published Saturday, August 13th, 2011

Even with no convictions, Alabama casinos don’t win

By PHILLIP RAWLS

Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The owner of what was once one of the largest gambling venues in the U.S. walked free in Alabama after a federal jury didn’t convict anyone in a closely watched trial accusing politicians of taking bribes to legalize gambling.

That doesn’t mean Milton McGregor and his huge VictoryLand casino is back in business. He could still face a retrial on some charges. And the political climate that helped shut down his and other private casinos won’t change soon, experts and state leaders say.

Meanwhile, the federally controlled American Indian gambling halls that have soaked up their business are here to stay.

“The Indian casinos would be seen as the winners because they continue to have a monopoly as far as casino gambling in Alabama,” said William Stewart, retired chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama.

Legislative leaders said Friday they don’t see the new Republican-controlled Legislature passing any bills to reopen privately owned casinos.

“I don’t think gambling will be an issue that even will be discussed” in the next legislative session, said Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard.

Privately run casinos filled with electronic bingo games similar to Vegas-style slots competed with three Indian casinos until last year, when Republican Gov. Bob Riley used a task force to shut them down. He believed the bingo games violated state law.

The private casino owners saw Indian casinos filled to capacity with their former customers, and they tried to pass legislation to bring back their highly profitable games.

They didn’t realize the FBI was tapping casino owners’ phones and getting three Republican legislators to record meetings and phone calls. The FBI said casino owners and their lobbyists offered millions in campaign contributions, fundraising concerts by country music stars, free polling and $1 million-a-year jobs for votes.

That resulted in the two-month-long trial of McGregor, four current and former senators and four others on charges accusing them of buying and selling votes.

The trial ended Thursday with the jury returning not guilty verdicts on three-fourths of the charges, including completely clearing Sen. Quinton Ross and VictoryLand lobbyist Bob Geddie. The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on 33 counts, which could lead to a new trial for the seven remaining defendants, including McGregor, Sen. Harri Anne Smith and former Sens. Larry Means and Jim Preuitt.

Casino owners tried without success to pass the bill last year when Democrats still controlled the Legislature. Opposition came primarily from Republicans, who won a two-thirds majority in the November election.

Del Marsh, the Senate’s Republican president pro tem, said most Republicans have never backed an expansion of gambling in Alabama.

“I don’t see the trial outcome changing the attitude of the leadership,” he said.

Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard was more emphatic. “I don’t think gambling will be an issue that even will be discussed,” he said.

VictoryLand in Shorter, 15 miles east of Montgomery on Interstate 85, was once one of America’s largest gambling halls with 6,000 electronic bingo machines. Today, its luxury hotel, giant casino, high-end restaurants and dog track are all closed. All that remains open is one small part of the complex showing simulcast dog and horse races.

At trial, prosecutors could not prove to the jury that McGregor ever participated in any bribes, even though another casino owner and his two lobbyists pleaded guilty and testified against him.

Prosecutors made no public comments after the trial about why they thought they got no convictions or whether they will pursue all remaining charges in a new trial.

Prosecutors built their case around recorded phone calls and meetings. Those tapes contained salty language and embarrassing racial comments recorded while politicians, lobbyists and casino owners discussed campaign contribution and political strategy in the frankest of terms.

In the view of a former legislator who represented Shorter and helped VictoryLand grow, the recordings were the undoing of the government’s case because no one was ever recorded trading a yes vote for a stash of cash.

“There was no smoking gun on the tapes,” former Rep. Johnny Ford said.

John Carroll, a former federal magistrate judge who’s now dean of the law school at Samford University, said the prosecution’s case was complex to present with nine defendants facing multiple charges and the jury had to wade through eight weeks of sometimes disjointed testimony presented by the prosecution.

He said the prosecution lost momentum early in the trial during testimony because one of the informant legislators, Sen. Scott Beason, was caught on one of his own tapes referring to customers of a gambling hall in a predominantly black counties as “aborigines.” Beason also recorded himself talking to Republican colleagues about how passage of the bill could hurt Republicans because the bill wouldn’t take effect unless approved by voters in the November election. He argued having the issue on the ballot would bring out more black voters, who traditionally favor Democratic candidates.

“It was an embarrassment,” Carroll said.

But he said when there’s a retrial, “the government now knows where all the bad parts of their case are.”

Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who briefly represented the casino owner who pleaded guilty in the case, recalled that the Justice Department had a news conference in Washington rather than Alabama to announce the arrests last year and accused the defendants of participating in a “full-scale” bribery scheme “astonishing in scope.”

Then after all the big talk, they’d didn’t get a conviction on any of the 124 charges.

“The government hoisted its flag and walked away with nothing,” he said. “It was a disaster for them.”

The former prosecutor said jurors know that politicians have to raise money to run for office, and it’s difficult for prosecutors to explain when a conversation about legislation and campaign contributions crosses the line into bribery. “It is not a black-and-white issue of where that line is,” he said.

Retired political science professor Glen Browder, who served in the Alabama Legislature and Congress, said Alabama citizens were the losers in the trial because the tapes and testimony gave them a behind-the-scenes look at government that’s likely to increase public cynicism.

“The citizens of Alabama probably feel a little dirtier having witnessed this,” Browder said.

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