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In Alabama gambling trial, jury begins deliberations

The jury in Alabama’s gambling corruption trial began deliberations late Friday afternoon over whether the state’s largest casino owner and four state senators corrupted the legislative process by trading millions in campaign support for votes for pro-gambling legislation.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Steve Feaga said VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor needed votes in the Senate to pass legislation to protect electronic bingo machines that earned more than $40 million in 2009, and he and his allies were willing to spend millions to get the bill passed.

“They couldn’t get it done without bribery,” he said.

Attorneys for the nine defendants said none of the 12,000 wiretapped phone calls recorded by the FBI ever showed a legislator demanded money for a vote. They said a casino owner and two lobbyist who pleaded guilty and testified at the trial were telling lies about the defendants to try to shorten their own sentences.

“Testimony is the currency for freedom when you are a government witness,” defense attorney Susan James said.

The jury of 11 women and one man is sequestered, and U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said deliberations will continue through the weekend, if necessary. The 37-count indictment includes multiple defendants within most counts, which means the jury has many decisions to make. They also listened to testimony for two months.

“It may take a while. I recognize that,” the judge told jurors as he sent them to begin deliberations about 4 p.m.

Jury selection began June 6 for the trial of McGregor; two of his lobbyists, Tom Coker and Bob Geddie; Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery; independent Sen. Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb; former Democratic Sen. Larry Means of Attalla; former Republican Sen. Jim Preuitt of Talladega; Country Crossing casino spokesman Jay Walker; and former legislative bill writer Ray Crosby.

Country Crossing casino developer Ronnie Gilley and two of his lobbyists, Jarrod Massey and Jennifer Pouncy, pleaded guilty and testified at the trial about offering millions to legislators for their votes.

Prosecutors said Gilley and McGregor had seen millions in revenue dry up when a crackdown by Gov. Bob Riley’s gambling task force in early 2010 prompted McGregor to close his 6,000-machine casino in Shorter and Gilley to shutter his smaller operation in Dothan. Feaga said the conspiracy began when McGregor agreed to give Gilley $5 million to help pass the legislation and it grew as McGregor provided Gilley with more millions in return for a financial stake in his casino.

Gilley and Massey testified they secured Smith’s support with campaign contributions routed through other givers to hide their source and by organizing a fundraising reception with country entertainers Lorrie Morgan and John Anderson.

Pouncy and Gilley testified about working with Walker to offer Preuitt $2 million in campaign funds, free polling and support from country music stars. Pouncy talked about promising Means $100,000 in campaign funds. She said Ross hounded her and other gambling lobbyists for contributions as the Senate neared a vote on the gambling bill.

All four senators voted for the bill 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 coming to a vote.

Defense attorneys argued that campaign contributions had nothing to do with the votes, and it’s normal for politicians and lobbyists to discuss campaign support in an election year.

The judge told the jury that the close proximity of a campaign contribution and a vote is not enough to prove illegal activity. He said there must be an agreement to take an official action in return for the money.

Defense attorneys presented only one witness in the trial before resting their case a week ago. Smith’s defense attorney, Jim Parkman, said Friday he still believes no defense was necessary based on the government’s evidence.

“We made that decision. You don’t look back,” he said.

Smith and Ross were re-elected after being indicted in October, Means lost, and Preuitt dropped his re-election campaign.

McGregor’s casino has been closed since last year. Tax records presented at the trial showed his gambling business produced more than $40 million in income in 2009, when the games were open, and lost more than $4 million in 2010, when they were closed.

Gilley’s casino reopened last month with new management, a new name — Center Stage — and new bingo machines that look like plain computer screens without the flashing lights of the old machines. The state attorney general has sent the operators a letter to stop using the new machines, which is the first step toward taking legal action.

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