Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Bingo!, and Alabama goes to the dogs

11 charged in Alabama federal corruption case
The suspects are four Alabama state legislators; three lobbyists; two business owners and one of their employees; and an employee of the Alabama legislature, said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer and Assistant FBI Director Kevin Perkins.

According to the indictment, McGregor owned a controlling interest in Macon County Greyhound Park Inc., also known as Victoryland, in Macon County, Alabama, and Jefferson Country Racing Association in Jefferson County, Alabama, as well as ownership interest in other entertainment and gambling facilities in Alabama that offered or sought to offer electronic bingo gambling machines to the public.

The suspects were charged in connection with their alleged roles in a conspiracy to bribe and offer to bribe legislators for their votes and influence on proposed legislation, the federal officials said. The charges include conspiracy, federal program bribery, extortion, money laundering, honest services mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice and making a false statement, the Justice Department said.

Bob Riley calls gambling a cancer on Alabama
Gov. Bob Riley condemned gambling as a cancer that threatens the state’s economic vitality. “I think gambling is bad for Alabama. Nothing is more corrupting to the people than to have that money coming in to influence elections and legislation.”

He said he was “disappointed but not surprised” when the Department of Justice released an indictment Monday accusing a pair of casino magnates, four state senators and several lobbyists of a scheme to buy and sell votes for a bill that would have expanded gambling in Alabama.

Riley, who successfully opposed the bill and later called it “the most corrupt legislation ever considered” by the state Senate, has waged an aggressive and controversial war on gambling for nearly two years. The second-term Republican has deployed state troopers to seize electronic bingo devices that look and play like slot machines — which are illegal in Alabama — and shut down the casinos that housed them.

Riley, who is term-limited from seeking re-election and will leave office in January, said he had not read the indictment and emphasized that the investigation was being conducted independently of his administration. But, he said, proceeds from illegal gambling contributed to a culture of corruption in Montgomery.

“Anytime you have organized gambling that has that amount of money and was using it in the way that evidently they did, it should be frightening to everyone,” Riley said. “The potential for corruption is enhanced by the sheer amount of money that was being used all over the state.”

Alabama officials snared in FBI corruption raid
The indictment was met with deep suspicion in some quarters. Proponents of legalized gambling, most of whom are Democrats, said they saw behind the probe the political machinations of gambling opponents, including Riley, a Republican. That the charges came within a month of the November elections also troubled some.

"Anyone who loves democracy and freedom should be concerned with the timing of these indictments," said Ron Sparks, the Democratic candidate for governor. "Waiting to announce indictments after the election would have had no impact on the cause of justice."

Electronic bingo games, which have flashing lights and sound effects similar to slot machines, were a rapidly growing business until Riley formed a task force to shut them down.

The task force raided bingo halls, seized machines and won court battles that resulted in the closure of all privately operated electronic bingo casinos. Three operated by the Poarch Creek Indians, who aren't under state control, have thrived amid the shutdowns.

State legislators tried to pass bills in 2009 and 2010 to allow the games to operate, but both bills failed. Behind the scenes, federal prosecutors said, operators of the two largest private casinos and teams of lobbyists were offering millions in campaign contributions, benefit concerts by country music artists, free polling and hidden $1 million-a-year payments for votes.

Ronnie Gilley, developer of the Country Crossing casino in Dothan, and Milton McGregor, owner of VictoryLand casino in Shorter and a financial backer of Country Crossing, were indicted along with three of their lobbyists and state Sens. Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb, James Preuitt of Talladega, Larry Means of Attalla and Quinton Ross Jr. of Montgomery. All four voted for an unsuccessful bill to legalize the machines.

Bingo in Tennessee

Corruption around "charity" bingo dominated state headlines in the 1980s, climaxing with a huge sting called "Operation Rocky Top" that led to convictions of more than 50 people, including a legislator, a judge and other public officials.

Investigators found money-skimming, payoffs, bribery and the sale of charters in the all-cash halls.

The five-year federal/state probe and ensuing state Supreme Court ruling that bingo gambling violated the state constitution ended bingo-for-profit in the state.

Now, some veterans' groups want the legislature to set in motion bingo's return to raise money.

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