Celebs, pols tapped to testify

Published 7:28 am Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A federal gambling corruption trial at the Alabama Statehouse could look like a country music concert or a political convention rather than a court case.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal gambling corruption trial at the Alabama Statehouse could look like a country music concert or a political convention rather than a court case.

Defense and prosecuting attorneys read lists of possible witnesses to potential jurors Tuesday, including former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue; former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley; former Alabama Lt. Gov. Steve Windom; former Attorney General Troy King; Secretary of State Beth Chapman; and many current and former legislators.

Attorneys said they may also call country stars George Jones; Lorrie Morgan; and Randy Owen, lead singer for the group Alabama. All three supported gambling legislation called “Sweet Home Alabama” that’s at the heart of the trial.

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The nine defendants include VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor and four current and former state senators. Prosecutors accuse the group of swapping millions of dollars for votes on legislation that was designed to protect electronic bingo casinos from raids by Riley’s gambling task force.

Though the case revolves around gambling, prosecutor Steve Feaga told potential jurors, “This case is not about whether gambling is good or bad for Alabama.” He said it’s about whether there was a conspiracy to provide millions of dollars to legislators in return for their votes.

Feaga said the case is built on wiretaps from McGregor’s phone and others and recording devices worn by cooperating legislators.

McGregor’s attorney, Bobby Segall, said those recordings will show his client said he supports candidates who support his position, but nothing more.

Gambling operators profited from electronic bingo machines for several years until the task force labeled them illegal slots and began closing all casinos in early 2010. All were closed except the three operated by the Poarch Creek Indians, who are under federal supervision rather than state supervision. Gambling operators pushed a proposed constitutional amendment to protect their gambling halls and allow more to open.

The legislation passed the Senate in March 2010, then died in the House after the FBI revealed a widespread investigation into government corruption.

Arrests came in October, when a federal grand jury charged that millions in bribes were offered through campaign contributions and contracts.

Attorneys expect to wrap up jury selection Wednesday and have opening statements Thursday.

Attorneys said the three country entertainers are on the lists not only for supporting the gambling legislation but also as character witnesses. All three were involved in the now-closed Country Crossing casino development in Dothan.

One of the defendants, former Country Crossing casino spokesman Jay Walker of Lanett, has Perdue on his witness list. Walker worked with Perdue when he was chief of staff to former Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson.

“We hope he’s more than a character witness, but that’s the plan,” defense attorney Susan James said.

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the former governor had not been contacted by lawyers and only learned of his possible involvement through media reports.

The developer of Country Crossing casino, Ronnie Gilley, and two of his lobbyists have pleaded guilty to offering millions in bribes to legislators. They are on the prosecution witness list.

McGregor subpoenaed Riley because his task force made McGregor shut the state’s largest electronic bingo casino in Shorter, with more than 6,000 flashing machines.

Chapman, the secretary of state, collects campaign finance reports from candidates and political action committees. Those records show McGregor was one of Alabama’s biggest contributors during the 2010 election cycle, giving $1.9 million to PACs before the FBI investigation became public.

Defense attorneys had King on their witness lists because he issued a legal opinion that helped Country Crossing open and he opposed the governor’s crackdown on electronic bingo.

Windom, the former lieutenant governor, is now a lobbyist. His clients used to include the Mobile dog track, which could have added electronic bingo if the gambling legislation had passed.

Though not an entertainer or a politician, one of the best known names on the witness lists is Jimmy Rane, the “Yella Fella” cowboy from the TV ads for “YellaWood.” Rane, CEO of Great Southern Wood in Abbeville, is a trustee of Auburn University and is a friend of McGregor, who is a big Auburn booster. Prosecutors had Rane on their witness list.