July 2, 2010 -- Bingo is known to generate a lot of shouting and even some passion, but in Eutaw, Ala., it's stirred up quite a bit more as one small county takes on the governor over whether electronic bingo machines are legal.
The battle came to a head yesterday at the Greenetrack dog racing and electronic bingo facility, when Gov. Bob Riley's gambling task force arrived with a State Supreme Court ruling that heaped criticism on a local county judge and handed the authorities the task of shutting down Greenetrack's 800 bingo machines.
The raid resulted in the closing of Greenetrack as the State Supreme Court continues to work out the permanent seizure of the bingo machines, and the arrest of 16 people who police say tried to block them from seizing the machines. Now Greenetrack supporters say they are being unfairly targeted by Riley, in the last year of his second term as governor, and at least 400 people may be permanently jobless and the area left without it's only major source of income.
"It's been devastating, and it's going to be devastating for the county and the entire surrounding area," Toice Goodson, a teller at Greenetrack, told ABC News.
Goodson, a 33-year veteran employee at Greenetrack, was one of the 16 people arrested yesterday. Also arrested were State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, and Luther Winn, CEO of Greenetrack.
Greenetrack is the largest employer in the county, and workers there and community members say the facility was more than just jobs, but also a major source of income for surrounding businesses as well as a fund raiser and provider of roughly 95 college scholarships a year.
"It provided scholarships, they had a lot of charities. Everyone was doing better as a result of Greenetrack. We were employing almost 500 people and that's not counting local stores, gas stations, all those places," Goodson said.
"People would also make money at the track, and they'd go to businesses and spend that money," he said.
The state, however, says this is not like the church-sponsored bingo games with callers shouting out I-22 or B-14, and that Greenetrack's 800 electronic bingo machines are little more than slot machines, illegal in Alabama.
Alabama Governor Says Bingo Machines Nothing More Than Illegal Slot Machines
"In Alabama slot machines are illegal -- casino operators trying to get around that saying these are bingo machines," Jeff Emerson, a spokesman for the governor, told ABC News.
"Bingo is legal, slot machines are illegal. These are slot machines," Emerson said.
According to Emerson, Riley does sympathize over the loss of jobs but the state must uphold the law.
"The governor understands the frustration, but these are illegal and we have to enforce the law," Emerson said.
The electronic machines have been operating at the Greenetrack since January 2004 but came under the governor's radar in February Emerson said. According to Emerson, the county sheriff at the time, Ison Thomas, said the machines were legal bingo machines. According to Alabama law, the county sheriff is also in charge of regulating gambling. Before Thomas was elected sheriff he reportedly served as Greenetrack's head of security.
Thomas went so far as to say in a press release issued this past February that he would stand at Greenetrack and block any attempt by the state government to raid Greenetrack.
Thomas died this past April, and since his death Riley stepped in and appointed a new sheriff, 31-year-old George Cook, on June 18. Although local officials and county citizens protested the appointment in town meetings, declaring in reports that they wanted to elect their own sheriff, Riley stuck to his appointment.
The same day Riley appointed Cook, the governor's task force made its first visit to Greenetrack after being given a court order by a circuit judge, Emerson said.
However, Emerson says that when the task force arrived at Greenetrack the judge, Circuit Court Judge Eddie Hardaway, was contacted by county officials and he issued a second court order telling the task force they had to leave the facility.
"The same judge issued an injunction saying you can't inspect the machines, you have to leave. We appealed to the state Supreme Court, and the court said a local judge can not stop law enforcement from enforcing the law," Emerson said.
Emerson said the task force was attempting to inspect the devices to determine whether they were in fact slot machines, but Hardaway issued several more injunctions including one this week ordering the inspectors to leave the facility, again going against the Supreme Court ruling. Emerson said the task force complied once again with Hardaway's decision and appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The court overturned Hardaway's ruling late Wednesday night Emerson said and the task force began tagging the machines for inspection. Police say they also discovered that any cash inside the bingo machines had been removed sometime this week after Hardaway's final injunction late Tuesday night.
The Supreme Court's ruling made it clear that in their opinion, Hardaway had overstepped his bounds, saying he "had no authority to enjoin or interfere with the law enforcement operations."
"Compliance with an order of this Court is not optional. The 11:47 p.m. order makes it necessary for this Court to act immediately to protect the authority of this Court and the integrity of our prior order," the ruling said.
"The rule of law has prevailed," Task Force commander John Tyson Jr. said in a statement after Wednesday's high court ruling.
"Last night when the task force showed up to enforce the ruling, a group of about 16 folks blocked them from entering the casino," Emerson said.
"They were asked to stand aside and they refused. They asked several times to be arrested and about 12 hours later law enforcement complied with the court order and their own request to be arrested," Emerson said.
Emerson said the protestors were arrested for violating a court order, a misdemeanor.
"We told them we're not going to fight, we're going peacefully because this is something we believe in and we believe in it enough to go to jail for it," Goodson told ABC News after his release from jail yesterday.
According to Goodson, the protestors were released on bond and will appear in court at a later date.
The Supreme Court has ordered Greeneway closed while they work out the final details of the raid, and by 9 p.m. yesterday the court officially ordered the removal of the bingo machines. The Supreme Court also ruled that Judge Hardaway is to be removed from any more jurisdiction over the case.
Despite their efforts, the protestors may be unable to stop the track from being permanently shuttered.
"People were getting their last check yesterday, not knowing if they are going to make money next week, have health insurance, get their kids the proper clothing and books in the fall. It's just a bad thing," Goodson said.
"To just close down Greenetrack is not in the best interest of the citizens of Greene County. You are more concerned with shutting down a bingo parlor versus protecting the citizens of Greene county," Pastor Joe Webb said in an interview with ABC News.
Webb said he had been meeting and praying with employees of Greenetrack as late as yesterday as he tried to help them deal with their loss of work.
"At least 400 people are without jobs. I was called up to do prayer with the people to encourage them," Webb said.
"That's the only job they have, and now it's taking food out of their children's mouths. Now they have to come to the church to help pay light bill, the water bill. This place is what you would call a poverty area, and you are taking the only jobs. Give us some jobs if you are going to take away this. I'm not saying gambling is the only thing, but it's what we have," Webb said.
Emerson, however, cites the fact that there is a Mercedes plant roughly 45 miles from Greene County and he thinks Greenetrack and the behavior of officials allegedly going against state law to keep the bingo machines are precisely why a similar car factory hasn't come to that area.
"They have said to the press, this county is nothing without Greenetrack and we disagree with that. We believe Greene County can aim higher," Emerson said.
"Companies don't want to move into that area because they don't trust local officials to enforce the law. If local officials don't obey the law, that is not good for your economic development," he said.
Goodson said the only thing hurting Greene County's economic development is the shuttering of Greenetrack, the timing of which he also calls into question.
"He chose the last year of his term to come after the main source of income for the residents of the county -- why now?" Goodson asked.
According to Goodson, Riley and his task force commander should be focusing their efforts on other areas.
"John Tyson should go back to Mobile where he's from and do something about the oil that's down there, and Governor Riley should meet him down there," Goodson said.
"Riley's got six months left. He's a lame duck and he's out for blood, and he got it," he said.