Ex-Indiana lawmaker admits to taking illegal campaign money

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A former Indiana state senator pleaded guilty Monday to receiving about $40,000 in illegal contributions from a casino company for his unsuccessful 2016 congressional campaign.

Former Republican Sen. Brent Waltz’s guilty plea came about one week before he was set to stand trial with John Keeler, a former top executive of Indianapolis-based Spectacle Entertainment. Keeler is charged with directing illegal corporate contributions through straw donors to Waltz’s campaign.

Waltz’s plea agreement, in which he also admitted to making false statements to the FBI, makes no mention of cooperating with prosecutors or testifying against Keeler. Waltz and his attorney, Russell Johnson, declined to answer questions after Monday’s hearing, The Indianapolis Star reported.

Keeler has pleaded not guilty and his trial is scheduled to start Monday.

The September 2020 indictment of Keeler and Waltz was the result of a lengthy FBI investigation into Spectacle Entertainment and led the Indiana Gaming Commission to force the company out of its ownership of projects for new casinos in Gary and Terre Haute.

The commission also raised financial misconduct allegations against former Spectacle CEO Rod Ratcliff, who agreed to give up his state casino license, ending more than a decade as a heavyweight in Indiana’s gambling industry. Ratcliff has not been charged in the campaign finance case.

Waltz, who was a state senator for 12 years until giving up his seat in 2016 to run for Congress, gave mostly one- or two-word answers in response to questions from Judge James R. Sweeney III. His longest statement came when asked how he pleaded to the two felony charges.

“I plead guilty,” Waltz said.

Waltz faces up to five years in prison for each charge. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss three other counts and recommend a sentence at the low end of the federal sentencing advisory range. The judge did not immediately set a sentencing date.

Ratcliff and Keeler were leaders of Centaur Gaming, which sold Indiana’s two horse track casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville to Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment Corp. in 2018 for $1.7 billion. They led a group that then formed Spectacle Entertainment to buy the Gary casino operation.

According to the indictment, people were recruited to make maximum contributions of $2,700 each to the Waltz campaign, then were illegally repaid from money that originated from Centaur.

Waltz finished fourth in a five-candidate field in the 2016 Republican primary for the 9th Congressional District that stretched from the southern Indianapolis suburbs to Ohio River communities just north of Louisville, Kentucky. It has been redrawn to cover much of rural southeastern Indiana.

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