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In Alabama, the Smoke of an Emerging Scandal

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In the last few weeks, Alabama newspapers have started looking at state contracting processes in the Riley administration. They are finding the companies advised by persons close to the Riley administration have a curious habit of coming out on top, even when they are not the low bidders. For Alabama, this is politics as usual, nothing too surprising. But now a matter is opening up which is out of the ordinary. It promises to link Alabama’s governor to the widespread corruption scandal which figures Jack Abramoff, and former Riley press secretary Michael Scanlon at its center.

John W. Goff is a name that Alabamians are likely to be hearing a lot of in the near future. He’s a figure long and well known to Governor Bob Riley, and Riley’s son. And back at the end of March, Goff filed a law suit in a state court in Montgomery.

The suit claims that Riley, state Insurance Commissioner Walter Bell, former Lt. Gov. Steve Windom and others conspired to destroy Goff’s workman’s compensation insurance business. It alleges:

Goff went from being one of Alabama’s leading and reputable insurance providers to being wrongfully disgraced, publicly humiliated and financially ruined as a result of a vendetta waged against him by the defendants and others.

Goff talks about two trips Riley made to Washington aboard Goff’s plane while running for governor in 2002. He sought $25,000 in reimbursement for the trips. Goff seems to be suggesting that these trips to Washington had something to do with Jack Abramoff or with the transmission of campaign money that Abramoff was funneling into the Riley campaign, but his allegations on this score are fairly vague.

Riley’s son, Birmingham attorney Rob Riley, who has a rather noteworthy habit of turning up as silent co-counsel on major litigation matters in which state interests are involved, responded to Goff’s letter saying the flights had been considered in-kind contributions to the campaign. One was listed on Riley’s campaign finance reports, but the other was left off because of ”an oversight,” Rob Riley wrote. After an exchange of more letters, the Riley campaign paid Goff $25,000.

Now Goff has submitted a long series of interrogatories to Riley. The new interrogatories press Riley for information about his relations with Abramoff, Scanlon and a series of other names at the heart of the still-pending Abramoff probe. In particular, it asks for information about steps these individuals took to raise monies for Riley’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign by pressuring contributions from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians or their casino operations.

A Senate subcommittee probe into Abramoff’s dealings with the Mississippi Choctaws in fact turned up a series of emails, copies of which have been secured by No Comment, between Abramoff and Scanlon in which they discuss how the threats of gambling initiatives in Alabama could be used to pressure the tribe and its casino operations into large-scale funding of the Riley gubernatorial campaign.

The Goff papers also state that George Burger, of the Washington firm of Lunde & Burger, was one of Riley’s campaign advisors at the same time he served as a consultant to the Mississippi Choctaws, and that Riley’s campaign advisor and former chief of staff Toby Roth is currently a consultant to the Mississippi Choctaws. Burger also served as the Washington lobbyist for the Business Council of Alabama, an organization headed by William Canary which is very deeply involved in Republican politics in Alabama.

A primary concern that Abramoff and Scanlon allegedly fanned with the Choctaws was that the Alabama Poarch Band of Creek Indians would construct a competing casino operation. The Goff papers question Riley’s dealings with the Creeks on their gaming initiative, an effort in which Riley appears to have involved his friend and the wife of his campaign advisor, U.S. Attorney Leura Canary.

The Goff papers also suggest that Riley received large sums of money from a special political action committee controlled by disgraced former Republican House Leader Tom DeLay, and that monies from various gaming sources were laundered to Riley through the Republican Governors Association. And they note the core involvement of Twinkle Andress, the state G.O.P. chair who apparently also had deep lobbying connection with the Mississippi Choctaws. Andress is currently Riley’s Chief of Staff.

The suggestions in the Goff papers hardly seem trivial. On many points they match precisely with the report that Senator John McCain prepared concerning the Abramoff-Scanlon dealings with various Indian gaming interests, following the money trail forward several additional steps—into Governor Riley’s campaign coffers. The complaint was filed by one of the most prominent law firms in Alabama, which was itself actually associated with Riley’s gubernatorial campaign.

Sources in the Birmingham and Montgomery bar have advised me that Riley has reacted with a sense of rage to the suit and is particularly distressed by the interrogatories which reveal in some detail his dealings with Abramoff and his former press secretary in the launching of his gubernatorial bid. He is said to have turned to U.S. Attorney Leura Canary, pleading with her to make it “go away.” And Canary, who figures herself in the center of the controversy, appears to have mobilized many of the same resources she previously deployed in her sustained guerilla campaign against Governor Siegelman to accomplish just that end. That would of course be a serious ethics infraction. But it would also be consistent with her earlier dealings. For Canary, the criminal justice process is simply the continuation of politics by other means.

So far this is the news bubbling just under the surface in Alabama press circles. Eventually, a ‘Bama paper may even muster the courage to write about it.

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