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Bentley’s biggest crime: stupidity

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

There I was, standing on the sidewalk along Monroe Street in downtown Montgomery, just outside of the nine-story RSA building where the Alabama Ethics Commission holds its regular meetings.

I was watching a loading dock where a black SUV – the kind government officials drive – was parked. Montgomery Police Department officers had shooed reporters away from the door leading out onto the loading dock, which raised suspicion, and we were pretty sure the car belonged to the Governor.

We were roughly five hours into the Ethics Commission’s private hearing on the allegations against Gov. Robert Bentley, and the majority of the State’s media had spent the day surfing the Internet. So, I had time to kill.

I had been out there about five minutes when the first pair of MPD officers approached to tell me that the sidewalk was closed.

Closed. For a “detail,” they said.

Now, let’s be clear about something: Had I been left out there to get a 5-second clip of Bentley walking out of the building, getting into his SUV and driving away, few people would have paid attention. Certainly, no more people would have cared about the video than were already following the story.

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But that’s not how this administration rolls.

No, if it’s bad for the Governor, rest assured, he or someone close to him will make it exponentially worse.

That, in large part, was why we were even there on Wednesday, waiting nine-plus hours for the Ethics Commission to eventually tell us that there’s enough probable cause to recommend that Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey investigate Bentley for breaking an ethics law and three campaign finance laws. All of them felonies that could land Bentley in jail for eight years.

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And for what?

The Governor has no doubt broken laws. But he didn’t do so to line his own pockets or prop up his business buddies.

He mainly broke them because he was stupid.

Stupid in love. Stupid in covering up love. Stupid in staying in love.

And despite the person on the other end of that love being a public relations expert so talented she’s worth more than $400,000 per year – at least, if you go by the amount Bentley’s dark money paid her – the Governor and his guru simply can’t get out of their own way.

Consider that this all started from an illicit affair between Bentley and Mason – an affair that broke up the Governor’s 50-year marriage. Instead of admitting that mistake and begging forgiveness, Bentley and his PR Guru denied it was physical – even as hideously-uncomfortable audio sex tapes were being played on live TV – and held quite possibly the dumbest press conference in history to try and convince everyone of this.

That PR nightmare was created by the completely botched attempt to fire Spencer Collier, the former head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and one of the special witnesses at Wednesday’s Commission hearing. Faced with losing his job, Collier fought back – as any sane person might predict – and told the world about discovering Bentley’s affair and the crazy amount of influence Mason had in the Capitol.

And the dominoes started to tumble down.

We all quickly learned of the dark money funding Mason’s salary – an arrangement that led, in part, to the ethics law violation. That charge, along with the three others – all having to do with Bentley’s affair with Mason and its coverup – were included in a complaint filed more than a year ago by State auditor Jim Zeigler.

It’s easy to dismiss Zeigler as being half-crazy and camera-coveting – and he’ll gladly admit to both – but two things about the guy: he was right and he’s somehow better at PR than the PR Guru and the Governor.

We know this because any person with the least bit of political or PR sense would have dug a hole, crawled into it and raked the dirt on top of themselves had they found themselves in the situation that Bentley and Mason created in 2016.

But not Bentley and Mason.

No, there continued to be sightings of Mason around Montgomery, at the governor’s mansion. Staffers talked quietly of Mason’s influence on decisions and her direction of the Governor.

And then, Bentley took Mason and her husband to Donald Trump’s inauguration. Flew her up on the sState plane.

A couple of weeks later, there was Mason at the Governor’s State of the State address, wiping away tears at the end of the speech.

State lawmakers who thought public sentiment had calmed enough that they could avoid carrying through with an impeachment attempt were livid. They had no real desire to impeach the Governor, especially over something so stupid. But on the other hand, the continued flaunting of this relationship, and the reminders of the embarrassment it caused, couldn’t be ignored.

The magnifying glass on Bentley turned up more problems, this time with his campaign finance reporting and the way he managed money.

He had illegally paid Mason’s legal fees – one charge by the commission. He had taken a contribution outside of the time period to pay for Mason’s trip with him to see and meet honorary Alabamian Celine Dion – another charge on Wednesday. And Bentley loaned his campaign money outside of the legal timeframe – the third campaign finance charge.

The charges were nothing.

Seriously. Taken by themselves, without the anger and vitriol, no one would care about these violations. They’re the turning-without-signaling versions of ethics laws violations.

Oh, but if you add in the stupidity of it all, along with the audacity and foolishness and pour in a touch of statewide embarrassment, you create a whole different situation. You create a situation in which the average voter does care and cares greatly.

