“Has all of this been purely political?”
Milton McGregor repeats the question with an ironic chuckle. Seated at a conference room table in his Montgomery office, he cants his chair several degrees backward, as if to take a fuller measure of the succession of legal battles that have kept VictoryLand — the gaming and entertainment complex that McGregor opened in 1984, and which once employed more than 2,300 people from seven counties in Alabama’s historically impoverished “Black Belt” region — closed for a half-decade and counting.
“It has been political, no question about that,” McGregor declares. “We proved that beyond a shadow of doubt in the trial. The wrong people were sitting down there in that courthouse, and everybody knows it now.”
McGregor laughs again. “I could talk for two days about that. Yeah, it was absolutely political.”
For the better part of a quarter-century before the closing of VictoryLand and his later arrest and trial, Milton McGregor was a predominant mover and shaker in Alabama politics — which is to say, in the Alabama Democratic Party. Democrats held complete sway in state government for well over a century, and even after Republicans won the first of several elections for the governorship in 1986, Democrats retained a majority in the Alabama Legislature — and hence, the upper hand in the relative balance of power between the executive and legislative branches — until after the 2010 election cycle. Today, McGregor offers a token protest of the characterization of him as a Democratic power broker.
“I’ve been tagged with that,” he acknowledges. “But really and truly, I’ve supported a lot of Republicans. I’m sure I’ve supported more Democrats, but it’s been a large number of Republicans as well.”
The disclaimer aside, McGregor does not hesitate to lay his troubles — along with those of the 2,300 people who lost jobs at VictoryLand, and those of Macon County and the other economically challenged areas that provided employees or services to McGregor’s facility — at the feet of two of the most prominent Republicans in Alabama: former Gov. Bob Riley, who left office in January 2011 after serving the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms; and current Attorney General Luther Strange, who was elected in 2010 and assumed his duties as Riley was leaving the Governor’s Mansion.
Talking with a visiting reporter, McGregor peppers the conversation with words and phrases that have the dual rhetorical effect of conveying a general sense of outrage and promoting his very specific point of view. VictoryLand and Macon County were “grossly mistreated” by the state, and economically “devastated” by the closure. The facility was “illegally closed…illegally raided…illegally put out of business.” McGregor is insistent that the several trials and other legal issues stemming from the “attack” on him and VictoryLand were intended to put him out of politics as well.
“We had our facts, but the state didn’t have any argument to make,” he says of the most recent court decision, which was handed down last October by Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy, and which the Attorney General’s office has appealed.
“The facts were basically uncontested, and the judge’s ruling was really one-sided in our favor,” McGregor continues. “Why put in all of that time and expense if you aren’t going to argue the legalities — unless you’re doing it for another purpose?”
The lay of the land
For more than 20 years after it opened in 1984, VictoryLand made its money from dog racing. In the early 2000s, with dog racing declining in popularity nationwide and the entry of Alabama’s Poarch Creek tribe of Native Americans into the electronic bingo business putting pressure on McGregor and the owners of the state’s other dog racing operation, Greene County’s Greenetrack, to find ways of competing with the emerging Indian “casinos.”
In 2003, McGregor used his political influence to help persuade the Alabama Legislature to pass a bill that allowed residents of Macon County to vote on legalizing electronic bingo. Voters approved the measure overwhelmingly — a separate, slightly different referendum also passed by a large margin in Greene County — and McGregor soon had more than 6,000 bingo machines in the VictoryLand facility. After some initial legal wrangling over the difference between electronic bingo machines and the slot machines found in actual casinos, he spent $200 million over the next five years, expanding the complex to include — besides the two cavernous gaming rooms — several restaurants, along with some small shops and a 300-room hotel.
By 2010, VictoryLand was drawing 5.2 million customers annually. McGregor was in the process of adding a 1,500-seat entertainment venue and planning for further expansion of what he refers to as “non-gaming” activities. VictoryLand had an annual payroll of $30 million and was by far both the single largest taxpayer and the single largest source of charitable contributions in Macon County.
