Published: Tuesday, October 05, 2010, 5:30 AM
Updated: Tuesday, October 05, 2010, 12:48 PM
Charles J. Dean — The Birmingham News
Country Crossings owner Ronnie Gilley is led away in handcuffs by U.S. Marshals as they leave the the U.S. Marshals’ office for the federal courthouse. ( The Birmingham News / Joe Songer )
In one of the biggest investigations of corruption in the history of the Alabama State House, federal agents Monday arrested four state senators, several powerful lobbyists and Milton McGregor, who has dominated the world of Alabama gambling for a quarter century.
In all, 11 people were indicted in a broad vote-buying scheme in which federal prosecutors allege millions of dollars in campaign contributions, a $1 million-a-year job and election-year assistance were offered in exchange for critical yes votes on a gambling bill that went before legislators last spring.
Prosecutors said the casino owners, legislators and lobbyists formed a corrupt network to buy and sell votes in the Legislature. But some of the defendants called the indictment an overtly political move designed to influence the outcome of the Nov. 2 elections.
Announcing the indictments in a press conference in Washington, D.C., Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general of the Criminal Division, said: “The people of Alabama, like all our citizens, deserve to have representatives who act in the public’s interest, not for their own personal financial gain. Vote-buying, like the kind alleged in this indictment, corrodes the public’s faith in our democratic institutions and cannot go unpunished.”
In addition to McGregor, Country Crossing owner Ronnie Gilley was charged with trying to buy yes votes for a bill that could have allowed bingo casinos like his to continue operating.
Gilley’s lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham, said politics are behind the indictments.
“The Department of Justice killed the bill back when it was in the Legislature. Now 30 days before an election they hustle this indictment up,” Jones said.
McGregor lawyer Joe Espy of Montgomery said McGregor is innocent and he looks forward to proving it in court.
“We are supremely confident that a trial based on the truth will show that the government’s allegations are wrong and that Mr. McGregor is innocent,” Espy said.
The 39-count indictment charges that McGregor and Gilley conspired with some lawmakers and lobbyists to buy the votes of legislators on a bill that would have let voters go to the polls in November to decide whether to allow electronic bingo. The Senate passed the bill in March, but it died in the House after federal investigators told legislators about the corruption probe.
Sens. Jim Preuitt, a long time Talladega Democrat who switched over to the Republican Party this year, and Larry Means, an Etowah County Democrat, were two lawmakers McGregor and Gilley offered money for their yes votes, the indictment alleges.
One lobbyist who pleaded guilty last week to corruption charges said she offered Preuitt $2 million for his vote on the gambling legislation. Means was offered $100,000 for his vote by the same lobbyist, who said the offers were approved by fellow lobbyist Jarrod Massey. Massey’s biggest client is Gilley.
Both Preuitt and Means provided critical yes votes for the gambling bill that passed the Senate.
In a written statement issued late Monday, Means denied he had done anything wrong.
“The accusations against me are false and offend every value I hold dear,” Means said.
Massey, who also was indicted Monday, was named by Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, earlier this year as the lobbyist who told him he could arrange a $250,000 campaign contribution if Sanford supported a yes vote on gambling. Sanford voted no on the bill.
The indictments identify three unnamed lawmakers who were offered bribes in exchange for yes votes on gambling. Earlier this year, The News reported that three lawmakers — two House members and one senator — agreed to wear wires for the FBI.
The state senator who cooperated with prosecutors is Gardendale Republican Scott Beason. In the indictment, Beason is identified as legislator 2. The indictment spells out a series of offers made to Beason if he would vote yes on the gambling legislation.
The indictment details meetings Beason had with Gilley, Massey, McGregor and fellow Sen. Harri Anne Smith, who also was indicted Monday. The indictment contends it was made clear to Beason that, in exchange for a yes vote on gambling, supporters were ready to offer him a $1 million-a-year contract to do public relations work and even to help him gain a leadership position in the Legislature.
Beason voted no on the bill.
Reached by phone Monday, Beason said he could not comment now.
“I can’t confirm anything right now. I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the investigation,” Beason said.
Smith reacted strongly to her indictment.
“This is an outrage,” Smith said. “This is a nakedly political move, coordinated by prosecutors in cahoots with the governor’s office to deny the people of the Wiregrass their right to vote and their lawful representation.”
Also indicted Monday were lobbyists Bob Geddie and Tom Coker, both of whom are among Montgomery’s most influential lobbyists and both of whom count McGregor as a client.
Geddie released a prepared statement saying that he had committed no wrongdoing and was confident the charges against him would be proved false. Geddie also said he was taking a leave of absence from his lobbying firm, Fine Geddie & Associates.
Joseph Crosby, an analyst with the Legislative Reference Service, was indicted on charges he conspired with McGregor in the crafting of the gambling legislation. Prosecutors contend McGregor paid him $3,000 per month.
Monday afternoon, all 11 defendants were led into a Montgomery federal courtroom in shackles for their initial appearance in the case. All 11 were granted unsecured bonds and later released, including McGregor who as a condition of his bond has to wear a monitor.
Democrats were quick to dismiss the indictments as politics.
“It would seem to be very political in nature and if, in fact, they have been doing a 19-month investigation .¤.¤. . Why would they not wait three more weeks until after the elections if this wasn’t designed to influence the outcome of an election?” said state Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, who sponsored the gambling bill in the Senate.
Another powerful Senate Democrat echoed Bedford.
“Since this investigation has been going on for 19 months, I’m deeply bothered that it breaks 29 days before the election. That smacks of politics to me,” said Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma.
Breuer of the Justice Department was asked Monday about the political implication of the indictments and why they were announced so close to an election.
“In a case like this we had to go with where the facts and the law were and we had to make the decision at the appropriate time and that’s 100 percent what dictated the timing on this case irrespective of whether (an) election may or may not occur,” Breuer said. The indictments were handed down Friday but sealed until Monday.
DOJ policy does caution against bringing voter or election fraud charges close to an election, but gives no such guidance on public corruption cases.
The gambling issue has dominated the state’s politics for much of the past three years. At stake has been potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling profits and a seeming growing desire among Alabamians to vote on the issue.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Ron Sparks, has made legalizing and taxing gambling his signature issue in the campaign and his opponent, Republican Robert Bentley, while personally opposed to gambling, has supported a vote on the issue.
Asked during a Monday night forum whether the indictments mean Montgomery is corrupt, Sparks said, “Absolutely not,” adding that the indictments were not convictions. “These people will have their day in court,” Sparks said. “But it’s pretty suspicious that you drop indictments 28-29 days before an important election.”
McGregor’s, Gilley’s and the all of the state’s non-Indian bingo casinos closed earlier this year under threat of raids by the state Task Force on Illegal Gambling.
Kim Chandler and Mary Orndorff also contributed reporting to this story.
[For a complete copy of the indictments, click here.]