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Did Steve Marshall violate campaign finance laws?

Josh Moon

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Let’s chat about campaign finance laws.

Oh, believe me, I know that sentence ranks right up there with “Hey, watch this video of my kid singing” and “Let’s watch two soccer teams not score for an undetermined amount of time.”

But give me a minute, if you would, because I’m going to do something few people ever do: I’m going to at least attempt to make a few specific campaign finance laws easy to understand and relatable.

We’re going to start here: Attorney General Steve Marshall’s allegedly illegal campaign contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

This is the thing that Troy King, Marshall’s opponent in next Tuesday’s runoff election, keeps prattling on and on about. King held a press conference in Huntsville on Tuesday to blast Marshall again, claiming that the more than $700,000 he’s taken in from RAGA in this election has been illegal donations.

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The reason King believes this is where things usually get complicated, regular folks’ eyes glaze over and we all find a ballgame to watch to forget it all.

But hear me out.

King claims these donations violate a rule in Alabama law that prohibits one Political Action Committee (PAC) from donating to another PAC in an effort to obscure the original source of funds.

Let’s not get all caught up in precise definitions. Just know that a PAC is a group of like-minded individuals — Republican AGs or Republican governors or construction companies or any group of two or more people — who form this PAC in order to donate money to their preferred candidates.

Why would they do this?

Easy: Politics is a slimy business and sometimes candidates want to have a level of deniability when it comes to donations.

For example, let’s say you’re an anti-gambling politician in Alabama, but boy, do you ever want to get your hands on that sweet, sweet Indian casino cash. Solution: You have the Indian casinos donate money to a PAC, mix their money with other money donated by not-Indian casinos, and tah-dah, there’s a bit of deniability there.

While these PACs do have to disclose their donors, they don’t have to disclose where each donor’s contributed money went.

And if you have one PAC donating to another PAC things can’t get particularly confusing. Which flies in the face of the goal: To ensure the voting public has some idea who is influencing elections in the state.

So, did Marshall violate the law?

That’s a tricky question, but what’s stone cold for certain is this: He violated the spirit of the law.

Because there’s also no doubt that the RAGA PAC, before donating that $700,000-plus to Marshall, accepted transfers from other PACs.

Marshall’s camp is hanging its hat on alleged advice it received from the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, which says the state has no authority to force federal PACs located outside of the state to register in Alabama, or follow Alabama laws.

Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton, however, had a very different view when he answered that question in June from al.com, saying that he had informed other campaigns that similar donations would not be legal. (Albritton wouldn’t discuss his statement on Tuesday, saying that because King has filed an ethics complaint against Marshall, it would be improper for him to discuss a pending case.)

But he hasn’t retracted his previous advice, and there’s one reason why. In the 2010 law that created the PAC-to-PAC ban, it states the law applies to both in-state and out-of-state PACs.

That sure looks like an illegal donation.

But here’s the thing. Even if there’s a way to technically dodge a campaign finance law violation for this, Marshall can’t dodge the fact that he’s violating the hell out of the spirit of the law and trying to hide from voters who’s dumping huge buckets of cash into his campaign.

Unfortunately for Marshall, if you have enough time and know-how, you can dig through the RAGA contributions and expenditures and figure out where large chunks of money came from. And once you do, it’s easy to see why he wouldn’t want those donations disclosed.

For example, if one of your major talking points is your fight against opioids, you probably wouldn’t want it known that major drug companies — some of which have been sued by other states for their roles in the opioid epidemic — dumped more than $200,000 into RAGA in the first quarter of 2018 alone.

One of the biggest contributors, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, which dumped $100,000 into RAGA earlier this year, was found by the DEA to have supplied 66 percent of the oxycodone sold in Florida in 2016.

It also wouldn’t be too swell for voters to learn that the guy who was taking on gambling operations in Alabama a few months ago was accepting money from a PAC funded by Las Vegas casino owners, Caesars Entertainment and the lobbying firm that represents the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi.
This is why campaign finance laws — as boring as they might be — are vitally important to keeping elections open and giving the voting public a window into who is supporting each candidate. Because that support often says a whole lot about the candidate.

That the AG would be so willing to violate the spirit of that law seems like something you should pay attention to.

 

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Opinion | RIP, ethics

Josh Moon

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The hope for ethics in Alabama’s state government died on Monday.

To be fair, it had been on life support for quite some time, having taken on several near-fatal blows over the last few years. But on Monday, after months of trying, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall finally took ethics out back, like Ol’ Yeller, and shot it dead.

Marshall’s firing of prosecutor Matt Hart, head of the AG’s special prosecution unit, was the death knell. The final straw. The five-finger death punch that snuffed out any small, lingering flame of hope.

