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Bill Britt

Commission for “Ethics Reform and Clarification” is pure fantasy

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

A Senate joint resolution creating The Code of Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission sponsored by Republican Senators Arthur Orr, President Pro Tem. Del Marsh and Majority Leader Greg Reed has been submitted to the Rules Committee and could be making it’s way through the Senate soon.

Creating a commission to reform and clarify current ethics laws sounds like a reasonable undertaking until it’s understood that the underlying premise is to weaken much of existing laws.

Over 18 months ago current law was tested and defined in a Lee County courthouse where Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker III and 12 jurors found former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard guilty of 12 felony counts of violating the state’s ethics statutes.

The commission as envisioned by the resolutions’ sponsors can be summarized by the now infamous email from Hubbard to former Gov. Bob Riley in which Hubbard wrote, “Those ethics laws, what were we thinking?”

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While these three senators can be granted the benefit of the doubt — that they are not acting for personal interests — the motivation of those pressing for this so-called reform and clarification by committee should be seriously questioned.

Simply put, the vast majority of Montgomery’s power elites would like to see Hubbard be the last man convicted under the current law. In fact, many are hoping the Court of Criminal Appeals will overturn Hubbard’s convictions on soliciting a thing of value from a principal.

A number of high-net-worth individuals took the stand in Lee County as unindicted co-conspirators in Hubbard’s case. Those individuals and business interest don’t want to face such humiliation the next time they purchase a lawmaker as was the judgment of the court in Hubbard’s trial.

Since Hubbard’s conviction, a select group of lawyers has worked to specifically undermine the section of code that defines who a principal is.

There are also legislators especially attorney-lawmakers who want to solicit and represent “clients” with business before the legislature. Even non-lawyers like Hubbard want “business” and “economic development” opportunities to make a little money on the side advising companies who need some help from the government.

Let’s put aside the notion of public service or the idea that any committee appointed to reform and clarify the state’s ethics code will be any more than a group of men and women slavishly beholden to special interests.

Who would comprise this commission, according to the resolution?

The Legal Advisor to the Governor. That would be Bryan Taylor who, with direction from Hubbard, Riley and BCA chieftain Billy Canary, carved-out the ethics reforms enacted in 2010 that appeared to favor those men specifically.

The Attorney General or Chief Deputy Attorney General, who shall serve as co-chair. Lawmaker’s decided to offer current Attorney General Steve Marshall the co-chair position not because he knows ethics law but to satisfy his ego so he would go along with the plan of a commission rather than legislation as prepared by his predecessor.

The Executive Director of the Ethics Commission would serve as co-chair. Heaven knows Director Tom Albritton has tried, but the Ethics Commission itself is weak and corrupt.

The resolution goes on the name other groups represented on the commission, even a representative from the Alabama Press Association.

As an aside the Alabama Political Reporter cannot be a full member of the press association because we do not mail a print product. Even though APR employs more political reporters than any other media outlet, has broken more public corruption articles in the last several years and was the only press outlet to doggedly pursue Hubbard’s crimes, we can only join the press association as associates, which is a category available to any Tom, Dick or Harriet.

A commission to reform and clarify state ethics laws is a terrible idea. It was a bad plan when Republican House Ethics Committee Chair Representative Mike Ball — an unrepentant Hubbard supporter — suggested it years ago.

This commission is a purely political move and not a serious attempt to “unambiguously articulated policy that clearly distinguishes between the private interests of public officers and public employees and the public duties of those officers and employees,” as the resolution states.

This is yet another attempt to water down existing law to curry favor with big mules and lobbyists while giving public officials loopholes to enrich themselves.

There was a bill prepared by former Attorney General Luther Strange, Chief Deputy Alice Martin and Special Prosecutions Chief Matt Hart.

That bill was signed-off on by Republican House and Senate leadership only to be ignored when disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley played fast and loose with appointments.

Republican leadership has expressed a desire to have a controversy-free session. This resolution is not the way to keep the peace, it’s pure fantasy.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Three cheers for cheaters, conmen and crooks

Bill Britt

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Lobbyists and others representing special interests give millions to lawmakers in the form of campaign contributions, and it doesn’t even matter if they are legally or ethically right; they are a must.

Not only are these contributions acceptable and expected, in many cases, it is demanded with valued treats.

With millions in contributions, lobbyists and other entities with business before the state are, in fact, buying favors from an elected official and in turn, many of these so-called public servants reciprocate with favorable legislation and other goods not readily available to those who don’t pony up.