Meanwhile, Bob Riley had become a popular governor. He was re-elected in 2006 with 57 percent of the vote — by steering a reasonably moderate political course. Riley veered slightly to the left on a few issues — most notably the need for greater equitability in Alabama’s property tax structure — and tacked sharply rightward on others.
One of the issues on which Riley donned the conservative mantle was gambling. More specifically, he strongly opposed any change in the law to expand the number or variety of games allowable under the state’s gambling statutes. Riley thought that should include the bingo machines that McGregor and other, smaller, operators around the state had begun using after gaining voter approval. But he also acknowledged that the law as approved gave the operators a loophole that prevented him from doing anything about it.
In January 2010, Riley launched an antigambling task force that immediately targeted VictoryLand. An attempted task force raid on the facility was thwarted by a Macon County circuit judge’s order, but when the Republican-controlled Alabama Supreme Court cleared the action’s legality several days later, McGregor voluntarily shut VictoryLand down.
Eight months later, McGregor was arrested, along with 10 others, including state legislators and lobbyists. Collectively, the group was charged with 18 counts of crimes that included conspiracy, bribery and fraud — part of an effort, prosecutors said, to ensure the passage of legislation that would have allowed the expansion of gambling in Alabama — and, not coincidentally, rendered the governor’s task force redundant.
Riley left office in January of 2011. In one of his last official acts, he disbanded his antigambling task force, returning responsibility for the state’s enforcement of gambling laws to the office of the attorney general and its new occupant, Luther Strange.
McGregor and his codefendants were acquitted on all counts in March of 2012, and VictoryLand reopened that December. Any elation was short-lived, as agents of the attorney general’s office, accompanied by Alabama State Troopers, executed a raid on the facility in February 2013. Approximately 1,600 bingo machines were seized, along with more than $263,000 in cash.
McGregor has spent most of the three years since running a gauntlet of continuing legal barriers to getting his facility up and running again. Since last summer, when another ruling by Judge Shashy began clearing the way, he has been working — “18 hours a day,” he says cheerfully — in preparation for VictoryLand’s grand reopening, the date of which is still to be determined at this writing.
“The law didn’t change — the politics did”
“I’m not telling you anything I haven’t told Bob Riley himself,” Roger Bedford declares. “Putting Milton McGregor out of business was a calculated political plan by the Republican leadership.”
A Russellville native first elected to the Alabama Senate in 1982, Bedford was a longtime Democratic stalwart in the Alabama Legislature. He represented his northwest Alabama district for eight terms and along the way became one of the most powerful politicians in the state — so much so that he was routinely caricatured by Republicans as a symbol of the all that was wrong with the Democrats who, they said, were no longer fit to govern Alabama.
When a Republican opponent finally took Bedford out in 2014, his defeat was celebrated in most quarters of the GOP with a level of intensity that must have rivaled that of V-J Day. A year after losing his office, Bedford remains as stalwart as ever, casting the pursuit of McGregor in starkly political terms, counting off the pillars of the Democrats’ long predominance in Montgomery.
“You had the trial lawyers, the state employees, the AEA — and Milton,” says Bedford. As Republicans gradually gained a hold on all three branches of state government, he goes on, they began to topple the pillars of Democratic support.
The Republican Supreme Court began limiting damage awards in civil trials and enforced other limitations that cut severely into the revenues of plaintiff’s lawyers, and hence their political contributions. The legislature enacted a bill that eliminated support for the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Employees Association as an automatic deduction from the pay of their respective members. By the time his troubles began, Bedford notes, McGregor’s money and influence were “just about all that was left” of the state Democratic party.
“Milton was it,” Bedford says. “Riley knew that, and he used the power of government, and he used taxpayer resources to serve a political agenda. He wanted to take Milton out of the picture, and he did it. That’s exactly what happened.
“The law didn’t change — the politics did.”
That the onset McGregor’s legal troubles had a chilling effect on the statewide viability of the Alabama Democratic Party is undeniable. Whether you choose to accept the view that the state’s pursuit of McGregor is singular and politically motivated depends, like most things in Alabama, on your political leanings.