Which brings me back to the loading dock.

Instead of a meaningless five-second clip of Bentley walking to the car, there was a 15-second video of cops trying to make me leave. That clip brought out more reporters, and we all later recorded another interaction with police which was somehow dumber than the first.

That all created a legitimate news story that people cared about, and furthered the notion that the Governor isn’t to be trusted.

As the Commission voted, it was impossible not to recognize the utter stupidity connecting it all. There was only one thing I could think.

That Bentley sure could use a political advisor.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | It’s time for Alabama Democrats to learn from Alabama Republicans

Josh Moon

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Democrats never seem to learn from Republicans. 

All around the country, and all around the state of Alabama, Democrats are still playing by the rules. Still listening to the cries and outrage from the other side. Still entertaining the idea that compromise and diplomacy are important to Republicans on some level. 

Still watching Lucy jerk that football away at the last moment. 

It’s time that stopped. 

It is time — actually, well past time — for Democrats to adopt the attitudes of their GOP colleagues, and just do whatever the hell you want to do. 

Whatever goal you set, go achieve it. Whatever policy is important, implement it. Whatever action you believe is right, take it. 

This is how Republicans have governed now for years. It is how they have wrestled control of the U.S. Supreme Court — just don’t hold a hearing for a duly appointed candidate — and how they have stolen elections — keep blocking attempts to secure elections. It is how they control half of Congress — thanks, gerrymandering! — despite representing nearly 20 million fewer people and how they have managed to offset a growing minority vote — put up every roadblock short of a poll tax. 

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In Alabama, it has how they adopted the AAA act to funnel tax money to private schools — just completely rewrite the bill in the dead of night — and how they passed the most restrictive abortion ban — just ignore promises and public opinion. It is how they have stopped attempts to pass gambling legislation — by straight up lying about the law — and how they have steadily cut into ethics laws — pretend that no one can understand the laws they wrote themselves — and how a House Speaker convicted on 12 felonies still isn’t in prison three years later — just don’t send him. 

They don’t care. 

About rules. About the law. About public perception. About basic decency. 

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And it’s time for Democrats, especially in Alabama, to adopt the same attitudes. 

Because if Republicans can behave this way to implement racist bills and roll back ethics laws and protect the income of the elites, then Democrats shouldn’t think twice about doing it to protect rural hospitals or new mothers’ health or workers’ rights or decent public schools. 

Now, this will be a big change for Democrats, so let me explain how this would look in practice, using the ongoing saga of Confederate monuments. 

Republicans shoved through an absurd bill last year that protects the state’s monuments to those who fought to enslave other human beings, and they’re shocked — shocked and outraged — that African Americans in Alabama might find it offensive to honor the men who enslaved their ancestors. 

The bill they passed last year was a dumb bill, right down to the portion which levied a fine on cities if those cities removed or damaged a monument. The bill completely screwed up the fines portion, failing to penalize cities for moving or damaging monuments over 40 years old and failing to place a per-day fine on those cities. Instead, the Alabama Supreme Court said the cities would be subject to one $25,000 fine. 

Birmingham has a monument that it desperately wants to move. It has already boarded up the monument in Linn Park, and the ALSC, in the same ruling, ordered the boards to come down. 

And this is the first opportunity for Mayor Randall Woodfin to approach this with a new attitude. 

Tear it down. 

Write out one of those big “Price is Right” checks for $25,000, hold a press conference and award that money to Steve Marshall like he just won at Plinko. 

At the same time, workers should be taking that monument apart piece by piece and moving it to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where it can be viewed for its historical significance instead of serving to honor traitors and racists. 

No apologies. No shame. Don’t even entertain their complaints. 

A similar approach should be taken by the city of Montgomery in regards to its occupational tax, which Republicans are attempting to stop through legislative action. 

Montgomery is going broke, and it can’t put enough cops on the streets. Part of that is because every day about 70,000 people flood into the city to go to work, and then they leave each afternoon and spend their money in — and give their tax dollars to — surrounding cities and counties. 

Montgomery has to do something to offset the costs, so an occupational tax has been proposed. But just as quickly as it was, the ALGOP — the kings of handouts to people who don’t need them — passed a bill to block it. 

So, some creativity is required.

Instead of an occupational tax, pass a public safety tax. 

If you work within the city limits of Montgomery, but live outside of those city limits, your paycheck will now be taxed an extra 1 percent to offset the cost of the police and fire services that you might use while in the city every day. 

No apologies. No shame. Don’t listen to GOP complaints. 

