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Tankersley Exit Interview Part 1: Success, collusion, and dismay

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

As a soldier, physician, and man of faith, Dr. Stewart Hill Tankersley holds firm to his beliefs on right and wrong. As he ends his five-year service on the State’s Ethics Commission, he’s convinced there has been progress, but there are still many obstacles to restoring public confidence in the State’s elected leaders. In just two years, the State has seen the fall of Mike Hubbard, the Speaker of the House, convicted on 12 felony counts of public corruption, and Governor Robert Bentley, resigning in disgrace after accepting a plea to campaign finance violations.

During his time on the commission, Tankersley says he’s been shocked to see lobbyists, lawyers, and the State’s political elites shown deference by the Commission, while the “little guy” in the far reaches of the State is judged strictly by the letter of the law.

In an exclusive interview with the Alabama Political Reporter, Dr. Tankersley recalls some of the commission’s failures, accomplishments, and his ideas for much-needed reforms. Once Tankersley completes his appointment in August, the commission will be wholly comprised of lawyers which Tankersley finds somewhat troubling.

During his tenure as commissioner, Tankersley has often been the odd-man-out and the sole voice of reasoned opposition in a commission more willing to find exception to the State’s tough ethics laws, rather than enforce them.  A commission free from the restraints of the laws they are charged to enforce, where far too often decisions are more political than judicial.

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Tankersley says selecting Tom Albritton as Director has been the commission’s single greatest accomplishment over the last five years.  “The State is so well served by Tom. I have great confidence in him,” said Tankersley. “His Integrity and work ethic is an example to all, and he has brought a sense of purpose and camaraderie back the commission’s staff.”
He says under Albritton’s leadership there is greater transparency with a more significant review of issues and an earnest will to do what is right, and not what is easy.

Tankersley recalls how under the previous leadership informal opinion would be verbally given without record keeping, or informing the commission, that has stopped he says. “It used to be when someone would ask for an informal opinion there would be no notes or records kept,” said Tankersley. “Tom has insisted that they are in writing, and records kept.”

However, Tankersley agrees that even with the new procedure informal ethics opinions are fraught with potential problems, as was the case against former Speaker Hubbard. During Hubbard’s felony trial his attorneys use an informal opinion prepared by Ethics Commission General Counsel Hugh Evans, III, to create reasonable doubt among jurors. Hubbard was charged with using his office for personal gain because he was being paid $10,000 a month to represent the Southeast Alabama Gas District (SEAGD). Hubbard was convicted on similar charges, but the presence of a written informal opinion empowered Hubbard’s lawyer to successfully argued that Hubbard had sought and received a favorable report to work for SEAGD, under the guise of economic development. There is presently a request before the commission seeking an exemption for those engaged in economic development from having to register as lobbyist as is the current understanding of the law.

Tankersley says that informal opinions are sought to avoid a perception of impropriety, but do not have the weight of law and therefore shouldn’t be used as a license to avoid repercussion if someone over steps the bounds of the law.
Of the many things, Tankersley has questioned one of the must puzzling to him is why individuals and entities are allowed to lobby individual commissioners for favorable rulings?  “I’ve never understood the concept—it’s pretty common sense that you can’t lobby a judge before going before him at trial. How people think they can go before a hearing and talk to a commissioner unbeknownst to others is acceptable.” He says it happens often and without consequence to the commissioner, or those seeking ex parte audiences.

Tankersley uses as an example of what he calls an opinion review “orchestrated” by attorney J. Mark White to overturn the definition of a “Principal.” White a prominent Birmingham-based lawyer who represented Hubbard during the run-up to his criminal trial was on instrumental in convincing the commission to withdraw an opinion issued by the commission in the “Friends of McCalla” decision.

In a unanimous vote on September 1, 2016, the Ethics Commission issued advisory opinion 2016-24, which they believed clarified the question regarding public officials soliciting lobbyists and principals for contributions to a charitable organization, operating as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The issue was raised by the non-profit group, Friends of McCalla.

Ethics Commission withdraws McCalla opinion after charities line-up

After approving the opinion in a 5-0 vote, the Commission gave a 30-day window for public comment; however, it was questionably extended past the 30 days to December 7.

In the interim, several well-known charities were alerted that the definition of a principal under Friend of McCalla, could put their donors in legal jeopardy. It was later revealed that the charities were being used as pawns to overturn McCalla’s definition of a principal to benefit corporate interests who hired lawyers to lobby commission chair Judge Jerry Fielding and other commissioners. “Jerry Wood and I were the only commissioners not brought in on the loop,” said Tankersley. “We knew the chairman [Fielding] had been discussing the issue with Mr. White before the hearing.”

The plan worked as the business interests had hoped with McCalla being overturned in a 3-2 voter with commissioners Fielding, Frank C. “Butch” Ellis, Jr., and Judge Charles Price casting their lot to withdraw MaCalla. So ready was Fielding to end the matter, that commissioner Wood had to remind Fielding to ask for any nay votes. Both Wood and Tankersley vote against withdrawing the opinion. Director Albritton almost franticly asked that McCalla simply be suspended to allow for its framework as a bases for continued discussion; but his plea was ignored by Fielding.

Tankersley said it was most telling that Fielding called on White before the vote to see if he had anything to add, even though he was not signed-in to speak. “The chairman asked White if he had anything else to bring forth [before the vote] even though he was not on the list to make a statement,” said Tankersley. “Odd very odd,” he added.

But this is not the only time Tankersley felt the commission was clouding or manipulated by outside special interests.

These incidents and Tankersley’s recommendation will be revealed in the next installment of APR’s interview with Dr. Tankersley.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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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In Case You Missed It

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.

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.

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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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Tankersley Exit Interview Part 1: Success, collusion, and dismay

by Bill Britt Read Time: 5 min
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