Birmingham--Alabama lawmakers are being extra careful what they say and do after federal investigators revealed they're looking into corruption around a gambling bill. This bill and the issue of electronic bingo have already created a firestorm as WBHM's Andrew Yeager reports.
On a recent afternoon at the state capitol in Montgomery, State Senator Bobby Denton stands behind the podium in the chamber and begins with a musical invocation.
"Give us this day our daily bread..."
But just moments before, Denton gave a disclaimer. He said offering prayer was arranged two months ago.
"And is in no way reflecting on current events."
Denton has been questioned twice by federal authorities about his vote on a controversial bingo bill - one episode of the current events which has the capitol abuzz. Alabama has been mired in a dispute over electronic bingo. Governor Bob Riley says the machines, with their flashing lights and quick play, are really slot machines, which are illegal here. This bill would allow a statewide vote on whether to authorize electronic bingo.
State legislative leaders say FBI and U.S. attorney's officials told them in a meeting last week they have "substantial evidence" of corruption around the bingo bill. The ongoing federal investigation has lawmakers scared, almost paranoid.
"We're all kind of whispering and wondering, you know, who are they talking about? What are they talking about?"
That's Republican State Senator Jabo Waggoner. Another lawmaker says his secretary won't talk on the phone for fear it's bugged.
Away from the capitol, the Republican governor's task force has shutdown or raided almost every bingo hall in Alabama. Since gambling support tends to come from Democrats, some like State Senator Zeb Little, wonder if this investigation is designed to stop the bill.
"The timing of this smells of politics. Strategically if you were trying to kill the bill and could orchestrate that then that's the kind of timing you would use."
Little notes one of the federal prosecutors involved is under investigation for her role in the failed corruption case against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. Little believes mostly pro-gambling legislators are being targeted in this investigation. He questions if Republicans are pulling strings. Todd Stacy is a spokesman for the Republican governor.
"I just think it's pretty silly. It's pretty far fetched to think that the governor could initiate or influence an investigation from the FBI in Washington D.C."
Pamela Bucy is a former assistant U.S. attorney who now teaches law at the University of Alabama. She says it is unusual for the Justice Department to reveal an ongoing investigation. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. However, Bucy says much of what we know has come from legislators talking publicly. Not from investigators.
"We don't know who all they've talked to. I mean the Department of Justice hasn't put out a list of who all they're talking to. So I don't think we can really draw any conclusions about who they're talking to and who they're not."
One person investigators have talked to is Republican State Senator Paul Sanford. He contacted authorities last week about a phone call he received about a year ago from a gambling lobbyist. He claims the lobbyist offered a quarter of a million dollar campaign contribution if he supported an electronic bingo bill. Sanford declined. Now, he believes the investigation is not just about bingo.
"I think this could be much broader than that with other pieces of legislation."
In the meantime, Alabama lawmakers are left to consider a bingo bill, unsure of who is being watched and how closely.
~ Andrew Yeager, April 9, 2010