“Sanctimony is not lost on either party in this state,” says Marty Connors. A Birmingham-based political and governmental affairs consultant, Connors is a longtime player in Republican circles, and served as chairman of the state GOP from 2000 until 2005. Connors says the comments of “elected officials and political partisans” have to be taken with an eye toward “whose ox is being gored.” That is “certainly” true, he adds, in the case of McGregor and VictoryLand.
“It may be true that the law didn’t change,” Connors concedes. “The problem was that there were maybe 10 people in the whole state who actually understand the nuances of this convoluted law that defines what is a slot machine and what is bingo. But ultimately, the law is the law is the law, whether it’s being applied to Milton McGregor or anyone else.”
Connors and Bedford have sparred many times over the years, and Connors minces no words — and takes no little pleasure — in deriding the former senator as “the last survivor…the last of the good ol’ boy Southern Democrats.” He dismisses the allegation that Riley, or Strange after him, “based legal actions solely on political calculations,” but his friendly adversary is adamant.
“What has been done to Milton is wrong,” Bedford says. “No one has explained that, and nobody seems to want to take into account what he has done over the years. He’s put a lot of people to work. He’s given a lot of money to charity, and he’s helped a lot of people personally. And he’s done it without seeking a lot of publicity for it. I’ve always found him to be a man of his word, a very positive individual. And what’s been done to him is just wrong.”
Allegations and denials
For his part, McGregor takes for granted the idea that Riley and Strange came after him as a means of finishing off the state Democratic Party as a financially viable entity. Asked to expand on the political intrigue behind what he claims was a selective prosecution and a concerted effort to put him — and with him, the Alabama Democrats — out of business, he takes his charge against Riley a step farther, to a personal level.
“This was all about Bob Riley,” McGregor says. “I say that for two reasons. First, he is owned by the Choctaw Indians of Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had $13 million invested in Riley, to make sure he kept casinos out of Alabama. Second, he wanted me to hire his son. That wasn’t a request, it was a demand. But I wouldn’t hire him, so Riley came after me.
“And then, when he left, he handed the baton to Luther.”
At this writing, former Gov. Riley has not responded to numerous requests for comment on this series of stories, made over the course of several weeks. In prior stories that have appeared in other media outlets, Riley has denied both of McGregor’s allegations, regarding his relationship with the Mississippi Choctaws and his insistence that McGregor hire Riley’s son, Rob.
Attorney General Strange’s office, via communications director Mike Lewis, provided Weld with written responses to questions submitted by email. Asked to clarify 1) Strange’s stance on gambling in general, and 2) how the attorney general’s enforcement of gambling laws will be affected if his appeal of Shashy’s VictoryLand ruling is denied, Lewis wrote the following:
The stance that matters is that of the Alabama Supreme Court which has ruled electronic gaming to be illegal on state lands. Attorney General Strange’s responsibility is to enforce the law. Casinos operating in violation of state laws are being taken to court to receive a final judgment. This includes Houston County’s Center Stage, the Poarch Creek Indian casinos and VictoryLand. Local law enforcement across the state, including in Jefferson County, have also enforced state gambling laws closing down electronic gaming operations as recently as this week.
To the question of whether McGregor was singled out for prosecution, for reasons political or otherwise, Lewis’s reply was more succinct:
It is clear from pending and completed prosecutions that we have not singled out any individual.
More to come
The final installment in this series of stories about the economic and political issues surrounding Alabama’s enforcement of gambling laws in general, and the closing of Macon County’s VictoryLand complex in particular, will be published in the February 18 edition of Weld.
That installment will look at the rise of Native American-owned gaming in Alabama, and the influence of Indian gaming money in state politics. It will also examine the specifics of Milton McGregor’s allegations against Bob Riley against the backdrop of continuing economic and political changes in Alabama. Finally, it will consider the future of gambling in Alabama, and its pros and cons as a source of revenue in a cash-strapped state.