Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gambling trial witness describes alleged bribery

Sen. Harri Anne Smith and her husband, Charlie Smith, pause to talk with the media as they ar­rive for the gambling corruption trial at the federal courthouse in Montgomery on Wednesday.

Sen. Harri Anne Smith and her husband, Charlie Smith, pause to talk with the media as they ar­rive for the gambling corruption trial at the federal courthouse in Montgomery on Wednesday. 

A former state lawmaker who secretly re­corded conversations talked Wednesday about al­leged bribery by gambling interests, but also had to answer for why he called a colleague who is a defendant in the a federal corruption trial "stu­pid," when he didn't realize he was being record­ed.
A prosecutor played a tape Wednesday that Sen. Scott Beason mistakenly recorded of then-Rep. Benjamin Lewis. On it, Lewis refers to state Sen. Harri Anne Smith as "stupid," and says he feels sorry for her, and that the FBI questioned his relationship with her.
Lewis also outlined how he went to authori­ties after he felt Country Crossing developer Ronnie Gilley tried to bribe him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in help for his next cam­paign during dinner at a Montgomery restaurant.
Lewis agreed to record conversations for the FBI after he went to them about Gilley promis­ing to help finance Lewis's next campaign. Lewis, who will take the stand for the third day today, is a key witness in a federal corruption trial in which federal prosecutors al­lege that casino interests in­cluding VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor and his lobbyists schemed to bribe state lawmakers to support pro-gambling legislation.
Gilley, who has pleaded guilty for his role, could take the stand later today. He would follow Jim Sumner, di­rector of the Alabama Ethics Commission.

Recording the recorder

Lewis said there was no reason for Beason to record him and that Beason acci­dentally recorded them talk­ing in Beason's vehicle in February 2010.
Lewis became emotional when a prosecutor asked him about the conversation Wednesday.
"It is difficult to record a friend of yours when you mean no harm to her," he said of Smith.
When talking to Beason about the situation, Lewis said "I like Harri Anne. I think she's stupid."
Lewis said he meant that she made some stupid deci­sions. He said he considered Smith a friend and that she was intelligent.
"I consider Harri Anne Smith a friend today. She may not feel the same about me," Lewis said in court.
FBI agents asked Lewis to record Smith, Gilley, lobbyist Claire Austin, and then-state Rep. Terry Spicer.Lewis said he had an af­fectionate relationship with Smith and he felt that the FBI was questioning wheth­er he was telling them every­thing he knew in regards to her.
Smith's attorney, Jim Parkman, mocked Lewis on Wednesday, asking him if he needed a handkerchief when he first started questioning the witness.

The dinner

Lewis, Beason and Smith attended a March 2009 din­ner at Garrett's restaurant where Gilley and others were promoting Country Crossing, a country music-themed project near Dothan with a bingo pavilion, restau­rants and other attractions.
Lewis, a Republican from Houston County, said he was asked how much his last campaign cost, which was more than $200,000, in 2006.
Lewis testified that Gilley and his lobbyist, Jarrod Mas­sey, said there would be more money available for his next campaign. Massey has also pleaded guilty.
Lewis said Gilley told him music producer James Stroud, a supporter of the project who was at the din­ner and who spent time at the State House with Gilley supporting Country Cross­ing, would write him a check for twice that much.
"I told you the level of support you've been getting ain't a drop into the bucket," Gilley tells Lewis in a later phone conversation Lewis se­cretly recorded. "All we're asking you to do is give peo­ple the opportunity to vote."
Lewis, who was since ap­pointed a district judge in Houston County by then-Gov. Bob Riley, said in court that his concerns grew about the comments at the dinner and that he contacted local authorities in Houston Coun­ty, who put him in touch with the FBI.

The $500,000 offer

Beason, a Gardendale Re­publican who also recorded conversations for the FBI and roomed with Lewis in Montgomery during legisla­tive sessions, testified that Smith told him following that dinner that Country Crossing supporters could help him with as much as $500,000 for a campaign for lieutenant governor if he supported the project.
Lewis said Beason told him about that conversation. He said Beason told him that he was told House members who supported gambling leg­islation would receive $200,000 to $250,000 for their campaigns with senators re­ceiving $500,000.
Smith has said that con­versation never happened.
Parkman questioned Lewis about a statement he typed on his personal com­puter about his encounter with Gilley and others at the March 4 dinner at Garrett's restaurant.
"There is no mention of any $500,000," Parkman said.
Lewis said he did not re­call Beason saying that Smith offered $500,000 if Beason was ever to run for lieutenant governor.
Lewis said there was noth­ing in the statement about lieutenant governor or mon­ey being offered if Beason ran for that position.
Lewis said Gilley was a "hot head" and "I put down the highlights in case any­thing was to happen to me." He said he typed "what I perceived the big stuff to be."
On the stand, Lewis said Smith never offered him money.
In a conversation Lewis recorded, Smith said she was not telling Lewis to vote for the legislation.

Lewis' recording

Lewis said he recorded about 20 conversations.
Smith, in a phone conver­sation secretly recorded by Lewis, said she asked Riley on a trip following deadly shootings in Samson in 2009 why he did not help them when they went to him a year earlier trying to stop Country Crossing. Lewis, Smith and local leaders said they went to Riley and then to Attorney General Troy King in 2008 asking for help.
Smith said Riley told her that then-Sen. Charles Bish­op, R-Jasper, later came to him with ministers and other people from Walker County asking for help after more gambling operations popped up there. She said Riley told her (as he has told the Mont­gomery Advertiser) that he then asked a lawyer to look into the legality of so-called electronic bingo.
After looking into it, his staff had a different view from King. Riley then formed a task force, which then tried to shut down state casinos, including Country Crossing and VictoryLand, through raids or the threat of raids.
Smith said, when she asked Riley about his action now after not helping them, that "he was real shaky on that. His voice quivered." She said "I didn't let up ... which I wanted to do be­cause I don't trust him.""I don't trust the governor. I think all this stuff he is doing is a shame," she told Lewis.
Smith said she had the im­pression, from her conversa­tion with Riley, that there was a political squabble be­tween Riley and King and that was at the heart of a lot of the issue for him.
Smith said she questioned how serious Riley was about the gambling issue. She told him: "Governor the only way I know you are serious is that the first machines you pick up are Milton McGre­gor's" who she said was the "800-pound gorilla."
"If Milton is illegal, then we will get him," Smith said Riley told her.
When Lewis asked her in a conversation about whether she thought Gilley and his supporters would seriously help with money for a cam­paign, Smith said she be­lieved they would follow through.
When Lewis talked to her about the campaign help, she said she would not take it so it could go somewhere else.
Smith told him in the con­versation that she believed there would be opposition to her and Lewis and they would lose if they voted against the bill.
"I think Ronnie is crooked," Lewis said in the conversation and said that his camp "would stab you in the back in a heartbeat."
Smith said she did not be­lieve Gilley would "stab you in the back" if he voted with them.
In the conversation, Smith also told Lewis "I passionate­ly oppose gambling."

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