Lawmakers, lobbyists talk bingo before grand jury

Published 4:32 am Wednesday, May 5, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Six legislators said they were questioned Tuesday before a grand jury about whether they were offered anything of value if they voted for a bill to legalize electronic bingo.

Three lobbyists also appeared at the federal courthouse in Montgomery for the hearing, which was closed to the public and the media.

The six legislators who testified, including five Republicans and one Democrat, said in interviews they had not been offered anything they felt was improper.

Legislative leaders were told by federal officials last month that the FBI was investigating whether public corruption was involved in the Senate’s passage in late March of the electronic bingo bill. The proposed legislation later died without coming up for a vote in the House.

Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, said he told the grand jurors he felt intimidated by a full-page negative ad aimed at him that was run by bingo bill supporters in the Mobile Press-Register before the vote in the Senate.

“I told them nobody offered anything for my vote, but I took that ad as an attempt to scare me,” Brooks said.

Sen. Tripp Pittman, R-Montrose, said he was asked a lot of general questions about “how Montgomery works.”

He said he told grand jurors he had not received what he considered “monetary offers,” but there were political offers.

He said during discusssions there were suggestions that some revenue from bingo games could be used to solve the insurance crisis facing Gulf Coast areas, a major issue for Pittman in the Senate. He said those talks did not sway his vote.

“I’m opposed to bingo,” Pittman said.

In addition to Brooks and Pittman, the legislators seen appearing Tuesday included Sen. Phil Poole, D-Moundville, Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, and Rep. Mac Gipson. The grand jury quit for the day before getting to Gipson’s testimony and he was asked to return at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

At least two lobbyists and two media relations consultant also appeared before the grand jury, which is expected to hear more testimony Wednesday.

Lobbyists Tom Coker and John Teague said they did not testify Tuesday but were called to verify records.

Media consultants Rick Heartsill and Bert Danner, who said they have done work for McGregor, also appeared before the grand jury to verify records. Heartsill said he provided the information requested.

Danner’s attorney, Susan James of Montgomery, said her client was asked to “deliver documents related to the bingo bill.”

Additional legislators, including House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, are expected to testify Wednesday and Thursday. Allegations of vote buying by supporters of the bill surfaced after it passed the Senate last month. It later died in the House.