Gambling trial in Alabama: Resounding thud

After two months, at a cost to taxpayers yet to be calculated (at least publicly), nine defendants walked out of court Thursday without a single conviction. Thus did a sweeping federal case that purported to show Alabama legislators’ selling of votes for money and political capital end with a loud thud.

Whether this was a matter of unjust prosecutions or merely unsuccessful ones is probably a split decision in the Alabama court of public opinion. Was the attempt to implicate lawmakers shaky from the outset, in a climate where political favor-currying is historically so unabashed that it no longer raises even eyebrows, much less legal challenges?

The case arose out of a long dispute over electronic bingo in Alabama, where the legal status of gambling is something not even the state’s top officials can agree on or explain.

It began in earnest when three legislators reported to the FBI that they had been offered money and other perks by gambling interests in exchange for votes to formally legalize casino-style bingo machines. Federal prosecutors quickly reeled in three fish: Casino developer Ronnie Gilley and lobbyists Jarrod Massey and Jennifer Pouncy pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

The feds were after bigger fish -- Victoryland dog track/casino owner Milton McGregor, his chief lobbyist Bob Geddie Jr. and three others, and four state senators. The FBI tapped and recorded some 12,000 calls between gambling interests and lawmakers.

On Oct. 4 agents arrested nine people, including Sens. Quinton Ross of Montgomery and Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb, and former Sens. Larry Means of Attala and Jim Preuitt of Talladega. All four had voted for the bingo bill, which passed the Senate. (Two days later the FBI announced its investigation, and electronic bingo legislation in the House did a quick vanishing act.)

The defense argued that while the tapped phone calls were indeed about campaign money, none involved a quid pro quo -- an agreement by a senator to sell a vote.

Ross the senator and Geddie the lobbyist were acquitted of all charges. The remaining defendants were acquitted on most counts, with the jury deadlocked on a relative few. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said he will schedule a retrial on the unresolved charges; the Justice Department has been mum on pursuing those cases. (The most intriguing is still that of gambling czar McGregor: He was acquitted on three counts, with the jury deadlocked on 14 others. Is he a big enough fish for the feds to go after again?)

Meanwhile, after millions in attorney fees, court costs and other expenses, Alabama is no closer to resolving the legal issues of gambling than before. Nor has any useful light been shed on what is and is not an appropriate level of “cooperation” between elected officials and well-heeled private interests seeking political favor.