The Battle Over Bingo Series Parts 1 through 4

By: Jason Wright and Skylar Zwick
By: Jason Wright and Skylar Zwick

Part 1
The battle over bingo continues to rage in Alabama.

What started as a legal concern has escalated into a war of words between the governor, legislators and owners of electronic bingo operations.

In the middle of all the debate are allegations of fraud, back door deals and payoffs reaching back nearly a decade.

Our investigation into those allegations started in September of last year and after five months of asking, we were granted a sit down interview with the governor in late January.

Here's part one of our special investigation... The Battle over Bingo.

"It has never had anything to do with politics... how can this possibly have anything to do with politics?" asks Bob Riley.

The story started in 1997, when a legislative press aide named Michael Scanlon started working in the office of then state representative Bob Riley. Riley moved to the Governor's office in 2002 without Michael Scanlon.

By that time, Scanlon was working as a Washington lobbyist with Jack Abramoff. The two began a long, corrupt journey of de-frauding Indian tribes of millions of dollars for consulting work and were eventually convicted of federal conspiracy charges.

“I have never met Jack Abramoff, I have no idea what Jack Abramoff said, but I do know one thing, he went to jail because of what he did with the Indians,” states Riley.

But published reports show, Governor Riley signed a letter opposing expansion of gambling casinos in Alabama on behalf of the U.S. Family Network, a public policy group funded in-part by money from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Additionally, a Congressional hearing discovered a December 2002 email between Abramoff and Scanlon discussing the need to get Riley elected so they could keep Indian casinos out of Alabama, therefore guaranteeing the Mississippi tribes a monopoly.
Scanlon writes to Abramoff "She definately wants Riley to shut down the Poarch Creek operation, including his announcing that anyone caught gambling there can't qualify for a state contract for something like that..."

“No ma’am you, you’re absolutely, 100% wrong and if you really would go back and look at this and I think you will understand why you’re wrong, I have never had a conversation, I don’t know how else to explain this, I have never had a conversation with anyone in MS in my life about Indian gaming there, ever,” said Riley

Governor Riley's alleged involvement with Mississippi Indians is mentioned again, this time in the Final Senate report.

That report stated Abramoff told a tribal leader that Chief Phillip Martin had spent 13-million dollars to..."get the governor of Alabama elected to keep gaming out of Alabama so it wouldn't hurt... his market in Mississippi."

“Somebody said that we spent 13, or the Indians gave us, this is an allegation,” Riley said.

It's in a senate committee testimony that Chief Philip Martin says he gave 13 million dollars to get you elected

“I don't know how else to say that, for someone to say that 13 million dollars came into the state of AL, where did it go?” asked Riley

So, did the governor receive funding from Indian gaming interests?

We'll follow the money as we continue our special investigation into the "Battle Over Bingo" tomorrow.

Part 2

In March of 2009, News 4 began an investigation uncovering a trail of funds seemingly passed between the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and Governor Bob Riley through the bank accounts of his former press aide Michael Scanlon.

In his ledger, Scanlon called it "Operation Orange".

That's where we start part two of our exclusive investigation into the "Battle over Bingo".

In recent letter to Alabama's Governor, state attorney general Troy King wrote... "Recent news accounts have alleged that you accepted laundered campaign contributions from Mississippi Indian casino interest, whose own casinos would benefit from the elimination of Alabama competition."

“I have never been in an Indian Casino, I have never had a conversation with a Choctaw Indian,” Riley said.

King's letter went on to say..."Further, images of you wrapped in an Indian blanket during your visit to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians' reservation in Atmore have been widely distributed."

“Now, I can't keep people from saying it, but I'll tell you what I did do, I went because a friend of mine, Congressman Sonny Calihan, called me one time and said I want you to come down to this reservation and I want you to see the new health center they have built on their reservation,” Riley said.

“But, you quote it as if it is fact. It has never been fact, it will never be, let me tell you, if this was about money, if this was about campaign contributions, the easiest thing in the world I could have done and could have done for the last 5-6 years is to take the money that was offered, but that's not the point,” addedRiley.

