Rule breakers Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform

Bingo probe just another piece in Alabama's checkered past

The Birmingham News
Mary Orndorff
October 12, 2010

WASHINGTON -- The investigation into allegations gambling advocates bought and paid for a bill in Montgomery is not the first time the FBI has secretly wired up someone and sent them to walk the halls of the Alabama Legislature.

It's also not the first time state lawmakers have been caught on tape discussing votes and money in the same breath.

Alabama has a colorful history of public corruption investigations and convictions -- enough to make historians ponder whether it's part of the culture. The list of public officials turned felons is long and includes two governors, an attorney general, a congressman and plenty of lawmakers and Cabinet members. There also are a few whose political careers did not end; they served time, got their rights restored, and ran for office again.

The late Rep. Thomas Reed of Tuskegee was re-elected after going to prison for extortion, then later criticized an effort to pardon former Gov. Guy Hunt. Hunt, convicted for pocketing money that was not his, got the pardon and put himself on the ballot again, too. "Proving once again that ethics laws in Alabama could make political corruption illegal in Alabama but could never make it unpopular," wrote Alabama historian Wayne Flynt in his book, "Alabama in the 20th Century".

The 11 defendants in the latest scandal, including four state senators, are expected to plead not guilty this week and deny the Justice Department allegations that they swapped votes on a gambling bill for campaign cash and other goodies.

Before bingo

Twenty-two years ago, the issue was coal. A union official went to the FBI in 1988 claiming state Rep. Patricia Davis of Birmingham promised votes -- hers and others' -- for cash. The union official recorded conversations, and Davis and two others were charged. Their defense, in part, was that the money was for their campaigns and didn't influence their votes on what was known as the "Buy Alabama Coal" bill. Jurors in the first trial heard about 40 recordings of conversations. Davis was convicted and served five years.

On one of the tapes, jurors heard Davis talk about how she was able to pay cash for all of the new furniture in her home.

Coal also was central in a probe about 10 years earlier. An 18-month federal investigation centered on allegations that coal lobbyists bought votes from lawmakers with prostitutes, drinks, trips and money. Most of the charges against the multiple defendants were dismissed after an 11-week trial in 1980. Former state Sen. Joe Fine, now lobbying partner of one of those arrested last week, eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and more serious charges were dropped.

In the early 1990s, a conduit for funneling tax dollars into the pet projects of individual legislators was investigated, and its director, state Sen. Ray Campbell, pleaded guilty to charging a state office for work never done by the Alabama Center for Quality and Productivity. The probe also snagged former state Sen. Bill Drinkard and former state Rep. John Tanner, who was legal adviser to former Gov. Jim Folsom Jr.

A similar pass-through scheme turned state Sen. E.B. McClain of Birmingham into a felon last year for sending tax dollars through a nonprofit and into his pocket.

Nearly every administration has been tainted by scandal. Gov. Don Siegelman is appealing his conviction for appointing HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy to a health board in exchange for $500,000 in donations to his lottery campaign fund.

Folsom's insurance commissioner, Jimmy Dill, was convicted on charges that he still was receiving money from a private insurance company he founded and lying about it to investigators.

Gov. Fob James' transportation director, Jimmy Butts, pleaded guilty to bribery in a scheme that funneled cash to help his son's racing career.

Going even further back, former U.S. Rep. Frank Boykin of Mobile was convicted in 1963 of conspiracy and conflict of interest. He was pardoned by President Johnson in 1965.

Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers was convicted in 1969 of extorting payments from life insurance companies and was pardoned by President Carter in 1978.

Rule Breakers

The Alabama Ethics Commission keeps a running tally of some of the public officials who've run afoul of their rules: former state treasurer Melba Till Allen, 1978; former Public Service Commission President Juanita McDaniel, 1980; Alabama State Industrial Relations Director Dottie Cieszynski, 1996; former chairman of the Birmingham Water Board Horace Parker, 1998.

Parker was convicted of arranging a water main upgrade to improve the water pressure for the lawn sprinklers at his home.

It was not the last time Jefferson County would have a water-related corruption scandal. The investigation into how a sewer project drove the county to the brink of bankruptcy has convicted four county commissioners -- Chris McNair, Gary White, Larry Langford and Mary Buckelew -- and a slew of county employees and contractors. Ratepayers have seen shocking increases on their bills, and a $3.2 billion debt still looms.

Langford was ousted as mayor of Birmingham earlier this year for accepting bribes in exchange for steering some of the sewer financing deals to Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount. Lobbyist Al LaPierre also was caught up in the scandal.

The wide-ranging investigation into two-year colleges and the legislators they employed resulted in the convictions of two lawmakers -- Bryant Melton and Sue Schmitz -- and the chancellor of the two-year college system, Roy Johnson, plus several others.

Historians note that the state's current constitution was approved in 1901 with fraudulent votes, a scheme by whites to lock their supremacy over blacks into law.

"You could say the fundamental law of Alabama was born in corruption, so we're continuing on with historic tradition, one we would like to break," said retired University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart.

To comment, contact jared bickford or e-mail

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