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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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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”