MONTGOMERY -- Federal investigators told legislative leaders Thursday they are investigating corruption revolving around gambling and the bingo bill passed by the Senate earlier this week.
Leaders of the Alabama House of Representatives and Senate said U.S. attorneys and an FBI agent met with them to tell them about the probe as a courtesy and to request their cooperation.
Legislators said they were given scant details about the status of the investigation other than that the focus was on bingo.
"They were very vague but they said there was substantial evidence of public corruption on the bingo issue," said Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills. Waggoner said the federal officials told the lawmakers the investigation "was not a fishing expedition." House Minority Leader, Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said most of the lawmakers in the room pledged to cooperate with the investigation, and a big part of that cooperation is informing lawmakers to come forward and report anything out of the ordinary related to bingo legislation.
Hubbard did that with House Republicans late Thursday, calling them into a meeting. "I told them they had a duty and obligation if they knew anything that might relate to this investigation to step forward now," Hubbard said.
Hubbard said he had no first-hand information to share with the federal officials, but he said Thursday's meeting was chilling.
"They scared the crap out of me, and I know I haven't done anything wrong," Hubbard said.
Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said he also met with members of the legislative black caucus Thursday and told them to be extremely careful about discussing campaign contributions with lobbyists for gambling interests.
"I told them under no condition should they be discussing bingo and money together, don't do it, don't joke about it because we're all being watched," Rogers said. "I don't know what all is about to happen around here but you get the feeling that all hell is about to break loose."
The speaker of the House, the lieutenant governor and the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate attended the 30-minute meeting with an FBI agent and prosecutors from the Department of Justice's Public Integrity Section and the Middle District of Alabama, legislators said. Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, and House Majority Leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, declined to discuss the meeting Senate Majority Leader Zeb Little, D-Cullman, who was in the meeting with federal investigators, said they "informed us there was an ongoing investigation regarding public corruption."
"They did acknowledge that it was about the bingo bill, but there were no specifics," Little said.
But Little said he was afraid that "their strings are being pulled" by Gov. Bob Riley or other opponents of the legislation.
The Senate on a 21-13 vote Tuesday approved the bill that, if also OK'd by the House, would let voters go to the polls in November to decide whether to allow electronic bingo. Unlike other bills before it, the version approved this week would not dictate the locations of bingo casinos. It would establish a minimum 25 percent tax on bingo revenues and establish a gaming commission but leave legislators to decide later most other details of how gambling would work.
Little said the investigation would scare legislators who had accepted campaign contributions from anyone interested in the bill. "This is meant to create a news story to put a chilling effect on the legislative process and ultimately deny the people of Alabama the right to vote on this issue," Little said.
Little said he told investigators "if I know of any criminal conduct I'll let you know, but if anybody is giving you false information, that's a crime too and they should be prosecuted."
Hubbard, who also was in the meeting and is an opponent of the bingo bill, said investigators said in the meeting that politics was not involved in the investigation.
"Zeb essentially accused the agents and the U.S. attorney's office of politics and I tell you that didn't go over so well," Hubbard said. "The people in that room informed Little that this was an FBI matter and had absolutely noting to do with state politics or bingo. In fact, they said they could care less about whether the bill passed or didn't, that their concern was how it passed and it was clear to everybody in that room that how it passed had a lot to do with corrupting influences."
Five Senate Democrats, including Little, also issued a statement blaming Riley. "We believe this is a blatant attempt to undercut the people's right to vote on the bingo issue, something that a large majority of citizens support, and to ensure the death of this legislation. This is about intimidation and killing bingo. The timing proves it," said the joint statement issued by Little, Senate President Pro Tempore Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham; Senate Rules Chairman Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe; Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma; and Sen. Roger Bedford, D- Russellville, who is the sponsor of the bingo legislation.
Riley's office in a statement this afternoon said he "had nothing to do with the investigation."
"Governor Riley was not even aware this meeting was taking place," the statement said.
The investigation has been rumored for weeks at the Alabama State House.
"Everybody knows they are here," Rogers said.
Little also said some legislators had been interviewed by agents from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation.
(Copyright- The Birmingham News)