An Alabama judge faces more than 70 corruption charges because she was caught on a wiretap of gambling magnate Milton McGregor, as part of a federal electronic-bingo investigation.
The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) filed a 127-page civil complaint on Monday against Montgomery County Circuit Judge Patricia Warner. The document indicates that parties and lawyers had filed dozens of complaints against Warner, but a source tells Legal Schnauzer that JIC took action only after federal authorities caught the judge engaging in improper communications with McGregor. And that information fell in the feds' lap because of their wiretap on McGregor in the bingo investigation.
The Warner story is one of several recent developments that raise disturbing questions about the motivations of prosecutors in the bingo case. It also confirms what we've known for a long time: The JIC is a pathetic excuse for a watchdog organization. Our source says JIC had substantial evidence of misconduct by Warner dating back to 2005, but it did nothing until the feds stumbled upon her conversation with McGregor. Even then, JIC apparently only acted because the feds didn't want to deal with the Warner/McGregor issue.
What does all of this say about the motivations driving the bingo prosecution? Let's consider several angles:
* The Bob Riley subpoena--U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry Moorer, who ruled that former Governor Bob Riley would not have to testify, used to work as an assistant U.S. attorney under Leura Canary and Louis Franklin in the Middle District of Alabama. Canary has documented ties to Riley (through her husband, Business Council of Alabama President Bill Canary), and Franklin is lead prosecutor on the bingo case. That would seem to be a clear conflict for Moorer. But he has not stepped away from the case, and he made a legally dubious decision that the prosecution clearly favored, keeping Riley off the stand. We do have good news on this angle: Moorer's ruling left the door open for Riley to testify later in the trial, and our sources say that, indeed, is likely to happen.
* The examination of Benjamin Lewis--A former state legislator from the Dothan area, Lewis was appointed to a state judgeship as Bob Riley's crusade against electronic bingo was heating up. Did Riley appoint Lewis to the judgeship as a reward for cooperating with federal officials on the bingo investigation? That is one of the central questions in the trial, but prosecutors filed a motion yesterday, seeking to block any questioning of Lewis on the matter. They also sought to block questions about an FBI analyst's report on Lewis' motivations. What grounds did prosecutors cite to support their motion? Well, they were weak:
Mr. Lewis’ judicial appointment and the FBI analyst’s report both post-date Mr. Lewis’ cooperation with the FBI by many months and have no temporal connection with his willingness to make consensual recordings. Those events are thus irrelevant to the jury’s assessment of Mr. Lewis’ credibility and motivations at the time of his cooperation.
If Lewis' judicial appointment "post-dates" his cooperation with the FBI, does that preclude the possibility that he and Riley reached an agreement in advance? Of course not. And that's why Lewis should be questioned on the matter, and it's why the government's motion causes a reasonable observer to scream, "What are you trying to hide?"
We have good news on this angle, too, from Lance Griffin of the Dothan Eagle. Lewis took the stand for the first time late yesterday afternoon, and U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson is expected to rule on the government's motion this morning. Jim Parkman, attorney for defendant Harri Anne Smith, argued that the motion should be denied. Reports Griffin:
Smith attorney Jim Parkman said the defense should be allowed to question Lewis about the judgeship because he plans to introduce evidence that Lewis told someone he would get the judgeship before the selection process ended. The defense claims the judgeship appointment was a political reward given to Lewis from Gov. Riley.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said he would rule Wednesday morning before testimony begins, but appeared inclined to deny the government’s motion and allow Lewis to be questioned about the judgeship.
Why is the government anxious to "not go there" on the Lewis issue? Probably because it clearly raises the spectre of a political prosecution? Why were McGregor and other pro-gambling forces the only ones wiretapped? Why was Bob Riley not wiretapped for any discussions he might have had with Benjamin Lewis?
* The Warner/McGregor conversation--If Warner and McGregor used federal wires to engage in unlawful communications, they might have committed a federal crime. Warner certainly might have crossed into criminal territory. From the information we have at the moment, it's unclear what McGregor might have done wrong.
So why have prosecutors not pursued a federal case? Why did they refer Warner to the JIC and let McGregor go, for now, on the issue?
We can think of only one answer: The feds, even under Barack Obama, are not interested in prosecuting crimes; they are interested in prosecuting certain people, on certain issues, for political reasons. That, of course, is unlawful. But the U.S. Department of Justice, these days, is one of the last places you would look to find lawful or ethical behavior.