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Bill Britt

Some are using a stalking horse to undermine ethics laws

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

The greatest challenge before the Alabama State Legislature when it returns in February is not the budget, schools or Medicaid. It is the slight of hand chicanery used to undermine the State’s ethics laws.

Since the conviction of former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard on 12 felony ethics violations, a coordinated effort has been underway to weaken those laws, with particular focus on how they identify a “principal.”

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As defined in Section 36-25-1(24) a principal is, “A Person or business which employees, hires or otherwise retains a lobbyist. A principal is not a lobbyist, but is not allowed to give a thing of value.”

Among Hubbard’s felony violations was “receiving a thing of value from a principal.” In his case, Hubbard received money and/or work product from Will Brooke, Rob Burton, Jimmy Rane and investment firm Sterne Agee, all powerful business leaders or entities who employ lobbyists.

During their testimony at Hubbard’s trial, each man tried to convince the jury they were not principals, but the 12 women and men who found Hubbard guilty of receiving a thing of value didn’t buy their reasoning.

Mere days after the Hubbard trial concluded with a quick verdict, attorneys with Maynard, Cooper and Gale were at work deconstructing it. Ted Hosp, Jay Mitchell, Peck Fox and Edward O’Neal provided an analysis, which argued that the judge, jury and prosecutors from the State’s Attorney General’s office broadly interpreted portions of the ethics laws, as related to the guilty verdict in the Hubbard case.

In their analysis, the prosecution and jury broadly interpreted the term “principal,” as well as the phrase “thing of value,” and expanded a conflict of interest beyond what they believed was the legislative definition.

Less than six months after Julius Caesar’s assassination, and in the same year as his death, Cicero wrote the last work of his life: De Officiis, or in English, On Obligations. In it he wrote, “Injustice often arises also through chicanery, that is, through an over-subtle and even fraudulent construction of the law.”

As with the Hubbard trial, individuals used deception through alternative interpretations of the law for a particular end.

Cicero also noted in On Obligations that, “we must not treat the unknown as known and too readily accept it, and he who wishes to avoid this error (as all should do) will devote both time and attention to the weighing of evidence.” In other words, don’t accept a thing on face value, dig into what is being said or dare to discover its true meaning. Cicero says, examine the facts to find the truth.

And finally, he wrote, “of all forms of injustice, none is more flagrant than that of the hypocrite who, at the very moment when he is most false, makes it his business to appear virtuous.”

Since Hubbard’s conviction, lawyers, at the behest of the business elite, are sowing confusion to weaken the ethics laws. A prime example was the “show” ethics hearing in December, when ethics commissioners Jerry Fielding, Butch Ellis and Charles Price reversed an earlier unanimous advisory opinion concerning Friends of McCalla.

On September 1, 2016, the Commission issued advisory opinion 2016-24 on the Friends of McCalla, which it believed clarified the question regarding public officials soliciting lobbyists and principals for contributions to a charitable organization, operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This opinion was used to fumigate widespread panic among Alabama’s charitable organizations, allowing lawyers for the business interests to present an over-subtle and fraudulent construction of the opinion, contrary to what was written and unanimously approved by the Ethics Commission in Friends of McCalla.

Instead of devoting time and attention to weighing evidence, Commissioners Fielding, Ellis and Price kowtowed to a band of lawyers who tricked charities into being a stalking horse for their corporate masters. Hubbard’s former criminal defense attorney, J. Mark White, appeared to be impresario over the affair while being aided by Hosp and other well-heeled attorneys who had roles in Hubbard’s case.

The original opinion in Friends of McCalla was far from ambiguous or dangerous, as former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb claims in an Op-ed for al.com. In her opinion piece, Judge Cobb says, “I joined representatives of other nonprofits and several legal experts in telling the Commission that its initial decision [in Friends of McCalla] left many Alabama charities too frightened to ask for donations and many donors too frightened to give.” She further states, “The impact was real and potentially devastating for many entities that serve their communities, but particularly, the vulnerable and poor.”

In the McCalla opinion the commission found, “Public officials and employees and their families are permitted to solicit donations to Friends of McCalla from principals as long as the purpose for doing so is to benefit the public, and as long as funds raised will not provide any personal gain to the public official, public employee, their family or a business with which they are associated. If they are members of the Board, they may solicit on Friends of McCalla’s behalf, unless they are paid for Board service or derive any other personal gain from service.”

What is so dire in this opinion that would inspire the former Chief Justice to opine on al.com about its unintended consequences?

Cobb chooses an interesting example of a police officer’s wife seeking a charitable contribution from the Alabama Farmers Federation. “The wife would be in trouble not because of any coercion on her part or because the Farmers Federation needed a favor from the Police Department. She would be in trouble simply because the Farmers Federation has a lobbyist, and she is the spouse of a public employee.”

Cobb continues saying, “Likewise, the Farmers Federation, unwittingly, could be in trouble, if it gave the donation, just by virtue of the person who made the request.”

But there was never a threat to charities. Friends of McCalla opinion is very clear.

What the verdict in the Hubbard case achieved is that special interests like ALFA, the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and others can no longer sit in the Speaker’s office like BCA Chief Canary and oversee legislation. No longer can business owners pay a lawmaker $10,000 a month for favors.

It serves us well to remember, that not only does the law say a public official cannot solicit a thing of value from a principal, but it is also illegal for a principal to give as well. The fact that none of the principals who gave Hubbard things of value were charged with that offense is unfathomable to some, but then, rounding up and convicting everyone is seldom the reality.

And so we continue to face enemies from within. As Cicero wrote, “A nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely; the traitor appears not a traitor he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.”

If special interests or business elites are successful in weakening or doing away with the State’s ethics laws, Hubbard will be the last person prosecuted for crimes of public corruption.

As Cicero found, “A murderer is less to fear.”

Does the legislature understand this?

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | The black hand behind Perry Hand

Bill Britt

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Perry Hand (via BCA)

Shortly after the Alabama Political Reporter made it known that the Business Council of Alabama’s Executive Board had voted on April 10 to terminate Billy Canary from his position as CEO, nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers were burning-up their mobile phones, trying to find out who Perry Hand is and who could convince him to push Canary out immediately. Hand wants to keep Canary in place until the fall

Billy Canary out at BCA, sort of 

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Hand’s motivation to protect Canary is not easily definable unless it’s weighed together with former Gov. Bob Riley’s plan to consolidate power after leaving office in 2010.

Perry A. Hand is the current BCA board chair and chairman of Volkert Inc., an engineering company, which primarily earns its money from government contracts. Volkert Inc. is a significant player in developing disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley’s lovenest, aka Gulf State Park.

Hand cut his teeth in politics first as a state senator under Gov. George Wallace but came to prominence as an appointee and confidant of accidental Republican Gov. Guy Hunt.

It was Hunt who appointed Hand to secretary of state in 1989, only to see him pummeled in the next general election when former Wallace aide Billy Joe Camp bested him by over 115,000 votes. Hand was also appointed the head of the department of transportation as another temporary position.

An Auburn engineering graduate, Hand found success at Volkert where he flourished, rising from the company’s marketing man to chairman and CEO of the Mobile-based firm.

The plan was elegantly simple: Riley’s handpicked successor Bradley Byrne as governor, Hubbard as speaker, Del Marsh as Senate president pro-tem and Luther Strange as attorney general. They would oust Dr. David Bronner at RSA, replacing him with one of their own, and the coup would be complete.

Now, it appears in the twilight of his career, Hand is the man who stands between Canary and some of the state’s most potent business interests who want to see him removed from BCA.

Canary’s deep connection to the Riley machine has been the secret of his success, and like his friend, former speaker of the House and convicted felon Mike Hubbard, that same connection is likely to be his downfall.

Before leaving office in 2010, Riley, along with Hubbard and Canary, devised a plan to carve up state government in such a way as to have the Riley machine controlling the levers of power for a generation and beyond.

The plan was elegantly simple: Riley’s handpicked successor Bradley Byrne as governor, Hubbard as speaker, Del Marsh as Senate president pro-tem and Luther Strange as attorney general. They would oust Dr. David Bronner at RSA, replacing him with one of their own, and the coup would be complete.

But that scheme unraveled first with Bentley’s election over Byrne, Strange’s hiring of prosecutor Matt Hart and the trial and conviction of Hubbard, which exposed the whole enterprise.

Canary, in effect, is the last man standing, and Riley and his gang are hard pressed to stand by while one of their last cohorts goes down in disgrace.

Marsh, for his part, washed his hands of the affair soon after Hubbard was under investigation and there was no longer a need to get rid of Bronner, because Riley loyalist, Canary’s wife Leura Canary, was installed at RSA to keep Bronner in check.

So, it is that Hand, with a few devious or unwitting members of the BCA board, are left to protect what’s left of Riley’s once-thriving empire.

There is little doubt that Canary’s days are numbered, but to think that Riley’s machine will walk away without a fight is naive.

However, greater forces are pushing for Canary’s exit, and if they stay strong, the black hand behind Perry Hand will fail.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Hey Batter, Batter: Taunting Ivey over debates is a silly thing

Bill Britt

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Gov. Kay Ivey throws out the first pitch at a Baron's baseball game in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday.

Some in the media, a handful of politicos and three Republican challengers for governor are dyspeptic over Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision to skip last Thursday’s debate to attend a baseball game.

While these head-to-head match-ups between Republican gubernatorial candidates might be entertaining, only the debate between the major party primary winners could prove decisive.

Ivey knows that she has little to fear from the men who want to replace her. So instead of engaging her Republican rivals, Ivey left them all standing like jilted prom dates to have some fun tossing out the first pitch at a Baron-Biscuits baseball game last Thursday night.

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No doubt the impish side of Gov. Ivey enjoyed donning a Magic City jersey to appear before a cheering crowd while across town campaign consultants and media types fretted over being deemed irrelevant by a governor who doesn’t care what they think.

Ivey’s opponent, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, cares that Ivey doesn’t give him the time of day, so does evangelist Scott Dawson and state Sen. Bill Hightower. But the sellout crowd of nearly 9,000 at the Baron-Biscuits baseball game Thursday night didn’t care about the debates, and neither do most voters who will determine the winner of the June Republican primary.

Why would a sitting governor who holds a 60-plus percent statewide approval rating attend an hour-long food-fight with candidates who aren’t even close to challenging her for election?

Ivey knows that she has little to fear from the men who want to replace her. So instead of engaging her Republican rivals, Ivey left them all standing like jilted prom dates to have some fun tossing out the first pitch at a Baron-Biscuits baseball game last Thursday night.

Like Thursday’s game where the Montgomery Biscuits took an early lead to defeat the Birmingham Barons 7-1, Ivey would be foolish to confront her opponents directly, when she already holds a commanding lead. Ivey will easily coast to victory in the ALGOP primary unless she commits an error, which is always a possibility in a public election.

Rarely do these stage confrontations have a significant impact on the outcome of a political contest, and usually, as with Thursday’s talkfest, nothing is actually learned by the viewer. Canned answers, even worse questions and general public apathy have made modern campaign forums almost useless— if the goal is to gain insight into how a candidate will govern.

Calls for Ivey to face Battle, Dawson and Hightower isn’t so much about a discussion of ideas but an opportunity for supercilious outrage as flimsy as a balsa wood cross whose bearer laments, “Ivey won’t debate.” Signal jackasses braying.

When talking heads and politicos whine and moan about Ivey ducking their get-togethers, it’s not about Ivey or the public’s interests – it’s about them.

What happened Thursday night wasn’t a serious policy debate or even a real opportunity to examine the candidates in any real meaningful way, it was a show. Like a beauty contest, moderators tossed out softball questions that drew vague answers.

When the candidates were asked if they supported Judge Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate, it was as if the moderator had hurled a beanball, with only Dawson directly admitting to voting for Moore while Battle and Hightower equivocated saying little more than they supported the Republican ticket.

The bloom may be off Moore’s rose, but the thorns remain, and that’s always been his appeal; a thorny character who doesn’t mind sticking his sharp finger in the blurred-eyed confusion of modernity. If Moore ran as an independent, he would give Ivey a real run for her money while sending the media into an apoplectic fit of indignation.

First off, only the left-leaning media cares about who supported Moore in the Senate election. Anyone who thinks a vote for Judge Moore hurts a candidate in an Alabama Republican primary doesn’t know much about Republican primary voters. In the ALGOP primary for the U.S. Senate race, Moore overwhelmingly bested his challenger, Luther Strange, by double-digits. He just barely lost to Democrat Doug Jones, even after all the scandal-mongering by the press.

A good 95 percent of the Alabama Republican Party’s base voted for Moore, including Gov. Ivey. Her vote for Moore will not hurt her in a Republican primary.

The bloom may be off Moore’s rose, but the thorns remain, and that’s always been his appeal; a thorny character who doesn’t mind sticking his sharp finger in the blurred-eyed confusion of modernity. If Moore ran as an independent, he would give Ivey a real run for her money while sending the media into an apoplectic fit of indignation.

There are no good reasons for Gov. Ivey to wade in to a blathering-pool for media ratings or to raise her opponents name-ID. All she needs to do between now and June is toss out more two-hoppers, shake hands, kiss babies, and she crosses home without breaking a sweat.

Now, if she refuses to face whoever emerges victorious from the Democrat primary, be it Judge Sue Bell Cobb, former state Rep. James Field or Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, then there will be a reason to call foul. Until then, taunting Ivey is a silly stunt.

As for Battle, Dawson and Hightower, each man, if not facing an incumbent, would be a formidable candidate and even perhaps a good governor. But like a grand slam, it’s all in the timing.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Court of Criminal Appeals continues its failure to rule in Hubbard case

Bill Britt

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Stock Photo

With the indictment, conviction and sentencing of former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, there was an expectation of change. But because the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has failed to rule on Hubbard’s case, the once-hoped-for new dawn in Alabama politics is on hold.

For 11 months, the appeals court has been in procession of the final briefs needed to rule on Hubbard’s case, yet the court continues to stall its judgment.

For all the motions, pleading and downright cheating by Hubbard’s defense, it now comes down to politics and an elected court with judges who want to avoid putting Hubbard in jail, where a circuit court judge and jury of his peers in Lee County said he belongs.

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Most notably since Hubbard’s conviction, Criminal Appeals Court Judge Liles Burke has been nominated to the federal bench by President Donald Trump. Burke has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits final confirmation by the full Senate.

How in the name of all that is justice and fair can the United States Senate in good conscience vote to confirm a man to a federal judgeship who will not rule on the most egregious public corruption case in Alabama in over the last decade?

For eleven months the appeals court has been in procession of the final briefs needed to rule on Hubbard’s case yet the court continues to stall its judgment.

How can Sens. Richard Shelby and Doug Jones vote to confirm a man like Burke who even now shrinks from his duty?

Has duty, honor and blind justice become so subservient to politics as to render an entire court neutered and slavishly beholden to the donor class?

Hubbard’s case is not complicated. Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker III studiously and with an abundance of caution adjudicated Hubbard’s trial. There are no grand questions of law hanging over his rulings. What there is are big donors and influential men who were caught in the same web as Hubbard, and these individuals have access to the levers of power that frighten elected courts.

How is the public to trust that Burke will do any better given a lifetime appointment on a federal court? How can we as a state and nation believe that justice sits on the ultimate balance scale where no one individual is above the law no matter their status when the state court of criminal appeals weights case after case while ignoring Hubbard’s?

It seems there is nothing that can be done to move the court forward but what can and should be done is for Burke to be denied a seat of the federal court for failing to do his duty.

When then-Republican Speaker of the House Hubbard was indicted on 23 counts of felony ethics violations, many of us thought things would change. It didn’t. Many in the Republican supermajority stood by Hubbard at a rally the same days as his indictment and praised the would-be felon. Not only did Republicans stand by Hubbard after his indictments, every Democratic House member save Rep. Alvin Holmes voted to re-elect him speaker.

After Hubbard’s conviction on 12 of those 23 felony charges, once again, there was an expectation of better days to come. But those hopes for renewal are dashed against the hard reality that weak judges who know better and should enforce the law are crushed under the weight of the rich and powerful who believe they are a law unto themselves.

It is widely believed that the Court of Criminal Appeals will leave the Hubbard decision until a new court is seated in 2019, or worse, will dismiss it under the cover of darkness. Either way, the State Supreme Court will hear Hubbard’s appeal before the public has closure.

It seems there is nothing that can be done to move the court forward, but what can and should be done is to deny Burke a seat on the federal court for failing to do his duty.

The courts deserve women and men who put the law before political connivance – something that is sorely lacking here in the Heart of Dixie.

 

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Some are using a stalking horse to undermine ethics laws

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