Mitchell: indictments seem political

Published 9:05 am Wednesday, October 6, 2010

This week’s indictment of 11 high-profile defendants, including four state senators, stemming from a federal probe of gambling legislation leaves state Sen. Wendell Mitchell questioning the timing of the actions.

“It strikes me as political,” said Mitchell, D-Luverne. “This comes less than four weeks before the election. It’s going to have a very unfair impact on the election. They could have just easily done this after November.”

Mitchell is seeking an eighth term as senator for District 30, which encompasses Butler, Pike, Crenshaw, Autauga, and Elmore counties.

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Mitchell is among the 21 state Senators who voted to support SB380, the critical gambling bill that went before state lawmakers last spring.

In one of the biggest investigations of corruption in the history of the Alabama State House, federal agents Monday arrested the four state senators, several powerful lobbyists including Jarrod Massey, Country Crossing owner Ronnie Gilley and Milton McGregor, who has dominated the world of Alabama gambling for a quarter century. The 11 people were indicted in a broad vote-buying scheme in which federal prosecutors allege millions of dollars in campaign contributions, a $1 million-a-year job and election-year assistance were offered in exchange for critical yes votes on a gambling bill that went before legislators last spring.

Prosecutors said the casino owners, legislators and lobbyists formed a corrupt network to buy and sell votes in the Legislature. Some of the defendants also complained that the move was a political one designed to influence the Nov. 2 election.

Mitchell said Tuesday that while personally opposes gambling, he voted to support the bill “because I wanted the people to vote up or down on the issue. I thought we should let the people decide.”

The 65-page indictment includes conversations prosecutors allege occurred between Gilley, McGregor and several legislators and lobbyists, seeking to secure their votes on the bill through cash promises. While the legislators indicted are identified, others are not. Paragraph 190 of the indictment reads:

On or about March 30, 2010, the day of the vote on SB380, [Ronald] Gilley called a campaign consultant to discuss a member of the Alabama Senate, who supported the bill but was unlikely to take part in the vote due to illness. During the call, Gilley told the consultant, who was planning to see the ailing legislator that morning, that, if the legislator participated in the vote, Gilley would secure the help of prominent country music stars to run the legislator’s campaign. Gilley told the consultant to assure the legislator that Gilley was going “to participate in his campaign and uh, in a big, big, big way” and that the legislator was “number twenty-one for us.” Later, Gilley stated that “in excess of $500,000 is what’s already committed” if the legislator showed up and voted in favor of SB380. The consultant assured Gilley that he would forward Gilley’s promise to the legislator. Later that day, the legislator voted in favor of SB380.

Mitchell missed days in the session because of illness, but was in senate chambers the day of the vote to cast his support for it.

Mitchell told the Montgomery Advertiser he’d read the indictment, was “surprised by the situation and that no one offered him anything for his vote.”

Mitchell said he was “never approached” by anyone seeking to secure his vote in return for financial donations. “No, I was never approached,” he said. “Toward the end of it all, I was out with my illness.”

“My initial thoughts are one of sadness,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “Some of these people are genuinely good people with families who put the interests of others above themselves … I just question the timing.”

Mitchell, who is in a contested race for his seat, faces GOP challenger Bryan Taylor.

The incumbent said Tuesday he knows now is “not a good time to be an incumbent or a Democrat,” referring to the discontent with national politics that seems to carry over to local politics.

“People are frustrated with Washington, and I can understand that,” he said. “But they don’t separate local politics from that.”

Download the complete indictment in PDF format HERE.

By Stacy Graning, The Troy Messenger; Kevin Pearcey contributed to this report