It’s a shame that things have to be like this, but they do. Democrats have tried for decades to force rational debate and to promote the value of compromise. Those pleas have fallen on deaf ears, which have been attached to toddler-like brains that have justified atrociously selfish behaviors and awful governance. 

At this point, it has gone on so long and been so successful for Republicans, the only thing that might break through is a taste of their own medicine. 

Give it to them.

 

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Opinion | Facts are stubborn things

Joey Kennedy

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I’m in my 20th year of teaching in the English Department at UAB. I’ve never taught my primary discipline, journalism, and I really don’t have much of a desire to, either.

Yet, in 2017, the leadership of UAB’s University Honors Program asked me to be a part of their interdisciplinary faculty for the fall. UHP’s fall semesters are themed, and that year, the first year of Donald Trump’s term as president, the theme was appropriate: “Evidence and Belief in a Post-Truth Society.” For UHP, I was a “communications” (journalism) professor. I taught with a scientist and public health professor, a religion professor, a philosophy professor, a literature professor and a psychology professor.

The students in this program – all 100-plus of them – are among the smartest students on campus. Needless to say, I was intimidated. For my first lecture before the students, I took a Xanax (it’s prescribed because I do have anxiety sometimes). The Xanax didn’t make me lecture better, but it made me not really care if I screwed up.

I’m sort of a one-trick pony – I teach and write in the only language I know: English. Here, you had neuroscience and biology and chemistry majors galore. And, yes, there were a few English and history and business and engineering students, too. Pretty much every discipline taught at UAB is represented in UHP, and certainly in its umbrella school, the UAB Honors College.

That fall went by quickly. I only took the Xanax for the first lecture. I settled into my groove pretty quickly. But when it was over, I ached for the continued intellectual stimulation I received as a teacher. I’m a lifetime learner, and that program taught me a lot. And I got to teach others a lot, too.

I thought it was a one-shot deal. Until, that is, the program’s director, Dr. Michael Sloane, asked me to return in the fall of 2018 to direct the first-year students’ literary analyses. And that fall, I was also asked to propose a UHP seminar class for the spring of 2020. I returned last fall to once again direct the first-year literary analysis. And I’ve been asked to return for first-year LAs again this coming fall.

This semester, I’m teaching the class I proposed, “Media and Social Justice.” And I’ve already got another self-created UHP seminar class scheduled for next spring, “Media and War: Men and Women Making a Difference on the Front Lines.”

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Unlike my composition and literature classes in the English Department, these seminars have no template. I have to create the teaching as I go. Some days, I’m very confident; others not so much.

I divided the “Media and Social Justice” class into six two-week units: Nellie Bly (mental illness and investigative journalism), The Jungle (food safety and immigration), Jim Crow Lives (the civil rights era and voter suppression), #MeToo (sexual assault and harassment), Black Lives Matters (police and other shootings of people of color), and March for Our Lives (gun violence and sensible gun regulation).

These classes are limited to 16 honors students, but 19 students wanted in my “Media and Social Justice” class, so I have 19 students.

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I teach these classes as a communications professor, not an English professor. I direct the literary analyses as a literature professor, not a communications professor.

We’re covering historical topics, for sure, but also contemporary topics. It doesn’t get any more current than Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, voter suppression, or March for Our Lives.

We don’t just talk about the journalism around these topics, but also about other media. For example, I find protest songs for each topic. While it’s not on our plate, did you know Trump has inspired a whole catalog of protest songs? Most every president inspires protest songs, though Trump has inspired an awful lot of them.

Maybe at some point, I’ll create a “Media and Donald J. Trump” class. There is plenty of material.

The point, though, is that we all should be lifelong learners. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from by English students and my honors students, how much the English faculty has taught me, and how much the faculty and directors of the University Honors Program have taught me.

That I get to return the favor by teaching these unique classes says a lot about UAB, and how it values critical thinking and learning.

I hope I never lose my enthusiasm for learning, or become too stubborn to change when the facts point toward another direction. That is our responsibility to the truth. I guess I am stubborn in one way: There are no alternative facts. Facts are truth, reality. The alternative is false, untruth, lies.

Readers, that’s a fact, and like me sometimes, facts are stubborn.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected].

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Deception, subtlety and the wholesale destruction of current ethics laws mark proposed rewrite

Bill Britt

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Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would radically alter the existing State Ethics Act rendering it useless as an effective tool to regulate the behavior of public officials, much less prosecute a rouge lawmaker.

Testifying at a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in April 2015, Ball said the ethics laws needed amending to avoid prosecutions like Hubbard’s in the future.

If HB179 becomes law, Ball will have fulfilled the words he spoke at the Lee County Court House, where Hubbard was tried and convicted.

