Mitchell says he did not take money

Published 4:17 pm Monday, October 11, 2010

State Senator Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, attended a rally in Troy on Thursday where he addressed questions about his alleged connection to the bingo vote buying scandal.

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

Mitchell has been linked by some to the bingo vote buying scandal that ended in the indictment of four state senators and several lobbyists. 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.

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In the indictment, details cited a phone call between casino owner Ronald Gilley and a lobbyist, in which they discussed offering an unnamed senator who was ill at the time of the debate a hefty inducement for his vote. Mitchell was ill at the time of the debate, but he maintains that he was never approached by anyone seeking to influence his vote.

Mitchell’s opponent, Republican nominee Bryan Taylor, voiced his doubts in a press release Thursday. In it, he wondered why Mitchell voted for the bill even though he has spoken out against gambling in the past.

“When Wendell Mitchell said he was against the bingo bill, voters believed him,” Taylor said in the release. “Then, even though he was gravely ill, he showed up and delivered the deciding vote for the gambling legislation. The question has always been, why?”

Taylor said he believes Mitchell should defend his vote for the bill.

“It’s time for Wendell Mitchell to give us an explanation why he voted for the bingo bill, even though he said he was against it.”

During an interview with The Troy Messenger, Mitchell said he changed his stance on the bingo bill because the substance of the bill had changed from its original form.

“There are two ways to put a law into effect. The first is a state statute, meaning if I as a senator vote on that and it passes, then it’s done, it becomes law,” he said. “I said I would never do that because I oppose gambling.” And, he said he opposed any gambling law that would be passed as a state statute.

But Mitchell said he changed his stance because the bill actually presented to the Senate for a vote was in the form of a statewide referendum, which gave the people of Alabama the opportunity to vote.

“When it came to a bill that the substituted and allowed for a constitutional referendum, I did vote for that,” he said. “I think the people should have the right to decide.”

At Thursday’s rally, he faced the accusations head-on. Mitchell said he was never approached or offered money for his vote, and he told supporters he was not indicted.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears Monday morning when all that stuff came out,” he said. “In all my years of service, 25 years, I have never, ever had a single lobbyist come to me and make an offer for my vote.”

He then assured his supporters that it was his principles—and not bribes—that influenced his vote.

“Folks, I didn’t take any inducement to go vote. That’s my job,” he said.

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.”

Reporting, Lindsey Robinson and Stacy Graning of the Troy Mesenger; Kevin Pearcey