MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A federal gambling corruption trial at the Alabama Statehouse could look like a country music concert or a political convention rather than a court case.
The nine defendants in the case that began this week include VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor and four current and former state senators. Prosecutors accuse the group of swapping millions of dollars for votes on legislation that was designed to protect electronic bingo casinos from raids by former Gov. Bob Riley's gambling task force.
Defense and prosecuting attorneys read lists of possible witnesses to potential jurors Tuesday to get their reactions.
Attorneys say they may call country stars George Jones; Lorrie Morgan; and Randy Owen, lead singer for the group Alabama. All three supported gambling legislation called "Sweet Home Alabama" that's at the heart of the trial. Witnesses also may include Riley, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and other Southern lawmakers.
Though the case revolves around gambling, prosecutor Steve Feaga told potential jurors, "This case is not about whether gambling is good or bad for Alabama." He said it's about whether there was a conspiracy to provide millions of dollars to legislators in return for their votes.
Feaga said the case is built on wiretaps from McGregor's phone and others and recording devices worn by cooperating legislators.
McGregor's attorney, Bobby Segall, said those recordings will show his client said he supports candidates who support his position, but nothing more.
Gambling operators profited from electronic bingo machines for several years until the task force labeled them illegal slots and began closing all casinos in early 2010. All were closed except the three operated by the Poarch Creek Indians, who are under federal supervision rather than state supervision. Gambling operators pushed a proposed constitutional amendment to protect their gambling halls and allow more to open.
The legislation passed the Senate in March 2010, then died in the House after the FBI revealed a widespread investigation into government corruption. Arrests came in October, when a federal grand jury charged that millions in bribes were offered through campaign contributions and contracts.
Attorneys expect to wrap up jury selection Wednesday and have opening statements Thursday.
Attorneys said the three country entertainers are on the lists not only for supporting the gambling legislation but also as character witnesses. All three were involved in the now-closed Country Crossing casino development in Dothan.
One of the defendants, former Country Crossing casino spokesman Jay Walker of Lanett, has Perdue on his witness list. Walker worked with Perdue when he was chief of staff to former Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson.
"We hope he's more than a character witness, but that's the plan," defense attorney Susan James said.
Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the former governor had not been contacted by lawyers and only learned of his possible involvement through media reports.
McGregor subpoenaed Riley because his task force made McGregor shut the state's largest electronic bingo casino in Shorter, with more than 6,000 flashing machines.
Though not an entertainer or a politician, one of the best known names on the witness lists is Jimmy Rane, the "Yella Fella" cowboy from the TV ads for "YellaWood." Rane, CEO of Great Southern Wood in Abbeville, is a trustee of Auburn University and is a friend of McGregor, who is a big Auburn booster. Prosecutors had Rane on their witness list.