A federal judge handling a high-profile public corruption case in Alabama issued a blistering opinion on Thursday, calling key prosecution witnesses blatant racists motivated by a desire to suppress the black vote rather than clean up state politics, as prosecutors had portrayed them.
U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson also delivered a stinging assessment of Alabama politics in his ruling, saying that the racism that still exists there is as insidious as the bribery that was alleged. “Eliminating bribery will treat only one symptom of political corruption in this state. To cure the larger disease, it is essential to address with equal force the politics of racial prejudice and exclusion,” he wrote.
The high-stakes case involves VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor, who, the federal government charges, abandoned legitimate lobbying efforts and bribed state lawmakers in an effort to win support for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed electronic bingo machines in the state. The amendment passed the state senate in March 2010, but died shortly after that when the FBI announced its corruption investigation.
Derailing the gambling amendment was the unsavory goal of Republican lawmakers who worked with the FBI, Thompson said. Evidence showed they had decided that having a gambling referendum on the ballot would increase African-American voter turnout, since, they reasoned, blacks tend to support gambling, the judge wrote. And they believed an increase in African-American voter turnout would help Democrats, since blacks tend to vote Democratic, the judge wrote.
One casino owner and two lobbyists pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the probe, while four former state lawmakers, two government employees and two lobbyists were among those who stood trial on the charges.
During a trial in August, other defendants were acquitted on several counts and the jury could not reach a verdict on several other charges. Following the trial, legal observers in Alabama questioned DOJ’s handling of the case. The department has sought a new trial.
The case is being overseen by the Public Integrity Section based at Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C. A year ago this month, Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer held a press conference to trumpet the charges, calling the alleged bribery scheme “astonishing in scope.”
On Thursday, Thompson issued a written ruling finding that there was a preponderance of evidence that a conspiracy existed and because of that, he said he will allow transcripts to be entered into evidence for all defendants but one. While that decision was victory for prosecutors, Thompson’s questioning of the credibility of government witnesses may not help the prosecution.
As part of the probe, the federal government taped conversations that State Sens. Scott Beason, Benjamin Lewis and Rep. Barry Mask had with defendants and others. At trial, Beason said he approached the FBI after receiving threats that McGregor and another defendant would embarrass him if he didn’t accept bribes. He said he wanted to help get the “bad guys.”
Not so, Thompson said in his ruling. In reality, Beason and the others “had ulterior motives rooted in naked political ambition and pure racial bias,” he wrote. They were motivated by “purposeful, racist intent.”
Thompson referred to one conversation between one of the politicians and another politico, who warned, “Just keep in mind that if a [pro-gambling] bill passes and we have a referendum in November, every black in this state will be bused to the polls. And that ain’t gonna help.”
In another, Thompson said, Beason referred to blacks as “aborigines.”
“Beason’s and Lewis’s political objective undercuts the anti-corruption motive they advanced at trial,” Thompson wrote, saying they “singled out African-Americans for mockery and racist abuse.” Beason later apologized for the remark about aborigines.
However, the judge made it clear in the ruling that federal prosecutors did not condone or participate in racist discussions or behavior.