In fact, the Governor accepted and according to published reporters, later returned a contribution from an individual with ties to Indian gaming. But it wasn't the only one we found in our investigation.

We also found a paper trail showing Riley's former press aide, Mike Scanlon writing a check for $75,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee "per Bama race" on November 26th of 2001.

Just a few days later, the Governor's campaign accepted more than $300,000 from the group. In a similar situation, Scanlon gave thousands to a Political Action Committee that gave to the Governor's campaign days later.

That's some pretty compelling testimony from people that have known ties, in a Senate hearing, to some questionable Indian gaming facilities

“No ma'am, you, you're absolutely 100%, totally wrong and if you really would, go back and look at this and I think you will understand why you're wrong. I have never had a conversation , I don't know how else to explain this, I have never had a conversation with anyone in Mississippi in my life about Indian gaming there, ever,” Riley said.

Our investigation also found on three occasions in September 2001, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians paid Scanlon consulting fees, totaling more than 4-point-6-million dollars.

On each occasion, a portion, was wired into a fund Scanlon called "Operation Orange." Within days, the Riley for Governor Campaign accepted funds from PACs and Republican organizations.

A separate ledger within Scanlon's accounting records for Operation Orange details that same check, for $75,000 right alongside Riley's name and the memo "1291 per NCRR"

“It's absurd on it's face and it's absurd on its face because that's now what it says, that's absolutely not what it says,” Riley said.

Governor Riley claims the republican governor's association did a complete audit, and says that, though Mike Scanlon did give to those organizations, none of the money came to the Riley campaign.

Under campaign finance laws, if the governor did take funds from Indian interests, it may not be illegal.

But it's a gray enough area that it has caused years of speculation over possible conflicts of interest.

If you would like to see all the documents involved in our special investigation or the entire one and a half hour interview with the governor, you can log onto our web channel at wtvy.com.

Tomorrow, we sit-down with country crossing developers and discuss the legality of their operation and jobs as we continue to investigate the battle over bingo.

Part 3

Tonight we want to focus on the heart of the matter... Are the electronic bingo machines at country crossing and other gaming centers across the state legal under Alabama law?

Here's part three of our special series, the "Battle over Bingo".

“Actually, the first time I ever heard of Country Crossing, is when a group came in here and said, 'we want to make this into the next Branson, Missouri.' That's great! I think it's wonderful, help you any way I can, still will...Branson, Missouri doesn't allow gambling cause it's family entertainment,” Riley said.

“The project evolved, in the beginning, it was a residential, retirement project that was going to be boasted by country music stars,” said Gilley.

But the real estate and financial markets collapsed...then a phone call, from an unnamed elected state official, set the bingo ball in motion

“So this individual began to explain to me the issues of electronic bingo. Ronnie as you know gambling is illegal, I know that. Ronnie, as you know bingo is illegal, at the time, I didn't know that, but he said, unless you reside in a county that allows it and out of 18 that allow it, 8 allow electronic bingo,” Gilley added.

Houston County legalized charitable bingo in 1994 according to minutes from a Houston County Commission meeting. At that meeting, Commission Chairman Mark Culver quoted a 2004 opinion by Alabama's Attorney General saying, "bingo can be played on paper cards, laptop computers or video consoles as long as it adheres to the traditional play and format of bingo."

“Bingo has evolved with technology just like that camera or your cell phone. The Supreme Court recognized it in 1988, its been played by Native Americans since 1989 and by non-Native Americans since 1992, it was made legal by the county in 1994,” Gilley said.

Culver goes on to read "the bingo must be played on a 5 x 5 grid, numbers or symbols must be randomly selected, winner are determined by pre-ordained patterns and players must compete against other individuals not against a house or something as typical gambling would be."

“You're not pulling anything and either you win or the house, the house sets that, we can't set anything because we are legal and you're playing against others,” Gilley said.

