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Milton McGregor's got money
to Byrne? Maybe, maybe not

In Alabama, following the money
can lead down lots of rabbit trails

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Political action committees and PAC-to-PAC transfers
-- the bane of honest, transparent political campaign financing in Alabama -- sully the guilty and the innocent alike.

Associations and lobbyists managing multiple political action committees make it impossible to follow the money. If a contributor wants to get money to a candidate and the candidate wants that money, but one or the other or both want the transaction blurred, it is easily camouflaged in Alabama. The system builds in “plausible deniability” which -- if money can be described as the mother’s milk of politics -- can be called its cradling arms.

The PAC-to-PAC process is a washing machine or, at least, a fluffer that refreshes the coins. On one side of the coin is “plausible deniability.” But on the other side of the coin is “reasonable suspicion.”

Just as one candidate is able to receive disguised funding by devious means, another candidate may get legitimate funding from a political action committee (PAC) that is tainted because the PAC harbored monies of suspect origin. 

Like rats let loose in a maze, contributions to political action committees scurry this way and that before finally arriving at a destination. Who is to say which candidate got which dollars?

Though almost any candidate would likely do, let's take, for an example, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne.

A recent perusal of campaign finance records suggests the possibility that shortly before Christmas last year Byrne got a present of $20,000 for his front running GOP campaign for governor from political action committees with ties to Alabama gambling kingpin Milton McGregor.

Or not.

It is hard to say; which is a shame for the public and for Byrne as well, assuming he is true to his campaign’s professed opposition to gambling. Of course, $20,000 as a fraction of Byrne's several-million dollar campaign budget is a drop in the bucket. To suggest that McGregor could even influence, much less buy, Byrne for $20,000 is laughable. Still, it is a question of perception. The innocent want not even the trace of guilt upon their face.

Byrne denies accepting funds from McGregor or his affiliates. MBT isn’t contending that he has. Still, it cannot be said with certainty, thus the column’s point. And, in fact, for purposes of this column, probably any candidate’s financial disclosure could have yielded a similar, though probably less compelling, example.

Here are the facts:

On Dec. 22, 2009, four PAC’s – Elder PAC, Vote 98 PAC, Secure PAC and Future PAC – each received a pair of $18,500 contributions, one from Macon County Greyhound Park (better known as VictoryLand) and one from the Jefferson County Racing Association (a/k/a Birmingham Race Course). The two gaming establishments conveyed a total of $144,000 toward better government on that day to those four political action committees.

Also on Dec. 22, 2009, Elder PAC cut checks for $5,000 to the re-election campaigns of influential Democratic state Sens. Lowell Barron and Roger Bedford and Byrne’s GOP bid for governor; Vote 98 PAC cut checks for $5,000 to Ron Sparks’ Democratic campaign for governor and Byrne’s campaign; Secure PAC cut checks for $5,000 to the campaigns of Barron, Bedford and Byrne; Future PAC also cut checks for $5,000 to the Barron, Bedford and Byrne campaigns.

Does this prove that Barron, Bedford, Byrne and McGregor are smoky backroom co-conspirators? Of course not. On the other hand, while Republican Bill Johnson and Sparks may be the most pro-gambling candidates for governor on either side of the ballot on June 1, if either is seen with his right hand raised in Montgomery next January, he's probably ordering a beer and not taking the oath of office. Of the many things said of Milton McGregor, one surely is that he is a man who hedges his bets.

Leave it at that? No, let’s look at the case for plausible deniability, at least in the instance of any attempt to assert a connection between Byrne and McGregor.

First, what are the purposes of these four PACs? Strike that, as PACs probably wouldn’t exist if their purposes were always clearly known. Rephrase the question: What are the officially recorded purposes of these four PACs?

Elder PAC: “To support the long-term care needs of the elderly and similar issues through the support of certain state and local committees, candidates, parties, propositions, elections and voter education initiatives.”

Vote 98 PAC: “Promote good state government and further the campaigns and election of accomplished and informed persons to Alabama Legislature.”

