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Bill Britt

Ethics Review Committee is a long con

Bill Britt

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After last week’s initial meeting of the Ethics Review Committee, it’s now apparent that the body, as far as its leaders are concerned, is not assembled to strengthen and clarify the state’s ethics laws but weaken it through a wholesale rewrite. In other words, the Ethics Review Committee is a prop in a confidence scheme.

It seems the real purpose of the committee is to provide cover for lawmakers when, during the 2019 Legislative Session, the current “toughest in the nation’s” ethics laws are gutted like a prize pig.

Doing away with the present statutes should come as no surprise since Republican lawmakers and some businessmen have worked to overturn the ethics laws since Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was convicted of 12 felony violations of the existing laws.

As in high stakes, poker lawmakers have “tells” which, when read, reveal their true intentions.

The resolution that created the Ethics Review Committee 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.”

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Citing a law as old implies it antiquated and in need of replacement to fit the times. Piecemeal here is used as a pejorative to indicate the law is flawed because of so many additions. It also states that reasonable individuals disagree on what is permitted and what is not. Finding a reasonable person is a stretch, but what this means is when someone wants a way around the laws or breaks the law, they hire an attorney to argue about what the law means. Lastly, the authors of the resolution establishing the committee want the public to believe the laws discourage qualified individuals from seeking public office.

These are all talking points that only mean they are going to scrap existing laws.

It’s almost like the committee itself is an unwitting partner in a confidence trick. This move against the state’s ethics act feels like a “long con” in which, “a scam unfolds over a period of time and involves a team of swindlers, as well as props, sets, extras, costumes, and scripted lines,” according to Amy Reading’s The Mark.

The set-up began in earnest during the 2018 Legislative Session when Republican House and Senate leaders promised the public that the committee would use SB343 as the starting point for the review committee’s suggested changes.

But using SB343 as the underlying law on which to build is now being trashed.

At the end of the first meeting, Jefferson County Presiding Circuit Court Judge Joseph Boohaker asked, “Are we going to work in the existing Ethics law? Are we working on SB343? Or are we just starting from scratch?”

Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton, who co-chairs the committee, answered, “I think all three are possibilities. That’s what this committee should decide. If there are things you like about the existing law, then you can propose we keep those. If you like the Attorney General’s bill, then you can suggest those. If you want to start from scratch, then I would encourage you to present something to the committee that you do like.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh introduced SB343 during the 2018 Legislative Session. The bill was painstakingly constructed primarily by the Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Division led by Matt Hart, a team assembled under former Attorney General Luther Strange that worked since August 2016, to deliver a comprehensive re-write of the Alabama Ethics Act. During the process, Hart’s team met with all the significant stakeholders which amounted to more than two dozen different groups consisting of attorneys, lobbyists, associations, prosecutors and university officials, as well as direct discussions with the Legislature, including Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency.

According to sources within many of those discussions, there was universal agreement that SB343 satisfied the concerns of the various interests.

The committee may be comprised of exceptional individuals, but the fix is in, and the grifter’s prize is a return to a lawless Legislature led by those who serve themselves, not the people.

The game is on, and mischief is afoot. It’s a con.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | What is possible…

Bill Britt

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From the Capitol to the State House, from the business community to the halls of education, there is an urgent need for Alabama leaders who will work together to turn back the prevailing tide of self-dealing and mediocracy. Alabama is far too often the home of status quo where leaders don’t dare aim for the far horizon because that requires facing unpleasant facts that demand hard choices. Over the last several months, Alabama Power Company’s CEO, Mark Crosswhite, and  leaders from Regions Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield, PowerSouth, Protective Life Corp., and others marquee businesses displayed extraordinary courage to salvage the burning ship that was the Business Council of Alabama.

As Crosswhite said in announcing BCA’s restructuring plan, “The wholesale governance and leadership changes made today show what is possible when businesses come together with a common goal.”

The fight to save BCA was not merely about what was best for business but how BCA, as an institution, could serve the higher interests of the state. Again, Crosswhite makes the point, “While the hard work of moving this organization forward remains, I am pleased with this progress and look forward to working with businesses across our state for a stronger BCA and a better Alabama.”

There is indeed hard work ahead because over the last several years, BCA’s culture has been shaped by the self-interests of a few unprincipled individuals.

What is BCA’s core mission?

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Its website says, “Making a sweet home for business.” That’s a slogan, not a purpose.

A mission statement in business is like an individual’s core beliefs; it is the guiding principle for every action and the place to run back to when things go wrong.

Going forward, the new executive committee will need to define what BCA is and what its character is.

Over the years, BCA has become synonymous with the Republican Party, but businesses, also like individuals, are more than a label. As billionaire industrialist Charles Koch said recently, “I don’t care what initials are in front or after somebody’s name.”

Perhaps Heather Brothers New, chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama, said it best, “We are fortunate in Alabama to have a business community that understands the importance of providing strong leadership on matters that affect our state’s economic success,” New said. “Individuals, families, and communities can’t thrive if our state doesn’t provide an environment where businesses can thrive. Everyone in Alabama benefits from this effort to ensure a unified and effective BCA.”

With governance and leadership changes at BCA, there is an opportunity to start anew to create a better BCA to serve its members and the state. As Bobby Vaughan, a representative from the Alabama Self-Insured Worker’s Compensation Fund said, “At the end of the day, our members are our customers. Our job is to serve the interests of our members, and the new structure will enable us to do that more effectively.”

Crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. Crosswhite and his fellow corporate leaders have shown what is possible. Now, the hard work begins.

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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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Ethics Review Committee is a long con

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