Tuesday, August 28, 2018

As head of Senate committee, John McCain had evidence of Bob Riley's footprints in the Jack Abramoff Indian gaming scandal, but he kept it under wraps

John McCain and Bob Riley
(From Selma Daily)
Since his death on Saturday, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) largely has been portrayed in the press as a heroic figure, a man of exceptional integrity in the swampy confines of  our nation's capital. But numerous examples can be found of McCain acting with poor judgment and shaky ethics. One of the most glaring examples involves a former Alabama governor and the gaming industry -- and McCain's actions helped ensure Alabama would be a political sewer for years to come.

We're talking about Gov. Bob Riley (2003-11), the raging GOP hypocrite who claimed to be against gambling but rode into office on a wave of laundered Indian gaming dollars -- and a little overnight election theft. As chairman of the Senate committee investigating the Jack Abramoff scandal, McCain had evidence that Riley was involved but chose to keep that out of his report -- keeping attention away from the Alabama governor and largely letting him skate, even though he was one of the scandal's primary beneficiaries.

McCain released the "Gimme Five" report on the scandal in September 2006, but roughly 17 months later, Sam Stein of Huffington Post reported that McCain covered up an email that showed Riley's involvement. (The email, between Abramoff and partner Michael Scanlon, is embedded at the end of this post.) This is from a February 2008 Legal Schnauzer post about the HuffPo scoop:

Huffington Post obtained a copy of a 2002 e-mail in which Abramoff explains to an aide what he would like to see Riley do in return for the "help" he received from Abramoff's tribal clients:

An official with the Mississippi Choctaws "definitely wants Riley to shut down the Poarch Creek operation," Abramoff wrote, including his announcing that anyone caught gambling there can't qualify for a state contract or something like that."

McCain and his staff had access to this information before issuing their report--showing a direct link between Abramoff and Riley. But McCain's committee sat on the information.

What impact did this have on Alabama politics. It likely changed the course of state history in the 2000s:

Stein notes the political implications of the committee's failure to expose the Abramoff-Riley connection. Word leaked prior to the 2002 election that [Don] Siegelman was under federal investigation, and he lost the Alabama gubernatorial race to Riley by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Riley took office in January 2003 and won re-election in 2006, while McCain kept the Abramoff connection safely under wraps.

Would the prosecution that landed Siegelman in prison have ever happened if McCain had not provided cover for Riley? That is one of many interesting questions raised by Stein's story.

Stein showed in a follow-up post that McCain did more than just protect Riley. He financially backed the Riley campaign and received an endorsement from the governor in return. From a March 2008 Legal Schnauzer post on the subject, quoting Stein:

And yet, McCain took steps beyond merely protecting Riley from his Abramoff probe. Despite knowing that there were questions surrounding the ethical conduct of the Alabama governor, McCain actively supported his campaign. McCain's Straight Talk America PAC contributed $10,000 to Riley's re-election coffers. The Arizona senator attended Riley's inauguration and touted him as having "every potential to be a national figure."

Why take these steps? For starters, the two men do have past history. While they clashed on the topic of campaign finance reform, they served together in Congress on the Joint Armed Services Committee. And months before the 2006 campaign, they traveled together to Iraq. There are personal ties as well. McCain's Alabama legal advisor, Matt Lembke, was a Riley confidant during his controversial 2002 race against then Gov. Don Seigelman (who has since been arrested on a highly-controversially, politically tainted, corruption charge). Troy King, meanwhile, was appointed the state's attorney general by Riley and now serves as McCain's Alabama chairman.

McCain thought Bob Riley had the potential to be a "national figure"? This is from the same guy who went on to pick Sarah Palin as his VP running mate. In retrospect, Riley is not keeping such great company here. Here is more about McCain's possible calculations in protecting Riley:

Stein reports that McCain might have had his own career in mind when he took steps to protect Riley:

Around the time that McCain sat on the Abramoff email and was making donations to Riley's gubernatorial campaign (as well as other Alabama GOP officials), the governor was signing into law legislation that moved Alabama's 2008 primary from June 3 to February 5 (Super Tuesday). At the time, the move made the state - alongside South Carolina - a southern barometer for any Republican White House candidate. Since then, however, other states followed Alabama's lead, diminishing its impact. And following Riley's re-election, much talk in political circles centered on him being a viable vice presidential choice.

All told, there was a political balance in Alabama which McCain likely did not want to disturb. "If you are fixing to run for president, you don't want to step in the own [shit] you've created," said a source close to the Riley-Abramoff-Siegelman case. "You don't want to be the guy who is known for the downfall of Bob Riley."

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