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Bill Britt

Opinion | Bentley left office one year ago today. Still, rogues and scoundrels remain

Bill Britt

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Today marks one year since Alabama’s 53rd governor, Robert Bentley, left office in disgrace.

In just the last two decades, two Republican and one Democrat governor of Alabama were proven crooks. Many more were no doubt rogues and scoundrels, but unlike Bentley, Guy Hunt or Don Siegelman, they never were convicted of their crimes.

Of course, the legacy of most of the state’s chief executives is one of hopelessly abandoning the people for self-interest.

There is a reason Alabama is at or near the bottom in every metric of measurable success. This failure is primarily linked to the lack of leadership and character of its top elected officials.

According to a recent grand jury’s findings in Alabama, a governor can keep a mistress, facilitate the affair using government resources, may also use law-enforcement to investigate their optical enemies, intimidate their family, friends and other state officials without running afoul of the laws, as was the case of Bentley’s administration.

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Bentley, through his aids and advisors, was able to select Attorney General Steve Marshall, who agreed to investigate the team that prosecuted former Speaker of the House and convicted felon Mike Hubbard. It was always a goal of Hubbard and his allies to have Special Divisions Chief Matt Hart and Acting Attorney General Van Davis investigated to at least have a public record of possible prosecutorial misconduct.

Hubbard’s cronies and Bentley enablers no longer care about these two useful tools, but they do want to clear their names in any way possible. Will Brooke, Jimmy Rane, Billy Canary and others who owned Hubbard by way of case payments want to find a way to make their complicity in Hubbard’s crimes disappear. Even now, AG Marshall and even Gov. Kay Ivey are welcoming large cash donations from many of the same individuals who bought and paid for Hubbard’s office.

For all the work that went into having HB317 scrubbed of all its loopholes, the so-call Jobs Enhancement Act does not prevent principals from becoming an economic development professional free to purchase the next Hubbard without fear of ever being prosecuted.

But if anyone is laboring under the illusion that HB317 will be the last effort to weaken the state’s ethics laws in favor of cheaters, look no further than the rhetoric coming from the mouths of Republican leadership.

There is a march toward undoing the reforms of 2010, by saying the present laws are discouraging individuals from public service because they can make a living and serve as part-time legislators. She meme is being used as a smokescreen to decide the public and lawmakers, alike. In a recent interview, Gov. Ivey was asked if she found the current statutes prohibitive. Since she has never been tainted by scandal, APR asked how she had been able to serve as Lt. Gov successfully and governor without running afoul of the laws. She replied simply saying, “I read the laws and follow them. If I don’t understand them, then I ask an attorney and do what they advise.”

Gov. Ivey and hundreds of others covered by the state’s ethics laws have never found them a hindrance to service or a means not to seek public office.

The spurious notion that true public servants worry about stringent ethics laws is a lie masquerading as a problem. Like HB317, tell a lie long enough, and people will actually believe it’s a good idea.

Bentley exited the governor’s office one year ago today – that was a good day for the state.

However, far too many budding Bentleys remain to block the road for enduring success for the people of Alabama.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Marshall axes Hart to please political donors

Bill Britt

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Despite nearly two dozen criminal investigations in progress, three empaneled grand juries and a major power grab underway at the State Ethics Commission, Attorney General Steve Marshall ambushed Special Prosecution Division Chief Matt Hart before he could enter his office at 501 Washington Avenue in Montgomery on Monday.

Marshall did not terminate Hart because he was an ineffective leader or an unsuccessful prosecutor, but because Hart is both those things and more.

Marshall is evil, but he’s also weak, which makes him a dangerous man.

With Hart’s forced resignation, Marshall kept his private campaign promises to his big donors that Hart would be gone after the general election. So, just 13 days after his election as attorney general and four years until the next election, Marshall moved on Hart like a coward who shoots a lawman in the back in a Hollywood Western movie.

Marshall is a spineless little man who withers in the presence of a man like Hart. It’s not just his lack of character and willingness to cut deals to achieve power, but his utter disregard for the justice system he oversees.

