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‘He wasn’t prosecuted, he was persecuted’

When Alabama State Sen. Quinton T. Ross picked up the phone on March 29, 2010 to chat with one of his constituents, he never dreamed it would land him in a grueling legal battle to prove his innocence.  Real Times News Service

When Alabama State Sen. Quinton T. Ross picked up the phone on March 29, 2010 to chat with one of his constituents, he never dreamed it would land him in a grueling legal battle to prove his innocence.

T. Ross

But as it would turn out, FBI agents were listening in on that call, busily fishing for suspects in an alleged vote-buying scandal that Ross had nothing to do with. Despite exonerating evidence and large-scale community support, it took a ten-week trial and $1.2 million in legal fees before all 11 charges against Ross – some as severe as extortion and vote buying – were dropped.

“It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” Ross says of the ordeal, just weeks after being acquitted. “There are things you just can’t get back socially, financially.”

Ross says his story is only part of a wide one that’s wrapped around Alabama gambling laws, political power plays, and money that sprawls from the boiling epicenter of Alabama state politics.

While the Montgomery Democrat has run the gamut of false accusations, he’s also gained support, knowledge and faith through the hardship. The story, from his point of view, is an interesting one that he has the chance to share with inspiring and seasoned politicians alike who are up against vicious political currents.

“He wasn’t prosecuted, he was persecuted,” said Alabama political analyst Steve Flowers, a leading Alabama political pundit. “Quinton is a good, down to earth guy, a real solid citizen.”

The son of two career teachers from Pontiac, Mich., and former Pontiac teacher and high school principal himself, Ross’ political drive is powered by his commitment to education.  So when legislation for a ballot proposal (SB380) that could legalize electronic bingo statewide leverage taxes for education came up, it was no secret how Ross would vote on it. He said since he’d been in office he had very publicly pushed electronic bingo in the state and wanted to put the issue to the people and settle the state gambling controversy once and for all.  

“I’m really close to the interest of educators,” Ross says.

But federal prosecutors misunderstood that ill-timed phone call to his constituent, who happened to be racetrack owner, Milton McGregor. Ross had called McGregor asking for campaign donations, not to sell his vote on SB380. The next day SB380 passed, an unfortunate coincidence for Ross, who said the passage made it seem like that phone conversation with McGregor was tied to the outcome.

“The FBI had the place wired and it happened to be the season that you ask for campaign money and Quinton happened to be calling for campaign money,” Flowers said. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Ross has some ideas of his own about why the whole scandal took place.  He blames it on the governor at the time, Bob Riley, who received large sums of campaign donations – upwards of 16 million – from casino owners in neighboring Mississippi. Ross believes the casino owners did not want the competition of electronic bingo in Alabama draining their business and paid Riley to do something about it.

“Bob Riley served two terms as governor and doesn’t say a thing about electronic bingo. Not until his last term he goes on an all-out war on what he considers ‘illegal gambling’. It’s a play on words,” Ross said.

For years, constitutional amendments have allowed some forms of gambling in certain counties in Alabama. Horse and dog racing were very common in some counties, and these racetracks grew as there were amendments on a county level also allowing for legal electronic bingo, giving places such as McGregor’s VictoryLand race track a great boost.

“Look at the map, you’ll see each of the states that surround Alabama allow gambling,” Ross said. “But electronic bingo is shy of actual gambling because it’s really a system that’s set up to play bingo with other people put into the body of what would appear to be a slot machine. If you went in depth to how it works, you’d see somebody is always playing against one another.”

Despite this logic and the popularity of the electronic bingo games at racetrack casinos, Riley was not lazing his grip on the practice.

In what Ross recalls as a “modern day raid,” two to three hundred state troopers descended on GreenTrack and Vistoryland. It was unnecessary, as the unsuspecting people at the tracks were not armed, he said.

All electronic bingo machines were removed from each site and the battle continued.

Meanwhile, legislators’ lines were still being tapped and on Oct, 4, 2010, the FBI indicted 11 people on corruption, one of which was Ross. It seemed like a normal day.

“(My) wife took (the) kids to day care, I was off in Boston,” he said.  But then he got the call. “It was a major shock to be because there was nothing, no vote buying, no anything. It just didn’t happen,” he said. “My story is significant because they knew I wasn’t in this.”

One of the accused defendants in the indictment, state Sen. Harri Anne Smith, pleaded guilty, giving Ross no choice but to go to trial.

He held onto his faith.

“God was in it from the beginning. I could tell. I was only in custody for one hour. All 17 witnesses testified in my favor,” he said. “Everyone who dealt with the case had one question: ‘Why is Senator Ross here?’”

The storm is over now and Ross has a message for his contemporaries and to young black politicians just wetting their feet in the political game.

“Your responsibility is to find the truth,” he said. “There are some who are not interested in truth, just in an agenda,” he said. “It has made me more aware and watchful but it has not silenced me. You can’t let things like this make you be afraid to engage in the political process.”

For Ross, the emotional part came from the outpouring of support from near and far. “I had so many churches, supporters all over the country,” he said.

Ross’ supporters formed a legal defense fund to help ease the weight of legal fees that total $1.2 million.

 “It’s horrible what they’ve done to him,” Flowers said. “I wish there was some way that the federal government could reimburse him. “

The silver lining from the ordeal is that it reinforced his faith and resilience.

“I had two choices. I could sit back and let this thing crush me or I could turn to God and fight it,” he said. “I said this when I left the courtroom and I’ll say it again: To God be the glory, it is well with myself.”

(Anyone who is interested in supporting Sen. Ross can donate to his legal defense fund at http://rossdefensetrust.org or by mail at: Friends of Quinton T. Ross Legal Defense Fund and Trust, 3066 Zelda Road #274, 36106-2651.)

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