It's been more than four years since Georgia authorities raided Captain Jack's Crab Shack and arrested the elderly owners, Ronnie and Lee Bartlett, on commercial gambling violations. Since then, the couple has lost their businesses, declared bankruptcy, and Ronnie Bartlett, 75, has been wearing an ankle bracelet for the past two years.
Prosecutors insist the Bartletts operated illegal video gambling machines out of their Macon-area restaurant and gave illicit cash payouts to winners. However, the Bartletts' attorneys say prosecutors have been shaking down businesses like Captain Jack's Crab Shack for more than a decade by hiring private attorneys who specialize in civil asset forfeiture to go after their money.
Now the Georgia Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the crab shack was a den of iniquity or a legitimate business under state law. Its decision could vindicate prosecutors who've targeted gambling in the Peach State, or it could throw into question the legitimacy of dozens of similar cases, many of which involved the seizure of millions of dollars.
In the meantime, one of the Bartletts' lawyers says the elderly couple has been impoverished.
"Their lives have been devastated," says attorney Chris Anulewicz. "Their businesses have been taken away. They've basically been made paupers. And then my poor guy has had to wear an ankle bracelet for two years. He's confined to his home county, pending this decision by the Georgia Supreme Court."
The Bartlett case, besides having huge implications for the couple, is also a proxy in a larger fight in Georgia between local prosecutors and operators of "coin-operated amusement machines."
Commercial gambling is illegal in Georgia, but there is an exception for video gaming machines that include an element of skill. Usually they are like slot machines but require players to press buttons to create winning combinations. Cash payouts are forbidden; winners must instead be given in-store credit or merchandise. There are roughly 22,000 such machines scattered through Georgia in gas stations, convenience stores, laundromats, and other businesses. Each one is licensed by the Georgia Lottery Commission and connected to a system that monitors money going in and out.
In dozens of cases similar to the Bartletts', Georgia district attorneys have gone after small businesses owners and companies that lease the machines, accusing them of underreporting revenues, money laundering, and giving illegal cash payouts to players.
In June, a multi-jurisdiction investigation led to a $14 million civil forfeiture settlement against a gambling machine company that owned machines in 130 different storefronts. In 2014, Bibb County authorities seized 10 gas stations and convenience stores in a coordinated gambling raid. In 2015, Bibb County prosecutors reached a $1.6 million settlement with another gaming company.
The Bartletts' current legal trouble started in May 2015, when law enforcement agents raided Captain Jack's Crab Shack. Michael Lambros, a special assistant district attorney hired by Macon District Attorney David Cooke, filed a civil forfeiture complaint against the Bartletts under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, seizing their businesses along with $24,000 in cash, and freezing their bank accounts.
Most defendants in these cases opt to settle, forfeiting hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars to avoid criminal prosecution.
"The incentive to settle is enormous," says Paul Oleand, a Georgia attorney who said he's represented about a dozen defendants, most of them South Asian immigrants, who had their stores seized and bank accounts frozen in gambling machine cases prosecuted by Lambros.
"I had a client one time who had an investment account that he was using to pay for his daughter's tuition to go to Georgia State, and they froze that," Oleand says. "It's almost impossible for ordinary folks to be able to fund their defense and pay mortgage and make payroll and everything else when their assets are frozen."
All of Oleand's clients settled, but the Bartletts fought back. In 2016 they filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that Cooke and Lambros directed the raid on their restaurant, seized their cash and businesses, froze their bank accounts, and forced them into bankruptcy, despite knowing the machines in Captain Jack's Crab Shack were state-licensed and perfectly legal.
The suit claims prosecutors knew when they secured a warrant for the raid that there was no evidence to support allegations of money laundering or under-reporting winnings, and they knew that any cash payouts "were simply a misdemeanor under Georgia law that could not support a Georgia RICO indictment or claim."
The Bartlett's lawsuit alleges that Lambros and Cooke "typically extort a resolution with the location owners that allow [them] to keep a portion of the money improperly seized—all while threatening location owners with criminal prosecution."
Two months after the Bartletts' filed their lawsuit—and 17 months after the initial raid—a grand jury indicted Ronnie and Lee Bartlett on charges of racketeering, commercial gambling, possession of a gambling device, and keeping a gambling place. The criminal case put the Bartletts' civil lawsuit on hold, and it's been in limbo ever since. The Bartletts claim Cooke's office filed criminal charges against them in retaliation for their civil suit.
"Only after Mr. Bartlett asserted his constitutional rights in federal court did the district attorney whom he sued, indict Mr. Bartlett and his wife," Anulewicz says. "Mr. Bartlett had no choice but to fight the charges against him—because he had done nothing wrong and he did not want the same thing done to others."
The appeals court rejected the prosecution's argument that, by giving cash payouts to winners, the crab shack had essentially converted its games into illegal gambling machines. It found the games were bona fide coin-operated amusement machines, inspected and licensed by the Georgia Lottery Commission. Georgia law explicitly exempts such machines from the state's criminal code regarding commercial gambling, and lists cash payouts as a mere misdemeanor. As such, the court ruled the evidence against Bartlett "was insufficient as a matter of law" to support his felony convictions.
Cooke disagrees and has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. "Really it's very plain," he says. "You can't run a slot machine in Georgia. A lot of people are standing on their heads to look at this in a skewed kind of way."
