed a state gaming commission is required to properly enforce any new laws regarding gaming or a lottery.
Additionally, Whitt said the penalty provisions for illegal gaming in Alabama should be enhanced to increase the deterrent factor.
A source told 1819 News that gaming is ongoing even on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, and almost $3 million in prizes was paid out last year.
Redstone Arsenal's public affairs officer said, "Redstone Arsenal’s Bingo is authorized under provisions of exclusive federal jurisdiction and Army Regulation 215-1, Military Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Programs. It operates as a Non-appropriated Fund Instrumentality and is limited to authorized patrons and bona fide guests who are authorized access to the installation. The Arsenal’s Bingo proceeds generate funds for the Redstone Morale, Welfare & Recreation program, which includes child and youth services, fitness centers, outdoor recreation, and other Army morale and quality of life programs and services.”
Even the Alabama Sheriffs Association booklet is not free from gaming as some of the Association's publications have published gambling advertisements.
President of the Sheriff Association Jimmy Lambert said of the ads, "The Alabama Sheriffs Star magazine is a publication owned and operated by a publishing company based outside the state of Alabama. The Alabama Sheriffs Association has been in a contract with this company since the 1980s, long before my tenure as the executive director, which began in October 2022, and we are not involved in the advertisement sales. We furnish all Association content. This independent company is in charge of sales of advertisements for the magazine.
Lambert added, "The Alabama Sheriffs Association and its 67 Sheriffs does not condone any form of illegal gambling in our state. The Alabama Sheriffs Association and Sheriffs supports legislation that will strengthen our laws against illegal gambling by enhancing the penalties and fines for such activities. The Sheriffs Association and our sheriffs stand ready to work with our state leaders in any way possible to improve these efforts as we move forward."
A spokesman for Bessemer Police, Michael Wood, said, "We do not allow gaming in Bessemer. Only paper bingo is licensed. Our gaming establishments in the unincorporated area of county may have Bessemer Zip but not in city [sic].” 1819 asked for further clarification but received no response.
In the city of Fairfield, in Jefferson County, gaming operations are advertised on street signs. This occurs in many parts of the state, according to officials with whom 1819 spoke. As of publishing, neither Fairfield nor the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office had returned a request for comment.
Mayor Gary Richardson of Midfield did respond and said this establishment that was advertised was shut down.
Officials say they're still working on language that can work for a three-fifths majority to pass the bill through the legislature, though the State Senate has been a significant hurdle for past gambling bills.
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