MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A jury acquitted a casino owner, three current or former state lawmakers and two other defendants on all counts Wednesday in a high-profile federal case that alleged the legislators were being bribed to legalize gambling in the state.
The jury returned its verdict after seven days of deliberations. One-by-one, each defendant stepped up to a podium in front of the judge to hear the verdicts. They nodded in agreement with the jury's decision, squeezed their attorneys' hand or bounced nervously as the clerk said not guilty. Family members in the gallery sobbed in relief, and when court recessed, there were hugs all around.
"We feel like this case was built on innuendos, lies and half-truths," said Tom Coker, a casino lobbyist who was among those acquitted.
The federal investigation of vote buying began with three Republican legislators telling the FBI they were offered campaign contributions if they would support legislation designed to let electronic bingo games operate in Alabama.
Federal prosecutors said behind the scenes, two casino operators and their lobbyists were offering millions in campaign contributions, benefit concerts by country music entertainers, free polling and other incentives for votes.
The trial was the second for the defendants. The first ended in August with no convictions, two defendants acquitted, and the jury unable to resolve all charges against the remaining defendants.
"This is truly a day to celebrate, and ladies and gentlemen, the celebration starts now," said VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor.
State Sen. Harri Anne Smith said she would walk into the Senate on Thursday and get to vote again.
"I got my life back today and I want to thank God for that jury," Smith said.
Also acquitted were former Sens. Larry Means and Jim Preuitt, and Country Crossing casino spokesman Jay Walker.
McGregor, the casino owner, was accused of offering large campaign contributions to legislators for their votes for gambling legislation. Smith and the former senators were accused of agreeing to accept bribes in return for their votes.
The jury found McGregor and the others innocent on charges that included conspiracy and bribery.
The case was the latest in a series of government corruption investigations in Alabama, including the conviction of former Gov. Don Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy on bribery charges in 2006 and a probe of Alabama's two-year college system that brought down three legislators and the system's former chancellor in 2008.
The three Republican legislators who cooperated with the FBI recorded calls and meetings and the FBI tapped phones during a yearlong probe that coincided with Republican Gov. Bob Riley creating a task force to shut down electronic bingo. Riley said the machines, featuring flashing lights and sound effects, were illegal slot machines and not simply an electronic version of paper bingo.
Riley's task force seized machines and won court battles while casino operators failed in 2009 and in 2010 to pass protective legislation.
Ronnie Gilley, the developer of Country Crossing casino, and two of his lobbyists, Jennifer Pouncy and Jarrod Massey, pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Former state Rep. Terry Spicer of Elba also pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Massey and Gilley. All four helped the prosecution and are scheduled for sentencing in April.
Prosecutors said Gilley provided Smith with $200,000 in campaign money, plus a fundraising concert by John Anderson and Lorrie Morgan. They accused Gilley and McGregor of promising Means $100,000 for his vote. They accused Gilley, McGregor and Walker of promising Preuitt $2 million in contributions, a fundraising concert by country music starts and other campaign support.
Defense attorneys argued the case was based on lies told by the guilty in hopes of getting lighter punishment.
All three indicted senators voted for the gambling legislation when it passed the Senate on March 30, 2010. The FBI announced its investigation two days later, and the bill died in the House without coming to a vote.
McGregor's casino, 15 miles east of Montgomery, was once the state's largest with 6,000 machines, but it has been closed since the crackdown in 2010. Other casinos, including one in Dothan operated by Gilley's former partners, are operating.
One thing that was never in dispute in the trial was the profitability of electronic bingo. McGregor's attorneys acknowledged his casino in Shorter made $40 million in 2009 when it was operating all year and lost $4 million in 2010 when it was closed most of the year.
Associated Press writer Andy Brownfield contributed to this report.