Center Stage Removes VLTs and Two-Ball Betting in Alabama

Center Stage Bingo Hall Slot Machines

Center Stage began as a bingo hall for fundraising through charitable gaming.

Center Stage, which runs a bingo-casino in South Alabama, has agreed to remove electronic and table games deemed illegal by the state. Center Stage’s agreed with the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to remove the offending gaming machines and gaming tables.

For months, the attorney general’s office had argued that Center Stage was operating illegal gambling devices. The video lottery terminals (VLTs) were quite similar to slots, but used bingo game mechanics for resolving bets.

Steve Marshall announced on Thursday that the Houston Economic Development Association (HEDA), which manages Center Stage, “has agreed to remove the games in question.”

The two sides agreed to remove the gaming machines prior to a trial which was set to begin on Monday, which would have decided the issue. Neither side wanted to risk a total loss, though the agreement is a big win for Steve Marshall.

Two-Ball Betting Ended

Another form of gambling, called “two-ball” betting, also was in dispute. The two sides were set to go to trial over the issue on Monday, after a series of continuances that allowed Center Stage to stay open for a while longer.

With a trial looming on Monday, HEDA agreed to a resolution of the issue. The agreement, signed by HEDA president Frank Wendt and HEDA attorney Ashton Ott, stated that the table games would be removed, along with any electronic game of chance.

Why HEDA Installed VLTs

Ernie Hornsby, an attorney and spokesman for HEDA, said the deal with Steve Marshall would allow Center Stage to remain open. The bingo hall, which is located in a town of 1200 people in Houston County, near the borders with Georgia and Florida, will remain open for business. Cottonwood is between 2 & 1/2 to 3 hours away from most of the bigger cities in Alabama, including Montegomery, Mobile, and Auburn.

Center Stage will continue to offer paper bingo, but not electronic bingo of any kind. Some video terminals will continue to operate, but they are programmed for skill games, which are legal under Alabama law.

Steve Marshall on HEDA Deal

Alabama AG Steve Marshall was more matter-of-fact than his predecessor. Marshall’s full statement on the VLT and two-ball dispute was, “It is my duty as Attorney General to enforce Alabama’s laws and to prevent individuals and organizations from offering illegal gambling in our state. As a result of the State’s suit, HEDA has agreed to remove the games in question and has agreed to change its operations to comply with the law.”

Marshall added, “This is a good day.”

Ashton Ott, a HEDA attorney, gave her organization’s reasons for signing the agreement: “This agreement sets forth a framework that allows us to continue to offer a great experience for our guests, while at the same time ensuring compliance with applicable state law.”

“HEDA disagrees that the games previously offered were illegal in anyway, but today‚Äôs agreement will remove all doubt and allow HEDA to continue to offer fun and exciting bingo entertainment opportunities for our guests.”

Luther Strange v. VictoryLand

Steve Marshall’s predecessor at the Alabama Attorney General’s office, Luther Strange, had several run-ins with commercial racetracks, which tried to install slot machines on their gaming floors.

In his role as Alabama AG, Luther Strange had the state troopers raid the illegal racinos, which led to a multi-year legal battle with Milton McGregor’s VictoryLand racetrack.

The legal battle eventually involved then-Governor Robert Bentley and the Alabama state troopers. After an Alabama judge ordered Luther Strange to return confiscated gaming machines and cash to the racetracks within 90 days, Strange refused the order. Eventually, Gov. Bentley told state troopers they did not have to follow Strange’s orders, if he ordered them to raid gambling facilities.

Steve Marshall v. Center Stage

The dispute never really ended. Eventually, Gov. Bentley appointed Luther Strange as interim U.S. Senator to replace Jeff Sessions, who became U.S. Attorney General. Strange’s successor, Steve Marshall, vowed to continue to fight illegal gambling in the state. Last year, Milton McGregor died at age 78, which seems to have brought the saga to a close.

As one saga closed, another opened. The Center Stage legal battle has gone on for months now. HEDA sought public support by stating it only wanted to raise funds to help education and the needy in Houston County. Steve Marshall, of course, emphasized the illegality of HEDA’s actions.