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Alabama Legislators, Casino Owner, and Lobbyists Acquitted in Major Corruption Trial

After enduring a second lengthy trial and after seven days of deliberation, six defendants, including three state legislators, were found not guilty of corruption and bribery charges on Wednesday by a federal jury in Alabama. These acquittals finally bring an end to claims by federal prosecutors that casino industry insiders bought votes from Alabama legislators, allegations that ultimately resulted in 2 plea agreements by cooperating witnesses and 8 not guilty verdicts for every defendant who demanded his day in court.

The trial stems from an FBI investigation into efforts by an Alabama casino operator and his lobbyists to convince Alabama legislators to support a bill that would have legalized electronic bingo machines throughout the state. Milton McGregor, the owner of VictoryLand Casino, had begun operating electronic bingo machines in Alabama when the governor initiated an effort in 2009 to have to games shut down on the premise that they were actually illegal slot machines. It was in this environment that McGregor and another casino owner began an intense lobbying effort to protect their investments by convincing legislators to pass a law protecting the bingo machines. The FBI took notice and began an investigation.

It is undisputed that some rather unsavory lobbying occurred and that legislators were treated to entertainment, perks, and at least suggestions of campaign contributions. However, at trial, the defendants argued that despite what many would see as distasteful political back-scratching, there was no actual quid pro quo, and thus no bribery. They characterized the relationship between the casino lobbyists and legislators as merely the messy reality of Alabama politics. It is unlikely that the jury in either trial found any of the parties involved blameless, but they apparently agreed that criminal intent had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In a political world that permits close contact between industry lobbyists and lawmakers it can often be difficult to draw clear lines between lawful persuasion illegal bribery. Where political contributions are essential to any politician’s reelection, it is understandable that politicians want to please both their individual constituents and the powerful corporate interests that play an outsized role during election season. Ethical rules control what kinds of interactions politicians should have with those who stand to lose or gain from their decisions. Not only is the exact line that separates merely unethical behavior from criminal behavior often unclear, but proving that behavior was on one side of legality or the other can be even more treacherous.

In this case, as in many bribery, public corruption, and racketeering cases, the ultimate question is whether there was an exchange, something given for something else. Where the evidence is at all ambiguous, these cases can ultimately come down to witness credibility. The jury apparently had trouble believing the government’s witnesses who had either received plea deals in exchange for implicating others and who had been wired up by the FBI in conversations with the defendants, behavior that suggests the witnesses may not be entirely trustworthy. A lawyer for the defense claimed after the trial that the government’s case had been “built on innuendos, lies and half-truths.” It was likely not too difficult to convince the jury that the FBI’s moles, with an eye to the eventual trial, had gone too far in trying to paint a picture of bribery where the defendants may not have necessarily seen it that way.

Federal public corruption cases typically involve massive amounts of conflicting evidence developed over months of FBI investigations. The ability to convince a jury that a defendant’s intent was not criminal hinges on extensive pre-trial preparation and skilled trial advocacy. A federal criminal attorney knows both how to organize and present the evidence in these complex cases in a way that effectively challenges the government’s narrative by showing the “innuendoes” they typically rely on to prove criminal intent. Our firm has successfully represented clients from all levels of state and local government in public corruption prosecutions, obtaining numerous dismissals, not guilty verdicts, and favorable plea agreements.