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Marshall is treacherous and is now unfettered from the constraints of an honest prosecutor.

While Marshall may have silenced Hart’s voice in the grand jury and at criminal trials, it is doubtful that Hart as a private citizen will remain quiet.

Hart knows what Marshall is up to, as well as the intrigue of the elites who paid for his office.

When disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Marshall, he intended for the men to clash. It was part of the plan. Bentley did not select Marshall because he was the best candidate to take on the attorney general’s position, but because he had a history of compromised investigations and virtually no record of prosecuting public corruption as a district attorney. But, it was Marshall’s willingness to investigate Hart and Van Davis, who successfully prosecuted former Speaker and convicted felon Mike Hubbard, that caused Bentley and his paramour, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, to green-light his appointment.

When Hart confronted Marshall over his compromise with Bentley, there was little hope that a working relationship would be in the making between the two men.

Marshall is afraid of Hart, but he is also jealous of him. After only a few weeks at the attorney general’s office, staffers noticed how jealous he was of Hart’s success, not only as a winning prosecutor but because of the admiration he enjoyed in the press. Staffers laughed at Marshall’s man-crush on Hart behind his back, saying he should grow a beard and maybe the press would like him, too.

It was Marshall’s jealously and unwillingness to ruffle feathers that separated the men; one wanting to be admired and the other wants to fight crime.

Over the last year, the relationship continued to strain as Hart set his sights on some of Marshall’s influential donors or those close to them.

APR repeatedly warned during the 2018 election cycle that if Marshall was elected, he would immediately turn on Hart. But that didn’t matter to the voting public because despite his corruption, Marshall had an R by his name. As for the power-elites, they are happy to see Hart go.

With Hart out of the picture, the so-called Ethics Reform Commission has free reign to gut current ethics laws without so much as a peep from the attorney general.

This is just one of the reasons Hart’s departure will result in the further erosion of good government in the state.

Currently, there are serious investigations underway, but there is little belief they will continue with any degree of success with Hart gone. Marshall has no interest in pursuing public corruption or white-collar crime because prosecutors make enemies and Marshall wants nothing more than to be liked.

Other unresolved issues that are of concern, not least among them, is the recent ruling by the State Ethics Commission, which gives the Commission power to reduce violations of the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act by a mere vote of the commission. After being pressured by Hart in October, Marshall wrote the Ethics Commission asking them to withdraw and reconsider Advisory Opinion No. 2018-11, which granted the commission broad powers never envisioned by legislators who wrote the law. Hart’s ouster put in doubt whether Marshall will even pursue the issue, leaving the Ethics Commission with expanded powers.

According to sources within the Ethics Commission, there is a general feeling that Marshall will not challenge the commission because he is facing campaign finance charges for excepting $735,000 in alleged illegal contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). Marshall has voices worrying that the commission has him over a barrel, leading him to tiptoe around any confrontation with the commission. As one insider said, “They got Marshall where they want him and he’s a pu**y who wouldn’t confront a granny in a wheelchair without his Chief Deputy.”

Another source of unfinished business is a recent ham-handed attempt by Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton involving a case against Scott Phillips and Trey Glenn. Last week, Albritton issued a press statement saying Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help in indicting the two men. But, it was the Ethics Commission who approached Anderton, sources within his office have confirmed. Albritton also faces criticism and possible legal troubles because he disclosed the indictments before Phillips and Glenn were arrested, which may be a severe breach of state law. If Albritton is involved in wrongdoing, it would have fallen to Hart to prosecute.

November 18 is a dark day in Alabama history because corrupt politicians and those that want to corrupt now have a champion in Marshall.

Marshall can now say to those who put him in power, “Promises made, promises kept.”

But Marshall will do well to remember that actions have consequences, and there is a cost to corrupt acts, even if they are legal. More than one unscrupulous politico has met his fate at the end of a keyboard.

Marshall is saying he will take a hit from the media for firing Hart, but not a single elected official will say a word against him, according to those in the attorney general’s office.

Marshall believes that four years is long enough for people to forget he axed one of the state’s most successful prosecutors in the middle of multiple investigations to benefit his political donors.

But not everyone forgets, and there is a lot more to know about Marshall and what he has to hide.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | The political genius in film: William Goldman

Bill Britt

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Last Friday, Oscar-winning writer William Goldman died at the age of 87. Movie-goers and Hollywood enjoyed his wry wit and sardonic wisdom, but investigative reporters worldwide are forever in his debt for giving us the single best lead for tracking down public corruption and nefarious politicos.

Goldman wrote the screenplay for the movie adapted from Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book, “All the Presidents Men,” which follows the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon after the Watergate break-in.

During a pivotal scene in the 1976 movie, Woodward’s character, played by Robert Redford, is told by his anonymous government source known as Deep Throat to, “Follow the money.”

Nowhere is the line, “Follow the money” found in Woodward and Bernstein’s book. It is Goldman’s invention and pure reporting genius.

But tracking a money trail can be used in a broader context to understand why things happen the way they do in government.

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Let’s put aside, for now, the notion of public service and admit that a majority of what happens in politics is tied to the wants of one particular group or another. These groups or individuals, commonly referred to in the pejorative as special interests, are not necessarily evil. They just want what’s best for themselves and their interests.

During her first State of the State address nearly a year ago, Gov. Kay Ivey staked her ground with workforce development, job creation and an education proposal under her, “Strong Start, Strong Finish: from pre-K to workforce,” plan. Gov. Ivey has a detailed strategy for success, but her goals will be challenged by those who prosper under a system that is burdened with an entrenched bureaucracy, as well as those who dine off the Education Trust Fund without actually being a part of educating Alabamians.

Likewise, Alabama’s Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon lists infrastructure, improving public schools, school security and stronger ethics laws as a priority. To enumerate the special interests that will line up to pick away at his goals would be a nearly impossible task.

Neither Ivey or McCutcheon will be swayed by personal gain as was their predecessors, but they will need a well-placed group of watchers to see who will work to undermine their best efforts. To do so means following the money.

Goldman wrote many other novels and screenplays, most notably, “The Princess Bride,” “Marathon Man” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the pair’s only hope of escaping a rapidly approaching posse is to cliff dive hundreds of feet into a raging river. During the tense moment, Sundance reveals he can’t swim to which Butch chuckles, “Are you crazy, the fall will probably kill you.”

Butch and Sundance were not winners, but they rarely doubted as an exchange between the pair shows.

The Sundance Kid: “You just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at.”

Butch Cassidy: “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

Goldman’s characters displayed ironic humor in the face of defeat and generally find a way, at least for a moment, to turn a loss into a victory. Sometimes leadership is simply the ability to make it from one failure to the next.

An enduring line from the Princess Bride is, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” However, any wise practitioner of the political arts knows as Goldman points out, there’s not much money in the revenge business.

Another phrase from the Princess Bride which is a mainstay of the movie’s fans is, “Inconceivable,” repeatedly uttered by the stooge mastermind, Vizzini. Every action in government is conceivable because it is human nature at work.

In Goldman’s “Marathon Man,” Dustin Hoffman plays an oblivious long-distance runner who becomes entangled in a case of stolen gems and sadistic henchmen.  During the film, Huffman’s character encounters a Nazi-dentist who drills Hoffman’s healthy teeth without painkillers, torturing him for the correct answer to the eternal question, “Is it safe?”

It’s politics, and it’s never safe. That is why there must be journalists who ask the tough question, dig for facts and report without fear or prejudice. We don’t see this as often as we should in state politics because there is a cost to truth-telling. But the price of not reporting is a price too high to measure.

Goldman was a genius who not only entertained us but made us think. In politics, we don’t all have to think alike, but it would be good to know that everyone is thinking.

With Butch and Sundance, he gave us a lesson in how hope springs eternal. In “Marathon Man,” we see that things are not always what they seem. “The Princess Bride” let us see how true love can conquer all, but in politics, follow the money if you want to know what’s really happening.

In the end Goldman summed up the human condition, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.” –The Princess Bride

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Jefferson County indictments raise serious questions about Ethics Commission’s actions

Bill Britt

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When indictments were reported by Al.com against Scott Phillips and Onis “Trey” Glenn III for multiple violations of the Alabama Ethics Act, the pair had not been arrested or served with the indictments.

However, Alabama Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton spoke in glowing terms about the hard work his office and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office had done to bring a felony case against the men.

Albritton’s disclosure of the indictments before Phillips and Glenn were arrested and indicted may be a severe breach of state law.

Alabama Code Title 12. Courts § 12-16-210 reads: “Any judge, district attorney, clerk or other officer of court or grand juror who discloses the fact that an indictment has been found before the person indicted has been arrested or has given bail for his appearance to answer thereto shall, on conviction, be fined not less than $200.00, and may also be imprisoned in the county jail or sentenced to hard labor for the county for not more than six months.”

According to sources within Jefferson County, the Clerk’s office has raised the issue that the men were not arrested and served in accordance with the law. These actions have resulted in what one individual describes as a “Massive bureaucratic CYA in Jefferson County.”

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“Albritton and his people took the true bill from the grand jury and headed straight to the press,” said a person within the Jefferson County system.

Albritton’s conduct may have also violated the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct as stated in Rule 3.6.(6), which reads, “the fact that a defendant has been charged with a crime, unless there is included therein a statement explaining that the charge is merely an accusation and that the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.” Nowhere in Albritton’s statements to Al.com does he add this disclaimer.

According to multiple sources, Albritton’s people gave Al.com’s Kyle Whitmire the story over the weekend so the news would break after Veterans Day. Al.com reported the men were indicted on Friday, Nov. 9.

Attorneys for Phillips and Glenn learned about the indictments early Tuesday morning. They asked for copies of the charges before noon on Tuesday but were informed that they could not receive the indictments until the pair turned themselves in to authorities. Their attorneys were then notified that the men could not turn themselves in until Friday.

But this is just part of the story which, according to an APR source, “looks more like a grab for relevance by an irrelevant ethics commission using a DA who’s on the way out the door.” Anderton, a Republican political appointee, is leaving the DA’s office having lost his bid for election to Democrat Danny Carr.

In Al.com’s report, Albritton says Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help in indicting the two men. But it was the Ethics Commission who approached Anderton, sources within his office have confirmed.

Multiple sources tell APR that it was the Ethics Commission who approached Anderton in a hurry-up play to grab headlines before the Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Division could investigate the pair properly.

Albritton told APR that he couldn’t comment publicly on any specific conversations between the Ethics Commission and the JeffCo DA’s office. But in general terms, he said, the Commission routinely engages in conversations with DAs and other agencies. Albritton also said that Anderton’s request came in the form of a letter, and he said Anderton asked if the Commission “would be willing to” open the investigation because Anderton’s office lacked the personnel to effectively pursue the case.

According to state and Jefferson County insiders not authorized to speak publicly, Anderton was not even aware of an investigation into Phillips and Glenn until two weeks ago, and he was not pursuing the issue until he was asked to take the matter before a regularly impaneled grand jury by Albritton’s office.

“It’s a lie,” said one of APR‘s sources who monitored the process and knows what took place, “They ask Anderton.”

Albritton’s move was prompted at least in part by a letter reportedly sent from the environmental group GASP allegedly detailing Phillips and Glenn’s questionable activities.

Founded in 2009, as a 501(c)(3) health advocacy organization called “Alabama First,” the group changed its name to GASP in 2010, according to its website.

GASP attorney David A. Ludder told APR that he felt it best not to comment on the matter. Gasp’s Executive Director Michael Hansen agreed with Ludder that it was best not to comment on a pending case.

