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Bill Britt

Opinion | Piecemeal approach to ethics reform continues, and it’s questionable

Bill Britt

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Two bills designed to dramatically alter current ethics laws were approved by the House Ethics Committee last week. As introduced in the House, HB387, sponsored by Republican lawmaker Rep. Rich Wingo, would among other things allow public officials to hide potentially illegal acts under a new notifications rule. Wingo’s bill is companion legislation to SB221, sponsored by Republican Sen. Trip Pittman.

Another stab at rewriting current ethics laws is found in HB432, sponsored by Republican Rep. Alan Baker, which will greatly expand the powers and purview of the executive director of the Ethics Commission.

Earlier this month in a press conference, Republican lawmakers Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Mike Jones seemed to signal a halt to any new ethics legislation during the current legislative session.

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In announcing a newly formed commission to study and make recommendations as proposed by SB343, these powerful Republican legislators said the issue of ethics reform was better left until the 2019 legislative session.

Ethics reform bill to sit on hold until next session as lawmakers begin discussions

However, last week, without the simplest acknowledgment of irony, HB387 and HB432 were championed by House Ethics Committee Chair Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. Ball, an intemperate critic of the laws that convicted his friend, former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, hustled the bills out of his committee despite leadership’s suggestion just days earlier.

Ball not only defended Hubbard after his conviction on felony offenses, he has also repeatedly accused the state prosecution team members of criminal acts during Hubbard’s trial. Despite Ball’s unfounded claims and outspoken desire to kill ethics laws that convicted Hubbard, he remains head of the House Ethics Committee.

HB387 and HB432: Potential for Mischief

A detailed analysis of the two bills’ potential damage to state ethics laws is perhaps too exhaustive to enumerate without it becoming a somnolent potion, however, even a top-level reading of the bills casts light on just how dangerous these laws could be in the wrong hands.

Pittman-Wingo deals a blow to transparency

On its face, the Pittman-Wingo bills do little more than create a meaningless “notification” requirement. But a deeper dive shows that under this new notification provision, a lawmaker may take a job or a consulting contract with a principal – forbidden under current law, or any business without seeking an ethics advisory opinion.

Under this statute, the Ethics Commission is neither authorized or required to do anything at all with the notification, and while the lawmaker’s employment would be public record, someone would need to know about the filing to ever know to look for it.

These bills, as written, make no distinction between consulting contracts from principals or other businesses that do not hire lobbyists.

As APR has pointed out on numerous occasions, all revisions, additions or alterations to the present Ethics Act must be viewed in light of the Hubbard prosecution and conviction.

Under the Pittman-Wingo scheme, with a simple notification to the ethics commission, legislators may enter into a consulting contract or job without needing a review.

Imagine the fun Hubbard’s lawyer would have had with this statute.

“Thank God, for these notifications. Poor Mike filed his paperwork with the commission, and now the attorney general from Timbuktu is trying to throw this good-Christian-family-man in prison for just working to put food on his family.”

These are just a few examples of latent possibilities for misconduct under the Pittman-Wingo scheme.

Expanding powers of the executive director

HB432, carried in the House by Rep. Baker, with its companion legislation, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward – both Republicans – would significantly expand the sphere of influence of the Ethics Commission’s executive director.

Any examination of laws governing the state ethics commission should begin with questioning the effectiveness of the commission as it presently functions.

Comprised of political appointees who, at times, appear to rule with the caprice of a Marseilles madame, the commission on occasion has created laws while stretching the existing ones beyond any reasonable facsimile of their intended meanings.

The commission’s executive director is hired by the commission and is likewise subject to its whims or will be fired.

A summary of the bill’s intentions, as APR discussed with Ward and Ethics Director Tom Albritton, would permit more flexibility for minor ethics violations and allow the director to “self-generate[d]” a complaint. It would also empower the director and his staff to go beyond the “four corners” of a complaint. If passed in its current form, these companion bills would authorize the director to bypass the state’s attorney general or district attorneys in favor of the U.S. attorney in public corruption cases.

Some of these provisions run counter to current law and give unelected bureaucrats more power and influence than they already command.

