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Bill Britt

Political Revenge, Schemes, Blowback

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

What do a conviction in New Jersey and a Montgomery Special Grand Jury have in common?

That is a question worthy of consideration, given recent events surrounding an ongoing investigation that appears to target Governor Robert Bentley and others in his political orbit.

The latest indication is that the Governor and his closest associates may be in the crosshairs of a criminal probe, over the firing of former ALEA Chief Spencer Collier and Bentley’s alleged affair with his former special advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.

In letters exchanged between Attorney General Luther Strange and the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Mike Jones, there is an acknowledgment of the Attorney General’s investigation into actions taken by Bentley and others.

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In July, The Alabama Political Reporter was first to report that Bentley and others including his security detail, Collier’s replacement Stan Stabler, and SBI Director Gene Wiggins testified before the Montgomery Grand Jury.

Bentley’s testimony lasted for over two hours, and according to members of his staff, the Governor was visibly shaken and angry about subjects covered during the interview.

Bentley and Stabler have publicly accused Collier of misconduct and potentially criminal acts in what they said was an investigation carried out by ALEA’s Integrity Unit. The Governor’s office also selectively leaked documents destined for the Judiciary Committee to friendly media, in what appears to be a coordinated effort to defame Collier further.

The Montgomery County Special Grand Jury found Collier never acted improperly in his role as ALEA Chief, and a strongly worded statement from the Attorney General’s Office stated there was, “no credible basis for the initiation of a criminal inquiry in the first place.”

Earlier this month, two former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were found guilty of closing lanes to the George Washington Bridge in what prosecutors had alleged was an act of political retribution.

The pair were indicted in May for a scheme known as “Bridgegate.” They closed the upper-level lanes of the world’s busiest bridge connecting New Jersey with New York, as retaliation for a New Jersey mayor’s failure to endorse Christie’s reelection bid.

According to Politico, after Christie’s allies were found guilty, “The Fort Lee mayor who was targeted in the scheme, Mark Sokolich, said in an interview, ‘A bright light has been shined on a culture that is absolutely incomprehensible, where petty retribution is not only cultivated’ but it’s actually rewarded.”

House Judiciary Committee in announcing the suspension of its impeachment hearings confirmed the Attorney General was, “conducting a separate investigation of the Governor.”

Bentley’s repeated public accusation against Collier and documents leaked to the press that alleged wrongdoings have been refuted by the Montgomery Special Grand Jury and several of those quoted in planted news reports.

“Bridgegate” provides an interesting example of how using state resources and personnel to enact political revenge can mushroom into a criminal conviction. It also serves as a cautionary tale for those who traffic in amateurish political intrigue for revenge.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | The political genius in film: William Goldman

Bill Britt

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Last Friday, Oscar-winning writer William Goldman died at the age of 87. Movie-goers and Hollywood enjoyed his wry wit and sardonic wisdom, but investigative reporters worldwide are forever in his debt for giving us the single best lead for tracking down public corruption and nefarious politicos.

Goldman wrote the screenplay for the movie adapted from Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book, “All the Presidents Men,” which follows the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon after the Watergate break-in.

During a pivotal scene in the 1976 movie, Woodward’s character, played by Robert Redford, is told by his anonymous government source known as Deep Throat to, “Follow the money.”

Nowhere is the line, “Follow the money” found in Woodward and Bernstein’s book. It is Goldman’s invention and pure reporting genius.

But tracking a money trail can be used in a broader context to understand why things happen the way they do in government.

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Let’s put aside, for now, the notion of public service and admit that a majority of what happens in politics is tied to the wants of one particular group or another. These groups or individuals, commonly referred to in the pejorative as special interests, are not necessarily evil. They just want what’s best for themselves and their interests.

During her first State of the State address nearly a year ago, Gov. Kay Ivey staked her ground with workforce development, job creation and an education proposal under her, “Strong Start, Strong Finish: from pre-K to workforce,” plan. Gov. Ivey has a detailed strategy for success, but her goals will be challenged by those who prosper under a system that is burdened with an entrenched bureaucracy, as well as those who dine off the Education Trust Fund without actually being a part of educating Alabamians.