The GASP letter also is believed to have shown that the statute of limitations for an indictment was drawing near. Albritton told APR that timing is what prompted his office to move quickly without consulting Special Prosecution Division Chief Matt Hart.  However, the statute doesn’t seem to expire until around December 21.

Another significant question is why Albritton’s office went behind the attorney general’s back to present the case to a Jefferson County Grand Jury when the Special Prosecution Division already has a Special Grand Jury impaneled in Jefferson County.

There is little doubt that attorneys for Phillips and Glenn will pick apart the Ethics Commission’s actions involving these indictments.

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Opinion | Will Republicans bring change or status quo?

Bill Britt

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For eight years, Republicans have dominated state government in Alabama, but those years are not a fair representation of Republican leadership because, for most of that time, corrupt, crazy or compromised men were at the helms in the State House, the governor’s office and throughout the political infrastructure.

Already, Republicans are laying the groundwork for the next four years by determining who will staff the governor’s office and cabinet, the committee chairs in the House and Senate and key leadership roles within the caucus. Those choices will show whether there will be a change in character, conduct, and competence or status quo.

Beginning in 2008, then-Gov. Bob Riley, ALGOP Chair and minority leader Mike Hubbard, along with BCA’s Billy Canary, began to methodically execute a plan to take control of Alabama’s political structure. While they personally failed due to greed and incompetence, their plan succeeded and even today, after Hubbard’s felony conviction and Canary’s ouster at BCA, many of their handpicked legislators, cronies and co-conspirators still enjoy dominant positions in government and the accompanying political apparatus.

Reportedly, Riley is laying low but will seek a comeback in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. Senate election, positioning either himself or his son Rob to take on Democrat U.S. Senator Doug Jones.

A scan of Hubbard’s book, “Storming the State House,” offers a look at those candidates who Hubbard, Riley and Canary selected and groomed to do their bidding. Some of their staunchest allies have either quit government or have been indicted or convicted, but still many remain.

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Some have changed horses, but not everyone is happy that their former masters do not still hold the reins.

Some miss Hubbard’s whip hand, Riley’s conniving and Canary’s money and outsized influence.

The Republican House caucus will meet Tuesday to determine key leadership roles.

Current Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon will not face a challenge even though there are some among his ranks who would like to return to a Hubbard-style leadership.

Rep. David Standridge has put his name forward for House Pro Tem, a position presently held by Rep. Victor Gaston. Standridge, it is believed, wants to bring new life into the position, however, Gaston is a well-known fixture. What is unclear is why U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers is lobbying for Gaston’s return as Pro Tem?

It is not sure if House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter will face opposition or if he should.

Where the rubber wheel hits the road is with committee leadership assignments that will come later. Several committees are still chaired by Hubbard loyalists who, again, long for his dictatorial command. Even the House Ethics Committee is currently headed by a man who believes Hubbard’s conviction was a grave conspiracy involving prosecutorial misconduct.

Over at the Capitol, Gov. Ivey’s staff and cabinet have well placed Hubbard and Rileyites, but there are no signs that Gov. Ivey will replace them.

Most troublesome are rumors that Ivey’s Chief of Staff Steve Pelham is leaving to take a post at Auburn University. No one can blame Pelham given the enormous burden of guiding the office for nearly two years, but replacing him will be a difficult task.

As for the Senate, President Pro Tem Del Marsh will continue his business management approach with few surprises in store. There are rumors of some significant changes, especially among budget chair assignments, but even that is mere speculation at this point.

Republicans have an opportunity to show their governing abilities beginning with its choice of leadership. This is extremely important because Republicans overwhelmingly control every office in state government. Moral, effective leaders are always essential but never more so than when there is no opposition.

If Republicans do not put forward honest leaders, they will be forced at some point in time to look around and say, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us.”

As President Harry Truman noted, “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

The people of Alabama have selected a Republican super-majority to lead the state. Let’s pray they are ready to prove the people were right.

 

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Opinion | Bentley left office one year ago today. Still, rogues and scoundrels remain

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