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Bill Britt

The shape of things to come?

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Several decisions over the next few weeks and months could significantly affect Alabama’s future for generations. Among these are, the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions’ replacement, the Special Supreme Court’s ruling in Chief Justice Roy Moore’s appeal and the findings of the Montgomery Grand Jury concerning Governor Robert Bentley.

Bentley is publicly holding casting-calls to find Sessions’ replacement upon his confirmation as US Attorney General. From a novice State representative to Chief Justice Moore himself, Bentley is parading potential candidates around like beauty pageant contestants. Each day the press publishes an ever-expanding list of hopeful nominees. It seems more like a charade than a selection process. Identifying the next junior Senator from Alabama is serious business, with little in common with the spectacle it now seems to have become. Perhaps, Bentley is using the Senate interviews to line up support for the billion dollar prison bill he plans to push in a special legislative session. Perhaps it is simply to hide his real intentions. With this Governor, the only thing you know for sure is that you don’t know.

The State Constitution says the Governor shall call a special election to fill the vacancy “forthwith.”

Speculation has ranged from Bentley calling for the election 120 days after appointing Sessions’ successor, to holding the election in 2018, two years before the end of that Senate term. The 2018 option would have the appointee running for election in 2020. If Bentley calls the election within 120 days of appointment, then the advantage goes to Attorney General Luther Strange, who has filed papers declaring his intentions to seek the positions in the next election, whenever that may be held. If Bentley opts to wait until 2018, the appointee holds the advantage because special national interest will have already staked ground with the appointed incumbent. This would mean Bentley and outside interests would narrow the people’s choice of their next Senator.

Sessions’ replacement should be an individual who will go to Washington for the citizens of Alabama. Senior Sen. Richard Shelby is a reliable advocate on behalf of the State, who has protected the State’s interest and sought advantage for the State at every turn. The next Senator must take up that mantel to ensure the State is not ignored in the Halls of Congress.

With the Republicans holding a slim majority in the upper chamber, the next Senator from Alabama must not come from the Party’s far-right Freedom Caucus or a stalemate will ensue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will need flexible to negotiate, and in these matters, good ole Alabama pragmatism would be useful as well. Compromise will become especially needful with President Donald Trump at the helm. Look for The Art of the Deal to be a primer on negotiations for the next four years.

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When the Senate reconvenes, Sen. Shelby will serve as the powerful Chair of Appropriation, a position never before held by an Alabamian. In the House, Rep. Roger Aderholt from Alabama’s 4th will be third in line on House Appropriations. It is worth considering the loss of House seniority should Bentley appoint Aderholt as Sessions’ replacement.

Perhaps there is a better way for Bentley to handle the appointment, a way that gives the people more say and opens up the field of candidates. Bentley could appoint a placeholder who, while representing the State wisely for the next two years, would also agree not to run in 2018.

Lt. Governor Kay Ivey is a public servant who could fill that bill with ease. Her agreeing to serve only two years would cap a long political career and allow for younger aspirants to cast their hats into the ring in 2018.

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It is important to remember that Sessions’ replacement has a cascading effect on Judges, Marshalls, and other appointed positions.
Perhaps the greatest unknown are the desires of Bentley’s alleged mistress Rebekah Caldwell Mason? Anyone foolish enough to discount Mason’s influence in this matter is sorely out of touch with the realities of the Bentley Administration.

Another question which hangs like “the Sword of Damocles” over the prospects of an honest and proper due process of law in our State, is the fate of Chief Justice Moore. Currently, seven appointed judges are reviewing Moore’s suspension from the court. This panel of seven judges constitutes a Special Supreme Court that may uphold or dismiss the ruling of the Court of the Judiciary, suspending Justice Moore without pay for the remainder of his term.

Last week the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) which found probable cause to indict Moore on unethical conduct, refused to release the records that led to Moore’s conviction and removal. Citing a Constitutional right to keep the records confidential, the JIC is hiding behind an argument as thin as their collective skin and as unmoored from reality as their legal reasoning.

This past Sunday on The Voice of Alabama Politics, we revealed that two Supreme Court justices called for an investigation of the JIC after information about Moore’s indictment was leaked to certain media outlets. According to reliable sources, this is one reason the JIC is claiming confidentiality; but there may be more to the story.

