|Milton McGregor (right) and Joe Espy
The era of political prosecutions more or less started in Alabama with the Don Siegelman case during the George W. Bush years. Perhaps it ended here yesterday, in the Obama years, when a federal jury in Montgomery rendered no convictions in an electronic bingo/vote buying trial.
Jurors deadlocked on some charges and found not guilty on all others. That's nine defendants, 37 counts, and zero convictions, for those of you keeping score at home. It was as if the jury sent the U.S. Justice Department this resounding message: "Take your bogus political prosecutions and jam them up your . . . " Well, you get the idea.
Andrew Kreig, of the D.C.-based Justice Integrity Project, called it "one of the most remarkable setbacks nationally" for federal prosecutors in decades. Kreig also nailed it when he wrote, "this was a humiliation of epic proportions for the Obama Justice Department and its Bush DOJ holdovers." Kreig goes on to outline the bumbling that accompanied the investigation:
The government, including the Republican state administration of two-term Gov. Bob Riley spent vast amounts in its investigation, prompted in part by Riley’s public stance of opposing gambling. Riley last year sent 135 police vehicles on a dawn raid to shut down the Country Crossing electronic bingo casino in Dothan, for example. That police raid proved to be a public relations disaster that in effect previewed this week's. A YouTube video of the raid showed that the casino was already closed upon the arrival of what became known as the "Riley's Raiders" police armada, which seemed more suitable for quelling an armed urban riot than raiding a bingo parlor. On top of all the planning that must have gone into the 4 a.m. operation, troopers arrived without a search warrant and therefore had to return to HQ on that basis also.
Kreig, correctly, lays considerable blame for the fiasco at the feet of Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder:
Another matter sure to be analyzed not simply in Alabama but in legal circles nationally, including on this site, was how the DOJ run by Attorney General Eric Holder could come up with so little in a state so notorious for big-dollar official corruption.
One explanation we have heard directly from a prominent Democratic political figure in Alabama is that oversight in the two-party system is effectively dead in certain states such as Alabama. In this view, the Obama administration has decided to let Republicans in Alabama and similar Red States do what they want in hopes the Republicans will similarly smile on Democratic machinations in other parts of the country.
Two defendants were exonerated completely, and the seven others could face a retrial. But we suspect the government would be wise to slink away, lick its wounds, and leave the case alone. Do we want more of our taxpayer dollars wasted on bingo-related witch hunts? I don't think so.
In a post earlier this week--titled "Is Our Country Rotting From the Inside Out"--we outlined how the bingo case clearly was tainted and said that it had the look of a "flat-out sham." Jurors apparently agreed.
This might have been the most blatant political prosecution of them all--and it happened on Obama's watch, which should give progressives considerable pause. The general allegation was that certain individuals tried to buy the votes of state legislators on bills related to electronic bingo. But the investigation, and the trial, focused only on those who were pro bingo. It did not even begin to scrutinize those who were against bingo, led by former Republican Governor Bob Riley and his henchmen.
The case was about a political issue--with two sides, some folks pro and some con. But the federal government looked at only one side. In other words, they weren't prosecuting crimes, they were prosecuting certain people because of their beliefs. That is a textbook definition of a political prosecution. Let's consider a few big lessons from this fiasco:
* It's All About the Bushies--Bingo only became an issue because of Bob Riley's crusade to stamp out Alabama gaming, in an apparent effort to protect the market share of his Mississippi Choctaw benefactors. Attorneys for defendant Milton McGregor tried to subpoena Riley, and it was quashed--although the judge left open the possibility that Riley could be called. The defense eventually rested without even attempting to call Riley. In my book, that was a sure sign that the case was a fix--and I was not at all surprised by yesterday's verdict.
Let me put on my CT (conspiracy theory) hat and state what I think happened. Sources tell Legal Schnauzer that McGregor lawyers Joe Espy and Bobby Segall conducted pre-trial discovery with Mississippi Choctaw representatives, including Nell Rogers, who was Jack Abramoff's chief contact with the Choctaws. We are told that Rogers' sworn testimony yielded enough dirt on Riley to sink the U.S.S. Missouri. We suspect that gave McGregor enough ammunition to work out a deal that ensured the defendants would go free in exchange for keeping Riley off the stand. Could McGregor wind up suing Riley and others for trying to ruin his business? We suspect that part of the deal is that McGregor "not go there." In other words, lawyers from both sides, with full knowledge of U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, probably worked out a deal to cook the case--with the defendants receiving freedom, and the Riley crowd receiving protection.