What is obvious is there is a pervasive give-to-get mentality that infects much of Montgomery.

A recent email sent by political consultant Brent Buchanan on behalf of Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed makes it clear leadership is watching who plays ball and who doesn’t.

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Fundraiser or shakedown?

Buchanan is not only a paid operative for state Senate Republicans, but he is also Gov. Kay Ivey’s campaign manager; therefore, his words matter because of who he represents.

Those close to Marsh and Reed think it’s doubtful they approved Buchanan’s indiscreet warning – that money is expected from lobbyists and other interests. But this attitude has become so common under Republican rule over the last eight years that it passes for normal behavior.

Pay-to-play or be sidelined is understood.

It’s tiresome to recall how in 2010, Republicans championed ethics and campaign finance reform only to now have abandoned any pretense of upholding them.

Under the guise of reform, they intend to gut current ethics statutes like a feral hog during the upcoming legislative session. Even now, holding the Republican-appointed Ethics Commission to the strict letter of campaign finance laws has become such a joke that Secretary of State John Merrill is publicly calling out the commission for not doing its job.

Opinion | Alabamians need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws

Amazingly, the state’s Republican Party continues to support it’s attorney general nominee, who has clearly violated the state campaign finance laws by blatantly accepting  $735,000 in contributions that are prohibited under the law.

Current Attorney General Steve Marshall, an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, accepted unlawful contributions from an out-of-state special interest and no one says a word – not the state’s Ethics Commission’s executive director, not the governor or the Republican Party chair.

Add these to what amounts to legal extortion and bribery and a vivid picture emerges of a Republican majority that doesn’t care about the rule of law or civil propriety.

What is the message here?

Shakedowns are fine as long as it’s for our team.

Cheating is okay as long as it’s our team that wins.

Moral character, honesty of purpose and humility of service be damned,

Those who revere power over principle may prosper but never for long where there are individuals who value integrity over gain.

The Republican Party in Alabama used to stand for something, now it seems to cheer for cheaters, conmen and crooks, but perhaps someday it will come back to its senses.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Time for an ethics champion to step forward

Bill Britt

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A majority of Alabama voters are “very concerned” about government corruption and ethics, however, Republicans who once championed strong ethics laws have retrenched or given up the fight altogether.

Our state needs a champion who will lead the battle to keep the state’s ethics laws strong: a singular individual with the courage to do what others lack even the nerve to say.

When the Alabama Republican Party drafted its first ever statewide party platform in August, the state’s ethics laws were not listed among its priorities.

Likewise, Republican leadership in the state Legislature and the Attorney General’s Office have abandoned the ethics reforms established in 2010.

Most tellingly, on the day that the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s 12 felony convictions for violating the state’s ethics laws. Attorney General Steve Marshall was at the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission where he told gathered reporters that the court’s opinion made it clear why the commission’s work was so important.

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What the court actually did was perform a political magic trick that at once upholds 11 counts of Hubbard’s conviction while creating doubt on who is a principal and what constitutes a conflict of interest while making it legal for a lawmaker to vote on legislation while getting paid to do so by an outside interest.

The court satisfied the wishes of big Republican donors, just like Marshall, whose campaign is being heavily funded by those who want Hubbard to go free or at the very least be the last man in a suit to ever be charged under the 2010 ethics reform.

Another magic trick is naming a commission designed to water down the current ethics statutes a “Reform and Clarification Commission.” The commission’s sole purpose is to give political cover to those who wish to overturn rules that keep public officials from using their office for personal gain or receiving lavish perks from lobbyists.

A June report published by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows there is broad agreement among Alabama voters about what issues are important to them as the state nears a statewide election in November.

As first noted by APR’s Chip Brownlee, the report is the result of a survey PARCA conducted, polling Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and issues that are concerning to them. Based on the responses to the survey, PARCA identified and ranked voters’ top 10 critical issues – ethics and corruption rank the third top concern.

Alabama voters’ priorities: Education, healthcare and government ethics

Since Hubbard was indicted nearly four years ago for violating state’s ethics laws, his allies and those who wish to avoid his fate have deployed a variety of tactics to undermine the State’s Ethics Act.

Over the last several years, efforts to gut current laws have failed, but the efforts by the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission are  straight-out rewrites without a presence of righteousness.

The state’s ethics laws do not need to be reformed and clarified; they need to be clarified and strengthened – there is a critical difference.