At issue: Did Justice Moore receive a fair hearing? Was he afforded equal protection and due process? If he did, then what is the JIC hiding, if not the only course of action is for the Special Supreme Court to dismiss the case against Moore. Only by releasing the court records will the people be assured that Moore was not a victim of a political prosecution.

Finally, the Montgomery Special Grand Jury and it’s investigation into actions taken by Gov. Bentley to defame former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier and the use of State resources to facilitate his alleged affair with Mason.

This past week, Attorney General Luther Strange told a member of the press that he was meeting with Bentley about the Sessions appointment. When asked about an investigation into Bentley, the Attorney General gave a very “lawyerly” answer saying something to the effect of, “You didn’t heard that from me.” Some have taken this to mean there is no investigation or not enough to indict.

So, perhaps Special Prosecution Chief Matt Hart just wanted to visit with the Governor for a couple of hours, or wanted a little face to face with current and former Bentley staffers for a few days, who knows? If the Governor is not the subject of a Grand Jury investigation the Attorney General’s Office should say so publicly. Bentley’s administration is in shambles with rumors of Mason and Chief of Staff Jon Barganier holding budget meetings at the Blount Mansion.

Bentley will soon make the most significant appointment of his tenure, belief in the justice system is under suspicion in the Moore trial and the Governor is reportedly a suspect in a criminal investigation, and it’s not yet New Year’s Day.

With a 2016 that saw the felony conviction of Mike Hubbard the first Republican Speaker of the House since Reconstruction, it would be difficult to imagine what is next. But this is Alabama, where every plan is someone’s plot, every good deed has a price tag, and a good lie justifies what comes next.

Business as usual is no longer acceptable and the shape of things to come must be about the people of our State and not just those who serve themselves at their expense.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Hubbard did the crime; he should do the time

Hubbard may not be a violent offender but his actions are a danger to society and a threat to the public.

Bill Britt

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Mike Hubbard looks toward his family after receiving sentencing on Friday, July 8, 2016, in Opelika, Ala. (Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool)

Attorneys for convicted felon, former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, believe he has suffered enough, and his sentence should be reduced because six of the charges against him were overturned on appeal.

The remaining six counts against Hubbard call for a prison term of four years, 16 years probation, and substantial fines independent of the charges the upper courts set aside. Therefore, there exist no reasonable grounds under which trial Judge Jacob Walker III should lessen Hubbard’s sentence.

This action on Hubbard’s behalf is simply another attempt to subvert justice.

A Lee County jury found Hubbard guilty of twelve counts of public corruption, most notably using his office for personal gain and using state resources and personnel to enrich himself—and those counts still stand.

The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Count 5, and the Alabama Supreme Court struck down another five, which primarily dealt with the charges surrounding “principals.”

The upper-court’s finding appears more political than judicial, but most people in the state are used to jurists who bend the law for the rich and politically connected.

Of the remaining charges against Hubbard, five carry a ten-year spit sentence of two years in prison and eight years probation, and one count has a six-year split sentence with 18 months in jail with the remainder served on probation.

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Why would Judge Walker reverse his judgment since the appeals process left in place the charges that carry the very sentence he imposed?

Does Judge Walker think he erred in his sentencing? Does he now, in retrospect, believe he was unfair as Hubbard’s lawyers contend?

Hubbard’s appeal is merely more subterfuge and trickery disguised as a legal argument.

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Astonishingly, in their latest filing, lawyers, David McKnight and Joel Dillard, assert that Hubbard is not “a danger to society, nor a threat to the public” as a reason to let him out of prison.

Hubbard may not be a violent offender but his actions are a danger to society and a threat to the public.

Prison is not only for brutal inmates it is also for those who break a certain class of laws. Because a felon wears a thousand dollar suit doesn’t mean they deserve less jail time.

Hubbard’s crimes are some of the most heinous perpetrated against civil society.

Public corruption undermines the rule of law and the principles of good government and is an offense more potent than property theft, drug use, or other nonviolent crimes because it rips apart the very fabric of society and its trust in the foundations of the republic.

A corrupt politician’s actions subvert the very meaning of representative government.

Hubbard is not now a danger to society, or a threat to the public because he is behind bars. But make no mistake he is a menace to public good. Even before his indictment, Hubbard used every scheme at his disposal to thwart justice, entice lying and manipulate public trust. And now he wants one more shot at corrupting the system.