While granting the executive director more flexibility on minor offenses, it would seem wholly imprudent to undermine the attorney general’s role as a constitutional officer and top law enforcement official in the state. With this in mind, should the law allow political appointees to usurp power granted to the attorney general?

If enacted, these bills would massively expand the investigative authority of the commission. Current Director Albritton has argued publicly that the commission already has power to self-generate a complaint, and that is true, but only by degrees. There is a process whereby the commission can initiate an investigation without receiving a formal complaint from outside sources. A procedural process is currently in place that somewhat safeguards against an unscrupulous use of an ethics investigation. Director Albritton may never abuse his power, but that doesn’t mean the next director will not.

There are other questions unanswered by these bills that should be thoroughly vetted before passage.

President Pro Tem Marsh said of sweeping ethics reforms, “It deserves all the questions to be asked to make sure we are covering everything.”

A piecemeal approach has been rejected by most in Republican leadership. Perhaps it’s time for Ball and others to follow suit.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | The black hand behind Perry Hand

Bill Britt

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Perry Hand (via BCA)

Shortly after the Alabama Political Reporter made it known that the Business Council of Alabama’s Executive Board had voted on April 10 to terminate Billy Canary from his position as CEO, nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers were burning-up their mobile phones, trying to find out who Perry Hand is and who could convince him to push Canary out immediately. Hand wants to keep Canary in place until the fall

Billy Canary out at BCA, sort of 

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Hand’s motivation to protect Canary is not easily definable unless it’s weighed together with former Gov. Bob Riley’s plan to consolidate power after leaving office in 2010.

Perry A. Hand is the current BCA board chair and chairman of Volkert Inc., an engineering company, which primarily earns its money from government contracts. Volkert Inc. is a significant player in developing disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley’s lovenest, aka Gulf State Park.

Hand cut his teeth in politics first as a state senator under Gov. George Wallace but came to prominence as an appointee and confidant of accidental Republican Gov. Guy Hunt.

It was Hunt who appointed Hand to secretary of state in 1989, only to see him pummeled in the next general election when former Wallace aide Billy Joe Camp bested him by over 115,000 votes. Hand was also appointed the head of the department of transportation as another temporary position.

An Auburn engineering graduate, Hand found success at Volkert where he flourished, rising from the company’s marketing man to chairman and CEO of the Mobile-based firm.

The plan was elegantly simple: Riley’s handpicked successor Bradley Byrne as governor, Hubbard as speaker, Del Marsh as Senate president pro-tem and Luther Strange as attorney general. They would oust Dr. David Bronner at RSA, replacing him with one of their own, and the coup would be complete.

Now, it appears in the twilight of his career, Hand is the man who stands between Canary and some of the state’s most potent business interests who want to see him removed from BCA.

Canary’s deep connection to the Riley machine has been the secret of his success, and like his friend, former speaker of the House and convicted felon Mike Hubbard, that same connection is likely to be his downfall.

Before leaving office in 2010, Riley, along with Hubbard and Canary, devised a plan to carve up state government in such a way as to have the Riley machine controlling the levers of power for a generation and beyond.

The plan was elegantly simple: Riley’s handpicked successor Bradley Byrne as governor, Hubbard as speaker, Del Marsh as Senate president pro-tem and Luther Strange as attorney general. They would oust Dr. David Bronner at RSA, replacing him with one of their own, and the coup would be complete.

But that scheme unraveled first with Bentley’s election over Byrne, Strange’s hiring of prosecutor Matt Hart and the trial and conviction of Hubbard, which exposed the whole enterprise.

Canary, in effect, is the last man standing, and Riley and his gang are hard pressed to stand by while one of their last cohorts goes down in disgrace.

Marsh, for his part, washed his hands of the affair soon after Hubbard was under investigation and there was no longer a need to get rid of Bronner, because Riley loyalist, Canary’s wife Leura Canary, was installed at RSA to keep Bronner in check.

So, it is that Hand, with a few devious or unwitting members of the BCA board, are left to protect what’s left of Riley’s once-thriving empire.

