NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposed constitutional amendment to allow charitable gaming fundraisers for veterans groups may not carry the same excitement as other Tennessee ballot measures on abortion, judges and income taxes, but supporters say it would correct an omission dating to the approval of the state lottery in 2002.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports (http://bit.ly/1nXg4Sx) that it’s being disputed whether the veterans groups were left out of the lottery amendment by accident or as part of an effort to avoid the taint of a bingo industry scandal of the 1980s that culminated in the FBI’s “Rocky Top” investigation.
Republican state Sen. Rusty Crowe of Johnson City acknowledged that the measure might face a tough time passing because the language refers to the tax code and doesn’t mention the word “veteran.”
“The way it’s worded, people won’t know what’s going on,” Crowe said.
State law limits nonprofit gaming activities to raffles, reverse raffles, cakewalks and cakewheels. It does not authorize bingo, which was responsible for one of the darkest and bloodiest phases in Tennessee’s political history.
In its heyday, about 300 bingo halls operating in the state generated millions of dollars, but that money often didn’t reach charities. Bingo halls would be run by professional gambling operators and state lawmakers for years ignored news accounts of money being skimmed.
All that came to an end following the “Rocky Top” probe led by the FBI and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which found operators were using state charters of legitimate Tennessee charities to run gambling operations.
The investigation which eventually led to a prison sentence for Democratic state Rep. Tommy Burnett also looked at then-Secretary of State Gentry Crowell’s handling of bingo regulation and led authorities to looking into other activities by legislator Ted Ray Miller. Both Democrats committed suicide during the investigations.
State Sen. Randy McNally as a freshman lawmaker became the key insider in the Rocky Top investigation after reporting suspicions to the FBI. The agency asked McNally to wear a recording device at Legislative Plaza, and he captured evidence of offers to pay cash for votes, including $10,000 from a lobbyist who was also the state’s former chief bingo regulator.
The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately ruled that bingo was illegal under the state constitution’s lottery ban.
McNally, who is now chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said he supports the amendment.
“I think the state has proper safeguards to prevent what happened in the past like the Army-Navy Union, the bogus-type organizations that came in,” McNally said. “You know, you’ve got legislative oversight and the secretary of state’s oversight. It’s a lot more professional than it was back in the day.”
The end of charitable bingo was devastating to veterans organizations, said Dean A. Tuttle, adjutant and finance officer with the American Legion Department of Tennessee. The money from bingo helped support veterans’ families with scholarships, health care and other causes.
“Likely about 80 percent of our Post homes or Legion homes are probably now nonexistent,” Tuttle said. “It is awfully tough to go out there and make it baking cakes and washing cars.”
Many veterans groups now meet in churches to schools instead of in their own dedicated halls.
Tuttle also worries about the likelihood of passage of the amendment given the wording of the proposal.
“If you don’t know the IRS code you have no idea of what it’s doing,” he said.
Early voting for the Nov. 4 election begins Wednesday.