Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Steve Flowers: Inside The Statehouse: A losing bet

  Last month’s bingo gambling trial ended as expected. All six of the defendants were found not guilty by a Montgomery federal jury. The first trial lasted almost the entire summer of 2011. Federal prosecutors put on elaborate testimony and tapes and brought 138 charges. The jury in that case found no validity in 99 of those counts against nine original defendants. Even in the face of this humiliating defeat, where they spent over $30 million and got no convictions, they astonishingly sought a second trial. The second jury, which mirrored the first one demographically found the remaining six defendants not guilty on the 27 remaining counts.

  The six, second trial defendants consisted of VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor, lobbyist Tom Coker, State Senator Harri Anne Smith (I-Slocomb), former casino spokesman Jay Walker; former State Senator Larry Means (D-Attalla), and former State Senator Jim Preuitt (R-Talladega). The prosecution based their case around a conspiracy theory that bribes were made for votes on a gambling bill before the legislature in 2010. That bill would have allowed a referendum on electronic bingo and allowed the Alabama owned casinos to operate on the same playing field as the Indian casinos.

  The proposed legislation came on the heels of raids on the Alabama facilities by a task force created by then Gov. Bob Riley. The bill was introduced to clarify the bingo laws in the state and set forth regulatory standards, taxation and locations. During the debate, Riley continued his efforts by lobbying intensely against the 2010 measure. The bill passed the Senate on a close vote. However, just prior to a vote in the House it was revealed that the FBI was investigating the voting of House and Senate members on the legislation. Not surprisingly, the bill failed to win approval in the House.

  The winner in the entire scenario has been the Indian casinos. Casinos operated by the Poarch Creek Indians have operated uninterrupted and without any competition for over two years. They fall under federal, not state, jurisdiction. They also pay no state or local taxes. These casinos grew 61% in 2010 according to the annual gaming industry reports that were recently released. Their profits have grown by tens of millions of dollars due to the closing of their state regulated competitors.

  The losers in the case, of course, are the defendants who were the subject of an obviously politically motivated prosecution. The defendants emerged from the courtroom with joy and relief. They were glad to have been exonerated. However, they paid a heavy price for their freedom. The defendants spent two years of their lives and most of their financial resources winning their exoneration. Four of the six persecuted people are over 70 years old and two of the four have had their retirement security ruined. Their legal defense costs were staggering. They were defended by the best legal talent in the state.

  The strain and stress that these folks endured was seen in their faces. Probably the worst of the scene was the toll it took on the spouses of those being tried. They will never be able to be made whole for what they endured.

  The political arena is a tough place. Politicians have to be willing and able to withstand the slings and arrows of battle. However, the specter of political prosecution is beyond the call of duty. It is something that is wrong politically and morally. It was wrong in this case. It was wrong in Don Siegelman’s case and it was wrong in Guy Hunt’s case.

  Unfortunately, because of politically motivated prosecutors two out of five of our last governors have been prosecuted on very slim and dubious evidence of wrongdoing. There are rumors to the effect that a third governor, Bob Riley, is the subject of a grand jury investigation in Montgomery County surrounding this same gambling issue. There is an old saying that what goes around comes around.

  Riley may have crossed the wrong fellow when he did the bidding for the Indian casinos. Milton McGregor is a person you want as a friend. He has a legion of fiercely loyal friends. It was apparent during the trials. He is also someone you do not want as an enemy. There is a Machiavellian admonition often referred to in British politics which is very apropos, “If you attempt to slay the king, make sure you kill him.” You may not have heard the last of this bingo gambling saga.

  See you next week.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in over 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at

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