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Public corruption retrial over ‘bingo’-related vote-buying scheme to begin Jan. 30comment (0)

January 19, 2012

By Sondra Washington

Public corruption retrial over ‘bingo’-related vote-buying scheme to begin Jan. 30

It may be months before defendants in Alabama’s public corruption retrial know whether they will be convicted of a 2010 vote-buying scheme at the Statehouse. Still that has not stopped at least one of the state’s largest casinos from planning to reopen with the same slot machine-style gambling devices at the heart of this trial once the court battle concludes.

The first trial began June 10, 2011, in Montgomery and ended two months later with no convictions for the original defendants. Country Crossing developer Ronnie Gilley and lobbyists Jarrod Massey and Jennifer Pouncy pleaded guilty prior to the trial.

Lobbyist Bob Geddie and Sen. Quinton T. Ross Jr., D-Montgomery, were acquitted of all charges, while VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor; Sen. Harri Anne Smith, I-Slocomb; former Sen. Jim Preuitt, R-Talladega; former Sen. Larry Means, D-Attalla; former legislative analyst Ray Crosby; lobbyist Tom Coker; and Country Crossing spokesman Jay Walker saw mistrials declared when the jury could not reach verdicts on many of the charges.

A retrial of the seven remaining defendants is set to begin Jan. 30, and at least one VictoryLand executive hopes it ends in acquittals.

When an interviewer for Big Jackpot Betting asked Jim Gartland, general manager of VictoryLand, how quickly the casino could reopen, he gave this response:

“Well, you know, we’ve lost a ton, ton of money and so forth during all this mess, so I think you’ll see we’ll try and get our machines, our electronic bingo and our casino end back open. It’s going to take a little bit of time, and I’m just guessing Randy (interviewer), I can’t say for certain, but I would think once we get all this behind us, it might be three months before we get some going. … I’m just very optimistic it will happen again, and I think it will happen obviously before this year is out.”

Eric Johnston, director of Citizens for a Better Alabama, believes his prediction.

“If they get out of this (trial), they will definitely try to get back open,” Johnston said.

“I would think it would be sooner, and then they would test (Attorney General) Luther Strange. … They could make a few million dollars in a few weeks.”

After hearing Gartland’s interview, Joe Godfrey, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), said, “We are counting on Attorney General Luther Strange to uphold the laws of Alabama, and we believe that these are illegal slot machines and should not be allowed to appear in Alabama again.

Also ALCAP supports Sen. Bryan Taylor’s bill that he is introducing in this 2012 (legislative) session to increase the penalties associated with possession of these illegal slot machines.”

Despite what casino operators plan to do in the future, Johnston encourages others not to lose sight of how the public corruption trial began.

“I believe that they (the defendants) are guilty as charged,” he said. “(Former Gov.) Bob Riley’s Task Force (on Illegal Gambling) was putting them out of business. They had operated for years and expanded their gambling for years. … They had to get a law passed. … They were desperate. Their backs were against the wall, and they thought they had to do whatever it [took] to change the law.”

Johnston said the bill they were proposing would have created a gambling monopoly in the state without any legal parameters.

“Nothing they would do could be illegal,” he noted.

“They would have been exempted from the Alabama Constitution’s anti-gambling provision, from all criminal laws and all Alabama Supreme Court opinions.”

Already U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson has refused to grant acquittals to the remaining defendants before the retrial or divide the case into three separate trials, which federal prosecutors said would speed up the case and help jurors deal with potentially lengthy and confusing information, according to The Birmingham News.

Riley and his public safety director, Chris Murphy, have been subpoenaed in the retrial, according to the News.

“We certainly want to see justice done,” Godfrey said. “We hope that the judge and jury and everybody involved will listen to the arguments and make a fair and just decision. In the first trial, there was no question substantial amounts of money had changed hands and pressure was indeed applied to senators to vote in favor of the gambling bill, and that is something that must never be forgotten.”

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