Mitchell: Bingo indictment timing is suspect

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This week’s indictment of 11 high-profile defendants, including four state senators, stemming from a federal probe of gambling legislation leaves state Sen. Wendell Mitchell questioning the timing of the actions.

“It strikes me as political,” said Mitchell, D-Luverne. “This comes less than four weeks before the election. It’s going to have a very unfair impact on the election. They could have just easily done this after November.”

Mitchell, who has represented Pike County for some 20 years in the state Legislature, is among the 21 state Senators who voted to support SB380, the critical gambling bill that went before state lawmakers last spring.

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In one of the biggest investigations of corruption in the history of the Alabama State House, federal agents Monday arrested the four state senators, several powerful lobbyists including Jarrod Massey, Country Crossing owner Ronnie Gilley and Milton McGregor, who has dominated the world of Alabama gambling for a quarter century. The 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. Some of the defendants also complained that the move was a political one designed to influence the Nov. 2 election.

Mitchell said Tuesday that while personally opposes gambling, he voted to support the bill “because I wanted the people to vote up or down on the issue. I thought we should let the people decide.”

Mitchell said he was “never approached” by anyone seeking to secure his vote in return for financial donations. “No, I was never approached,” he said. “Toward the end of it all, I was out with my illness.”

“My initial thoughts are one of sadness,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “Some of these people are genuinely good people with families who put the interests of others above themselves … I just question the timing.”

Mitchell, who is in a contested race for his seat, faces GOP challenger Bryan Taylor. The incumbent said Tuesday he now is “not a good time to be an incumbent or a Democrat,” referring to the discontent with national politics that seems to carry over to local politics. “People are frustrated with Washington, and I can understand that,” he said. “But they don’t separate local politics from that.”

On a state level, Republicans vying for governor and also control of the Legislature for the first time in 136 years could benefit from federal vote-buying charges against several powerful Statehouse figures even though the charges touch both parties, political experts said.

The reason is that the GOP had already staked out corruption in Montgomery as its main campaign theme, based on the bribery conviction of former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman and three Democratic legislators in the two-year college scandal. In addition, the outgoing Republican governor, Bob Riley, has fought to curb gambling. “It’s an early Christmas present for Republicans,” said Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University.

In the governor’s race, Democratic nominee Ron Sparks has run on a platform of expanding, taxing and regulation gambling. His Republican opponent, Robert Bentley, is an opponent of gambling. Political experts see the charges as another problem for Sparks, who trails his opponent in the polls and in fundraising.

The AP contributed to this story.

In addition, one of the indicted casino owners, Milton McGregor, attended a Sparks fundraising reception last month in Birmingham where President Bill Clinton was the headliner.

“I just don’t see a path to victory for Sparks absent something we don’t know,” said Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College.

Sparks sought to spin the charges his way by saying they show why he has fought to regulate and tax gambling. “If we had a plan to regulate gaming 7½ years ago, these kind of things would not be happening today,” he said.

Political experts said the impact of the charges will be greater in the Legislature, particularly the Senate, where several expensive races will be decided Nov. 2.

“The real fight this year is not the governor’s race. It’s for control of the Legislature,” Brown said.

Mike Hubbard, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party and minority leader of the Alabama House, said he hopes the charges will spur voters to end the Democratic control of the Legislature that has existed since 1874.

“The ongoing investigation and subsequent arrests should serve as a referendum on the culture of corruption that has been prevalent in Montgomery for far too long,” he said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham acknowledges that three of the four indicted senators were Democrats when they voted for the pro-gambling bill in March. But he said the Republican Party better be careful because one of those senators had switched to the GOP and the fourth indicted senator served two terms as a Republican before becoming an independent in the spring.

In addition, one of those indicted, casino spokesman Jay Walker, was working as a consultant to a Republican congressional candidate in Georgia and previously served as chief of staff for a Republican speaker of the House in Georgia. And two of the lobbyists, Bob Geddie and Tom Coker, represent Republican-leaning corporate clients and have contributed money to Republican candidates, he said.

“Corruption is an equal opportunity employer that affects Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Turnham said.

That’s true, but Democrats control which bills get up for votes in the Senate and they got the pro-gambling bill up for passage, said William Stewart, retired chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama.

If voters are upset by the events surrounding the gambling legislation, they will take it out on the party in control, he said. But he said it’s too early to say whether it will be enough to change Democratic control of either chamber.

Davis said the charges will bring a new twist to legislative campaigns. Some candidates will try to tie their opponents to those indicted in the bingo case, and those indicted will say powerful people, including the Republican governor, are out to get them because they supported gambling.

She pointed out that one of the indicted senators, independent Sen. Harri Anne Smith, a former Republican from Slocomb, issued a news release using that strategy shortly after her arrest Monday. Smith faces a Republican opponent.

Turnham predicted the vote-buying charges will be the hot issue for a few days, but before the election in four weeks, voters will turn their focus to what had been the main issues before Monday: creating jobs and improving the state’s economy.

“They want candidates of both parties to stand up and say how they are going to solve their problems and meet their needs,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.