But unless a champion steps forward, the people be damned. They may be “very concerned” about government corruption and ethics, but the Republican Party can’t be bothered to even mention it, lawmakers want to overturn the laws, and the attorney general – he’s just happy corrupt former Gov. Robert Bentley gave him a job and big monied donors like having an AG for a lapdog.

Justice awaits a champion.

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Bill Britt

Labor Day’s forgotten meaning still hotly debated

Bill Britt

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Labor Day is intended to be a tribute to the labor movement and, “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

Today, in Republican-dominated states, labor unions are seen as an enemy to free enterprise.

David Macaray writing for CounterPunch suggests it’s not the Republican Party that’s labor’s most dangerous adversary, but “Labor’s arch-enemy—and a truly dangerous enemy it is—happens to be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

Under partisan-Republican control the Business Council of Alabama has worked to marginalize organized labor’s influence in the State House and Governor’s Office.

Not long ago, Gov. Kay Ivey, while speaking at a labor conference, touted the state’s commitment as a staunch right-to-work state, a fact not welcomed by most of individuals present.

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Alabama became a right-to-work state by statute on Friday, Aug. 28, 1953. Nearly 65 years later, the state’s Republican lawmakers successfully pushed a ballot measure adding a right-to-work provision to the state constitution. Why after 65 years the state needed to pass a constitutional amendment to bolster a law already on the books was politics, not policy. However, the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment.

According to the National Right to Work Committee, the justification for right-to-work legislation is that, “No worker should be forced to join or pay dues to a labor union in order to get or keep a job.”

As one might imagine, labor organizations see right-to-work policies as something much different than their counterparts.

“’Right to work’ is the name for a policy designed to take away rights from working people,” according to the AFL-CIO. “The real purpose of right to work laws is to tilt the balance toward big corporations and further rig the system at the expense of working families. These laws make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

“A lot of the good things we enjoy in this country today were hard won at the bargaining table where labors leaders stood for worker’s rights,” said Bren Riley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, which through it’s 37 International Affiliates represents about 60,000 working Alabamians.

Labor organizations in the state represent approximately 138,000 members or roughly 7.4 percent of the workforce.

While Alabama has recently experienced a rise in employment, like many states and the nation as a whole, wage-growth is stagnant.

“The federal minimum wage has languished at $7.25 for almost a decade now,” according to Think Progress. “Even as local governments are trying to pass $15 minimum wage bills, the Republican party continually opposes such measures, in some cases using state-house majorities to impede legislation.”

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an article by Emily Q. Hazzard, “It doesn’t matter if unemployment’s at 3.9 percent if their wages are low. They don’t have health care, and they can’t afford to send their kids to school.”

The City of Birmingham voted to increase its minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 in Feb. 2016. The state Legislature immediately took action to block the wage increase by passing a law that prevented, “local governmental entities from requiring minimum leave, wages, or other benefits for employees.” The statute further established that only the state had the authority to “establish uniform employment policies and regulations.”

Court allows Birmingham minimum wage lawsuit to move forward

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in June that a lawsuit that challenges the state’s actions to nullify the City of Birmingham minimum wage ordinance may go forward. If successful, Birmingham might upend the balance of power that has long favored the state Legislature and its White majority said those who favoring the wage increase.

During her first year in office, Gov. Ivey has doggedly focused on job growth in the state, and according to labor statistics, her efforts are paying dividends.

Like many other holidays, Labor Day now has mixed meanings. For many Alabamians, it’s the end of summer, the beginning of political nonsense, but most importantly, the start of football season – something we can all enjoy.

But for a moment, some will remember the good brought about by the once honored labor movement; others still curse its existence.

 

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Bill Britt

OPINION | “Criminal” Court of Appeals does the Devil’s bidding

Bill Britt

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Astonishingly, the Court of Criminal Appeals was able to uphold 11 counts of former Speaker Mike Hubbard’s 12 count conviction while opening a door for the state’s ethics act to be gutted by the Legislature to make sure Hubbard is the last public official held criminally liable under existing laws.

That is the hard truth of what is found in the opinion handed down by the Court of Criminal Appeals nearly two years after Hubbard’s conviction and four years after his indictment.

Justice Samuel Welch wrote the opinion and confirmed by Judges J. Elizabeth Kellum, Liles C. Burke and J. Michael Joiner is a politically-motivated legal slight-of-hand that at once upholds 11 counts of Hubbard’s conviction while creating doubt on who is a principal, what constitutes a conflict of interest while making it legal for a lawmaker to vote on legislation while getting paid to do so by an outside interest.