Cooke has called the machines "a cancer on our society." He says they're predatory and addictive. He also says the gaming machines are tied to bribery, tax evasion, money laundering, and illegal cash payouts. So far, investigations by Cooke's office have also snared a Bibb County sheriff's deputy and a Georgia Department of Revenue agent who was allegedly on the take.
"It looks right now like that's the tip of the iceberg," Cooke says. "There's so much money that flows through that the corruption angle is huge. When you have this much illegal cash flowing through any business, the only way to operate is to bribe public officials."
The Georgia Amusement and Music Operators Association (GAMOA), a trade group representing the industry, directed a request for comment back to the Bartletts' attorney, Anulewicz.
What Georgia prosecutors and GAMOA, which is paying much of the Bartletts' legal costs, are fighting over is not just the technical definition of a coin-operated amusement machine, but an enormous amount of money flowing out of Georgians' pockets and through the industry. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that these machines rake in an estimated $200 to $600 million a year in revenues. Court records show Captain Jack's Crab Shack netted $398,176 in profits from its machines between 2013 and 2015.
Both sides in the Bartletts' bitter and long-running legal dispute—which in addition to the Georgia court system has wound through federal bankruptcy court and a U.S. District Court in Atlanta—accuse each other of being waist-deep in corruption.
"Defendant Lambros is paid through the improperly seized funds—in violation of Georgia law," the lawsuit continued. "Defendant Cooke creates an unaccountable fund with the revenues generated from these improper seizures, minus the monies paid to Defendant Lambros …"
In 2016, Cooke announced his office would begin posting asset forfeiture data on its website to show how much forfeiture revenue it was bringing in, as well as what it was spending that money on.
"I've never been a big forfeiture guy," Cooke says of his career as a prosecutor. "I've never been a big drug prosecution guy. I have always been, for my entire career, a violent crime guy."
Cooke's career has been heavily focused on sex crimes and crimes against children. He was one of several Georgia prosecutors who said they would not prosecute women who violated the state's controversial anti-abortion "heartbeat" bill passed earlier this year, and his office recently announced it was expanding a diversion program to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system. (When Reason spoke with him, he was at a conference on juvenile justice reform.)
Cooke says he began taking on gaming machine cases after hearing too many stories from people whose lives had been ruined by gambling addiction. And if he was only interested in seizing money, he argues, why would he be urging the state legislature to completely outlaw gambling machines, cutting off his most steady source of forfeiture revenue?
But for private attorneys hired by Cooke and other local prosecutors to pursue forfeitures like the one against the Bartletts, these cases have been a very lucrative venture.
When local Georgia prosecutors wants to pursue a forfeiture case against a gambling machine operator or location under Georgia's racketeering statutes, they often turn to the law firm of Michael Lambros and his partner, Andrew Ekonomou. Lambros' firm has carved out a niche pursuing forfeiture cases as contracted "special assistant district attorneys." (WRAL reported last year that Ekonomou had also been brought onto President Donald Trump's legal team.)
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors can seize assets suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner has not been convicted or even charged with a crime. That's why Lambros, acting under the authority of Cooke's office, could seize the Bartletts' businesses more than year before the couple was ever charged with a crime.
When Lambros and Ekonomou first began taking on forfeiture cases against gaming machine operators, local district attorneys guaranteed them a cut of the assets seized—up to one-third of the proceeds in some cases.
In 2012, a Georgia appeals court ruled that such overt "contingency fees" violated state public policy and called the practice "repugnant" to the principle that prosecutors should avoid the appearance of financial interest in cases.
Anulewicz claims that Lambros now simply works without written contracts and still receives lump sums in exchange for successful forfeiture prosecutions.
In an unsuccessful motion attempting to get Lambros thrown off the Bartletts' case, Anulewicz cited public records showing that between April 2016 and August 2017, Lambros was paid $710,000 after he secured more than $3.3 million in asset seizures in Cooke's jurisdiction—far more than his hourly rate as a special prosecutor, Anulewicz said.
Cooke says hiring special prosecutors makes sense because they have expertise in complicated forfeiture cases, and it frees up his regular prosecutors to pursue other, more serious cases.
Earlier this year, Lambros and Ekonomou were hit with another lawsuit by Noel Chua with similar allegations as the Bartletts'. Chua is a former Georgia doctor who was convicted of felony murder in 2007 for giving his housemate painkillers that contributed to his fatal overdose. In addition to charging Chua with felony murder and violations of Georgia's drug laws, the Brunswick district attorney hired Lambros as as special prosecutor to pursue a RICO forfeiture case against Chua's considerable assets. Lambros was also the court-appointed receiver for those seized assets.
Following Chua's conviction, and after a two-and-half-year public records battle, Chua's attorney uncovered a memo in the prosecution's files from his trial that advised the lead attorney to avoid impaneling any black jurors. Racial discrimination in jury selection is unconstitutional. When the memo came to light, prosecutors struck a plea deal with Chua, who was released on time served in 2017.
However, Chua's lawsuit alleges that by the time he got out of prison, Lambros' firm had stripped him of nearly $2 million, of which only about $14,000 was remaining.
It's unclear what the Bartletts will have left if they prevail at the Georgia Supreme Court, besides Ronnie Bartlett's freedom. Their restaurants have all been shuttered for years now. Even that won't be the end of their legal odyssey, though. The Bartletts' civil suit will likely recommence either way, and the fight over a Macon-area crab shack will continue in federal court.
Lambros did not return requests for comment for this story.