Josh Moon wrote in the Montgomery Advertiser “In September 2008, Milton McGregor, the bombastic owner of VictoryLand, the state’s largest casino, was summoned to the governor’s office for a lunch.”
Gov. Bob Riley’s purpose for that meeting wasn’t clear, but the request to meet wasn’t particularly unusual. While McGregor and Riley weren’t exactly close pals, the two were friendly enough at the time and various meetings had occurred between the two over the years.
VictoryLand had been open for more than two decades at the time — the last five years of which McGregor’s casino along Interstate 85 in Shorter had been operating electronic bingo machines. McGregor was doing very well.
“(Riley) wanted me to hire his son, Rob,” McGregor said. “He didn’t make any bones about it. He said to me, ‘I know you’re doing well. I’ve seen your numbers. I think any business doing that well during a Riley administration should benefit the Riley family in some way.'”
“It wasn’t a request, it was a demand,” McGregor said.
In a matter of minutes, the two men were in a heated argument, their voices so loud that eventually Riley’s secretary popped open the door and asked if everything was OK. She was waved away and the argument continued for more than an hour, with Riley’s later appointments, including a group of county commissioners, stacking up in the waiting area outside his office.
In McGregor’s mind, the whole ugly scene was the catalyst for many of his subsequent troubles — the raids, the court rulings, the arrest and unsuccessful prosecution of him on federal charges and the slow crumbling of his business.
In Riley’s mind … well, there’s where the story takes an interesting and all-too-common turn in this fight over gambling. Because in Riley’s mind, which he, like McGregor, swears is the “real, honest-to-God truth,” that whole story relayed by McGregor never happened.
Oh, the meeting happened. Riley recalled the lunch with the boxes of Chick-fil-A and McGregor at his conference table. But that’s where the two stories diverge — sharply.
Riley isn’t sure what the meeting was about, but he guessed it had something to do with his plans to go after gambling entities. He was only a few months away from forming his gambling task force and there were rumblings throughout the state that the governor was preparing for some level of action.
“I met with Milton three or four times and they were usually about the same things — what he thought his business could do to help the state,” Riley said. “That particular meeting, I don’t recall exactly what it was about. But we usually didn’t call Milton, he called us to set these things up. And whenever he was in my office, the door was open and at least two people were listening. I guarantee you that two people were listening that day to whatever we said.”
And those two people definitely never heard the former governor try to strong-arm McGregor into hiring Rob, said Bob Riley.
“It simply didn’t happen,” Bob Riley said. “Why on earth would I ask Milton McGregor to hire Rob? That makes no sense.”
There also was no heated exchange in Riley’s recollection of the meeting. No secretary asking if things were OK. No other appointments stacking up outside. And it, by all means, wasn’t the catalyst for anything.
“We came to realize that what was going on was illegal,” Riley said of his decision to go after electronic bingo parlors and casinos around the state. “At that juncture, when you determine that it’s illegal, you either have to enforce the law or turn a blind eye to what’s happening. The latter wasn’t an option.”
This is the fight over gambling in Alabama.
From its earliest days, when McGregor and Paul Bryant Jr. were ushering dog tracks into Macon and Greene counties, through the era of sweepstakes machines and Birmingham horse racing, to the first incarnation of electronic gaming machines, to the electronic bingo machines that attorneys for the state and attorneys for the casinos are fighting over in active court cases today, there is no shortage of fantastic stories, half-truths, outright lies, bickering, backstabbing, soap opera twists and characters that seem to have leapt from the pages of a John Grisham novel.
There is another side to every story, another player in every deal, and a secret motive behind seemingly every move. With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line and egos and elections at stake, each side has apparently been willing to stretch the bounds of ethics and the law to pick up victories along the way.
The fight has pitted an attorney general against the governor who appointed him, lawmakers in the same party against one another, AG’s office attorneys on opposite sides and has split powerful law firms. It has conjured up conspiracy theories by the dozen, even among those intimately involved in the fight who should know better.