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As a Republican state senator who secretly recorded conversations for the FBI testified Thursday that he couldn't explain why he called black customers of a casino "aborigines," Alabama's Democrat leader called for his resignation and the Republican Party chairman defended his reputation.
"I don't use that term normally. I don't know where it even came from that day," Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale testified Thursday in federal court, where he is a key prosecution in a statehouse corruption case.
Beason was the first witness in a trial of nine people accused of buying and selling votes for pro-gambling legislation. He wore tape-recording equipment for the FBI in its investigation. Transcripts of the recordings were used by the prosecution to bolster its case and by the defense to challenge Beason's credibility.
In one transcript, Beason and two other Republican legislators were talking about economic development in predominantly black Greene County and the customers at one of the county's largest employers, the Greenetrack casino in Eutaw.
"That's y'all's Indians," one Republican said.
"They're aborigines, but they're not Indians," Beason replied.
Bobby Segall, attorney for indicted VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor, asked Beason if he was showing disdain.
"I don't know what I meant at the time," Beason replied.
The transcripts also showed Beason and other Republicans talking about what would happen if the legislation to protect electronic bingo casinos were approved by the Legislature and placed before voters in the election in November 2010. They speculated that casino owners would offer free meals and free bus rides to get black voters to the polls.
Under questioning, Beason said they were concerned that a large black turnout would hurt Republican candidates.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson rejected prosecutors' attempts to keep the comments out of the trial. "They were having a political discussion. That race was part of the discussion is a problem the government has," Thompson said.
The judge has not yet ruled whether defense attorneys can bring in a recorded remark about the same predominantly black county from another legislator who helped the FBI. In one tape, defense attorneys claimed Republican Rep. Barry Mask of Wetumpka said Greene County "is like a third world country." Mask took the witness stand late Thursday and was expected to continue testifying Friday.
State Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy said Beason's comment about aborigines damaged the state's image and he should resign.
"Scott Beason's comments are disgusting and it's time for him to go," Kennedy.
State Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said he had never seen any examples of racism from Beason.
"I consider Senator Scott Beason one of the most honorable people I know who serve in government," Armistead said.
The GOP chairman said people should pay attention to the evidence coming out in court and not try to mix politics into it.
Beason, chairman of the Senate's Rules Committee, is one of the Legislature's most prominent members. In the last session, he was the Senate sponsor for a strict law to crack down on illegal immigration and a proposed constitutional amendment to let Alabamians opt out of the federal health care plan.
He testified that he recorded any meeting in early 2010 where gambling issues came up, including meetings attended only by his Republican colleagues in the Legislature. In some of those meetings, he made derogatory remarks about other Republicans.
That had the Senate's top Republican calling his colleagues to control possible damage.
"I'm concerned about hard feelings developing among members of the body," Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston said.
Marsh said it's premature to comment about what happened in court or to call for apologies until all evidence is presented and the trial is over.
In Beason's testimony during four days on the witness stand, he said gambling advocates were short of the 21 votes they needed to pass their bill in the Senate and they offered him $1 million a year for many years if he provided the 21st vote.
The bill passed in the Senate on March 30, 2010, with 21 votes, but it died in the House after the FBI revealed an investigation of widespread corruption. Beason voted against the bill.