There is little doubt that Canary’s days are numbered, but to think that Riley’s machine will walk away without a fight is naive.

However, greater forces are pushing for Canary’s exit, and if they stay strong, the black hand behind Perry Hand will fail.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Hey Batter, Batter: Taunting Ivey over debates is a silly thing

Bill Britt

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Gov. Kay Ivey throws out the first pitch at a Baron's baseball game in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday.

Some in the media, a handful of politicos and three Republican challengers for governor are dyspeptic over Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision to skip last Thursday’s debate to attend a baseball game.

While these head-to-head match-ups between Republican gubernatorial candidates might be entertaining, only the debate between the major party primary winners could prove decisive.

Ivey knows that she has little to fear from the men who want to replace her. So instead of engaging her Republican rivals, Ivey left them all standing like jilted prom dates to have some fun tossing out the first pitch at a Baron-Biscuits baseball game last Thursday night.

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No doubt the impish side of Gov. Ivey enjoyed donning a Magic City jersey to appear before a cheering crowd while across town campaign consultants and media types fretted over being deemed irrelevant by a governor who doesn’t care what they think.

Ivey’s opponent, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, cares that Ivey doesn’t give him the time of day, so does evangelist Scott Dawson and state Sen. Bill Hightower. But the sellout crowd of nearly 9,000 at the Baron-Biscuits baseball game Thursday night didn’t care about the debates, and neither do most voters who will determine the winner of the June Republican primary.

Why would a sitting governor who holds a 60-plus percent statewide approval rating attend an hour-long food-fight with candidates who aren’t even close to challenging her for election?

Ivey knows that she has little to fear from the men who want to replace her. So instead of engaging her Republican rivals, Ivey left them all standing like jilted prom dates to have some fun tossing out the first pitch at a Baron-Biscuits baseball game last Thursday night.

Like Thursday’s game where the Montgomery Biscuits took an early lead to defeat the Birmingham Barons 7-1, Ivey would be foolish to confront her opponents directly, when she already holds a commanding lead. Ivey will easily coast to victory in the ALGOP primary unless she commits an error, which is always a possibility in a public election.

Rarely do these stage confrontations have a significant impact on the outcome of a political contest, and usually, as with Thursday’s talkfest, nothing is actually learned by the viewer. Canned answers, even worse questions and general public apathy have made modern campaign forums almost useless— if the goal is to gain insight into how a candidate will govern.

Calls for Ivey to face Battle, Dawson and Hightower isn’t so much about a discussion of ideas but an opportunity for supercilious outrage as flimsy as a balsa wood cross whose bearer laments, “Ivey won’t debate.” Signal jackasses braying.

When talking heads and politicos whine and moan about Ivey ducking their get-togethers, it’s not about Ivey or the public’s interests – it’s about them.

What happened Thursday night wasn’t a serious policy debate or even a real opportunity to examine the candidates in any real meaningful way, it was a show. Like a beauty contest, moderators tossed out softball questions that drew vague answers.

When the candidates were asked if they supported Judge Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate, it was as if the moderator had hurled a beanball, with only Dawson directly admitting to voting for Moore while Battle and Hightower equivocated saying little more than they supported the Republican ticket.

The bloom may be off Moore’s rose, but the thorns remain, and that’s always been his appeal; a thorny character who doesn’t mind sticking his sharp finger in the blurred-eyed confusion of modernity. If Moore ran as an independent, he would give Ivey a real run for her money while sending the media into an apoplectic fit of indignation.

First off, only the left-leaning media cares about who supported Moore in the Senate election. Anyone who thinks a vote for Judge Moore hurts a candidate in an Alabama Republican primary doesn’t know much about Republican primary voters. In the ALGOP primary for the U.S. Senate race, Moore overwhelmingly bested his challenger, Luther Strange, by double-digits. He just barely lost to Democrat Doug Jones, even after all the scandal-mongering by the press.

A good 95 percent of the Alabama Republican Party’s base voted for Moore, including Gov. Ivey. Her vote for Moore will not hurt her in a Republican primary.