Likewise, Alabama’s Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon lists infrastructure, improving public schools, school security and stronger ethics laws as a priority. To enumerate the special interests that will line up to pick away at his goals would be a nearly impossible task.

Neither Ivey or McCutcheon will be swayed by personal gain as was their predecessors, but they will need a well-placed group of watchers to see who will work to undermine their best efforts. To do so means following the money.

Goldman wrote many other novels and screenplays, most notably, “The Princess Bride,” “Marathon Man” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the pair’s only hope of escaping a rapidly approaching posse is to cliff dive hundreds of feet into a raging river. During the tense moment, Sundance reveals he can’t swim to which Butch chuckles, “Are you crazy, the fall will probably kill you.”

Butch and Sundance were not winners, but they rarely doubted as an exchange between the pair shows.

The Sundance Kid: “You just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at.”

Butch Cassidy: “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

Goldman’s characters displayed ironic humor in the face of defeat and generally find a way, at least for a moment, to turn a loss into a victory. Sometimes leadership is simply the ability to make it from one failure to the next.

An enduring line from the Princess Bride is, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” However, any wise practitioner of the political arts knows as Goldman points out, there’s not much money in the revenge business.

Another phrase from the Princess Bride which is a mainstay of the movie’s fans is, “Inconceivable,” repeatedly uttered by the stooge mastermind, Vizzini. Every action in government is conceivable because it is human nature at work.

In Goldman’s “Marathon Man,” Dustin Hoffman plays an oblivious long-distance runner who becomes entangled in a case of stolen gems and sadistic henchmen.  During the film, Huffman’s character encounters a Nazi-dentist who drills Hoffman’s healthy teeth without painkillers, torturing him for the correct answer to the eternal question, “Is it safe?”

It’s politics, and it’s never safe. That is why there must be journalists who ask the tough question, dig for facts and report without fear or prejudice. We don’t see this as often as we should in state politics because there is a cost to truth-telling. But the price of not reporting is a price too high to measure.

Goldman was a genius who not only entertained us but made us think. In politics, we don’t all have to think alike, but it would be good to know that everyone is thinking.

With Butch and Sundance, he gave us a lesson in how hope springs eternal. In “Marathon Man,” we see that things are not always what they seem. “The Princess Bride” let us see how true love can conquer all, but in politics, follow the money if you want to know what’s really happening.

In the end Goldman summed up the human condition, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.” –The Princess Bride

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Jefferson County indictments raise serious questions about Ethics Commission’s actions

Bill Britt

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When indictments were reported by Al.com against Scott Phillips and Onis “Trey” Glenn III for multiple violations of the Alabama Ethics Act, the pair had not been arrested or served with the indictments.

However, Alabama Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton spoke in glowing terms about the hard work his office and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office had done to bring a felony case against the men.

Albritton’s disclosure of the indictments before Phillips and Glenn were arrested and indicted may be a severe breach of state law.

Alabama Code Title 12. Courts § 12-16-210 reads: “Any judge, district attorney, clerk or other officer of court or grand juror who discloses the fact that an indictment has been found before the person indicted has been arrested or has given bail for his appearance to answer thereto shall, on conviction, be fined not less than $200.00, and may also be imprisoned in the county jail or sentenced to hard labor for the county for not more than six months.”

According to sources within Jefferson County, the Clerk’s office has raised the issue that the men were not arrested and served in accordance with the law. These actions have resulted in what one individual describes as a “Massive bureaucratic CYA in Jefferson County.”

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“Albritton and his people took the true bill from the grand jury and headed straight to the press,” said a person within the Jefferson County system.

Albritton’s conduct may have also violated the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct as stated in Rule 3.6.(6), which reads, “the fact that a defendant has been charged with a crime, unless there is included therein a statement explaining that the charge is merely an accusation and that the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.” Nowhere in Albritton’s statements to Al.com does he add this disclaimer.

According to multiple sources, Albritton’s people gave Al.com’s Kyle Whitmire the story over the weekend so the news would break after Veterans Day. Al.com reported the men were indicted on Friday, Nov. 9.