Secure PAC: “The support of those committees, candidates, parties, propositions and elections, at state and local levels, who or which will be most likely to lend support to elder care issues.”

Future PAC: “To lend its support to those candidates, issues, and initiatives which it deems to be in the best interest of Alabama's senior citizens. The committee may lend its support at the state and local levels.”

What does that tell us? Well, three of the four seem founded to serve the interests of the elderly and/or infirm. A slightly deeper look shows that all four PACs have the same address and same treasurer. Peel one more layer and the Alabama Nursing Home Association is shown to control all four PACs.

So what’s the connection between McGregor/VictoryLand/Birmingham Race Course and nursing homes? Old folks do like their bingo. Nah, that’s not it. McGregor owns or used to own a nursing home in Union Springs and perhaps others elsewhere. Warmer. But who knows? It is, in this case, the $144,000 question.

That is enough plausible deniability for some, but there is more.

Elder PAC recorded contributions totaling $20,000 from various health and rehabilitation clinics on Dec. 22. So the $15,000 that went out that day to Barron, Bedford and Byrne could have derived from that $20,000 with nothing at all to do with Milton McGregor or his interests. Or Barron's and Bedford's takes could have been from McGregor while Byrne's was from the clinics or vice versa.

Future PAC also showed $20,000 in contributions from health and rehab clinics on Dec. 22, more than offsetting the $15,000 to Barron, Bedford and Byrne, arguably leaving the McGregor-linked money available for other pockets.

Ditto for Secure and Vote 98 PACs.

Even further evidence distancing the PACs' contributions to Barron, Bedford and Byrne from the McGregor money comes with the release of deposit slips showing that the VictoryLand and Jefferson County Racing Commission contributions were not deposited into the PACs' bank accounts until Dec. 29.

So that clears it up or leaves it murky, take your choice. (McGregor did not return a call placed in the early afternoon of Thursday, March 11 to ask whether he intended to direct any of the $144,000 to any or all of the various candidates' campaigns.)

Byrne’s position on gambling has been in line with that of Gov. Bob Riley, now of course engaged with McGregor in a fierce battle of the titans.

Efforts to expand gambling, with McGregor leading the charge, "are a threat to our families and to the lives and welfare of those who can least afford it," has said Byrne, adding that a Byrne administration would mirror Riley’s efforts “to stop illegal gambling statewide."

The rub could come, if one came at all, over the question of legal/illegal. What one person sees as illegal, another may view as legal.

Byrne would seem to eliminate any wiggle room in his position on gambling with this from his website:

“I am opposed to gambling in any form and I have consistently stated my position in that regard. The benefits of gambling are illusory. State and local governments around the country that have chosen to permit gambling have learned the hard lesson that it is an unreliable source of revenue and in large measure just recycles the community’s disposable income away from existing local businesses.”

Couldn’t get any clearer than that, could it? Pretty straight forward and maybe moves the needle from "plausible deniability" to "convincing deniability."

That Byrne could even remotely be linked to McGregor seems surreal, according to Byrne campaign spokeswoman Marty Sullivan.

“Can you imagine gambling interests giving money to Bradley, someone who is as adamantly opposed to gambling as Bradley?” said Sullivan. “Bradley is supported by the nursing home association and he is proud to have their support. Bradley has been adamant with us that we are not to accept gambling money and in fact, there have been occasions when I identified at the time of the contribution that it might involve a PAC that did have (money from gambling interests) and we have given the money back. The last thing he wants is gambling money. A person who makes his living off gambling giving money to Bradley would be spending his money poorly if he thinks that (he has an ally in Byrne).”

Sullivan said the “whole system is worse than broken” which is why Byrne has long called for a ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers.

The mixing and mingling of campaign dollars is doubly bad, said Sullivan, because not only does it conceal shady alliances, it also casts doubt on above board political relationships.

Still, there are those pesky PACs and their game of ping-pong. As long as those are the rules of the game, voters and candidates will have these "trust me" encounters.

What else in the records of these four PACs may be notable for this exercise?