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Bill Britt

There is already a fix to clarify and strengthen the ethics laws

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Before then Attorney General Luther Strange took his ill-fated appointment to the U.S. Senate, his office prepared legislation to clarify and strengthen existing ethics laws.

Amidst all the nascent posturing about a dire need to, “Reform and Clarify” current ethics laws, there seems to be a pretense that no such clarification exists and, therefore, the Legislature needs to do something.

One proposal is to establish a committee to make recommendations for ethics reforms before the 2019 Session is currently the preferred solution thereby stalling any reform measures while giving special interests groups sufficient time to work to muddy laws that hinder their businesses.

But there is already a fix available for the asking.

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Some have said they didn’t want to propose legislation that was drafted by only one entity, but this in itself is misleading or at least lacks an understanding of how the attorney general’s bill was drafted.

After several months of working with various stakeholders, the legislation — as proposed by Strange’s office — was approved by Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, plus various other lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested parties.

Those who reviewed the bill and signed-off on its content included not only Marsh and McCutcheon, but, according to those within the State House at the time, the final measure was accepted by lobbyists/lawyers Greg Butrus, Ted Hosp, Sen. Arthur Orr and several others who were a part of the negotiations.

Once Strange’s bill received approval from the various players, the Republican leadership promised to present the legislation during the 2017 Legislative Session.

However, the attorney general’s bill was never introduced after Steve Marshall was appointed to replace Strange.

Marshall, ever mindful of political positioning, decided not to press ethics reform for fear of offending the wrong people. Republican House and Senate leadership used Marshall’s timidity as an opportunity to do nothing.

Today’s movement to reform and clarify appears to be an effort to weaken the ethics code. Meanwhile, the bill agreed to by Republican leadership in 2016 to clarify and strengthen ethics laws is mostly lost to willful ignorance.

Strange’s bill was widely seen as a response to a call by House Ethics Committee Chair Rep. Mike Ball, a Republican, to form a committee to rewrite the ethics code. Ball, still an unrepentant supporter of disgraced Speaker Mike Hubbard, has repeatedly accused prosecutors in the Hubbard case of criminal misconduct. Only in the world of Montgomery crony politics could a man, who to this day defends Hubbard, be allowed to remain chair of the House Ethics Committee.

In the wake of Hubbard’s conviction on 12 felony counts of public corruption, the ethics laws, as passed by the Republican supermajority in 2010, were under attack by his supporters, especially those un-indicted co-conspirators who were forced to testify at his corruption trial. Many of those same individuals are supporting Marshall’s run for office.

On a political stage where alternative reasoning is often a cover for the actual motivation, recent claims would have the public and uninformed lawmakers believe that a significant reason for ethics reform is because Republicans are having trouble recruiting candidates because the current ethics statutes are too harsh or unclear.

The latest reason given for an ethics committee to rewrite state ethics statues is that “good candidates” are not running for office because of unclear ethics laws. It is also the reason given for many current lawmakers leaving office.

Among the movers behind the so-called “reform and clarify” are those who would dismantle a provision of the law that prohibits principals, subordinates and lobbyists from purchasing legislators as they did in Hubbard’s case.

It is also being pushed so that public officials can trade on their elected position. Recently proposed legislation shows that far too many public officials want to use their office to enrich themselves while hiding their activities under the heading of economic development or secret Ethics Commission opinions.

It remains abundantly evident that the larger issue is not that the rules are ambiguous or unfair but unwelcome by those who, like Hubbard, feel the laws are restrictive to their business interests.

Several lawmakers have said that it’s no longer fun to sit in the Legislature because they can’t enjoy the benefits of lobbyist-paid dinners or other perks that were business-as-usual in the old days.

There is a fix; there is legislation that had broad support — albeit some begrudgingly — before Luther Strange grabbed for the golden ring.

Public service is not a frat party or a reason to expect lavish living on lobbyist and corporate expense accounts.

The facts are clear: there exists a bill that addresses all the questions raised by Hubbard’s conviction.

The problem now is who is honest and strong enough to bring back the bill that was agreed upon before the 2017 Session?

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | DC’s political pornography keeps voters distracted

Bill Britt

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While Alabama’s voters breathlessly bask in the bodice-ripper soft porn that is the daily press coverage of the President Donald J. Trump administration here at home, some elected officials are disregarding and dismantling the very laws that Republicans rode to victory in 2010.

Ethics reform and the Fair Campaign Practice Act are under attack, not from Democrats, but by Republicans who control every branch of state government.

Voters, in general, are blinded by the R after a politician’s name because Alabama is considered a Republican state. The jersey seems to matter more than the character of the player who’s wearing it.

Billionaire industrialist and Republican megadonor Charles Koch recently said, “I don’t care what initials are in front or after somebody’s name — I’d like there to be many more politicians who would embrace and have the courage to run on a platform.”

When Republicans ran in 2010, they had a platform. It was pro-business, fiscally conservative with a heavy emphasis on a stringent code of ethics and transparent campaign laws.

