Regardless of how these prosecutions work out, we can confidently predict this episode will almost certainly give the state a black eye.
The Justice Department’s 65-page indictment quotes extensively from what are presumably audio recordings of conversations among lawmakers and others. The transcripts from those calls included in the indictment are a shameful display, strongly hinting that, at least in some quarters, public policy is for sale to the highest bidder in Alabama.
Prominent among those charged were VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor, Country Crossing casino developer Ronnie Gilley of Dothan and four senators — Jim Preuitt, R-Talladega, Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, Larry Means, D-Attalla, and Harri Anne Smith, I-Slocomb. The remaining indictments were filed against lobbyists (Tom Coker and Bob Geddie and Jarrod Massey), a public relations executive with Country Crossing (Jay Walker) and a legislative staff attorney (Ray Crosby).
A Justice Department spokesman described the alleged efforts to buy gambling-friendly legislation as a “corrupt network of legislators, business interests and lobbyists” engaging in a “wide-ranging conspiracy.” The effect, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department said, was “astonishing in scope.” It had better be, given the charges’ proximity to Election Day, a time when prosecutors are usually wary of influencing votes.
Let us firmly state that the charges here are merely that at this point, mere allegations of wrongdoing. Guilt or innocence will be decided in a federal courtroom, and until then all suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty.
Prosecutors allege McGregor, Gilley and their surrogates conspired to “provide and offer to provide campaign contributions, campaign appearances by country music celebrities, political polls, media buys, fundraising assistance, offers to pay money to opposition candidates in return for their withdrawal from races, and other things of value, to incumbent legislators and candidates for election to the Legislature … in return for supporting” electronic bingo bills in the 2010 session of the Legislature.
In other words, what too often passes for business as usual in Montgomery.
Over the past three decades, Alabama has seen its share of public corruption.
In the late 1990s, a couple of shady operators representing Mississippi casinos laundered anti-lottery money across the state line via Christian conservatives opposed to gambling in Alabama.
State Rep. Sue Schmitz, D-Toney, is serving time for her role in the state two-year college corruption machine.
State Sen. E.B. McClain, D-Brighton, was sentenced to 70 months after being convicted on money laundering, mail fraud, bribery and conspiracy charges.
Earlier this year, ex-Birmingham mayor Larry Langford was sentenced to 15 years following convictions on bribery, fraud, money laundering and conspiracy charges. (Guess where Langford won $1.5 million playing bingo from 2006 to 2008? McGregor’s VictoryLand.)
And the governor’s office hasn’t been spared. Of the four men elected to four-year terms in Alabama since the end of the George Wallace era in the mid-1980s, three of their administrations were tainted by scandal; the exception is Bob Riley, whose term ends in three months.
So, if some or all of the 11 indicted in this latest episode are convicted, it won’t be the first time the state was rocked by a public-corruption scandal.
What would be different this time, regardless of the outcome of the Justice Department charges, is if the state gets serious about ethics reform.
That means not allowing donors to mask their identity in the state’s legalized campaign-finance shell game.
That means strengthening the state’s Ethics Commission.
That means prohibiting taxpayer-funded slush funds that lawmakers employ to win friends in the home district.
All of the above depends on Alabama voters holding Montgomery accountable. Ethics reform now must be the rallying cry.