Prosecution fails to secure a single guilty verdict
August 11, 2011 at 6:51 PM CDT - Updated June 25 at 1:36 AM
By PHILLIP RAWLS Associated Press
Federal prosecutors didn't get a single conviction in Alabama's gambling corruption trial Thursday when jurors acquitted or failed to reach a verdict on all the charges against the nine defendants, including Victoryland casino owner Milton McGregor and two sitting state senators.
McGregor was acquitted of one count of bribery and two counts of honest services fraud. The jury failed to reach a verdict on his 14 other charges and U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson declared a mistrial on all the undecided charges. He said he would announce a date for a retrial within a month.
"It's a great day. We walk out of the courtroom and go home," McGregor attorney Joe Espy said.
Most of the nine defendants were smiling and greeting supporters as they walked out of court with their attorneys.
"This jury didn't give the government a thing, not a single thing," said Susan James, attorney for Country Crossing casino spokesman Jay Walker.
The Justice Department, which spent more than a year investigating Statehouse corruption, issued a brief comment that did not indicate whether it would continue to prosecute all unresolved charges against the seven remaining defendants.
"We appreciate the jury's service in this important public corruption trial. Our prosecutors will discuss next steps as we move forward in this matter," spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said in an email.
While there was no conviction Thursday, prosecutors earlier secured three guilty pleas.
A jury of 11 women and one man deliberated for 39 hours over seven days before sending a note to the judge Thursday telling him that they reached some verdicts but they could never agree on the rest. After hearing from both sides, the judge decided to allow a partial verdict.
State Sen. Quinton Ross Jr. was acquitted on all the counts against him. State Sen. Harri Anne Smith was found not guilty of one count of bribery, one count of extortion and nine counts of honest services fraud. Jurors failed to agree on the other charges against her.
Former state Sen. Larry Means of Attala was acquitted on 14 of the 16 charges against him and got a mistrial on the remaining two, conspiracy and bribery. Former state Sen. James E. "Jim" Preuitt of Talladega was found not guilty of 12 of 15 charges, with mistrials declared on one count each of conspiracy, bribery and lying to an FBI agent.
Walker, the Country Crossing spokesman, was acquitted of 11 counts of honest services fraud. A mistrial was declared on one count each of conspiracy and bribery.
Joseph Raymond "Ray" Crosby, a former legislative analyst for the Legislative Reference Service, got a mistrial on his only count of bribery.
Thomas E. Coker, a lobbyist for McGregor, was acquitted of 11 counts and got a mistrial on one count each of conspiracy, bribery and honest services fraud. Another McGregor lobbyist, Robert E. "Bob" Geddie Jr., was acquitted of all charges.
"It feels pretty good. I just feel so damn bad for everybody else," Geddie said as he left the courthouse. But his attorney, Jimmy Judkins, was visibly upset.
"It's an unbelievable thing that the government can put an innocent citizen through this with no evidence," he said.
The federal investigation grew out of three Republican legislators telling the FBI that they were offered campaign contributions if they would support legislation designed to keep electronic bingo games operating in Alabama. The three used recording devices to tape phone calls and meetings, and the FBI wiretapped phones in a yearlong probe that coincided with former Gov. Bob Riley creating a gambling task force to shut down privately operated casinos.
Riley contended electronic bingo machines, featuring flashing lights and sound effects, were illegal slot machines, while proponents portrayed them as a high-tech version of paper bingo, which is legal in some Alabama counties.
Riley's task force 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 in return for votes.
Gilley, the developer of Country Crossing casino in Dothan, and two of his lobbyists, Jennifer Pouncy and Jarrod Massey, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified against the nine defendants.
Gilley and Massey talked about arranging a campaign fundraiser for Smith with country singers Lorrie Morgan and John Anderson to make sure she supported the gambling bill and testified about working with McGregor to offer a $1 million-a-year job to another senator who was helping the FBI. Pouncy testified about offering $2 million in campaign support to Preuitt, agreeing to give a $100,000 contribution to Means, and being aggressively pursued by Ross for donations as the Senate was approaching a vote on the gambling bill.
Republican Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale wore a recording device in one meeting where Gilley, Massey and McGregor were seeking his vote, and he recorded McGregor saying, "Ronnie and I are just alike in that we've got a bad habit of supporting our friends."
Defense attorneys argued that it's normal to discuss campaign contributions in an election year and that none of the 12,000 phone calls recorded by the FBI featured any senator agreeing to commit bribery by exchanging a vote for a campaign contribution.
All four senators voted for the gambling legislation when the Senate passed it March 30, 2010. The FBI disclosed its investigation of Statehouse corruption two days later, and the bill died in the House without ever coming to a vote. Smith and Ross won re-election after being indicted, Means lost, and Preuitt dropped his re-election campaign.
Jim Parkman, Smith's attorney, said the Washington-based prosecutors failed in their attempt to paint Alabama politics and members of the Legislature as dishonest.
"To say that Alabama is besmirched with bad politics is not true. We've got a great Legislature," he said.
One thing that was never in dispute during the trial was the profitability of the games. Income tax records showed McGregor's gambling business, which was the largest in the state, reported a profit of more than $40 million in 2009, when his games were operating, and a loss of $4 million in 2010 when they weren't.
One of the legislators who helped the FBI ended up getting appointed to a judgeship by the governor, and the other two were chosen by fellow Republicans for important committee chairmanships.
Republican Sen. Bryan Taylor of Prattville, who was the governor's policy director during last year's casino crackdown, said one positive that came out of the investigation was the Legislature's passage of tougher ethics and campaign finance laws in December that restricted gifts from lobbyists and made it harder to hide the source of campaign donations.
"The evidence that came out in the courtroom showed just how desperately we needed new ethics laws in Alabama," said Taylor, who helped sponsor the new laws.
Associated Press writer Bob Johnson contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.