There are only two occasions when every individual should expect equal treatment: when they stand before a court of law and when they stand before their maker. Yes, a wealthy defendant like Hubbard can afford better legal representation, but it doesn’t mean he can purchase special justice.

Hubbard has been given preferential treatment by lawmakers, the media, and even some on the courts. All along the way, Hubbard was handled with kid gloves and given unwarranted privilege.

McKnight and Dillard argue with a straight face that letting Hubbard out of prison early will, “Preserve scarce prison bed-space for habitual offenders and others from whom society needs protection… [and] more likely result in the defendant’s rehabilitation than incarceration.”

The word rehabilitation is used several times in Hubbard’s most recent court filings as if somehow allowing him to avoid prison time will serve to rehabilitate him. To this day, Hubbard doesn’t believe he’s committed a crime, so how is rehabilitation possible?

His attorneys lastly make the most laughable argument possible by indicating Hubbard has suffered enough.

“[The] Court should consider the punishment that Hubbard has already suffered. The convictions in this case alone have resulted in a wide range of punishments which include his removal from office, the loss of his right to vote, the divestment of his business interests, and his current incarceration.”

Suffered enough?

When lawmakers break ethics laws, it upends society because it shatters trust while nullifying the social contract that binds us together in peace and safety.

State ethics laws are an attempt to force the government to rule themselves honestly.

Hubbard ignored the very ethics laws he championed and would do it all again.

He deserves punishment for his unlawful acts, and his prison sentence should stand as a reminder to others that justice doesn’t play favorites.

Hubbard did the crime, and he should serve the time.

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Bill Britt

Perspective | Can the Legislature write a stronger, clearer and enforceable ethics code? There’s a way

Bill Britt

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When the cell door closed behind former Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard at 5:05 p.m. on Friday, Sept 11, 2020, there was a momentary sign of victory, but also a chill braced the state’s political landscape.

What happens next will be most consequential as the Alabama Supreme Court, and to a lesser degree the Court of Criminal Appeals, set in motion a need to rewrite certain aspects of the Alabama Ethics Act.

Due to the court’s tortured opinion, the Legislature will be forced to revise portions of the ethics statute to correct the so-called flaws the court found.

The question is, will they refine and reinforce the statute or dilute and weaken it?

Given the recent legislative history, the chances are likely that they will opt for the latter unless the press and public pay scrupulous attention to any changes to the present legislation.

Fortunately, there already exists a framework from which the 2010 Ethics Act can be rewritten to make current law better.

And there are some faint but encouraging signs that not all lawmakers and public officials will work to undermine the law. But in Alabama politics, there is often a vast sea of gray between what politicians say and what they do.

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In April, when the ALSC tossed six of Hubbard’s convictions, current Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon said, “The Supreme Court’s ruling has made it clear that our ethics law has flaws that must be addressed. Our task now is to fix those flaws without weakening any of the provisions that make our ethics law among the toughest in the country.”

After the court’s ruling, Gov. Kay Ivey released a statement saying, “I support seeking clarity on our state’s ethics laws to ensure those who want to abide by them may not be unfairly targeted,” Ivey said. “However, let me be abundantly clear, I do not support weakening a system that is meant to hold our elected officials accountable. The rule of law must be upheld.”

Attorney General Steve Marshall’s comments on the courts finding were on target, “While I am pleased that the Supreme Court agreed that former Speaker Hubbard broke the law and will be held accountable for his abuse of power, I am also disappointed in the court’s interpretation of Alabama’s ethics law concerning the definition of a principal,” Marshall said. “While I can live with the court’s insistence on a clearer definition of principal, going forward, that definition must also be strong.”

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The court’s ruling on principals smells more political than judicial. The current definition is not necessarily murky but has jeopardized some of the state’s political and business elites.

Ethics reform legislation that strengthened and clarified the Alabama Ethics Act of 2010, was approved by Republican House and Senate leadership in 2017, but quietly died because of politics as usual.

The legislation was written under the guidance of then-Attorney General Luther Strange with Matt Hart and Mike Duffy of the Special Prosecution Division taking the lead.

Lawmakers, ethics experts, and stakeholders were consulted throughout the process and eventually agreed that the bill would fix major concerns found in the 2010 Ethics Act.

An annotated version of the bill is still available on the attorney general’s website, where it could be quickly taken out of mothballs and prepared for passage.

This existing bill would substantially improve, the Alabama Ethics Act. It also codifies current law and can easily be updated to include the decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and various advisory opinions from the Alabama Ethics Commission.

