Opinion

Was gambling trial a warning or a carte blanche for corruption?

In the aftermath of the expensive non-event that the Alabama gambling trials turned out to be, some lawmakers and political observers are insisting the whole thing wasn’t a total waste of time and money after all.

According to this line of thinking, the trials were (forgive the cliché) a wake-up call for Alabama’s elected representatives, a stern and very public warning that too-cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists will henceforth be under closer and more skeptical scrutiny.

“I think it’s going to cause a lot of legislators to adopt my philosophy,” said Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, “which is that I have the right to raise campaign funds, but if a lobbyist thinks I’m going to vote the way he wants, he can keep his contribution.”

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the unflattering national light the trials focused on Alabama politics “is probably a good byproduct” in that will make lawmakers think twice about campaign donations connected to pending legislation and prompt them to “do what they should have done all along.”

And it’s not just legislators who see the trials in that light. Bill Stewart, a retired University of Alabama political scientist, said lawmakers “are going to want to avoid even the appearance of evil I would think it will affect discussions between legislators and lobbyists.”

Maybe. We can hope.

Certainly for some incumbent public officials and political hopefuls alike, a greater emphasis on transparency and integrity will indeed be the effect, and so much the better.

But there are other possible, maybe even more probable, outcomes that don’t bode as well for the health of Alabama’s body politic.

Among the lesser of those possible ills is that unscrupulous politicians and the moneyed interests determined to buy their support will simply become more furtive and circumspect. In this scenario, the gambling trials weren’t so much a morality play about political honesty as a series of lessons in how not to get caught. (Lesson 1: No phone calls, no wiretaps.)

An even less appealing possibility is that the failure to produce even a single conviction -- at least so far -- will only embolden some lawmakers, lobbyists and the special interest that hire them, freeing them to make even more lucrative sweetheart deals. If existing state law doesn’t deter them and federal courts can’t convict them, what’s to stop them?

One familiar Alabama public figure able to consider all this from multiple perspectives is Glen Browder. Like Stewart, Browder is a retired political science professor. But Browder also served terms in the Alabama Legislature and the U.S. Congress, so he’s seen how the sausage is made.

The real losers, Browder told the Associated Press last week, are the citizens of Alabama, who “probably feel a little dirtier having witnessed this.”

Amen.

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