Attorneys for Phillips and Glenn learned about the indictments early Tuesday morning. They asked for copies of the charges before noon on Tuesday but were informed that they could not receive the indictments until the pair turned themselves in to authorities. Their attorneys were then notified that the men could not turn themselves in until Friday.

But this is just part of the story which, according to an APR source, “looks more like a grab for relevance by an irrelevant ethics commission using a DA who’s on the way out the door.” Anderton, a Republican political appointee, is leaving the DA’s office having lost his bid for election to Democrat Danny Carr.

In Al.com’s report, Albritton says Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help in indicting the two men. But it was the Ethics Commission who approached Anderton, sources within his office have confirmed.

Multiple sources tell APR that it was the Ethics Commission who approached Anderton in a hurry-up play to grab headlines before the Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Division could investigate the pair properly.

Albritton told APR that he couldn’t comment publicly on any specific conversations between the Ethics Commission and the JeffCo DA’s office. But in general terms, he said, the Commission routinely engages in conversations with DAs and other agencies. Albritton also said that Anderton’s request came in the form of a letter, and he said Anderton asked if the Commission “would be willing to” open the investigation because Anderton’s office lacked the personnel to effectively pursue the case.

According to state and Jefferson County insiders not authorized to speak publicly, Anderton was not even aware of an investigation into Phillips and Glenn until two weeks ago, and he was not pursuing the issue until he was asked to take the matter before a regularly impaneled grand jury by Albritton’s office.

“It’s a lie,” said one of APR‘s sources who monitored the process and knows what took place, “They ask Anderton.”

Albritton’s move was prompted at least in part by a letter reportedly sent from the environmental group GASP allegedly detailing Phillips and Glenn’s questionable activities.

Founded in 2009, as a 501(c)(3) health advocacy organization called “Alabama First,” the group changed its name to GASP in 2010, according to its website.

GASP attorney David A. Ludder told APR that he felt it best not to comment on the matter. Gasp’s Executive Director Michael Hansen agreed with Ludder that it was best not to comment on a pending case.

The GASP letter also is believed to have shown that the statute of limitations for an indictment was drawing near. Albritton told APR that timing is what prompted his office to move quickly without consulting Special Prosecution Division Chief Matt Hart.  However, the statute doesn’t seem to expire until around December 21.

Another significant question is why Albritton’s office went behind the attorney general’s back to present the case to a Jefferson County Grand Jury when the Special Prosecution Division already has a Special Grand Jury impaneled in Jefferson County.

There is little doubt that attorneys for Phillips and Glenn will pick apart the Ethics Commission’s actions involving these indictments.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Will Republicans bring change or status quo?

Bill Britt

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For eight years, Republicans have dominated state government in Alabama, but those years are not a fair representation of Republican leadership because, for most of that time, corrupt, crazy or compromised men were at the helms in the State House, the governor’s office and throughout the political infrastructure.

Already, Republicans are laying the groundwork for the next four years by determining who will staff the governor’s office and cabinet, the committee chairs in the House and Senate and key leadership roles within the caucus. Those choices will show whether there will be a change in character, conduct, and competence or status quo.

Beginning in 2008, then-Gov. Bob Riley, ALGOP Chair and minority leader Mike Hubbard, along with BCA’s Billy Canary, began to methodically execute a plan to take control of Alabama’s political structure. While they personally failed due to greed and incompetence, their plan succeeded and even today, after Hubbard’s felony conviction and Canary’s ouster at BCA, many of their handpicked legislators, cronies and co-conspirators still enjoy dominant positions in government and the accompanying political apparatus.

Reportedly, Riley is laying low but will seek a comeback in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. Senate election, positioning either himself or his son Rob to take on Democrat U.S. Senator Doug Jones.

A scan of Hubbard’s book, “Storming the State House,” offers a look at those candidates who Hubbard, Riley and Canary selected and groomed to do their bidding. Some of their staunchest allies have either quit government or have been indicted or convicted, but still many remain.

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Some have changed horses, but not everyone is happy that their former masters do not still hold the reins.

Some miss Hubbard’s whip hand, Riley’s conniving and Canary’s money and outsized influence.