“The Alabama Supreme court wrote 6 characteristics, said look at the characteristics, and they were very, very explicit, that said what was going on out there is absolutely not bingo,” said Riley.

The 6 points outlined by the State Supreme Court are distinctly similar, though not exactly what Chairman Culver quotes from the Attorney General...the Supreme Court ruling requires player participation, bingo cards containing 25 squares, individual bingo alphanumeric designs announced one by one, physical action by a player in marking cards, announcement of a winning bingo card and competition against each other

“They'll tell you 'what we're doing is bingo,' well, most people in Alabama have played bingo before and when you can play a game of bingo in 4-6 seconds, I think most people say that is absolutely not bingo, that's a slot machine,” Riley said.

So how do we eliminate the discrepancy?

“If they can change the law, then they have every right to do it,” Riley added

The Houston County Commission met earlier this week to re-align their rules and regulations to better meet the state supreme court opinions. The potential impact on the continuing bingo discrepancy, however, is unknown...

This week in our special investigation, we've looked at allegations of back door deals and alleged payoffs between state officials and Indian casinos.

And tomorrow, in our final installment, we look at where your money goes if you choose to play electronic bingo and we examine the future of the "Battle Over Bingo"

Part 4

This week, we've examined the accusations, arguments and opinions affecting the war of words over bingo in the state of Alabama.

Tonight, we examine the past, present and future impacts on jobs in the wiregrass area

In the final part of our special investigation into the "Battle over Bingo"

“It's a sad day when the focus is being taken off the project, look at the national media attention we're bringing, because we're doing this in such dire times...the national media isn't focused on bingo,” Gilley said.

“I said from the beginning, if they're not doing anything that's illegal, they don't have anything to worry about, but if someone wants to go down and start making crystal meth in Houston County and employ 3, 4, 500 people, we'll shut it down,” Riley said.

“This is not a flim-flam operation, people are making $12-$16 dollars per hour, management positions making $35,000-$185,000 a year, it's unfortunate we're having to deal with this hypocrisy,” Gilley said.

Country Crossing developer Ronnie Gilley says more than 90% of the money spent in the bingo pavilion everyday goes back to the winners. Gilley says most of the rest of it will go to local charities. He says Country Crossing gets a few percent as lease and overhead payments from the Houston County Economic Development Authority which operates the bingo pavilion. Gilley says that few percent is the fuel that powers future expansion and jobs at the entertainment facility.

“Without bingo, you can't accommodate 90 million dollar concerts, etc, so the synergized structure creates the opportunity,” Gilley added.

What happens if the machines are sequestered?

“The facility will close, the employees will eventually lose their jobs, we will hold on as long as we can, but if we don't have revenue or a catalyst we can't go on,” Gilley said.

And my final question sir and I'll let you go, the people of Houston Co elected you '02 and '06 with an over 60% majority. It is a pro-Riley area by all intents and purposes, but people have a lot of questions. They're looking for jobs in 9.5% unemployment in that county... the highest in the state, They're looking for anything to keep food on their tables... what's your message to the people?

“Exactly the same thing that I've said for a year, there has never been a Governor who has worked harder to bring jobs into the state of AL and we're going to do that this year and I hope the legislature takes that and I hope that they will pass our jobs bill and I hope that they pass the tax credits, I hope we can help small business, I hope we can do it, but they also elected me I think, because they thought that I would do what I thought was right,” Riley said.

“We're outpacing almost every state now, we're 10th in unemployment and we're outpacing Rhode Island because we put all of our eggs in the manufacturing basket,” Gilley added.

It's time to put it into the hands of the people, let's not as a politician assume people are not smart enough to make decisions themselves.>

Last week, a constitutional amendment was introduced in both the state house and senate.

If it passes, voters would cast their ballots on the issue in the November general election.

If you've missed any part of our special series and would like to see it, or if you would like to see our entire interviews with either the governor or Ronnie Gilley, log on to our web channel at WTVY.com


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