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In Case You Missed It

Big Luther’s big problems

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon

Alabama Political Reporter

On Thursday, yet another ethics complaint was filed against Luther Strange, Alabama’s appointed U.S. Senator.

It is the latest in what has become a recurring problem for Strange – people, from his opponents to the Alabama Secretary of State to just ordinary citizens, raising legal questions about his behavior.

Thursday’s ethics complaint, filed by Tuscaloosa businessman Stan Pate, accuses Strange of three violations of ethics laws for accepting an appointment to the Senate from a person Strange was investigating. Strange, the state’s former attorney general, was in the midst of an active investigation focused on former Gov. Robert Bentley.

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Pate’s ethics complaint claims Strange violated ethics laws by announcing his desire to be appointed to the Senate, by accepting an interview with Bentley for the position and by accepting the appointment in exchange for stalling the investigation into Bentley.

“Common sense is that a deal was agreed upon by then-Governor Bentley and then-Attorney General Strange — an unethical and illegal act by the two parties,” the complaint reads. “Luther Strange violated the public trust and the sworn duties of the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Alabama.”

Strange has denied that a quid-pro-quo agreement existed with Bentley.

While Pate and others clearly have axes to grind with Strange, the number of questions raised about Strange’s alleged unethical behavior is staggering, particularly when you consider he’s not even the frontrunner in the special election race for the Senate seat.

Consider these:

  • A complaint was filed with the Alabama Bar Association accusing Strange of misusing his office by accepting the Senate appointment from Bentley.
  • An ethics complaint was filed by Secretary of State John Merrill accusing Strange of two campaign finance violations – violations similar to the ones that led to Bentley’s resignation and arrest.
  • An ethics complaint was filed by a group of citizens alleging Strange misused his office for personal gain by accepting donations from a coal company in exchange for stifling an EPA superfund.
  • Letters from the Project on Government Oversight have asked U.S. AG Jeff Sessions to recuse from the ongoing federal investigation of bribery related to the EPA superfund and cited Strange’s behavior, and, in part, Sessions’ relationship with Strange for the recusal.
  • A state representative accused Strange of being part of a meeting in which the representative was offered a bribe for working against the EPA – an allegation the representative later recanted. But law enforcement sources have confirmed to APR that those allegations are being investigated, along with allegations from a second state representative who was also approached.

All of these have come in the past few months, and they have helped push an image of Strange as an opportunist who will disregard ethics in exchange for personal gain. Those views, in large part, help explain how a man who was very popular among Republican voters two years ago – at the height of his office’s investigation of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard – is now trailing by nearly double digits to a polarizing and controversial candidate like Roy Moore.

“People don’t think Roy Moore is a crook,” said a state pollster, who asked to remain anonymous. “They’re not so sure about Strange. He has made a lot of bad decisions over the last year.”

That is a huge understatement.

Strange could have easily won Sessions’ Senate seat had he merely declined the appointment from Bentley – as he originally said he would – and waited on either a special election or the 2018 midterms.

Instead, believing that he could weather any initial blowback and rely on Bentley to not call a special election, giving voters time to forget his decision, Strange couldn’t bear to watch someone else achieve the seat. And that decision to accept the appointment from Bentley reignited the interest in impeaching the governor and led to public outrage.

Strange didn’t help matters by proclaiming at his appointment press conference that his office had never said that Bentley was under investigation and that media reports saying Bentley was under investigation was “unfair” to Bentley.

A week later, appointed AG Steve Marshall confirmed that Bentley was under investigation and the level of deception in Strange’s comments became apparent. Recently, Strange’s former chief deputy, Alice Martin, told APR that Bentley was “the target” of the investigation that she was leading and she wasn’t sure why Strange said what he did.

Whatever his reasoning, the decision to accept the appointment and then lie when asked about the investigation transformed Strange from a shoo-in for Sessions’ seat to a pariah.

Recent polls, even after a public endorsement from the president – a rarity in primary races – still had him trailing Roy Moore by around 8 points.

Life in the Swamp

That’s likely because Strange’s history in politics makes it very hard for him to convince voters that he’s not an opportunist and a career politician who would do most anything to stay in the game.

