Operation Rocky Top
Operation Rocky Top was launched in 1986 as an FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation undercover investigation into illegal activities in charity bingo, including the illegal sale of bingo licenses.
A first-year member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, became a secret participant in the investigation in 1986 after he reported to authorities that a bingo lobbyist had offered him bribes and had boasted about bribing other lawmakers. For the duration of the investigation McNally "wore a wire" and cultivated the trust of bingo lobbyists and other insiders so they would talk freely in front of him and offer him bribes. Ned McWherter, who was Speaker of the Tennessee House when the investigation began and who was elected governor in 1986, also was praised by federal officials for cooperating with the investigation.
Operation Rocky Top became public in January 1989 when W.D. "Donnie" Walker, a one-time bingo regulator in the state government who later became a lobbyist, pleaded guilty to offering McNally a $10,000 bribe in exchange for his vote on a measure to legalize horse racing. In exchange for a plea bargain, Walker gave investigators details on how he had helped bingo operators become chartered as bogus charities so they could obtain state licenses to run bingo games, and how bingo operators then channeled money back to state legislators who were part of the scheme. At the height of activity there were nearly 300 bingo operations in the state with estimated annual revenue of $31 million.
Two other targets of the investigation committed suicide before testifying: Tennessee Secretary of State Gentry Crowell (in December 1989, just before he was scheduled to testify for a third time before a federal grand jury) and State Representative Ted Ray Miller of Knoxville (after being charged with bribery). Following the scandal, Tennessee established limits on political contributions and placed new restrictions on lobbying.
The code name for the investigation was derived from Rocky Top, one of the state's official songs. Years later, another investigation of Tennessee public corruption was code-named Operation Tennessee Waltz, after another state song.
- Ronald Smothers, Tennessee Republicans See an Election Weapon in State's Bingo Scandal, The New York Times, January 28, 1990
- Tom Humphrey, Humphrey: Waltz -- Don't leave with those who bribed you, Knoxville News Sentinel (opinion column), July 22, 2007
- Tom Humphrey, Mr. Sam Thomas Burnett, crafty, colorful, convicted former state lawmaker, dies, Knoxville News Sentinel, web-posted September 18, 2009
- Sandra Roberts, Before Tennessee Waltz, there was Rocky Top, The Tennessean, June 5, 2005.