U.S. News

FBI arrests 11 in Alabama in gambling probe

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - U.S. authorities charged four Alabama legislators and two businessman on Monday in an alleged vote-buying scheme to push legislation to expand electronic bingo in the state, the Department of Justice said.

Eleven people, including three lobbyists, were charged with taking part in a conspiracy to bribe lawmakers for their votes and influence on proposed legislation, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in a statement.

The criminal charges include conspiracy, bribery, extortion, money laundering, mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice and making false statements, the statement said, adding the alleged offenses took place during the 2009 and 2010 sessions of the Alabama legislature.

The bribes came in the form of campaign contributions, campaign appearances by country music stars, fund-raising assistance and other things of value, Breuer said.

“The alleged criminal scheme was astonishing in scope ... The defendants’ corrupt conduct infiltrated every layer of the legislation process in the state,” Breuer said at a news conference in Washington.

“They are charged with having offered huge sums of money and other benefits in exchange for the legislators’ votes,” he said.

Gambling is severely limited under Alabama law and some in the state have long sought to loosen restrictions, arguing it would bring much-needed tax revenue and economic development.

Both arrested businessmen owned casinos. Milton McGregor owned Macon County Greyhound Park Inc, also known as Victoryland, and Jefferson Country Racing Association in Jefferson County.

Ronald Gilley owned Country Crossing real estate, entertainment and gambling development in Houston County.

The four state senators -- Democrats Larry Means and Quinton Ross, Republican James Pruiett and independent Harri Anne Smith -- are charged with “accepting or agreeing to accept and in some cases demanding these bribes,” Breuer said.

The “Sweet Home Alabama bill,” discussed during the 2010 spring legislative session in state capital Montgomery, would have given wide powers to a handful of gambling entrepreneurs to open casinos. The bill was defeated in a vote.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley has argued strongly against state gambling on the grounds that it is an unregulated industry whose promoters transgress legal limits.

He called the bill the “most corrupt piece of legislation ever considered by the Senate.” Monday’s arrests were “disappointing but hardly surprising,” he said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Verna Gates; Writing by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Bill Trott