Gambling fever in General Assembly leads to return of key players in Jim Black scandals

It’s often been said about the Congress AND our legislature that majorities can change back and forth, but the sleaze never leaves nor subsides.   Case in point: the current passion in Raleigh for video lotteries (via The Assembly):

If there’s one person whose actions tipped off investigators into former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black’s corruption, it just might be Bobby E. Huckabee III.

In 2000, the president and CEO of Southland Amusements & Vending personally donated more than $21,000 to political campaigns in the state, hoping to fend off any laws restricting what was then called video poker. 

Over the next two years, as chair of the N.C. Amusement Machine Association’s legislative committee, the Wilmington businessman encouraged members to donate to Black’s campaign. 

On the surface, there was nothing illegal about the contributions. But the money flowing to Black, who would serve four terms as speaker, caught the eye of Bob Hall, former director of the nonprofit watchdog Democracy North Carolina. Hall identified many first-time donors making contributions of $1,000 or more to a legislator they likely had never heard of, and some of the donors had been cited for various illegal gambling practices. 

Hall detailed Huckabee’s dealings in a 2004 complaint to the State Board of Elections, kicking off a multi-year investigation that brought federal agents together with the State Bureau of Investigation, State Board of Elections, and federal and state prosecutors.

Black was convicted in 2007 of public corruption (involving chiropractors, not video poker operators), offering a bribe, and obstructing justice. He served just over three years in prison. Meanwhile, Huckabee has kept a low profile in Raleigh for nearly two decades.

Now, as the legislature has legalized and expanded access to other forms of gambling in recent years, Huckabee and his money have reappeared. He’s pushing for the legalization of video lottery terminals, also known as VLTs, which were mostly banned in North Carolina in 2006.

Huckabee, 64, has contributed more than $216,000 to politicians’ campaigns in the past two years—far more than any other individual or company associated with the video gambling industry. Huckabee also has hired a trio of lobbyists. 

And the effort looks like it might pay off. Money from video lottery’s legalization was included in the governor’s 2024-25 budget, and the legislature’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division projected nearly half a billion dollars in annual new revenue before the decade’s end from a Republican VLT bill introduced last fall. 

As the state confronts future budget shortfalls and considers gambling revenues as a solution, Republicans and Democrats have taken campaign contributions from a man whose money was once considered tainted. Those legislators didn’t have much to say when contacted by The Assembly. 

Neither did Huckabee. Numerous attempts to reach him over the last month were unsuccessful. 

But in a September note to industry observers, he wrote that video lottery’s moment in North Carolina might finally have arrived. His team had been at the Legislative Building “day and night and saw great support for VLTs.”

“They will need that revenue for their tax cut goals and projected budget deficit in 2027, which will be about the time a substantial number of VLTs will be online and the state will be realizing a big portion of the expected revenue,” Huckabee wrote. “We will stay on top of this issue until we get this done.”[…] 

Fifteen to 20 years ago, this industry and its money had a taint to it.  It helped set off a major political earthquake on and around Jones Street.  Going down this road ended badly for some folks on Jones Street and badly scarred the General Assembly’s reputation. You would have thought folks might have learned.  But here we are again:

[…] Huckabee launched Southland Amusements & Vending, Inc., in 1983, growing the operation “from a small one-man business into one of North Carolina’s most successful suppliers of state-of-the-art arcade style games and amusement systems,” he wrote in a 2009 blog post. The company is now called Southland Entertainment. 

In North Carolina, most video poker machines distributed or repaired by Southland likely have operated illegally for all but a few years.

State law allowed places with ABC permits, like convenience stores and restaurants, to operate a limited number of video gambling machines from 2000 to 2007, so long as they reported revenues and statistics to local and state agencies, and paid out no more than $10 in merchandise. The law prohibited cash prizes.

Machine owners, operators, promoters, clerks, and armed security guards have been charged, but enforcement has been inconsistent. Only occasionally have players been charged with misdemeanor illegal gambling.  

Legislators passed an outright ban in 2006. What soon followed was a series of dog-chases-cat, cat-swipes-at-dog court battles between the state and the operators.

Operators found a loophole to circumvent the 2006 law by reprogramming the machines. In 2009, a Superior Court judge ruled on the industry’s side, saying he couldn’t ban the machines because legislators allowed them with the Eastern Band of Cherokees’ casino in western North Carolina.

Legislators sought control again the next year, prohibiting sweepstakes games that have an “entertaining display.” The state Supreme Court ruled several times in favor of the regulators. 

While North Carolina debated legality, Huckabee found new markets to corner.

In 1993, the year after Louisiana legalized video poker, Huckabee registered Southland Gaming of Louisiana; he started Southland Gaming of the Virgin Islands in 1998; and in 2000, he launched Advance Cash Express, a payday lending business largely operating in South Carolina.

Over two decades, Huckabee founded more than 30 companies, mostly devoted to real estate in the Cape Fear area, and others performing services for his amusement business, such as lobbying.  

On the first day of this year’s short session in April, lobbyist Patrick Ballantine, a former Republican gubernatorial nominee who served 10 years in the state Senate, strode the halls of the sixth floor of the Legislative Office Building. He was flanked by two fellow lobbyists for NC General Investments, one of Huckabee’s companies. 

That afternoon Ballantine popped his head into several offices, seeking a conversation with Rep. Harry Warren, a Rowan County Republican who is the sole sponsor of a stalled 2023 bill to legalize video lottery terminals.

Ballantine isn’t the only lobbyist seeking to legalize video lottery: J&J Gaming of Effingham, Illinois, has five lobbyists working the General Assembly; Primero Games of Georgia employs four; and Scientific Games, LLC—another name known best in North Carolina for its proximity to Jim Black—has four lobbyists. […]

You may remember J&J Gaming from Phil Berger‘s ill-fated ambitions to plant casinos all over our fair state.