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In Case You Missed It

The Montgomery public corruption grand jury is back to work

Chip Brownlee

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

Prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions public corruption division — among them, Deputy Attorney General Matt Hart — are again using a special grand jury in Montgomery to investigate a web of possible misconduct surrounding former Gov. Robert Bentley and some of his campaign contributors.

The panel began meeting again Tuesday in Montgomery, and several of Bentley’s former staffers were issued subpoenas and brought to testify before the panel.

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The use of the grand jury — the only panel that can produce indictments in felony cases — is yet again a strong indicator that there is an ongoing criminal investigation surrounding Bentley and maybe others, though the direction, targets and scope of the investigation are not yet clear.

The investigation may not even be targeting Bentley directly, sources close to the investigation say, but some of his high-dollar contributors. It’s part of a web of Bentley’s activities that could now be the focus of a wide-ranging investigation into his orbit and those who contributed to his campaigns and aligned PACs.

Wesley Helton, Bentley’s former legislative director, and former Alabama House Speaker Seth Hammett, a one-time chief of staff to Bentley, were both questioned as witnesses Tuesday before the grand jury. The two, who were both part of Bentley’s inner staff for years, are just the start of what is expected to be an extended phase of witness testimony. Where that testimony may go is not yet clear.

Helton worked as an aide to Bentley beginning in 2011 and served until Bentley’s resignation last year. Hammett served as the director of the Alabama Development Office, now the Alabama Department of Commerce, and chief of staff for about a year and a half until he resigned in 2015.

A separate grand jury was reportedly impaneled recently to investigate campaign finance issues related to some members of the Alabama Legislature, and while the cases appear to be removed from one another, less is known about the second panel and those it may be investigating.

Sources close to the investigation say the grand jury that met Tuesday in Montgomery is the same special grand jury that convened in 2016 at the beginning of the investigation into Bentley, which culminated last year in his resignation and guilty pleas on two misdemeanor campaign finance violations, though prosecutors could now be using the same panel to move in a different direction.

That direction isn’t totally clear at this time, but a few names have repeatedly popped up in discussions and investigations surrounding Bentley, his campaign account and a dark-money group Bentley used to supplement the pay of a former top aide, Rebekah Mason. The group, ACEgov, a 501(c)4, is believed to be one piece of the puzzle that Hart and investigators may be probing.

One of the other names is Franklin Haney, a former Chattanooga-based real estate developer who has dropped millions in political contributions across the country, giving large amounts to candidates that ranged from former President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump, and, yes, Bentley, too.

The low-end estimate of Haney’s traceable donations to Bentley total at about $300,000, but it could be much, much more because Haney passes money through PACs and dark-money groups, some of which are required to disclose their donors and others that are not.

At least $75,000 of contributions from Haney companies were split into four separate PAC contributions of $18,750 a piece. Those four same PACs later moved the money to Bentley’s campaign fund, AL.com reported last year.

It’s not clear yet what the prosecutors are looking into and what will come of the investigation, but eyes and ears are pointed toward Haney’s Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, which he purchased last year with public support from Bentley. Haney had been trying for years to buy the defunct TVA plant, but he only won a $111 million bid with the Tennessee Valley Authority after Bentley and Sen. Richard Shelby voiced their support.

The supernumerary district attorney overseeing the Bentley case last year, Ellen Brooks, said at the time of Bentley’s plea deal and resignation that “other subjects that may appear will be followed up” and “other matters” were still open, but the full extent of Bentley’s immunity remains unclear.

Bentley’s personal attorney, Bill Athanas, who defended Bentley throughout the investigations last year, declined to comment, and witnesses, jurors and the Attorney General’s Office can’t comment because of grand jury secrecy laws.

High-power attorneys also walked into the state grand jury meeting room, among them, Augusta Dowd and Mark White, two lawyers who represented former House Speaker Mike Hubbard until Jan. 2016 when they asked to be let off the case. They had two other attorneys along with them, and it isn’t clear if Dowd and White were serving as witnesses or counselors in Montgomery Tuesday.

At the January 2016 hearing when the two lawyers were asking to be dismissed by the court, White said he would not go into details about why they were quitting but said a “conflict of interest” had arisen.

Hart, who appears to be leading this investigation, has had a string of public corruption wins, including Hubbard’s conviction. The former House speaker was convicted on 12 felony ethics charges in 2016, and his case remains on appeal.

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter and content manager at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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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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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.

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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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The Montgomery public corruption grand jury is back to work

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 4 min
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