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Since the indictment of then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in 2014, Republicans have tried to weaken the Ethics Act they championed in 2010. They did it first to help Hubbard, but now in 2018, they want to rewrite the ethics laws to help themselves to the perks of office once enjoyed by Democrats.

Many Republicans don’t want to go back to the Wild West days of lawlessness before 2010, but they remain silent.

Recently, Alabama’s appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall accepted $735,000.00 from a dark money PAC controlled by the Republican Attorney Generals Association in violation of the state’s FCPA ban on PAC-to PAC transfers, but Republicans lawmakers haven’t uttered a word.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s campaign says she has cleaned up corruption in Montgomery, but within sight of her office, a so-called Ethics Review and Clarification Committee is rewriting the ethics laws to include allowing a public official to solicit things from a lobbyist.

A template for strengthening and clarifying the ethics laws was written under the watchful eye of the Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Unit. But the committee that is rewriting the ethics laws didn’t even use that plan as a starting point. Instead, they decided to arbitrarily let associations and the Alabama Legislative Services Agency undertake a wholesale rewrite.

Why?

The reality is – far too many public officials don’t want to be policed or held accountable.

As for the money Marshall received in violation of FCPA, he says there’s a loophole.

However, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2016, found the 2010 Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) made it “unlawful for any political action committee … to make a contribution, expenditure, or any other transfer of funds to any other political action committee.” The only exception to the rule is that a PAC can donate to a PAC set up by a candidate, but full disclosure is required by both parties.

Also in 2016, a Lee County Jury found that Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation ethics laws worked when it convicted Hubbard.

What has changed since 2010? The Republican supermajority has found that running on ethics reform and campaign transparency sounds good, but trying to live by the law isn’t as easy as talking about it.

Frankly, the citizens should care more about integrity than initials, but for the most part, they don’t even know what is happening in their own backyard. The seduction of 24-hour cable news has left most voters knowing everything about the hookers in D.C. and nothing about the pimps in Montgomery.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Only one candidate skipped debates; he had something to hide

Bill Britt

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Only once in the last two decades has an Alabama candidate for governor refused to debate their opponent, and he had something to hide.

Gov. Ivey plans to be the second Republican gubernatorial candidate in a generation to dodge debating her Democrat opponent. Why?

Every four years, since at least 1998, a Republican and a Democrat have stood on a public stage to debate the merits of being the next governor of Alabama. Disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley is the only exception, dissing Democrat rival Parker Griffith in 2014, saying there was no need to debate. But the real reason Bentley refused to stand on a stage with Griffith was because his campaign staff was worried about what Griffith knew and how he might use it.

Ivey, is doing the same to her Democrat rival Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox that Bentley did to his. Do her campaign operatives have a reason to worry?

When the sordid details of Bentley’s lifestyle and leadership were exposed, voters would learn why he wouldn’t debate Griffith. What if Griffith had raised those questions during a debate? Could the state have been spared the embarrassment of another foolish, inept and cruel governor being chased from office?

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Gov. Ivey is not a weakling like Bentley; she is experienced, battle-tested and by all accounts ready to lead. So why all the silly excuses for not facing Maddox one-on-one?

Recently, Gov. Ivey said that only the media and her opponent care about debates. She also said she saw no need to debate Maddox until he stopped debating himself.

This notion that Maddox is somehow wishy-washy merely is not right, and no matter what her campaign staff tells her, repeating this nonsense makes the governor look foolish and weak, not clever or strong.

Gov. Ivey is right that the vast majority of eligible voters do not care about debates, they also don’t care enough to vote. Even a majority of registered voters aren’t concerned about her positions versus Maddox because come November they won’t vote either. Also among the small minority that will go to the polls on Election Day, a majority of those voters may not care about what they might see or hear in a side-by-side appearance. But there are a few who care a lot, care deeply because they are the ones who must be the eyes and ears of those too busy or too lazy to bother. And yes, that’s the media.

Many in the media thought there were severe problems in the Bentley administration during his 2014 reelection bid. But solid proof about Bentley’s antics was challenging to check out because his staff was doing an excellent job of keeping a blanket over the mischief that was going on behind Wanda’s desk.

No such suspicions surround Gov. Ivey. Oh, there are questions about her health, which she said is fine. There are worries about the number of former Gov. Bob Riley’s cronies on her staff and in her cabinet, but there are no grave concerns about personal corruption as with Bentley.

If things hold, Gov. Ivey will be elected in the coming general election by a wide margin.

Most likely, her campaign is worried that a debate may produce a gaffe that might raise questions, that is always a risk in any live performance.

But for the good of the state and to assure the voters, and yes, the media, that she is still ready to serve, Ivey should stand shoulder to shoulder with her Democrat opponent and answer a few questions.

Enough already with the ribbon cuttings and seven-minute press outings, the voters deserve better, and Gov. Ivey is better. Over the last 20 years, only Bentley ducked debates, and thank goodness Gov. Ivey is not Robert Bentley.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals fails

Bill Britt

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The shocking failure of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to rule on former Speaker Mike Hubbard’s felony conviction is a travesty of justice.

