No Comment — August 15, 2011, 9:37 am

Justice Department Rolls Snake Eyes in Alabama Gambling Trial

The Justice Department’s public-integrity section was hit with another embarrassing setback Thursday, this time from the jury in the bizarre Alabama bingo case — Justice’s highest-profile political litigation since its botched prosecution of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. The department had charged two sitting Alabama state senators, two former senators, a bingo-gambling mogul, and a smattering of lobbyists over claims that campaign contributions had been offered and made in order to influence votes on bingo legislation in 2009 and 2010. The prosecution showed Justice to be firmly aligned with Alabama’s then-governor, Republican Bob Riley, who had leveled the initial vote-buying accusations during a heated election-time political debate over gambling issues. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer touted the case against the Alabama politicians as “astonishing” when he announced the arrests. The jury, however, turned out to be quite unimpressed with the evidence offered. It fully exonerated two defendants, acquitted the others on a number of counts, and deadlocked on the rest. Jurors subsequently disclosed that the overwhelming majority — between eight and ten of them — had been prepared to acquit all of the defendants on all counts. While prosecutors are free to retry the defendants who were not fully acquitted, the acquittals will greatly complicate that process, and the poor result with the first jury suggests that the effort might yield even more embarrassing results.

Riley initially launched the politically charged bingo investigation; it was then picked up by a U.S. Attorney’s office headed by Leura Canary, the wife of Riley’s campaign adviser. Local political figures cried foul, but Breuer insisted that the matter was being handled entirely by the main branch of the Justice Department. He then assigned Brenda Morris, one of the lawyers now under investigation for the mishandling of the Stevens file, to a lead position in the case. Many of the same problems that afflicted the Stevens file occurred in Alabama, too: the judge described the prosecution’s conduct in the latter as “ridiculous”, dismissed many of the charges himself, and threatened to sanction prosecutors over their misconduct. One of the prosecution’s key witnesses, a senior FBI agent, disappeared from the courthouse and never offered evidence, amid suggestions of serious misconduct. And in the end, the evidence actually offered never came close to the claims prosecutors had made to the local media at the outset of the case.

The defendants did not deny that the Alabama bingo industry had mounted an intense lobbying effort, but they argued that the real conflict was between Alabama’s homegrown gambling industry and Mississippi’s Indian-casino gambling industry, which has thrived in part by luring Alabamans across the state line. The Choctaw, the primary tribe involved in Mississippi Indian casino gambling, were aggressively represented by Republican campaign consultant Jack Abramoff, who enlisted a number of prominent Republican officeholders in his efforts. Abramoff, you might recall, was released from prison last summer after serving three and a half years of a six-year sentence for mail fraud and conspiracy; one of his principal business partners, Michael Scanlon, Bob Riley’s former press secretary, was sentenced to 20 months for his role in the Abramoff operations this February.

Abramoff exercised a suspicious amount of influence on the Justice Department in all of his dealings, including in his work on behalf of the Choctaw. In one prime example, the tribe was assisted in procuring funds for a new jail by a senior Justice official whom Abramoff had given valuable perks. While the Choctaw were being represented by Abramoff, they also funneled at least $13 million into Riley’s 2002 election campaign. The suppression of the Alabama bingo gambling industry, and the Justice Department’s prosecution of those associated with it, greatly benefited Mississippi’s Indian casino gambling operations by putting their principal competition out of business. In a sense, therefore, the bingo prosecution forms a coda to the tale of “Casino Jack” Abramoff, with the Justice Department playing a murky and controversial ongoing role.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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