Alabama Bingo Scandal Brought On By Loose Laws, Say Critics
By DAN LIEBERMAN
The arrest of four Alabama state legislators and three lobbyists has exposed what has long been a too cozy relationship between the two groups, say critics.
The indictment handed down earlier this month alleges that Alabama legislators and lobbyists broke the law by trading votes for cash and other perks in order to pass pro-gambling legislation. But what is actually permitted under Alabama law is also shocking, according to good government advocates, and a symptom of a larger national problem.
Alabama allows lobbyists to spend up to $250 a day on an individual legislator without disclosure – or more than $90,000 a year, an amount that Ellen Miller of government watchdog The Sunlight Foundation calls “outrageous.”
“That’s a lot of money,” said Miller, executive director of the DC-based group. “It has to be one of the worse practices that I’ve heard of at the state level.”
Two months before the arrests in Alabama, ABC News found four Alabama lawmakers and a gambling lobbyist enjoying a round of golf together at a posh Kentucky golf course.
Apparently, some members of the group playing at Persimmon Ridge did not want to be found. Alabama State Rep. Artis McCampbell, a Demopolis Democrat, responded to questions from an ABC News crew by brandishing his golf club. “Look, if you don’t want me to take this to you, then leave!” he said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures annual convention was in full swing in Louisville, Kentucky, on the afternoon of July 27, with a well-attended session called “How Good Is Your Legislature?” But at 3 p.m. ABC News found Alabama gaming lobbyist Greg Jones, Rep. McCampbell and three other Alabama lawmakers more than 20 miles away on the links.
Though none of the lawmakers with Jones would turn out to be among those arrested, all were supporters of the gambling bill at the heart of the current Alabama corruption scandal. Three of the four had also received tens of thousands in campaign donations from Greenetrack, a gaming client of Jones’.
The Persimmon Ridge golf group was listed under Jones’ name, but Jones did not return calls from ABC News asking him to confirm that he paid the greens fees. Asked who had paid for the outing, one golfer, Republican State Rep. Harry Shiver, told ABC News, “They paid for some of it, I paid for the rest of it.”
Shiver and the other three legislators did not respond to subsequent requests from ABC for more information about who had footed the bill. But even if Jones did pay, the Persimmon Ridge outing was perfectly legal under state law. Eighteen holes of golf at Persimmon Ridge costs from $70 to $80 per person, far below the $250 cap allowed in Alabama.
Lax Lobbying Rules in Alabama
Lobbying rules in Alabama are some of the most lenient in the nation. Jim Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, has long advocated for a reduction in the spending limit. He calls the existing rules “outlandish … It’s far above the norm for hospitality and entertainment around the country.”
Other states have far stricter rules on gift expenditures. Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and South Carolina are considered “no cup of coffee states,” where lobbyists cannot give a legislator anything — not even a cup of Joe. In Arizona, lobbyists can spend just $10 a year on a single legislator before disclosure is required. In California, it’s $10 a month. Some states take a more moderate stance, allowing lobbyists to spend $50 to 100 annually before requiring disclosure.
While Alabama may now be paying the price for loose laws with an influence peddling scandal, regulations are permissive in many states. Kansas has a $40 a year limit on gifts, but lobbyists can spend as much as they want on lawmakers in the form of recreation, food and beverages without disclosure. In South Dakota, there are no restrictions at all.
And the legislators’ choice of a round of golf over an ethics seminar is emblematic of the challenges facing would-be reformers. Often poorly paid or part time, lawmakers are outnumbered in state capitals by lobbyists — six or seven to one.
In Alabama, Republican Governor Bob Riley has pushed for ethics reform since he took office in 2003, but complained that his efforts and those of several watchdog groups hit an immovable obstacle each year in the legislature.
“It’s the leadership. They have no incentive to pass ethics reform,” said Chris Pritchett, a senior policy analyst at the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based outside of Birmingham. “There is such a culture of corruption in Alabama that people believe it’s beyond repair.”
‘There Is So Much Money Involved’
The indictment handed down earlier this month alleges that Alabama legislators and lobbyists traded votes for cash and other perks in order to pass electronic bingo legislation. Gambling is against state law, but some counties allow an exception for bingo, and gaming interests responded by creating a form of electronic bingo virtually indistinguishable from slot machines. The gambling industry has tried year after year to make gambling legal statewide. One of the lobbyists indicted allegedly offered to provide campaign contributions “until the damn cows came home” in exchange for a legislator’s pro-gambling vote.
The volume of money spread around meant that two of the golfers at Persimmon Ridge, Democratic state Reps. Bobby Singleton and Oliver Robinson, counted gaming companies and lobbies as their first and second largest campaign contributors from 2006 through 2010, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Greenetrack gave Singleton $97,500 and Robinson $25,000 in that time period. The gaming lobbyist Bob Geddie, whose Fine Geddie & Associates gave $52,500 to Singleton and $26,500 to Robinson, was among the lobbyists arrested earlier this month in connection with alleged vote buying involving other lawmakers.
“There is so much money involved,” said Gov. Riley, “and there were so many people that had been hired — all of the lobbyists here.” Riley, a longtime foe of gambling, said it was very difficult to protect the anti-gambling votes in the legislature from the influence of the gaming lobby’s money.
“You have to remember,” said Riley, “our legislators here do not have a paid staff. Most of these people are pharmacists or doctors or insurance agents that come here.”
“A lobbyist really can perform a useful function [and] if you’re going to be in politics you’re going to have to raise money. … It’s when you get to the point that you offer a cash reward for any particular vote, then there’s no one who can defend that.”
All 11 people arrested to date in the Alabama investigation have pleaded not guilty.