“I’m happy to hear it,” said Constance Ragland, a Talladega resident who described herself as a “supporter” of Preuitt, a former state senator. “Gambling is like drinking. Even if you don’t like it, people are going to do it. I don’t see why we have to make such a big deal about it.”
Ragland was in a uniform supply shop Tuesday when she first got the news that Preuitt — who represented this town in the Senate first as a Democrat, then as a Republican — was acquitted on 12 charges of political corruption in a much-publicized political bribery trial.
Preuitt stood accused of accepting contributions from gambling lobbyists in exchange for a vote in favor of a constitutional amendment to allow electronic bingo.
The judge declared a mistrial on three other charges against Preuitt — bribery, conspiracy, and lying to an FBI agent. A second trial on those charges is possible, but all nine defendants walked away Thursday without a single conviction.
In downtown Talladega, where an antebellum courthouse still dominates the town square, drawing traffic to mom-and-pop shops, the reaction to the verdict was as complicated as Alabama politics itself.
Lisa Gurley, who runs Standard Furniture and Appliance on the corner of the square, thought Preuitt was guilty.
“Unbelievable,” she said when she first heard the news. “I just don’t see how they can do that.”
Montgomery politics is corrupt, Gurley said. Everybody knows that lobbyists are buying votes, she said, and this trial was just the tip of the iceberg.
But her rage quickly melted into frustration — frustration at more than a year of conflict over the issue of gambling.
“Our former governor’s not any better, with his crusade against bingo,” she said. “What good did that do anybody?”
Gurley’s co-worker, Casey Bice, laughed and shook his head while reading an AP news report on the verdict. “Do I think he’s guilty, definitely,” he said.
But moments later, Bice sounded a different tone.
“Milton McGregor is my hero,” he said, pumping his fist, but with a gleam of humor in his eye.
McGregor, a co-defendant in the trial, is the owner of VictoryLand casino. Like Preuitt, McGregor wasn’t convicted of any of the charges against him.
Bice still sees McGregor as “corrupt.” But part of Bice wants to root for the casino developer — because, Bice said, Alabama’s opposition to gambling just doesn’t make sense.
“I don’t see why we can’t just let people do what they want to,” he said.
Despite Preuitt’s high-profile role in the trial, gambling doesn’t play a huge role in the culture of Talladega County. Most of the state’s casinos are studded across the Black Belt, a hundred miles to the south. Locals say the local Elks Lodge used to host paper bingo, but stopped some time ago.
“I’m all for gambling if they regulate and tax it,” said Leroy Barber, one of several clients in the waiting room at the law firm of Campbell and Campbell, on a corner of the town square. “We could make some money for this state.”
Barber lives in Trussville, but was one of the few people in town Thursday who said they’d followed the trial closely. He said he wasn’t too surprised at the verdict, saying he expected more evidence from the prosecution.
The Star couldn’t reach Preuitt for comment late Thursday. An employee at Jim Preuitt Ford, Preuitt’s business, said he hadn’t heard any feedback from the public on the case, because few customers had come in. He said the slow business was typical for August, and wasn’t due to the trial. The employee declined to give his name.
Several other of Preuitt’s supporters declined to talk on the record, or to give their names. Some said they were personally opposed to gambling, but felt Preuitt had been framed.
And there were some people, even here at Talladega’s political center, who just ignored the whole drama.
Josephine Knowles owns The Spot Urban Boutique, a clothing store in the shadow of the big courthouse. On Thursday afternoon, she sat reading a Bible, marked with a yellow highlighter, as she waited for customers.
“I really couldn’t tell you a thing about it,” she said, with a smile. “I haven’t kept up with it. Sorry.”
And she went back to reading, and waiting.
Assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560