The proposed legislation from 2017 achieves three important goals: (1) encouraging honest people to serve in government by clearly defining the line between legal and illegal activity; (2) creates a clear and definite process through which people serving in government can obtain guidance regarding where a particular situation falls on that line; and (3) ensuring that those persons who violate the public’s trust are held accountable.

Specifically, the Act has been revised as follows: Improves the definition of “principal” to make clear that any person in a business that directs the activities of a lobbyist is a principal, while others in the business or on boards are not necessarily principals. This bill also gives the Ethics Commission more flexibility in identifying principals in disclosure forms.

Enforcement for minor violations is improved by giving the Ethics Commission and attorney general or appropriate district attorney more flexibility, subject to specified criteria, in resolving minor violations through administrative resolutions for public employees.

This bill also narrows the Act’s application to lower-level public employees to ease compliance and improve enforcement. To that end, it exempts grade school teachers, higher education athletic coaches, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders from the limitations on taking things of value from lobbyists and principals, filing statements of economic interest, and asking a lobbyist for something. Additional lower-level public employees are also exempt from filing statements of economic interests. The bill further provides discretion for the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General to exempt any class of public employee supervisors, subject to specific criteria.

The framework of the 2017 presented legislation offers many needed additions and restrictions.

The legislation offered in 2017, had a broad agreement, among lawmakers, business interests, lobbyists and others, and while massive, it was painstakingly reviewed and revised.

Hubbard’s imprisonment and the court’s ruling opens a door for the Legislature to create an even better ethics act, but it must be done with care and subject to rigorous oversight.

Justice prevailed in the Hubbard case even while it was assaulted at every turn.

Now it’s time for the Legislature to ensure that the ethics code is more robust, precise, and enforceable.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Mike Hubbard: Prisoner No. 1

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is now the state’s most famous inmate, and as prisoner No. 1, he deserves no more and no less than to serve his time in a state correctional facility.

Bill Britt

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Mike Hubbard looks toward his family after receiving sentencing on Friday, July 8, 2016, in Opelika, Ala. Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool

When former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard turns himself in to began his four-year sentence a few days from now, he will be the most high-profile inmate in Alabama’s state prison system.

Many suspect that Hubbard will be granted special considerations because of his connections and wealth, but that would be a travesty of justice.

Hubbard committed crimes against the people of Alabama and should serve out his sentence like any other criminal.

“Public corruption tears at the fabric of our communities and our national security,” according to the FBI. “Elected or appointed officials are entrusted and expected to protect the interests of the people with integrity. When that trust is betrayed, the security and stability of our government is put at risk.”

Among his many crimes, Hubbard used his elected office for personal gain, used public resources and personnel to illicit millions illegally to enrich himself.

During his time as speaker of the house, Hubbard presided of an orgy of greed and corruption; he swindled businesses and used his office’s power to destroy lives, all while building an empire on deception.

When he sold his office for ill-gotten profits, his family earned around $500,000 annually with a net worth in the neighborhood of $8 million. But Hubbard was not satisfied; he wanted more. To Hubbard, voters were fools, legislators pawns, and big-business patrons all there for his use.

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Before his conviction and afterward, Hubbard used every avenue of the justice system, legal and extra-judicial.

To keep Hubbard from justice, lawmakers, lobbyists, financial backers and some of the most prominent names in the state worked to undermine the judicial process.

Even the Alabama Supreme Court twisted its final opinion on his guilt like a Cirque du Soleil contortionist reluctantly saying in essence, “We are sorry to send you to prison, Mike, but we have no other choice.”

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It is up to the Department of Corrections to make sure that Hubbard does every day of his sentence behind bars in state prison.

There should be no more special treatment for Hubbard because he is wealthy or once held sway over Alabama politics.

Today, Hubbard is a criminal who stole when he didn’t need to, cheated when the rules were inconvenient and abused people and the political system because he could.

Hubbard must not be permitted to serve his time in county jail. He should not be set free because of the prison’s health hazards or overcrowding. Hubbard never lifted a finger for inmates’ health or prison conditions.

Hubbard disgraced himself but feels no remorse. He dishonored the state and must pay for his crimes.

