Alabama Scandal: Mr. Sanford Goes to Montgomery
BBQ chef elected to senate calls arrests of state legislators 'dream come true.'
Oct. 8, 2010 — -- An Alabama state senator who went to the FBI two years ago to blow the whistle on corruption in the legislature says the indictments this week of four colleagues and a group of lobbyists are a "dream come true."
Senator Paul Sanford, the owner of a popular barbeque restaurant in Huntsville, Alabama, told ABC News he found the tainted culture of the statehouse to be widespread and visible as soon as he arrived in Montgomery, where lobbyists and corrupt officials rule the day.
"There's always a backdoor deal going on in somebody's office or in the corner of the chamber or over dinner with a lobbyist," Sen. Sanford told ABC News. "There's always somebody working an unusual angle to try to sway your vote or entice you with a vote."
Sanford's interview with ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross can be seen on this week's episode of Brian Ross Investigates.
CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE INTERVIEW WITH PAUL SANFORD
Complaints from Sanford and others led to a two-year federal investigation that this week brought the arrest of four Alabama state senators and three lobbyists. They were charged with arranging to trade critical votes favoring gambling legislation for cash, campaign donations and other benefits, according to the 39-count indictment unsealed Monday.
Sanford sought help from the FBI after allegedly being offered a $250,000 bribe. He told ABC News he considered the arrests "a dream come true" because he said they may force reform in a state with some of the most lax ethics laws in the nation.
"Watching these guys get handcuffed walking across the screen… I've loved it.," Sen. Paul Sanford said by phone from his restaurant in Huntsville. "It tells the people of Alabama that integrity does matter. We want to be able to trust our public officials and we should expect more from them."
Sanford was one of several lawmakers to solicit help from the FBI after gaming lobbyists began floating offers of financial payoffs for lawmakers who would help with the controversial bingo legislation. In his case, he said, it was Jarrod D. Massey, one of three lobbyists indicted Monday.
"He had two clients that he represented, that each one of them was prepared to write me a check for $125, 000," Sanford told ABC News. "They just wanted to know where I stood on a piece of legislation known as the Sweet Home Alabama," a bill to allow a statewide voter referendum on an amendment to the state constitution that would permit bingo.
There were 11 arrests in all, including one defendant who allegedly offered to provide campaign contributions "until the damn cows come home" in exchange for one legislator's vote, according to the indictment. Jarrell Walker, 36, an employee of casino business developer, Ronald E. Gilley, allegedly promised $2 million in campaign contributions and use of country music stars for State Senator James E. Preuitt's reelection campaign.
Both were among those indicted, as were State Sens. Larry P. Means, Quinton T. Ross Jr., and Harri Anne H. Smith.
Alabama's state legislature has a dismal record on ethics, with some of the weakest rules in the nation governing interactions between lawmakers and the lobbyists who aim to influence them. In Alabama, for instance, lobbyists are permitted to spend up to $250 a day buying legislators meals, gifts, rounds of golf, or other inducements without having to disclose any of it.
Other states have far stricter rules on gift expenditures. In Arizona, lobbyists can spend just $10 a year. In California, it's $10 a month. Some states take a more moderate stance, allowing lobbyists to spend $50-100 annually before having to disclose. Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and South Carolina are considered "no cup of coffee states," where lobbyists cannot give a legislator anything -- not even a cup of Joe.
Jim Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, called the lax environment "outlandish" and said he has long advocated for a reduction in the spending limit. "It's far above the norm," he said.
Even before the arrests, though, authorities in Alabama said it was becoming clear that the lobbyists seeking help with bingo legislation were pressing the limits.
"If you're going to be in politics you're going to have to raise money but when it gets to the point that there's a quid pro quo -- I will give you this if you do that, then I think it's gone too far," Alabama Gov. Bob Riley told ABC News.
Riley first began waging a campaign to stop the spread of electronic bingo machines in 2008. He argued they were nothing more than slot machines. "I [think] anyone who has ever played bingo understands you can't play it in six seconds," he told ABC News.
After an electronic bingo bill passed in the state senate last spring, with several lawmakers switching their votes in the final hours, authorities began to harbor suspicions. Federal agents received permission to eavesdrop on suspects using wiretaps and convened a grand jury.
Reacting to the news of indictments, the governor's office released a statement calling the arrests "disappointing but hardly surprising."
Many are hoping the arrests will prompt real change to Alabama's statehouse.
"It's an opportunity to push through some meaningful reform so we don't put ourselves in this situation again," Sen. Sanford said.