By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—A bi-partisan civil lawsuit was filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court on Monday, to halt Gov. Robert Bentley’s “unconstitutionally and unlawfully” spending of State funds on the Gulf State Park Project.
The complaint, filed on behalf of Democrat State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay) and Republican State Auditor Jim Zeigler, accuses the Governor of usurping legislative appropriations authority to allocate State funds.
In an earlier suit to stop the Gulf State Park Project filed by Charles Grimsley, former commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Judge Truman Hobbs ruled Grimsley didn’t have standing in the case.
The new filing states, “Representative Morrow has unique standing, recognized by the Supreme Court of Alabama in Wallace v. Baker, 336 So.2d 156 (Ala. 1976), to prosecute this action because the separation of powers constitutional issues are at stake here.” It also claims Ziegler has unique standing to prosecute this action and invoke the same separation of power principles “fundamentally assured by the Constitution of Alabama of 1901; it is his elected duty as State Auditor to protect the State of Alabama and its citizens.”
In the new, twenty-plus page civil complaint, Morrow and Zeigler allege Bentley is using State funds, that were not appropriated by the Legislature, to construct a luxury resort and convention center on public lands. It states, “Without any lawful funds to spend upon the Project at Gulf State Park, Defendants boldly, unlawfully and hastily proceeded to spend illegally state “grant funds provided by BP in 2010” upon “current work on the lodge in a manner disallowed,” by State law.
The defendants in the case are Bentley, Commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources, Gunter Guy, Attorney General Luther Strange, Acting Finance Director William Newton and R. Cooper Shattuck, Executive Director of the University of Alabama System’s Gulf State Park Project (an executive office of the State of Alabama). The suit is brought against each defendant in their official capacity. They stress that Bentley and the others are paying “unnecessary overtime payments for construction work as recently as Sunday, July 17 of this year,” to complete the project before the court has a chance to rule.
During the 2015 Legislative Session, Senator Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville) added an amendment to the Gulf State Park Project appropriations bill, that set a deadline for funding. It reads, “If the State of Alabama does not receive or has not been awarded any National Resource Damage Assessment funds or Restore Act funds for the purposes of this chapter by December 31, 2015, this chapter is repealed on January 1, 2016.”
In an earlier interview with the Alabama Political Reporter, Sanford expressed his fear that Bentley would attempt to run out the clock as stated in the complaint filed by Morrow and Zeigler. “I believe a judge will later find that they should not have been doing that, but because the amount of money in the project as it moves forward, they will allow the project to continue because of the perceived loss of the investment,” Sanford predicted. “Even though people are knowingly, willingly breaking the law, that is what will happen.”
The bi-partisan duo hopes the court will intervene before more State treasures and resources are used to build what Zeigler has called, “Bentley’s Pet Project.”
They are asking the court for a declaratory judgment, because the “defendants have unlawfully usurped the legislature’s power to appropriate funds in violation of section 72 of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901.”