As “swamp draining” has become popular, Strange has attempted to latch onto that message, promising to support Trump’s alleged efforts to “drain the swamp.” If anything, Trump’s support for Strange has been indicative of just how phony that effort is.

Before landing in the Alabama AG’s office, Strange was a DC lobbyist and worked for energy companies. Strange is no outsider. He is the swamp.

As AG, Strange rarely sided with working Alabama citizens in fights over greed and corruption, choosing instead to side with coal companies against suffering victims in north Birmingham and to shutter electronic bingo casinos in the state’s poorest counties.

Campaign finance records first reported by APR show that Strange accepted at least $75,000 in campaign contributions from Drummond Coal, which had been labeled as a potentially responsible party for pollution in north Birmingham. The final two $25,000 “donations” from Drummond to Strange were sent within days of Strange writing letters to the EPA informing the agency that Alabama would not support the superfund designation of the 35th Avenue pollution site.

That site is so contaminated that the tops of nearly 300 yards in surrounding neighborhoods have been removed because of soil pollution that has sickened people. Cleanup costs for the current project will run an estimated $20 million, but sources familiar with the EPA’s investigation say that companies in the area, including Drummond, are desperate to kill testing before it stretches to other sites.

Strange’s intrusion into the investigation – an intrusion that was not requested by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), which was tasked by the governor to coordinate with the EPA – could do just that. The EPA needs states’ agreement and cooperation to place a superfund site on a national priority list, which devotes more money and resources to cleaning up the pollution.

Stifling the EPA has been a focus of Drummond and other conspirators, according to a plea agreement filed in June against former Rep. Oliver Robinson. In that agreement, Robinson admits to accepting a bribe and is working with federal law enforcement to name names of others involved, including at least one Drummond executive and an attorney from the powerful Balch and Bingham Law Firm.

Both Drummond and Balch and Bingham have deep ties to Strange and Sessions, and each have contributed thousands to both men. So deep, in fact, that the Project on Government Oversight in D.C. wrote to Sessions and Jay Town, the newly-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, and asked that they recuse themselves from any involvement in the ongoing federal and state investigations.

Questionable Donations

Those donations aren’t the only ones associated with Strange’s Senate campaign that have drawn attention.

Strange has also been the darling of the Republican establishment in this election and received millions in donations from establishment sources and received millions more in ad buys from the Senate Leadership Fund PAC, which is controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That PAC has received money over the last month primarily from the same two men – billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen and billionaire casino owner Phil Ruffin.

(Ruffin isn’t the only casino owner whose money has found its way to help Strange, who has raked in hundreds of thousands from Ruffin, Sands Casino owner Sheldon Adelson and the Poarch Creek Indians. Most of that money was first sent through a PAC to make it easy for Strange, who famously raided Alabama casinos as AG, to distance himself from the original sources and avoid accusations of a quid pro quo.)

In addition to those donations, Strange has also taken in thousands from the usual corporate players – Goldman Sachs donated $2,500 last month, U.S. Steel gave $5,000, various energy and oil companies dumped in hundreds of thousands and financial entities dumped in thousands more.

Mr. Corruption

Because of those donations and the various other problems, Strange has, of course, become the target of pointed criticism from his opponents in the Senate primary. Rep. Mo Brooks, Moore and Randy Brinson have pulled few punches.

Strange, who has never polled higher than second in any Republican primary poll conducted, including the internal polls conducted by the campaigns, has been criticized far more than any of the other candidates, including frontrunner Moore. That’s despite Moore being twice removed as the Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court.

At a June press conference, Brinson, the former head of Alabama’s Christian Coalition, called Strange “Mr. Corruption” and said he also had been told by Rep. John Rogers that Strange had been present when Drummond and Balch and Bingham officials had offered Rogers a bribe.

Brinson was also critical of the Alabama Ethics Commission, which this month delayed a meeting – at which it was rumored to be taking up Merrill’s complaint against Strange – until a day after the primary election.

“From his shady appointment to his shady contributions and campaign finance violations similar to what Gov. Bentley was convicted of, (Strange) has been Mr. Corruption,” Brinson said. “Alabama voters deserve better.”

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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In Case You Missed It

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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Big Luther’s big problems

by Josh Moon Read Time: 8 min
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