That’s basically all Matt Hart was at this point — one small ray of hope in an otherwise hopelessly corrupt state.

Hart was one guy hellbent on making Democrats and Republicans alike respect the rule of law and stop profiting from their public positions.

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That’s all he wanted. And if he believed you had skirted the laws or accepted shady cash in order to benefit yourself, God bless you.

Larry Langford tried him. Robert Bentley tried him. Mike Hubbard threw everything and the prison sink at him.

Matt Hart beat ‘em all. And laughed at ‘em later.

God, they hated him, these people who want to use government as their own little tools for personal financial growth. Because Hart knew their games. He knew how they set up innocent-looking schemes that enriched only a handful of their friends or their friends’ businesses. He knew how they masked their sins with words like “business friendly” and “economic development.”

Matt Hart just kept beating them at their own games. So, they had to get rid of him.

Enter: Steve Marshall.

For more than a year now, APR has written story after story, column after column detailing the many, many ways in which Marshall has proven to be completely devoid of basic ethics and willing to do anything to get and keep the job of AG.

Consider this: In a state filled with crooked, spit-on-their-own-mothers-to-get-ahead politicians, Marshall was the only person willing to accept a quid pro quo deal to get the AG gig. Bentley, as APR reported, shopped the deal around, offering the AG’s job to anyone who would agree to investigate Hart and his team.

Marshall was the only one to take it.

And that was just Marshall’s start. Once the campaign for AG heated up, and real challengers entered the race, the panic in Marshall knew no bounds.

The guy took campaign contributions from Hubbard’s lawyers and a guy who bribed Hubbard. While a grand jury in Lee County was still considering charges against the briber. And while a state appeals court was considering Hubbard’s appeal.

Take a moment and think about that.

But Marshall wasn’t nearly done.

When the going got tough in the Republican primary, Marshall accepted more than $700,000 in campaign donations from the Republican Attorneys General Association. He knew the money was illegal, because RAGA allowed its funds to be transferred PAC-to-PAC — a method used to obscure the original source of the funds.

Such transfers are illegal in Alabama, as Marshall knew well. Just before accepting the donations, he had submitted a brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that challenged Alabama’s PAC-to-PAC ban. Marshall argued that the ban was a protection for the people and the only thing preventing a quid pro quo government.

He was right.

But it didn’t matter. Giving back the contributions, as Luther Strange had done a few years earlier, wasn’t an option. Marshall had to win. And he was willing to do anything.

And so, here we are.

This is what it looks like when your AG has been compromised. When he owes his political life to specialized interests of top donors.

Sometimes, those donors want you to turn a blind eye to corruption. Sometimes, they want you to lay back as another entity usurps your power. Sometimes, they want you to change the ethics laws so the dadgum things aren’t so tough. Sometimes, they want you to intervene in a major public corruption investigation. 

And sometimes, they want you to fire that pesky prosecutor who keeps treating the written law like the damn words have meanings.

 

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Opinion | Sellouts are running Alabama’s environmental agencies. Why don’t you care?

Josh Moon

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There is contaminated tap water in north Alabama.

There are no oysters in the Gulf.

There is poison soil in Birmingham.

There are polluted lakes and rivers throughout the state.

There have been coal ash spills and a stalled poop train and imported toxic waste too dangerous for other states to allow.

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There’s a poison plume running under all of downtown Montgomery.

This is Alabama Outdoors.

In a state where at least 90 percent of the males hunt or fish with some regularity, and state law requires at least every third car have a “Salt Life” back window sticker, we don’t seem to give two good damns about the actual environment that make those things possible.

And we sure don’t seem to care much about the people who are supposed to be in charge of protecting those things.

If you did, you would know that two of those people were indicted this week on ethics charges. There are serious — and widely known and widely believed and widely supported with a mountain of evidence — allegations that Trey Glenn, the current head of the EPA’s southeastern region, and Scott Phillips, a former commissioner with the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, accepted bribes from polluters to actively work against cleaning up pollution and holding those polluters responsible.

Or to put that more simply: They sold out.

They sold out you.

They sold out the environment.

They sold out their oaths.

(Allegedly, of course.)

And these two aren’t the first ones. If you paid the least bit of attention to the recent trial involving a former Balch & Bingham attorney and a former Drummond Co. executive, you heard of all sorts of shady dealings flowing back and forth between companies highly suspected of polluting our soil, air and water and the agencies — Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), EPA and AEMC — that are supposed to stand in the gap between us regular folk and big business.

Instead, it seems, these guys have spent most of their time standing in big businesses’ pockets.

In addition to Phillips to Glenn, ADEM head Lance LeFleur was accused of having a cozy relationship with Drummond, and once wrote a letter opposing the EPA’s listing of a pollution area in north Birmingham as a superfund site. In court testimony, attorneys openly questioned if that letter was written at the encouragement of Drummond and its attorney.

