High profile testimony likely in gambling trial

Published 9:40 pm Monday, June 6, 2011

MONTGOMERY (AP) — An ex-governor, top legislators and country entertainer Lorrie Morgan are among more than 100 people who might testify in a corruption trial in which present and former lawmakers are accused of taking millions in bribes in exchange for votes on pro-gambling legislation.

Jury selection for the lengthy trial began Monday at the federal courthouse, with prosecution and defense lawyer asking potential jurors if they knew a long list of witnesses that they may call to testify. Lawyers hope to select a panel Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday.

The nine defendants mostly appeared optimistic as they entered court for the first day. Independent state Sen. Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb told reporters: “I’m excited to get this going.”

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VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor flashed a thumbs-up sign for photographers.

One of McGregor’s lawyers said his witnesses could include former Gov. Bob Riley, whose gambling task force targeted McGregor’s electronic bingo casino at Shorter and shuttered it last year. Riley is fighting a subpoena from McGregor.

Smith’s defense lawyer said her witnesses could include Morgan, who had a restaurant bearing her name at the now-closed Country Crossing casino resort at Dothan, and former state Attorney General Troy King, who issued a legal opinion that helped Country Crossing open in late 2009.

The prosecution said its witnesses would include Ronnie Gilley, the Country Crossing developer who has pleaded guilty along with two of his lobbyists to offering millions in bribes to legislators to support pro-gambling legislation.

The list of former legislators who could be called by the prosecution include former Democratic House Speaker Seth Hammett of Andalusia; former Senate Rules Committee Chairman Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, who supported the gambling legislation; and former Democratic Rep. Terry Spicer of Elba. One of Gilley’s lobbyists who pleaded guilty, Jarrod Massey, testified in an earlier court hearing about making payments to Spicer, who was never charged.

The prosecution also said it plans to call three legislators who cooperated with the investigation last year by helping make recordings of the defendants: Republican Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale, Republican Rep. Barry Mask of Wetumpka and former Republican Rep. Benjamin Lewis, now a district judge in Dothan. Many other current and former legislators were on the defense or prosecution lists, or sometimes both. They include the current leaders of the Legislature, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, as well Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, who sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment designed to protect electronic bingo casinos from raids by Riley’s task force.

The FBI began investigating those pushing the legislation last year, using wiretaps and secret recordings. The bill passed the Senate in March 2010 and then died in the House after the FBI revealed its investigation.

In October, a federal grand jury issued indictments charging conspiracy, bribery and fraud involving millions in campaign contributions and other money offered to legislators.

Joining McGregor and Smith as defendants in the trial are two McGregor lobbyists, Tom Coker and Bob Geddie; Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery; former Democratic Sen. Larry Means of Attalla; former Republican Sen. Jim Preuitt of Talladega; former Country Crossing spokesman Jay Walker; and former legislative bill writer Ray Crosby, who worked on the gambling legislation. All four current and former senators voted for the bill.

When questioning potential jurors Monday, McGregor attorney Bobby Segall asked if they considered gambling a sin or if they have ever visited a casino run by Native Americans. More answered they had visited a Native American casino.

Three electronic bingo casinos operated by the Poarch Creek Indians are the only large gambling halls that remain in Alabama after the crackdown by Riley’s task force and a recent raid by Alabama’s new attorney general. The Creek casinos are under federal supervision rather than state supervision.

The jury selected for the trial will come from the northern division of Alabama’s Middle District for federal courts, which is the usual practice for trials in Montgomery. That means no jurors will come from the home counties of McGregor’s VictoryLand or Gilley’s Country Crossing and none will be from the legislative districts served by Smith or Means. Some could be from the districts represented by Preuitt and Ross.