Judge tosses out NC's ban on video poker machines

By Gary D. Robertson Associated Press Writer RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina can't legally ban video poker machines while also allowing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to operate the games on their lands within the state, a state court judge ruled. The ruling late Thursday issued by Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning overturns the 2006 law that ended the state's 13-year experiment with video poker machines, a popular attraction when legal in bars and convenience stores. The ruling won't lead to the immediate return of the machines, since Manning also issued a stay of his order to give the state time to file an expected appeal. Manning's decision came in a lawsuit filed by former video poker machine vendor McCracken and Amick Inc. and its owner. The Fayetteville company's attorneys argued the federal law that governs the state's gambling agreement with the Cherokee does not permit the state to bar games it allows on tribal lands. "The state acted unlawfully in authorizing the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians to possess and operate video gaming machines on tribal lands within North Carolina because that activity is not allowed elsewhere in the state," Manning wrote in his order. Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin, the primary booster of the legislative ban, said late Thursday it was approved after lawmakers heard repeated complaints about people losing money playing machines that could legally offer only $10 in merchandise as a prize. "There was no regulation of these machines," Albertson said. "You couldn't find anything good about them, to tell you the truth." The state's sheriffs had long complained that it was too hard to weed out those that illegally offered large cash pay outs. After legalizing the machines in 1993 and approving new regulations on them in 2000, lawmakers imposed a one-year phase out of the games that was completed in June 2007. The Eastern Band began offering video poker machines in the mid-1990s after it negotiated a gambling agreement with then-Gov. Jim Hunt, who was obligated by federal law to work out a deal. The lawsuit was filed last fall and Manning issued an oral ruling from the bench Monday in Raleigh, said Mike Tadych, an attorney for the plaintiffs. The judge's written order was filed late Thursday afternoon. Tadych said he argued that McCracken and Amick shouldn't be forced out of the video poker machine business because the Cherokees were still allowed to offer the games to customers at their reservation casino. "The Legislature couldn't carve out the exception after prohibiting this type of gaming in this law," Tadych said. The text of the law said the statewide ban would be voided if a court made a final ruling similar to what Manning approved. The video poker ban law "is null, void and of no effect," Manning wrote. Asked about Manning's decision, a spokeswoman for North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declined to comment Thursday evening. Associations with the video poker industry sent one western North Carolina sheriff to federal prison and led to an investigation of former House Speaker Jim Black. Former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted last May of taking up to $300,000 in bribes from illegal video gambling operators while sheriff. Many witnesses testified they gave money to Medford so he would turn a blind eye to their operations. State and federal officials also had investigated Black's ties to the video poker industry for two years. Black's campaign had been the largest recipient of legislative campaign donations from the video poker industry. The Mecklenburg County Democrat had blocked an outright video poker machine ban for years, arguing they generated thousands of jobs. But Black finally relented on the ban. In 2007, Black was sent to federal prison after pleading guilty to accepting illegal cash payments from chiropractors.

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