Coin operated amusement machines, some that pay out under the table, are a staple all over Georgia. 
Photo: AJC file photo
Photo: AJC file photo

Torpy at Large: Coin machines’ surest bet? A wealth of legal woes

It’s a bitter legal battle being waged in criminal and civil cases with lots of money at stake and loaded terms being tossed around: Extortion. Conspiracy. Sham. Retaliation. Corruption.

That’s not what the prosecutors are saying. That’s what attorneys are saying about the district attorney, David Cooke of Macon.

In fact, it’s Mike Bowers, Georgia’s longtime attorney general turned silk-stocking lawyer, saying most of those things about Cooke.

Meanwhile, Cooke calls Bowers a shill for the gambling industry. But we’ll get to that.

This story starts at a joint called Captain Jack’s Crab Shack, an I-75 off-ramp eatery south of Macon. The name conjures up visions of deep-fried grouper, but prosecutors contend its daily special was illegal gambling.

In May 2015, local authorities raided Captain Jack’s and seized nine “coin operated amusement machines” (COAMs), as well as the assets of business owners Ronnie and Lee Bartlett, a couple well into their 70s. COAMs are those video contraptions sitting in gas stations, restaurants and laundromats across the state.

During the past four years, the Bartletts’ cases have meandered from Superior Court in Peach County to federal bankruptcy court in Macon to U.S. District Court in Atlanta, and most recently to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Lee and Ronnie Bartlett were financially ruined after a gambling raid on their restaurant in Byron, Ga. Prosecutors said they had run a gambling operation for years. An appeals court tossed his conviction. Photo from the Bartletts
Photo: Bartlett family photo

Last week, the appeals court tossed the felony gambling convictions against Ronnie Bartlett, 75, who was found guilty last year of paying out cash to patrons at Captain Jack’s. The appeals court said prosecutors did not prove that Bartlett had tampered with the legal “amusement” machines to turn them into illegal gambling devices. Also, and more importantly, paying out cash on legit machines (his were sanctioned by the Georgia Lottery, which gets a cut) is a no-no but not a felony no-no.

Paying out cash to winners is a misdemeanor if the machines are lottery sanctioned. So Bartlett, who’d been sentenced to two years in prison and three on probation, will walk — that is, if he wins in the state Supreme Court. DA Cooke, you see, says he intends to appeal the case. He says Bartlett has run a gambling operation for decades.

Until then, Bartlett, who is now broke, will continue to wear an ankle monitor. And Captain Jack’s is no more.

Captain Jack’s Crab Shack, which has been shut down. (Facebook)
Photo: Facebook

Bowers and his partner Chris Anulewicz — who represent Bartlett — are accusing Cooke of squeezing the owners of businesses, allowing them to escape criminal charges if they agree to large asset forfeitures, some of which go back to the DA’s office.

The transcript of a 2016 deposition shows the depth of the rancor in the case. At the time, Bowers was being questioned by Atlanta lawyer Michael Lambros, who the DA hires to go after these businesses.

Lambros was asking why GAMOA (the Georgia Amusement and Music Operators Association) stepped forward to pay Bartlett’s legal fees to Bowers and Anulewicz.

“Because they thought what you and Mr. Cooke were doing was totally illegal,” Bowers spat back. “It was completely bullying, as I found to be perfectly true, and I will tell you based on 42 years of legal experience dealing with corruption, I have never seen anything like it, what you and Mr. Cooke are doing —”

This caused the judge to interrupt, “OK, Mr. Bowers, Mr. Bowers. Whoa, you’re going a little far now.”

For three years, Bowers and Anulewicz have argued that it’s DAs like Cooke who are going too far by using the law to “extort” millions of dollars in forfeitures. Large sums of this cash, they point out, go to attorney Lambros and also to Cooke’s office. They allege that Cooke spends these “unaccountable funds” in ways “he believes will garner him favor with his constituency.”

Atlanta lawyer Chris Anulewicz, who represents Ronnie Bartlett. (Balch & Bingham)
Photo: Balch & Bingham

“This is a shakedown scheme,” Anulewicz told me. “They have this huge cash cow. We were looking to bust their model up. If you or I did this, we’d be in prison. This is a RICO scheme all its own.”

Bartlett’s lawyers say he was indicted on criminal charges after refusing to pull a federal civil suit that accuses the district attorney of illegal prosecution.

DA Cooke, as you can imagine, isn’t having any of what Bowers and Anulewicz are serving.

Cooke said he has received complaints for years about illegal gambling, and about poor folks losing mortgage and grocery money on coin operated amusement machines.

Macon Circuit District Attorney David Cooke. 
Photo: Handout

“This is an industry that preys on people down to their last hope and last dollar,” said Cooke, calling the machines “the crack cocaine of gambling.”

Of Bowers’ comments, Cooke said, “Billions of dollars of gambling money can buy a lot of sincerity … it can buy a lot of lawyers and a lot of lies.”

“Amusement” machines have been around for decades, and paying out cash winnings on the sly has been an open secret for just as long. A few years ago, state legislators, in trying to figure out what to do with the explosion of such machines — and also bending to the gaming industry’s heavy lobby — connected COAMs to the Georgia Lottery, which gets up to 10 percent of the take.

They raised $58 million for HOPE scholarships and other programs last year through this netherworld.

There are more than 22,000 of these contraptions in the state. AJC file photo
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

There are 22,000 machines in Georgia and the lottery’s 14 inspectors are left scrambling, trying to monitor who is on the up and up — and who isn’t. Winners at such machines are allowed to get small prizes such as free replays, lottery tickets, or non-cash prizes such as store merchandise up to $5 per play. But no alcohol or tobacco!

However, the dirty secret is that many of these machines pay out cash on the side. Why else would anyone sit for hours pumping dollar after dollar into them?

It stands to reason that people won’t spend $100 in a sitting if all they’re going to win is credit for gas station Slim Jims and chips.

“These machines wouldn’t be everywhere if that’s all people got,” Cooke said.

In the meantime, the Bartletts’ cases will work their way through the courts. And people will keep pumping millions into machines.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.