Here, the legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied” applies to the people of Alabama.

When Hubbard was indicted, convicted and sentenced to prison, these acts were carried out in the name of The People of Alabama. It is the people who are being denied justice by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Justices Samuel Henry Welch, J. Elizabeth Kellum, Liles C. Burke and J. Michael Joiner continue to refuse to carry out their sworn duty by letting Hubbard’s appeal languish in a legal limbo because they lack the political courage to act.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is most commonly attributed to former British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone. The idea is that if legal redress is available for a party that has suffered some injury, but is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no remedy at all.

Hubbard’s crimes were against the citizens of the state, not the Ethics Commission, Attorney General’s Office or some arbitrary third part; he committed acts that harmed the state, therefore his crimes injured the people.

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Why Justices Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner choose to rob the state’s citizens of their right to justice is beyond comprehension unless it’s viewed through a very narrow lens of self-serving political interests.

Hubbard’s appeal is thought to be in the hands of Justice Welch. He was elected to the court on Nov. 7, 2006, and his current term expires on Jan. 13, 2019. Is Welch a lame duck justice who is biding his time to hand the case over to someone else to avoid offending the moneyed and political class still pushing for Hubbard’s acquittal?

Justice Burke is expected to receive a federal judgeship, but how can the U.S. Senate approve the appointment of a man who lacks the leadership to guide his fellow judges to a conclusion in the Hubbard case? Burke says it’s not his case, but is he incapable of motivating his colleagues to complete the court’s business?

Court spokesperson Micheal Scott continues to say the court is working on the matter, but just how much time must pass before the people lose confidence in the process?

Yes, Hubbard’s attorney’s filed numerous motions, and it was a lengthy trial, but as several legal minds have noted – Hubbard’s appeal has gone far beyond any reasonable time for a ruling to have been handed down by the court.

Well into the second year of Hubbard’s appeal on 12 felony counts of violating the state Ethics Act, and Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner deny the people justice.

The only conclusion that makes any sense is that the Court of Criminal Appeals is waiting for a politically convenient moment to set Hubbard free.

And then, once again, the courts of Alabama deny the people justice.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Civil trial will spotlight Bentley’s shame

Bill Britt

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To date, the state has spent at least an estimated $300,000.00 defending former Gov. Robert Bentley, and the meter is still running on the legal tab in the wrongful termination civil suit filed by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier. There are currently three lawsuits in which Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration is defending Bentley.

In campaign commercials, Gov. Ivey claims she cleaned up Bentley’s mess, but still her administration continues to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect him. Far from putting an end to Bentley’s shameful chapter in state history, the Ivey administration’s lawyers are fighting to preserve Bentley’s image while denying Collier the compensation he deserves.

If Collier’s lawsuit goes to court, the state will not only suffer a humiliating defeat, but Bentley’s abuse of power, his sordid acts of moral turpitude and his arrogance in the face of facts will once again dominate headlines across the state and nation.

Imagine how Bentley’s tale of how he became involved with married aide Rebekah Caldwell Mason will play with a jury and late night talkshow hosts.

“I recognized in Rebekah things that I couldn’t find in Montgomery… Rebekah was one that I could trust; I could totally trust her. I could tell her things that I could not tell anybody else,” recalled Bentley under oath. “So because of the development of the friendship, and I felt safe with her, I felt comfortable with her when we would be together and talk; and, you know, with the closeness that developed, an affection
developed.” Bentley goes on and on, “I may still have not seen her but two or three times a week; but when she would come, you know, she would come. I would embrace her; I would kiss her because we really cared about each other.”

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According to Bentley, they still enjoy a special non-sexual love affair while she works for him at his Tuscaloosa clinic where he pays Mason $5,000.00 a month as office manager. Mason is also the beneficiary on his life insurance policy.

Collier’s case revolves around his claim of unlawful termination. Collier was fired from his position at ALEA after he refused Bentley’s order to lie in an affidavit to the court in former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s trial. After his firing, Bentley’s paramour, Mason and Collier’s replacement, Stan Stabler, launched a smear campaign against him that, with the Ivey administration’s assistance, still exists today.

In a nearly six-hour deposition, Bentley admits to most of the allegations brought by Collier, except he blames Stabler for the dirty deeds.

Along the way, the Ivey administration’s lawyers have sought to smear Collier’s reputation, belittle him in a continuation of Bentley’s terrible legacy of abuse.

Anyone with half a brain realizes that Bentley fired Collier for doing his job. Anyone with half a heart knows what Bentley did was wrong and Collier should be compensated.

Now, why the Ivey administration can’t understand this is beyond comprehension.

Perhaps Gov. Ivey should watch Bentley’s deposition. She’ll be embarrassed, but that’s what’s coming to a courtroom and late night TV shows should the Collier case go to trial.

 

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There is already a fix to clarify and strengthen the ethics laws

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