A few weeks after the trial, 12 environmental groups sent a letter to AEMC demanding that LeFleur be removed and cited examples of his department’s failures and compromises. LeFleur denied the allegations, calling them “mean-spirited” and “untrue.”

But the problems don’t even end there.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley was actively writing — or signing his name to letters pre-written by Drummond’s attorneys — to stop the superfund site and cleanup.

Former attorney general Luther Strange signed off on pre-written letters from his office to the EPA demanding that the site not be listed on the superfund registry and proclaiming that the state would provide no funds for cleanup.

Think about that.

That’s the guy whose main job is consumer protection.

You’re the consumer. We’re all the consumers.

So, why, why, why do you not care?

I’m begging someone to explain this to me. Why do you not care that you can’t eat fish out of the Tennessee River? That you can’t swim in Wheeler Lake? That you can’t drink the tap water in Courtland? That there will literally be NO oysters harvested from the Gulf this year? That poor people in one of the poorest areas of this state have dealt with constant illnesses? That your “salt life” and your “lake life” and your hunting and your fishing and your kids swimming and your just everyday existing is being jeopardized by sellouts?

Why don’t you care?

And I know you don’t care, because you just voted 60-40 to put the same people back in charge who put all of these people in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources.

And those same people you put back in office are taking your indifference seriously. When I sent a question to the governor’s office today asking for a comment on the sad state of Alabama environmental management programs, they didn’t even bother to respond.

Because Kay Ivey knows you don’t care.

There wasn’t a peep from any state lawmakers, because they also know you don’t care.

You know, I hear people ask all the time how Alabama — in the middle of the Bible Belt and with a church on every corner — could have a government that’s so corrupt, so filled with people willing to take bribes and sell out their constituents.

This is how: You stop paying attention.

 

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Elections

Opinion | The Alabama Democratic Party has no plan, no hope for the future

Josh Moon

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The Alabama Democratic Party is a dumpster fire.

This cannot be news to you by now.

Not after last Tuesday. Not after the last eight years.

Actually, that description might not be harsh enough. Try this: The Alabama Democratic Party is a flaming bag of poop way down at the bottom of a dumpster fire.

And before you go away thinking that to be too harsh, consider this: In the midst of a legit blue wave nationally — Democrats will gain around 40 House seats and receive around 8 million more votes when all of the counting is finished — Democrats in Alabama lost five House seats to an existing GOP supermajority.

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Alabama Dems’ best crop of candidates in YEARS received roughly the same percentage of the vote as its worst candidates ever.

Gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox traveled more than 30,000 miles around this state, spent years attending county commission meetings and getting to know citizens on both sides of the aisle. His likability numbers among likely voters, regardless of party, were fantastic.

He got roughly the same number of votes as Lt. Governor candidate Will Boyd, who you couldn’t pick out of a lineup with The Beatles.

Party chairwoman Nancy Worley and Democratic Conference head Joe Reed had quite the answer for this disaster of an election, saying, and I’m paraphrasing here: “eh, whatchagonnado?”

That was basically Worley and Reed’s response after they were heavily criticized by their own candidates last week. The criticisms, which came most loudly from Congressional candidate Mallory Hagan, centered on the Alabama Democratic Party’s lack of assistance with campaigns, lack of messaging, lack of financial support, lack of planning, lack of Get Out the Vote efforts, lack of organization and lack of visibility. To name a few.

Worley and Reed attempted to explain it all away by noting that Hagan and other candidates faced insurmountable odds, that the deck was stacked against them, that they would have been wasting resources to have even tried.

Don’t you dare buy it.

Because while it’s true that dropping a half-million the last month of the campaign wouldn’t have saved any candidate (except maybe Johnny Mack Morrow), that’s not when the money should have been spent. That’s not when the party office is most useful.

Winning elections takes effort. It takes planning. It takes information. It takes a long-term strategy.

Republicans didn’t take over the State House after 100-plus years of Democratic control because they prayed about it harder, even if that’s what they’d like you to believe.

They had a plan. They executed that plan.

They started down the ballot, winning races where a handful of votes swayed by the top of the ticket or a county initiative could land a few judgeships, maybe put a new House rep in place. Then they built on that.

They also did it through messaging.

I loathe Mike Hubbard, but that dude knew how to win elections. And he knew how to drive a point home. From the mid-2000s on, Democrats couldn’t go to the bathroom without Hubbard holding a press conference or issuing a press release claiming the Dems were in the bathroom plotting to take your guns or steal your money.

He went to major businesses around the state and started making deals for campaign contributions. And then he used those funds to push the party message even harder. Year after year, Hubbard and the rest of the ALGOP highlighted every bad thing Alabama Democrats did, and told people how Republicans would fix it and make their lives better.

Hubbard could do that, because as party chairman, he spoke for the ALGOP. And because he controlled the purse strings of the party, he could ensure that his message was the message resonating throughout the ALGOP.

ALGOP candidates were prepared with the best polling, the best opposition research, the best ads and the best volunteers. And they were all pushing just the right messages to voters.

They got to be so good at it that it didn’t matter if the candidate was essentially a door stopper. The ALGOP brass, led by Hubbard and a few others, had established a system so good and so efficient that they could get Shadrack McGill elected to the Alabama Senate.  

It didn’t even matter that the messages were mostly BS, and all Hubbard really wanted to do was take all of the money he could get his hands on.

The plan, the message and the execution were so good that it didn’t matter.

Alabama Democrats don’t have any of that.

Not the plan. Not the voice. Not the leadership.

And for some reason, the people in charge of the party seem to be OK with that. Because they just continue to not do anything at all to fix it.

The state deserves better.

 

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Opinion | It’s time to end Veteran’s Day

Josh Moon

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Forget Veteran’s Day.

We need a Veteran’s Month.

Every year, as November 11 rolls around, and the parades start slowly marching and the wreaths get laid on graves and everyone seeks out a veteran to thank for their service, I can’t help but think how completely disingenuous it all is.

Seriously, it’s noise.

Tomorrow, the day after Veteran’s Day, most of this country will go back to not giving a damn about veterans or their many, many problems.

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One day we’re tying ribbons on trees. The next we’re stepping over homeless vets on the sidewalk.

Maybe if we had a little more time each year — breast cancer, alcoholism and diabetes all get a month — maybe we could actually address a few problems, raise a little money, have enough time to get really, really ticked off about the way we — along with our federal government — consistently fail these men and women.

Because we do fail them.

And nowhere more so than with their health care.

We’ve got billions upon billions to waste on jets that the Air Force doesn’t even want, but we consistently cut and trim the health care services provided to the men and women who fought to protect us.

(And for just a moment, I want you to consider what “fought to protect us” actually means. Because it gets tossed around easily. But the reality is that many, many of these folks flew into a sandy/mountainous/jungle/Nazi-infested hellhole, tiptoed around roadside bombs, ducked enemy gunfire, and generally lived scared out of their ever-lovin’ minds every minute of every day for YEARS on end.)

And failing on veterans’ health care is not a partisan thing. Every recent administration and every recent Congress have done it.

President Obama included cuts to some benefits in Obamacare. Trump proposed cuts in his budget. George W. Bush made cuts, while two wars were still being fought. Clinton made cuts.

This functional indifference is a relatively new thing in this country. Following WWII, a country that had been scared to death gladly gave returning soldiers the rewards they deserved, primarily through the G.I. Bill.

Housing. Cheap loans. College tuition. Entire neighborhoods (unless you were black, of course). And no expenses were spared when it came to treating the returning wounded.

Much of that healthcare was provided by the newly consolidated Veterans Administration, or VA. And some of those hospitals would become world-class centers for care.

Today, many of them are world-class centers of embarrassment.

I know. I’ve written the stories. I’ve followed veterans and their family members around as they tried desperately to get the care promised. Or to simply get a doctor to show up for an appointment inside of a year.

I could tell you stories that would blow your mind.

Like the time a VA doctor and nurse left an 85-year-old Korean War vet lying on the floor, gasping for air, for more than 15 minutes. They saw him, left the room, and didn’t return.

Or the time a VA administrator took a patient to a crack house.

Or the many times VA workers spoke up about patients having to wait YEARS for an appointment, only to have top brass retaliate against them. As former soldiers died waiting.

That’s what we’ve done. Democrats, Republicans, Alabamians, liberals, conservatives, independents — all of us.

And for God’s sakes, don’t even get me started on mental health care, or the lack thereof. It’s a national crisis all by itself. And as last week’s shooting in California indicates, it’s not getting any better.

But you know what makes it all even worse?

The promise on the front end.

That slap-on-the-back promise made to the volunteer heroes heading off to war that if they’d go fight so we don’t have to, we would pick up the tabs, no matter the cost. You go fight our wars, keep us free and safe, and we’ll pay for your health care.

That was the deal we made.

They upheld their end. But like a bunch of used car salesmen, we’ve tried every shady trick in the book to weasel out of ours.

Instead, we give them one day each year, when we close up the banks and government offices, let kids out of school and walk around thanking vets for their service. And while that’s nice and all, it’s just not enough.

Maybe if we had a month, we could actually make good on a few of these promises.

 

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Did Steve Marshall violate campaign finance laws?

by Josh Moon Read Time: 5 min
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