Key legislators talk about federal investigation into bingo
"They said there was substantial evidence that there was some public corruption in the bingo issue," said Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham.
Waggoner and other top lawmakers confirmed that the FBI, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the public corruption section of the U.S. Department of Justice met with them Thursday to inform them about the investigation, ask for their help and ask some questions.
Waggoner, Senate Majority Leader Zeb Little and House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard confirmed they were summoned to the office of Col. Chris Murphy, director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety, along with Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., House Speaker Seth Hammett, and House Majority Leader Ken Guin.
They were joined by three FBI officials, two from Washington and one local, and two assistant U.S. attorneys, Waggoner said. Murphy moderated the meeting, according to the lawmakers.
The lawmakers were all asked if they knew of any corruption occurring in the Legislature concerning the bill, according to Little and other Democratic legislators.
Each legislator responded that they did not, they said.
"We're not aware of any wrongdoing on the part of any senator," said Chip Hill, director of external affairs for Folsom. "We hope there was no wrongdoing. We are very concerned about the timing of this investigation. We hope it was not designed to infringe on the people’s right to vote on this issue."
The Senate voted 21-13 two days earlier to approve a bill that, if approved by the House of Representatives, would let voters decide if they want to tax and regulate gambling in the state.
The bill was approved largely along party lines with most Democrats voting for it and most Republicans voting against it.
Democrats failed to get enough votes earlier in the session to push through a more comprehensive bill that would have determined the 10 places where casinos would be located in the state.
Gov. Bob Riley and other Republicans have said both pieces of legislation are corrupt. They said the first piece gave monopolies to existing casinos in Macon, Houston, Lowndes and Greene counties.
They said the current legislation, which if approved would bring legislators into special session early next year to decide more details, would allow a simple majority in the House and Senate to determine the future of gambling in the state.
Little, Senate President Pro Tem Rodger Smitherman, Sen. Lowell Barron, Sen. Roger Bedford and Sen. Hank Sanders, the top Senate Democrats, released a statement saying that they believe Riley, who has been waging a campaign against electronic bingo, is behind the investigation.
"The timing of this smells to high heaven," the statement said. "Gaming has been a contentious issue for the last four years in the Alabama Legislature. But within 48 hours of a successful vote on electronic bingo in the Senate, in swoop investigators.
"We believe Gov. Bob Riley is behind this effort. We believe this is a latent attempt to undercut the people’s right to vote on the bingo issue, something that a large majority of citizens support, and to ensure the death of this legislation. This is about intimidation and killing bingo. The timing proves it."
Jeff Emerson, communications director for Riley, responded in a statement that the governor had nothing whatsoever to do with the investigation.
"Gov. Riley was not even aware this meeting was taking place," Emerson said. "He's had nothing to do with the investigation. From what our office was told by people in the meeting, the investigation is being run by the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C."
Waggoner said they were told that this is an ongoing investigation and not a fishing expedition. He said the investigators were vague and did not give details concerning who they were looking into.
Hubbard, who is also chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said he was talking to Riley on the House floor following a joint session of the Legislature on Thursday when Hammett asked him to come by his office, where he informed him he had learned about the FBI investigation and told him about the meeting.
Hubbard asked about the time and said Hammett called him back later to tell him that the meeting was at 1:30 p.m.
"The FBI agents and U.S. attorneys walked in. None of them were smiling. They never smiled," Hubbard said. "An FBI guy did the talking."
He said they were told there was an ongoing criminal investigation and that the officials were there to inform them as a courtesy. They were told "we have substantial evidence to believe that crimes have taken place," Hubbard said.
He said the agents told them they believed it was time for them to know about the investigation, although Hubbard said he did not know why that was.
When asked if they were talking about the bingo issue, Little said "yes" and added "everybody knew what they were talking about."
Little, D-Cullman, said people should be investigated and prosecuted if there is evidence of corruption, but said it is also a crime to lie to a federal agent. If the accusations are not true, he said he told them the accuser should be prosecuted.
"Gov. Riley has used every tool in the book to deny the people of this state the right to vote," Little told the Montgomery Advertiser.
Little commended the law enforcement and said they are bound to look into accusations.
"These folks are doing their job," he said.
Little, an attorney, and some other officials also questioned how the meeting happened, two days after the vote and pulling all of the lawmakers together to tell them about the investigation.
"If you're trying to catch the bad guys, you don't tell them you're coming," he said.
Hubbard said Little immediately said the investigation looked political and that they appeared to be trying to kill the bingo legislation.
Hubbard said they told Little they did not care whether the bill passed and were only worried about the crime. He said they told them the only people involved in the investigation were in that room.
"We asked a few questions and they gave vague answers," Hubbard said.
He said they were asked, if they were aware of any criminal activity, to cooperate and pass along the information.
Little said the investigators asked for help.
Hubbard and Little both told the Montgomery Advertiser they were not aware of any criminal activity. Hubbard said there have been rumors "all over the place."
"If there has been criminal activity, they need to be prosecuted and justice served," Hubbard said. "I don't know that it has taken place. They just said there was substantial evidence."
When contacted by the Advertiser, Guin, D-Carbon Hill, said "I'm not going to talk about that issue."
Hubbard said he called the House Republican Caucus together after the meeting, told them what occurred, and told them, as he said he has done repeatedly before, not to do anything that could be construed as quid pro quo.
"My main concern was to let our caucus know to be very careful," he said.
-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen