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Legislators call for resumed impeachment investigation after Bentley appoints Strange to Senate

Chip Brownlee

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — Before hopping on a plane to head to Washington, Gov. Robert Bentley and newly appointed US Sen. Luther Strange attempted to assuage concerns over possible conflicts of interest related to Strange’s appointment.

Bentley announced Thursday that Strange would replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions as Alabama’s next senator after Sessions was confirmed Wednesday night by the US Senate as President Donald Trump’s attorney general.

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“I truly believe that Luther has the qualifications and has the qualities that will serve our people well and serve this State well,” Bentley said. “Luther and I have a long history. People think that we don’t talk all the time. We’ve been friends for a long time.”

Bentley told reporters gathered at a press conference in Montgomery that he and Strange have “worked closely” throughout their terms on such items as the 2011 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement and matters of Federal intrusion into State matters.

Immediately following the press conference, Bentley and Strange flew together to Washington, where Strange was sworn in as the newest US Senator. Strange’s ascension to the national stage follows the resignation of Sessions, who served as one of Alabama’s senators for more than two decades.

In choosing Strange — the 63-year-old attorney general frequently referred to as “Big Luther” — Bentley said he wanted someone who would value the 2nd and 10th Amendments and would help spur domestic job creation.

After interviewing 20 candidates and narrowing down his choices to six top contenders, Bentley settled on Strange, a man who ran against and later campaigned with Bentley during the 2010 elections and has been in State politics for years.

But their relationship goes far beyond traveling the State together on campaign stops and passing each other in the halls of the State Capitol. Their relationship, at least for the past year, has been in question.

Related work or a full-blown investigation?

The Alabama Attorney General’s Office under Strange was thought to be conducting an investigation into Bentley’s relationship with former top political aide Rebekah Mason.

With Strange’s appointment, questions remain about what role, if any, the Attorney General’s Office has played in investigating the embattled Governor.

The House Judiciary Committee suspended impeachment proceedings last fall after Strange sent the committee a letter on Nov. 3 informing them of necessary “related work” that his office was conducting. Strange, at the time, said he was concerned that the House’s investigation could have overlapped with one in his office.


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Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Attorney General Luther Strange as Alabama’s next US Senator.


The committee began investigations after the Alabama House passed articles of impeachment against the governor in April 2016. More than a dozen House member signed on to a resolution calling for the investigation after Bentley became entangled in a sex scandal with Mason.

On Wednesday, Strange neither confirmed nor denied an investigation.

“I want to make this clear because I think there have been some misconceptions,” Strange said. “We have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor. I think it’s actually somewhat unfair to him and unfair to the process.”

When announcing the suspension of the impeachment proceedings, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said the attorney general was conducting a “probe.” At the time, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said the AG was conducting “criminal proceedings.” But it remains unclear whether those criminal proceedings were related to the Governor directly or just his office.

McCutcheon, right off the floor of the House, said he and Jones made their public comments in November after meeting with several leaders from the Attorney General’s office. The group, according to McCutcheon, included Strange, Chief Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin and Special Prosecutions Division Chief Matt Hart, who helped lead the prosecution of former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard.

“I have not asked questions about that out of respect for the investigation itself. Some of the investigation was involving a grand jury and, therefore, there were grand jury secrecy issues. … We made an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office that they would continue their investigation and, at the proper time, they would notify us, and we would take the report of what they had and then take the information that we had in the Judiciary Committee up to that point and then move forward,” McCutcheon said.

McCutcheon, despite his comments in the November press release, said the AG’s office never directly said there was a criminal investigation of the governor. The Speaker said he thought it would be best for the Attorney General’s Office to complete their investigation without unintentional interference from the House Committee, which had begun subpoenaing Bentley, Mason and other only weeks before the suspension was announced.

“They didn’t really make any specific indications as to who they were investigating, whether it was criminal in nature, ethics, I don’t know,” he said. “If you look back in my statement that I made, I just said there was an investigation dealing with the governor’s office. I didn’t say anything about the governor himself.”

McCutcheon said the House is still waiting on a response to see what the Attorney General’s Office does, but other representatives right off the floor of the House Thursday said that the impeachment process should continue. Several even described their frustration and disappointment with the appointment announcement.

Despite committee members asking for a vote and calling for impeachment proceedings to resume, Chairman Jones said Thursday that the committee is still in the same position that it was before. Jones said he would wait until a new attorney general is appointed and then reach out to the AG’s office for clarification on the matter.

As far as the request from Strange to pause the investigation, Jones said he believed it had been made in good faith — a little more than a week before the surprising election of Trump and weeks before any talk of Senate appointments.

But he did think the investigation was into Bentley, despite Strange’s recent comments to the contrary.

“There are certain things that law enforcement, no matter what level of law enforcement, that they can’t say because of secrecy laws,” Jone said. “But what I took from it is the only thing we are investigating is Governor Bentley. … That’s my perception. I can’t say beyond that.”

Jones may have even initiated the request, according to new information gathered Thursday. He sent a letter to any investigating agency he “could think of” that might also be investigating Bentley. Strange’s office was the only one to respond, he said.

“We were in a strong position to have this concluded by the end of the year,” Jones said. “But when a request like this comes from the Attorney General’s Office, I think anybody in my position and the position of my committee would have to respond the same way.”

Legislator reaction: “This is Alabama”

Reaction at the State House was swift following Bentley’s announcement of Strange’s appointment.

Many legislators are concerned about the “bad optics” associated with the Governor’s decision to appoint the man who may have been investigating him to one of the highest offices in the country. Several were concerned about the possibility of a scheme involving quid pro quo: Did Bentley appoint Strange to halt an investigation?

“Can you discount that? If we hadn’t had everything that has happened in Alabama over the last couple of years, you might say awe that’s ridiculous,” said Rep. Allen Farley, a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee. “But this is Alabama. We have got to straighten up our act.”

Farley said he wants the impeachment committee investigation to continue.

“Once that resolution starts its movement, … that has to be satisfied,” Farley said.

Others said the investigation should have never stopped, including the man who filed the articles of impeachment in the House, Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle. Henry has been a vocal critic of Bentley since April.

“Within a month of the suspension, the attorney general is interviewing for the US Senate seat to be appointed by the governor is very problematic, for the governor, for the newly appointed senator and for the people of the State of Alabama,” Henry said.

Henry, who doesn’t plan to run for reelection in 2018, said the appointment has furthered the air of corruption in Montgomery. This type of action, he said, was the reason he wants to be done with the Legislature. He feels like he can’t do anything to fix it in Montgomery because “nothing gets done” there.

“It truly breaks my heart to know that we are continuing this avenue, this cycle, of making one bad decision after another as a government,” he said. “I am extremely frustrated. … I have been nothing but a gnat on the windshield. I don’t know that I have made any real difference.”


Email Chip at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @chpbrownlee.

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House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.

The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

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Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”

Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.

The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.

Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.

Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.

The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.

Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.

The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.

Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.

The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.

SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.

Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”

State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”

The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.

The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.

The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.

The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.

Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.

SB185 passed 101-0.

Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.

Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1  for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.

SB215 passed the House 87-0.

The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.

State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.

SB231 passed 87-2.

The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.

The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.

The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.

Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.

Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.

Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.

 

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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.

Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.

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Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.

The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.

Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.

Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.

Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.

Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.

Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.

Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.

The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.

Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.

It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.

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Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.

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Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.

Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.

Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.

Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.

Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.

The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.

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Legislators call for resumed impeachment investigation after Bentley appoints Strange to Senate

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 7 min
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