The Republican House caucus will meet Tuesday to determine key leadership roles.

Current Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon will not face a challenge even though there are some among his ranks who would like to return to a Hubbard-style leadership.

Rep. David Standridge has put his name forward for House Pro Tem, a position presently held by Rep. Victor Gaston. Standridge, it is believed, wants to bring new life into the position, however, Gaston is a well-known fixture. What is unclear is why U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers is lobbying for Gaston’s return as Pro Tem?

It is not sure if House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter will face opposition or if he should.

Where the rubber wheel hits the road is with committee leadership assignments that will come later. Several committees are still chaired by Hubbard loyalists who, again, long for his dictatorial command. Even the House Ethics Committee is currently headed by a man who believes Hubbard’s conviction was a grave conspiracy involving prosecutorial misconduct.

Over at the Capitol, Gov. Ivey’s staff and cabinet have well placed Hubbard and Rileyites, but there are no signs that Gov. Ivey will replace them.

Most troublesome are rumors that Ivey’s Chief of Staff Steve Pelham is leaving to take a post at Auburn University. No one can blame Pelham given the enormous burden of guiding the office for nearly two years, but replacing him will be a difficult task.

As for the Senate, President Pro Tem Del Marsh will continue his business management approach with few surprises in store. There are rumors of some significant changes, especially among budget chair assignments, but even that is mere speculation at this point.

Republicans have an opportunity to show their governing abilities beginning with its choice of leadership. This is extremely important because Republicans overwhelmingly control every office in state government. Moral, effective leaders are always essential but never more so than when there is no opposition.

If Republicans do not put forward honest leaders, they will be forced at some point in time to look around and say, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us.”

As President Harry Truman noted, “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

The people of Alabama have selected a Republican super-majority to lead the state. Let’s pray they are ready to prove the people were right.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Once again, Godspeed Speaker McCutcheon

Bill Britt

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When Alabama’s Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon released a statement regarding the 2018 House election results in legislative districts across the state, he did more than take a victory lap, he actually laid out a list of priorities for the next four years.

McCutcheon wrote, “Our infrastructure is in decay, and our roads and bridges must be given much-needed attention. Our public schools are in need of further improvement, and we must invest in security measures that ensure children who are sent to school in the morning return home safely in the afternoon,” McCutcheon said. “And our ethics laws must continue to ensure that elected officials who violate the public’s trust feel the firm hand of justice and the sting of substantial punishment.”

McCutcheon didn’t merely grandstand but cooly and correctly identified most of the state’s immediate challenges, saying, “Our mission is clear and well-defined, and it’s now our job to accomplish it.”

With 90 words, McCutcheon issued a prime objective and a promise to address the needs of our state.

McCutcheon’s list: infrastructure, public schools, school safety and ethics laws are at the top of his agenda. Both Republicans and Democrats should agree that these are important considerations that the state has failed to address for decades fully.

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It is far past time for state leadership to take steps to improve our roads and bridges as well as our broadband and tech infrastructure. Without strong public schools and the security to attend them without fear, there is no hope for our state to rise above the low-education status that endangers generation after generation of our young. Lastly, hard sought ethics reform must not be cast aside for politics. Lack of clear ethics statures led to the kinds of corruption that have plagued the state for decades, allowing devious men and women to plunder our state’s riches and resources for personal gain.

Speaker McCutcheon has laid out the agenda saying, “it’s now our job to accomplish it.”

It is incumbent upon all of us who work in politics to come together to support his goals as long as he stays true to the mission.

He also speaks about the “great sacrifices” and “the often unpleasant criticism that comes with life in the public spotlight.”

Grueling work and harsh criticism are to be expected if anything great is ever accomplished.

As President Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France on April 23, 1910, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

With any worthy endeavor, the road forward is fought with trials and routs, but these are but little worries when the future is at stake.

Speaker McCutcheon has set-forth some very worthy goals. We will all be wise in joining together to see them accomplished.

Godspeed from Middle English literally means God give you a prosperous journey, something our state dearly needs.

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Political Revenge, Schemes, Blowback

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