I can hear some of you saying, "Schnauzer, you've got to be nuts. Surely our federal justice system is not that corrupt." My response? "I might be nuts, but our 'justice system' definitely is that corrupt--and don't call me "Shirley."
A key point: Bob Riley is not all that big a fish, especially now that he is a mere lobbyist and not a governor. So why all the effort to protect him? The answer, I suspect, is in Riley's political lineage. He has strong ties to Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff, and Michael Scanlon, not to mention U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. A serious investigation of Riley surely would go down some interesting roads, including one that might lead to the top of the Bush crime family. Bingo lawyers were not trying to protect Bob Riley; they were trying to protect much bigger interests than him. They don't want regular citizens to know about the nastiest sleaze perpetrated by America's corporate elites, which tends to have ties to the Bush family.
* Judges and Jury Instructions Matter--The government got convictions in the Siegelman case, and the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, for two reasons: (1) The cases were overseen by corrupt GOP-appointed judges--Mark Fuller and Henry Wingate, respectively; (2) Both Fuller and Wingate gave incorrect jury instructions, ensuring that the Siegelman and Minor defendants would be convicted for "crimes" that do not exist under the actual law.
Myron Thompson, the bingo-trial judge, was appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1980. Thompson is hardly a paragon of virtue--after all, we suspect he allowed unlawful deal-making to go on behind the scenes in the bingo case. But at least he made sure, if my suspicions are correct, that innocent people did not go to prison. And that makes him a far cry better than Fuller and Wingate.
Also, we suspect that the jury received a correct instruction in the bingo trial, that a bribery conviction in the political-campaign context requires an "explicit agreement." We have not seen the instruction in the bingo case, but Thompson's public comments indicate he knew about the actual legal requirement for bribery in the political arena. With correct jury instructions in the Siegelman and Minor cases, the verdicts probably would have been like those rendered yesterday in Montgomery.
* Don't Let the Feds Bully You Into Guilty Pleas--The big losers in the bingo case are the three individuals--Ronnie Gilley, Jarrod Massey, and Jennifer Pouncy--who pleaded guilty in exchange for their testimony against the other defendants. They must be thinking twice about those pleas this morning. Again using my CT hat, I suspect certain lawyers worked with prosecutors to pressure the trio to plead guilty--ensuring that the government would not walk away in total disgrace. That means Gilley, Massey, and Pouncy almost certainly pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit--and their lives, as a result, are pretty much ruined. But do you think certain lawyers and prosecutors care about that? Hell, no.
Is there reason to believe the trio, in fact, was innocent? Yes, there is. Perhaps the key moment in the trial came when Pouncy admitted under cross-examination that she had no "explicit agreement" with defendant Jim Preuitt. That pretty much blew up the government's case against Preuitt, and jurors might have figured, "Why should we believe there was an explicit agreement with anyone else?" Evidence suggested that Gilley, Massey, and Pouncy came closer than anyone else to crossing over the boundary into criminal territory. But Pouncy's own words show she had no explicit deal with Preuitt. Given that Pouncy worked for Massey, and Massey worked for Gilley, there is reason to believe that all three of them would have been found not guilty--absent their guilty pleas.
What does the bingo trial teach us in a national sense? If you are a progressive wanting to see someone "primary" Obama--and I definitely am in that camp--this case provides plenty of ammunition. The administration, to Obama's eternal shame, has adopted Bush policies on a number of key justice issues. Would it be nice to have a progressive candidate who actually believes in the 14th Amendment, in the guarantees of "due process" and "equal protection"? It sure as heck would, especially since Obama has shown that he doesn't care one flip about those constitutional issues.
An Alabama jury yesterday sent a loud, clear message. If Obama fails to listen, and we suspect he won't listen, don't be surprised if he winds up being a one-term president.