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Exempt from Open Meetings Act, high stakes ethics committee begins work

Bill Britt

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A meeting that will potentially impact Alabama for generations is being held at 1 p.m. today, at the office of the attorney general. But the public would know about this important conference if they had only searched the legislative resource site dubbed, ALISON.

However, one would have to know to click on the ‘Meetings & Announcements’ section of The Alabama Legislature website to find when meetings are being held.

The meeting at the office of appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall is the first official gathering of the Ethics Review Council, a group of 22 individuals selected to offer changes to the State’s Ethics Act.

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The committee is a result of questions, real and manufactured, about the laws written in 2010, by the Republican Supermajority.

The select committee is absent many of the state’s foremost ethics champions with only a handful of individuals that would have an in-depth understanding of the code.

Most curiously missing are members of the attorney general’s office who actually wrote the majority of SB343, which was originally to be the starting point for the committee’s actions.

Special Prosecutions Divisions Chief Matt Hart, as well as others on his team, are excluded from the discussion. Grave concerns have given way to suspicions that the committee is little more than a rubber stamp giving lawmakers cover when the code is weakened during the 2019 Legislative Session.

Created under a Resolution sponsored by State Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the committee’s activities do not fall under the State’s Open Meetings Act, according to the State’s Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton.

“The way it was set up as purely an advisory committee, it is not subject to the open meetings act,” said Albritton in a phone interview with the Alabama Political Reporter. “But the meetings are public…and posted on the ALISON website.”

This means the committee can meet privately, discuss matters outside of public review and enjoy an anonymity rarely granted a body contemplating sweeping laws with such far-reaching ramifications.

There is also a question of whether the appointed members of the committee are in fact accountable under the current ethics laws?

The idea of an ethics review committee is an outgrowth of the indictment and conviction of former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. Since Hubbard’s indictment nearly four years ago, an ongoing battle to weaken the state’s “toughest in the nation’s” ethics laws enacted in 2010. Even though they were championed by Hubbard and the Republican Party, they now face an onslaught of criticism from the same Republicans in the wake of Hubbard’s conviction.

Nearly two years after Hubbard’s sentencing, a war of sorts has been evident among those who want to strengthen and clarify the laws and those pushing to weaken current statutes under the guise of clarification.

Over the last several months, Republican leadership and some rank and file have begun lamenting the state’s ethics laws as a detriment to service. The refrain goes like this, “The ethics laws are so restrictive that only a wealthy individual or a retiree can serve in the legislature.”

Even the resolution that created the review committee hints at the talking-points routinely voiced by GOP House and Senate leadership.

The resolution reads in part, “[T]he multiple piecemeal amendments over the last 40-plus years and the evolving interpretation of the Code of Ethics have created an environment where reasonable individuals can sometimes disagree on what is permitted and what is not with the result that qualified individuals are discouraged from seeking public office.”

Albritton, who co-chairs the committee along with Marshall, says that SB343 will be part of the discussion but other ethics proposals will be part of the mix. Albritton cites an ethics model being written by the American Law Institute. The nearly 100-year-old group, which has always attracted “the elite of the legal elite,” according to reviews, has a partial ethics draft on its website.

ALI’s Government Ethics project, while not complete, focuses, “on standards applicable to the operations of the legislative and executive branches… [including] lobbying, gifts and other things of value given to public officials, conflicts of interest involving the private activities of public officials, the political uses of public office, and administration and enforcement mechanisms.”

As Albritton notes, ALI’s efforts are a work in progress. “The value is that it is the working project of scores of lawyers from all over the country at all levels of government who are approaching basically the same issue that we are here.”

During the 2018 Legislative Session, several ethics bills were put forward and most would have severely undermined current statutes. Hart and Albritton were purposefully blocked from offering commentary and advice by their respective bosses, Marshall and Ethics Commission Chairman Judge Jerry Fielding.

The committee expects to offer its recommendations to the Legislature before the 2019 session.

The committee members are as follows:

  • Three members of the Senate appointed by the President Pro Tempore:
  • Senator Greg Albritton
  • Senator Arthur Orr
  • Senator Bobby Singleton
  • Three members of the House appointed by the Speaker:
  • Representative Alan Baker
  • Representative Prince Chestnut
  • Representative David Faulkner
  • The Legal Advisor to the Governor: Bryan Taylor
  • The Attorney General: Steve Marshall/Clay Crenshaw
  • The Solicitor General: Andrew Brasher
  • The Chief Examiner: Ron Jones/Rachel Riddle
  • A district attorney appointed by DA Association: Brian McVeigh, Calhoun/Cleburne County.
  • A circuit judge appointed by the CJ Association: Joseph Boohaker, Jefferson County.
  • Supernumerary DA: Ellen Brooks
  • Two attorneys appointed by the State Bar:
  • Christy Crow
  • Mike Ermert
  • Two attorneys appointed by the Director of LSA:
  • Debbie Long
  • Bill Rose, Jr.
  • ACCA appointee: Sonny Brasfield
  • League of Municipalities Appointee: Mayor Ronnie Marks, Athens.
  • Two Appointees by the Council of Association Executives:
  • Tom Dart
  • Kim Adams
  • An appointee of the Alabama Press Association: Bob Davis, Anniston Star.

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Elections

A case of mistaken candidate identity could embarrass the ALGOP

Josh Moon

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It’s one of the oddest, and most embarrassing, cases of mistaken identity in recent Alabama political history.

According to recent polling, James Bonner is leading Jeremy Oden in a race for a seat on the Alabama Public Service Commission.

No, not that James Bonner.

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It doesn’t matter which James Bonner you were thinking of, it’s a different guy.

This Bonner — the one who resides in Bear Creek and who has never held public office despite several attempts — is set to embarrass the ALGOP like few other candidates.

On Monday, APR editor in chief Bill Britt wrote about a number of highly offensive Facebook posts by Bonner, including posting a Valentine’s Day card that read: “My love for u burns like 6,000 Jews.” There are other posts about strippers and an old blog post that inexplicably uses a racist rhyme.

Yet, because voters — mainly voters in south Alabama — are confusing James Bonner with a longtime congressman, he’s running neck and neck in the GOP primary.

“What makes this particular race so interesting is that Jim Bonner is benefiting greatly from having the same last name as the former Congressman Jo Bonner and his well-known sister, former Judy Bonner,” noted pollster and Cygnal president Brent Buchanan told Britt. “This is borne out by the fact that in the Mobile media market Bonner leads Oden by 28 percent to 6 percent, a 4-to-1 ratio.”

Should James from Bear Creek manage to pull off this “Distinguished Gentleman,” it could be a disaster for the ALGOP. Because his problems go well beyond a few offensive Facebook posts.

Bonner has filed multiple bankruptcies, has been cited by the IRS for failing to pay his federal income taxes for several years and owes his ex-wife more than $40,000 in back alimony. He also claimed during his most recent bankruptcy proceedings in 2016 that he is too disabled to work, and thus avoid paying his full alimony payments, yet he’s been able-bodied enough to run for public office five times over the last eight years.

And it gets worse.

Bonner entered into a bankruptcy agreement to repay his debts, which totaled into the six figures, and then he failed to pay the agreed-upon bankruptcy payments. That failure resulted in his bankruptcy agreement being dismissed — an extremely rare action by the courts and one that could see him face criminal charges over his back taxes.

And that’s not the end of it.

His campaign finance reports are also a mess. Most of his forms have been filed hopelessly late and are filled with incorrect info. He also has failed to report a single donation — outside of a loan he made to his campaign fund — to any of his various campaigns.

Following APR’s initial report on Monday, Bonner began scrubbing his Facebook page clean of the offensive posts. In response to the story, which he linked, he claimed his various offensive posts were made “make liberals angry.” He did not deny making any of the posts.

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Elections

Poll shows Maddox pulling ahead in race for Democratic nomination

Chip Brownlee

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With endorsements from heavyweight Democratic groups like the New South Coalition’s campaign arm and the Alabama Democratic Conference, the Democratic party appears to be coalescing around Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox ahead of the June 5 primary.

A new poll released by the Maddox campaign Tuesday backs up what the endorsements hint: Maddox appears to be pulling ahead of challengers Sue Bell Cobb, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and James Fields, a former state representative from Cullman County.

Former gubernatorial aide Doug “New Blue” Smith and Dothan activist Christopher Countryman are also seeking the nomination.

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The poll — conducted by Mississippi-based Chism Strategies for the Maddox campaign — shows Maddox capturing 68 percent of likely voters surveyed ahead of the Democratic primary election.

Cobb and Fields trail behind Maddox in the poll by a 5.6-to-1 and 11-to-1 advantage among those who expressed support for a candidate, respectively, according to the poll results provided.

“Numbers don’t lie — Walt is on a fast track to a substantial victory in the primary,” said Chip Hill, a spokesman for the Maddox campaign. “The people of Alabama, especially younger voters, are finding Walt and his message very attractive.  He will most definitely be a force to be reckoned with in November.”

From May 15 to May 17, 13,601 likely Democratic voters were interviewed by live callers, according to the Chism Strategies results released.

The Alabama Democratic Conference — long considered one of the main gatekeepers in Alabama Democratic politics and one of the most powerful and active black political groups in the state— officially threw their support behind Maddox on Saturday.

Maddox has received a number of endorsements in the race for governor including from Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin last week.

A number of key Democratic lawmakers in the state — from State Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, and State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa — have also backed Maddox.

A Democrat hasn’t been elected governor in Alabama since former Gov. Don Siegelman’s victory in 1998. Democrats in Alabama are hoping that recent momentum from Sen. Doug Jones’ election last year could help a Democrat upend the GOP’s hold on most statewide elected positions.

While Maddox is a newcomer to state politics, Cobb has experience in statewide races. Her election as supreme court chief justice in 2006 cost millions and achieved national notoriety as a Democratic victory during a time of Republican takeovers in the South.

Cobb has had trouble getting traditional Democratic groups to back her campaign. Members of the Alabama New South Coalition and its political arm, the New South Alliance, expressed concern during their endorsement vote over Cobb’s resignation as chief justice and a letter she wrote backing President Donald Trump’s nomination of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

When Cobb resigned in 2011, she was the top statewide elected Democrat left. Only Public Service Commission President Lucy Baxley remained after Cobb quit.

Both the Alabama Democratic Conference and the New South Coalition have strong voter outreach and get-out-the-vote operations that could work to Maddox’s advantage in the June 5 primary.

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Elections

Manufacture Alabama makes endorsements

Brandon Moseley

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Friday, Manufacture Alabama announced several endorsements for the upcoming primaries.

“Alabama’s Primary Election is June 5. Many Manufacture Alabama endorsed candidates have tough primary elections. It is crucial that you get out and vote on June 5. There have been many significant races over the years that have been decided in close primaries or run-offs,” the group said in a statement.

Manufacture Alabama Endorsed Candidates include:

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Governor: Kay Ivey (R)
Lieutenant Governor: Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh (R)
Attorney General: Steve Marshall (R)
Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries: Gerald Dial (R)
Treasurer: John McMillan (R)
Alabama Public Service Commission, Place 1: Jeremy Oden (R)
Alabama Public Service Commission, Place 2: Chris “Chip” Beeker Jr. (R)

State Senate Races
Senate District 2: Tom Butler, R-Madison.
Senate District 3: Mike Sparks (R)
Senate District 7: Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville.
Senate District 8: incumbent Steve Livingston , R-Scottsboro.
Senate District 12: incumbent Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
Senate District 21: incumbent Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa.
Senate District 34: Jack W. Williams, R-Wilmer.

State House Races
House District 10: incumbent Mike Ball, R-Madison.
House District 12: incumbent Corey Harbison, R-Cullman.
House District 14: incumbent Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley.
House District 16: incumbent Kyle South, R-Fayette.
House District 22: incumbent Ritchie Whorton, R-Owens Crossroads.
House District 30: Rusty Jessup, R-Riverside.
House District 48: incumbent Jim Carns, R-Vestavia Hills.
House District 49: incumbent April Weaver, R-Alabaster.
House District 55: incumbent Rod Scott, D-Fairfield.
House District 64: incumbent Harry Shiver, R-Bay Minette.
House District 73: incumbent Matt Fridy, R-Montevallo.
House District 77: Malcolm Calhoun, D-Montgomery.
House District 102: Thomas Gray, R-Cintronelle.
House District 105: Chip Brown, R-Mobile.

Alabama Supreme Court
Chief Justice: Lyn Stuart (R)
Place 1: Brad Mendheim (R)
Place 4: Jay Mitchell (R)

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals:
Place 1: Christie Edwards (R)
Place 2: Terri Thomas (R)

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
Place 1: Richard Minor (R)
Place 2: Chris McCool (R)
Place 3: Bill Cole (R)

State Board of Education
Place 8: Rich Adams (R)

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Exempt from Open Meetings Act, high stakes ethics committee begins work

by Bill Britt Read Time: 5 min
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