Hubbard is now the state’s most famous inmate, and as prisoner No. 1, he deserves no more and no less than to serve his time in a state correctional facility.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Our state needs a think tank devoted to Alabama solutions for Alabama problems

Bill Britt

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Public policy is a complex issue, and scholars disagree on how to express it best. Still, in general, it is a system of laws and regulations that translates political visions into government actions.

For over a century—especially in the United States—think tanks have contributed to government policymaking.

Alabama needs a think tank that is truly devoted to what Gov. Kay Ivey describes as “An Alabama Solution to an Alabama Problem.”

“Think tanks play a critical role in analyzing, developing, and promoting policy solutions, particularly in times of extreme disruption and change,” according to a series held at The Wilson Center. “However, these organizations now operate in information-flooded societies where facts, evidence, and credible research are often ignored — and where ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ can gain a footing,” the symposium found. “To remain relevant and impactful, think tanks and policy institutes must simultaneously pursue rigor, innovation, accessibility, and accountability more than ever before.”

Distilled to its essence, a government’s policies, like politics, results in who gets what and how. Here in Alabama, far too often, systems are designed to benefit the few while ignoring the many. Even worse, laws and regulations have been used to control and, at times, abuse citizens for the benefit of those in power.

Even among Alabama lawmakers and policy groups, the tendency to embrace “alternative facts” and “fake news” is problematic. This fluid situation has made fact-based, evidence-driven policies more essential than ever as substandard or deliberately false information leads to harmful and sometimes fatal outcomes.

Therefore, it is time for an independent think tank that works to address the state’s unique needs with ideas that arise from the state’s distinctive character and abilities.

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Policy groups come in all shapes, sizes, and political leaning. Most notable, The Heritage Foundation and Brookings Institution are broadly representative of the conservative and progressive wings of nationally recognized institutions.

The Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, is an ideologically conservative institution that owes much of its rise to prominence for the role it played in shaping the conservative movement during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The Brookings Institution, established in 1916, is a progressive-leaning organization and has contributed to the creation of the United Nations, the Congressional Budget Office, the Marshall Plan, and various other institutional policies.

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A more recent group is the Bipartisan Policy Center, founded in 2007, by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. BPC says it actively works to address critical national issues while promoting bipartisanship.

There are nearly 2000 national and state policy institutes, but Heritage, Brookings and BPC represent an ideological mix.

In today’s world of both politics and policy, beyond the ideological spectrum is a one-size-fits-all groupthink that ignores the fact that while there are similarities between states, there are also many differences.

While Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama may share some common political ideology, its needs, goals and individual priorities vary.

Can Alabama learn from other states? Indeed, but a wholesale adoption of one state’s solution to another state’s problems disregards the governments’ individual nature.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution and its two separate budget tracks present extraordinary challenges when formulating paths for governing.

The Republic’s founders understood that each state is its own entity, which is why we have a representative government. This exceptional form of government acknowledges the Republic’s abundant diversity, giving each state its independence.

Our country has a long tradition of private rather than public funding for think tanks, which has contributed to a better understanding of public policy and a better market place for robust ideas.

Alabama is currently home to three different policy organizations with distinct objectives.

Mises Institute, located in Auburn, is a world-respected organization that “exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian school of economics, and individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard.”

Birmingham-based Public Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) prides itself as Alabama’s first and only independent research center. Its mission is to inform and improve the decision making of state and local leaders in Alabama through objective research and analysis. PARCA’s studies center on “state and local finances and taxes, school performance, workforce development, and government operations.”

The Alabama Policy Institute, also located in Birmingham, says that it “is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to strengthening free enterprise, defending limited government, and championing strong families.”

Of the three, API is the most political and is far-right leaning in its research and advocacy.

According to public IRS filings, operating expenses for the three groups range from around $800,000 annually for API and PARCA to over $4 million for Mises.

While these institutions play a role, lobbyists and special interests hold more significant sway over state policy, spending millions more than these think tanks could ever raise.

Public policy shouldn’t be determined entirely by private interests any more than the government should dictate every aspect of private enterprise.

Policymaking should be “a goal-driven decision-making process,” which reserves “a great deal of autonomy” in how an organization carries out its work,” according to Thei Geurts in his book Public Policy Making – the 21st Century Perspective.

Lastly, sound public policy should be stakeholder-driven— the people and not a tool to reward a few. It must be fair, honest and address the most pressing immediate needs, with an eye to the future.

In other words, Alabama solutions for Alabama problems.

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