Elected officials routinely receive monetary support from individuals and groups, but not to buy votes – a distinction experts say is the difference between legal and illegal activity.
Federal agents arrested Preuitt, R-Talladega, Monday along with three other state senators, top lobbyists and casino owners on corruption charges involving pro-gambling legislation. A federal grand jury in Montgomery indicted the 11 defendants last week, but the decision was not unsealed until Monday.
The indictment, based partially on information collected through FBI wiretaps, details alleged illegal actions committed by Preuitt, including conspiracy, bribery, extortion, honest services fraud and providing a false statement to federal agents. The indictment alleges Preuitt expected to gain financially after voting in favor of Senate Bill 380 in March – legislation that would have permitted a referendum for the operation and taxation of electronic bingo in Alabama. In addition, Preuitt allegedly pushed to ensure the promises to him would be kept even if the bill did not become law.
The pro-gambling bill, which Preuitt voted for, cleared the Senate at the end of March, after failing a procedural vote earlier in the month where Preuitt voted against it.
FBI agents told state leaders of their investigation the day the bill passed in the Senate.
Joseph Lester, director of advocacy programs and professor of law at Faulkner University, said there is a big difference between legislators accepting money for their campaigns and accepting money in exchange for votes.
“You can give to campaigns to help someone get re-elected, but this involves allegations of monetary favors,” Lester said. “Federal law prohibits giving anything of value to elected officials for the purpose of influencing a vote.”
Daniel Krejci, professor of political science at Jacksonville State University, agreed about the legal distinction between general campaign contributions and buying votes.
“Accepting money to vote a certain way on a particular issue is different from accepting campaign contributions with no strings attached,” Krejci said.
In addition to wire taps, federal prosecutors have testimony about Preuitt’s alleged activities from a 12th defendant, Jennifer Pouncy, who accepted a plea deal in the case last month.
According to the plea agreement, Pouncy was hired in 2006 by lobbying firm Mantra Governmental’s founder, Jarrod Massey, another defendant in the case.
In her plea, Pouncy states that in March, Massey told her to offer Preuitt $2 million for his 2010 re-election campaign if he supported SB 380. She stated the contribution was supported by Country Crossing developer Ronnie Gilley. Gilley is a defendant in the corruption case along with VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor.
Pouncy also states that later on in March, Preuitt was additionally offered election polling services, the purchase of 100 vehicles worth $1 million from his Talladega automobile dealership, and to have country music entertainers help in his re-election campaign.
“Even the promise to (buy cars) would be wrong,” Lester said. “Legislators can’t accept gifts of any kind.”
Around March 24, Preuitt allegedly approached Pouncy in the Alabama Senate and asked if the commitments made to him would still be honored if SB 380 passed the Senate but not the House, Pouncy stated. After speaking with her boss, she told him the promises would be kept.
The indictment also shows, through wiretaps of several Gilley and Massey phone conversations, Preuitt’s alleged desire to ensure the promises would be kept.
The indictment adds that on April 1, after the vote, Preuitt claimed in an interview with law-enforcement officers that he was never offered anything of value in exchange for his vote to pass pro-gambling legislation and that he was unaware of private individuals, lobbyists or legislators being involved in the offer or acceptance of things of value in exchange for votes to pass pro-gambling legislation.
John Carroll, dean and professor of law at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, said proving the distinction between campaign contributions and bribes will likely be a major part of the corruption case.
“The law basically says for bribery to occur … in exchange for money, you have to do an act a particular way,” Carroll said. “But if I’m a lobbyist sitting across the table telling (a legislator) ‘I like what you’re doing and I appreciate your support in the past so here is $100,000,’ … then (the legislator) goes and supports my gambling legislation … is that a bribe? I don’t know.”
Attempts Tuesday to reach Preuitt or his attorney Ronald Wayne Rise of Montgomery were unsuccessful.