The bloom may be off Moore’s rose, but the thorns remain, and that’s always been his appeal; a thorny character who doesn’t mind sticking his sharp finger in the blurred-eyed confusion of modernity. If Moore ran as an independent, he would give Ivey a real run for her money while sending the media into an apoplectic fit of indignation.

There are no good reasons for Gov. Ivey to wade in to a blathering-pool for media ratings or to raise her opponents name-ID. All she needs to do between now and June is toss out more two-hoppers, shake hands, kiss babies, and she crosses home without breaking a sweat.

Now, if she refuses to face whoever emerges victorious from the Democrat primary, be it Judge Sue Bell Cobb, former state Rep. James Field or Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, then there will be a reason to call foul. Until then, taunting Ivey is a silly stunt.

As for Battle, Dawson and Hightower, each man, if not facing an incumbent, would be a formidable candidate and even perhaps a good governor. But like a grand slam, it’s all in the timing.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Court of Criminal Appeals continues its failure to rule in Hubbard case

Bill Britt

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With the indictment, conviction and sentencing of former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, there was an expectation of change. But because the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has failed to rule on Hubbard’s case, the once-hoped-for new dawn in Alabama politics is on hold.

For 11 months, the appeals court has been in procession of the final briefs needed to rule on Hubbard’s case, yet the court continues to stall its judgment.

For all the motions, pleading and downright cheating by Hubbard’s defense, it now comes down to politics and an elected court with judges who want to avoid putting Hubbard in jail, where a circuit court judge and jury of his peers in Lee County said he belongs.

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Most notably since Hubbard’s conviction, Criminal Appeals Court Judge Liles Burke has been nominated to the federal bench by President Donald Trump. Burke has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits final confirmation by the full Senate.

How in the name of all that is justice and fair can the United States Senate in good conscience vote to confirm a man to a federal judgeship who will not rule on the most egregious public corruption case in Alabama in over the last decade?

For eleven months the appeals court has been in procession of the final briefs needed to rule on Hubbard’s case yet the court continues to stall its judgment.

How can Sens. Richard Shelby and Doug Jones vote to confirm a man like Burke who even now shrinks from his duty?

Has duty, honor and blind justice become so subservient to politics as to render an entire court neutered and slavishly beholden to the donor class?

Hubbard’s case is not complicated. Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker III studiously and with an abundance of caution adjudicated Hubbard’s trial. There are no grand questions of law hanging over his rulings. What there is are big donors and influential men who were caught in the same web as Hubbard, and these individuals have access to the levers of power that frighten elected courts.

How is the public to trust that Burke will do any better given a lifetime appointment on a federal court? How can we as a state and nation believe that justice sits on the ultimate balance scale where no one individual is above the law no matter their status when the state court of criminal appeals weights case after case while ignoring Hubbard’s?

It seems there is nothing that can be done to move the court forward but what can and should be done is for Burke to be denied a seat of the federal court for failing to do his duty.

When then-Republican Speaker of the House Hubbard was indicted on 23 counts of felony ethics violations, many of us thought things would change. It didn’t. Many in the Republican supermajority stood by Hubbard at a rally the same days as his indictment and praised the would-be felon. Not only did Republicans stand by Hubbard after his indictments, every Democratic House member save Rep. Alvin Holmes voted to re-elect him speaker.

After Hubbard’s conviction on 12 of those 23 felony charges, once again, there was an expectation of better days to come. But those hopes for renewal are dashed against the hard reality that weak judges who know better and should enforce the law are crushed under the weight of the rich and powerful who believe they are a law unto themselves.

It is widely believed that the Court of Criminal Appeals will leave the Hubbard decision until a new court is seated in 2019, or worse, will dismiss it under the cover of darkness. Either way, the State Supreme Court will hear Hubbard’s appeal before the public has closure.

It seems there is nothing that can be done to move the court forward, but what can and should be done is to deny Burke a seat on the federal court for failing to do his duty.

The courts deserve women and men who put the law before political connivance – something that is sorely lacking here in the Heart of Dixie.

 

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Opinion | Piecemeal approach to ethics reform continues, and it’s questionable

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