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Midnight order halts Ala. raid of $87M casino

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — About 40 Alabama state troopers assembled in the pre-down hours Wednesday for a raid approved by Gov. Bob Riley himself. Their target: the bingo machines at a new, $87 million casino near Dothan that the governor says is operating illegally.

But local officials moved quickly to defend the entertainment complex, going to a judge’s home after midnight to get an order blocking the raid. At 1:30 a.m., Houston County Commissioner Mark Culver raced to deliver it personally to state police before they could move to seize the 1,700 electronic bingo machines at Country Crossing.

It was a blow for the governor in Alabama’s odd, ongoing struggle for control over the state’s mushrooming gambling industry.

Culver denounced the attempt by the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling to shut down the country music-themed bingo and entertainment complex, which opened last month, creating 1,300 jobs in a struggling community.

“We are going to do everything we can to protect the jobs of the people of Houston County,” Culver said.

The governor contends the machines are illegal slot machines and simply the latest attempt by developers to compete with neighboring Mississippi’s coastal casinos.

Riley was in California Wednesday for the University of Alabama’s national championship football game against Texas and declined to comment. But his press secretary, Todd Stacy, compared the current power struggle to the lawless history of Phenix City, Ala. The town, across the border from Georgia, was infamous in the 1950s South for its illegal gambling, prostitution and bootleg liquor operations, much of it operating in the open with the protection of some local officials before the town was finally cleaned up.

“The obstruction of law enforcement that took place in Houston County this morning should be a wake-up call to the people of this state about the power of organized gambling and casino bosses,” Stacy said.

Bill Eadington, a gambling expert at the University of Nevada at Reno, said investors in Alabama casinos have relied on questionable laws to build them, but the casinos become harder to close when amenities such as restaurants and hotels are added that produce lots of jobs in the teeth of a recession.

“It’s a very interesting political strategy,” he said.

The Houston County Commission approved the construction of Country Crossing in 2008 and created a method for it to issue up to $70 million in bonds for construction. The commission and Country Crossing sought the order stopping the raid, arguing it would harm the bond issue that’s supposed to be paid off with bingo revenue. The county and casino operators are among those who argue that the bingo machines are allowed under state law.

Circuit Judge P.B. McLauchlin agreed that seizing the machines “would do irreparable harm” to the bond transaction and blocked any raid pending a court hearing Jan. 20.

Country Crossing had shut down at midnight Tuesday in anticipation of the raid, but reopened Wednesday afternoon.

Alabama’s attorney general, Troy King, has been at odds with Riley on the gambling issue, questioning the governor’s actions and view of the law. He said the plan for the raid raised “increasing concerns.”

“I can only offer the governor my advice, which I have done. I cannot force him to take it,” King said.