Now it is clear why it took Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner nearly two years to render a verdict in Hubbard’s appeal; they needed time to get past the primary election season to make sure there would be no political blow-back on Republican elites and officeholders.

Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner show just how far they were willing to go to do the Devil’s bidding in their torturous augment to reverse count 5.

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In count 5, the Lee County Jury found that Hubbard voted for legislation with a conflict of interest because it benefited his paying client, American Pharmacy Cooperative Inc.

IN-DEPTH | Court of Appeals affirms all but one of Hubbard’s convictions

During the 2013 legislative session, Hubbard had language inserted in the Medicaid portion of the General Fund Budget that would have effectively given APCI a monopoly over the State’s Medicaid prescription contracts. APCI paid Hubbard $5,000.00 a month for “consulting,” while serving as Speaker of the House.

Hubbard voted for the General Fund Budget that contained the monopoly for APCI with full knowledge he was doing something wrong.

In their reversal, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner mysteriously found that the ethics statute failed to define an employee clearly.

The judges found that since Hubbard derived less than 50 percent of his income from APCI, he must not be an employee.

Of course, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner also failed to realize most of Hubbard’s income was from contracting work the jury found illegal.

The Lee County jurors understood the law, so did trial Judge Jacob Walker III when he instructed the jury before deliberations, and the Judge and jury understood the law after they found Hubbard guilty on count 5. That is why he was sentenced to 10 years – for violating that portion of the ethics code.

Hubbard’s cronies understand he was breaking the law just minutes before he cast the vote in 2013, and warned him not to do it.

Hubbard’s chief of staff, Josh Blades, lobbyists John Ross and Dax Swatek all testified they cautioned Hubbard not to vote for the bill. Blades swore under oath that Hubbard was aware at the time of the problems he faced but voted on the bill anyway, later saying he never thought it would pass.

As a result of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ actions, a lawmaker may now be paid by an outside interest to vote on legislation that benefits that group and not be in violation of the ethics act.

Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner should be ashamed.

Burke is in line for a federal judgeship. Hopefully, Alabama’s senior Senator Richard Shelby will show his good character by having Burke withdraw his name from nomination. The Trump Administration is reshaping the federal courts by placing conservatives at every level of the federal judiciary. There is no place on a conservative court for a man who would sign on to the opinion issued on Monday.

Another thing these jurists did was give the legislature cover to do away with existing ethics laws and replace it with the kind of weak statues being prepared by the Alabama Code of Ethics Clarification and Reform Commission.

Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner joined forces with other elites to abolish the state’s ethics laws and replace it with one that allows for lobbyists and gain-seekers to shower food, drinks and other perks on public officials without fear of consequence.

Since Hubbard’s indictment, lawyers have been busy trying to redefine who is a principal because some of the state’s most prominent executives were caught giving Hubbard things of value, which is not permitted under current law.

Here again, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner come to the rescue. According to court’s opinion, “It could present a serious constitutional issue should a situation arise in which a public official is convicted for soliciting or receiving a thing of value from a person within an organization but outside its immediate leadership hierarchy, where it is not so clear that that individual is a principal.”

The jury in Lee County didn’t have a problem identifying a principal. Neither did Judge Walker. But Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner – they see a serious constitutional issue.

All this means is that no big-shot businessperson will ever appear in another courtroom because he bribed a public official.

But in reality, the entire purpose of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling was to ensure that no powerful elected official or business mogul would ever be charged under the ethics act.

Even at their loftiest moments, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner make clear that they are on board with doing away with the current ethics statues.

“[T]he Government violates [due process] by taking away someone’s life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement,” they wrote. “For these reasons, we strongly encourage the legislature to consider amending the law to better circumscribe the class of persons defined as principals and to more clearly explain several of the other definitions embodied in § 36-25-1, Ala. Code 1975 that could present similar constitutional issues. The language of Alabama’s ethics law should be clear as to which persons, businesses, and acts fall within its reach.”

To simply restate their intention, “We had to find Hubbard guilty. We didn’t want to because he’s an elite like us. But we had no choice. But hey, you now have a green-light to gut these stupid ethics laws (Thank God). I mean, really, what were we thinking? Oh, and you guys that were about to be indicted for getting paid to pass legislation, you’re welcome.”

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Commission for “Ethics Reform and Clarification” is pure fantasy

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