- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said Thursday he wants the state out of the business of trying to shut down bingo casinos, but the attorney general said the governor’s order will have no impact on the state’s current lawsuits against the casinos.

Bentley signed an executive order saying sheriffs and district attorneys, not the state, should be the primary enforcer of gambling laws. The order came as Attorney General Luther Strange’s office is appealing a judge’s order to return VictoryLand casino’s seized machines by mid-November.

“Recent rulings have raised concern with the unequal enforcement of Alabama’s criminal laws, including gambling laws,” Bentley said in a written statement. “By signing Executive Order 13, we are clarifying exactly where the responsibility for enforcing laws lies and that is with the local elected officials.”

Bentley said the state has spent millions of dollars on bingo litigation and he wants to minimize future expenditures.

The surprise move is the latest twist in the long-running legal war over the slot machine-look-alikes. VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor praised the governor, saying, “Bentley’s actions today will help put thousands of Alabamians back to work.”

Strange said Bentley’s executive order was in line with his January memo to local law enforcement officials urging them to enforce laws against illegal gambling, citing the state Supreme Court’s two rulings that similar machines were illegal.

However, Strange also said the order would not affect the state’s pending litigation, including the ongoing forfeiture case against VictoryLand.

“I have been assured by the Governor’s legal adviser that this executive order has no impact on the state’s pending litigation, which I expect will further clarify the law to the benefit of state and local law enforcement,” Strange said in a statement.

The machines’ swirling electronic displays and chiming sounds are nearly identical to slot machines. However, casino operators have argued that the digital displays are just for entertainment, and the machines’ internal workings play bingo and are allowed by state laws allowing bingo games.

The state in 2013 seized 1,615 gambling machines and $260,000 in cash during a raid at VictoryLand.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy dismissed the case, saying the state can’t shut down the Macon County casino while similar businesses operate elsewhere. Shashy last month ordered the state to return the machines by Nov. 16.

The attorney general’s office has appealed Shashy’s order to the Alabama Supreme Court. The attorney general’s office also asked justices to stay Shashy’s order to return the machines, saying the Supreme Court has been clear that such gambling devices are illegal.

Alabama justices twice have established guidelines for what constitutes bingo. In rulings arising from cases against casinos in Lowndes and Houston counties, the justices said bingo requires active player participation, with numbers being announced, marking cards and a player claiming a win.

The legal fight over the machines has included battles over who should be in charge of enforcement actions - the governor, the attorney general or local law enforcement officials who have often taken a favorable view of the casinos.

Former Gov. Bob Riley created a gambling task force that took legal action against the casinos. In one of Bentley’s first actions as governor, he signed an executive order disbanding Riley’s task force and directing Strange to take over enforcement. The order Bentley signed Thursday rescinded that earlier order, possibly reigniting the question over control of future litigation.

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