As House Ethics Committee Chair, Ball has sought to change the State’s Act since Hubbard was indicted.

Ball’s bill is subtly written from an enforcement and trial perspective to neuter the law.

Words are added, deleted, and meanings changed in ways that might look harmless but actually open the door for the kind of corruption Republicans vowed to change in 2010, when they passed the toughness in the nation’s ethics laws.

Beyond changes that would allow for general corruption to go unpunished, Ball’s legislation would strip the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute anyone who violates the ethics laws without first securing approval from the State Ethics Commission.

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All prosecution of any public official would first have to be approved by the Ethics Commission, a group that has repeatedly shown that it bends its decisions according to the prevailing political winds.

HB179 reads in part, “This bill would prohibit the Attorney General or a district attorney from presenting a suspected ethics violation by an individual subject to the code of ethics, other than a member or employee of the commission, to a grand jury without a referral by the commission.”

In other words, Ball would have a politically-appointed commission decide if law-enforcement agencies can seek indictments against wrongdoers.

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Neither the Attorney General or a county district attorney can even impanel a grand jury in an ethics probe without the commission first finding probable cause.

Some of Ball’s alterations come in the form of removing whole sections of the law under the guise of redefining words, like “a thing of value” or “widely attended event.”

An example of how Ball’s legislation plays with the law is under the section of code, which defines a family member of a public official. Currently, a family member is “[t]he spouse, a dependent, an adult child and his or her spouse, a parent, a spouse’s parents, a sibling and his or her spouse, of the public official.” Ball changes it so it only includes a spouse and a dependent. That means that a public official may act to enrich his adult children, a parent, an in-law a brother, or a sister. These small but destructive alterations to the law are at the heart of Ball’s legislation.

Some loopholes are so extensive that a sitting legislator could be paid by a city or county governmental economic development entity and still seat in the Legislature voting on bills that might directly affect his consulting client.

Out-of-state junkets make a comeback as do several other goodies lawmakers have been desiring.

It seems Republicans want to cash in on the rewards of office like Democrats did once upon a time.

One thing is clear, Ball didn’t write the bill, but whoever did knew precisely what they were doing and were probably paid handsomely for their efforts.

There are so many cunningly deceptive changes to the ethics laws in Ball’s bill as to make it impossible to catch them all without days of intense study—and perhaps a team of lawyers.

Ball, one of Hubbard’s most an ardent defenders has said Hubbard’s indictment and conviction was a political witch hunt. He has said he wants to rewrite the ethics laws to save future Hubbards; it now looks as if he has.

 

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Opinion | As legislative session begins, priority will be resolving prison problems

Steve Flowers

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The 2020 Legislative Session, which began last week, will be the second session of Governor Kay Ivey’s administration.  For the second straight year, she and the legislature will be facing a major obstacle.

The prison problem is the paramount issue for the year.  The state must address and resolve this dilemma or the federal authorities will take over our prisons.

The U.S. Justice Department has decreed that the constitutional rights of inmates are being violated because they are in overcrowded conditions which can lead to extreme violence.  The federal justice officials say overcrowding and excess violence is caused by a shortage of staff and beds for inmates.

Our men’s prisons are at 170 percent of the system’s capacity.  In the past few weeks it has gone from bad to worse with a forced transfer of more than 600 inmates from Holman Prison.  Our Holman correctional facility is generally where our most hardened criminals are housed.

Gov. Ivey and this legislature did not cause this problem.  It has been building up and festering for years.  The chickens have just come home to roost under her watch but she is attempting to handle the problem adroitly.  

The Governor and her administration have worked openly and pragmatically with the Justice Department in clearly defined negotiations.  It might be added that the Justice Department has worked congruently and candidly with the Ivey administration and given them clear guidelines in order to avoid federal intervention.  

Gov. Ivey and the Justice Department are taking a harmonious approach, which is a far cry from the Gov. George Wallace versus Judge Frank Johnson demagogic rhubarb of past years.  In that case, the state lost and we lost in a big way.  When the federal courts take over a state’s prison system, they dictate and enforce their edicts and simply give the state the bill.  It is a pretty large, unpredictable price tag.  The feds always win.

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Gov. Ivey will take information from a study group she appointed, led by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Champ Lyons as well as negotiate with the Justice Department and offer proposals they need from the legislature along with administrative decisions to remedy the prison problem.

Leading the legislative efforts will be State Senator Cam Ward who has been the lead dog in the prison reform efforts. The problem hopefully will be resolved during this session.

Gov. Ivey will not use the approach she did last year with rebuild Alabama when she adjourned the Regular Session and placed the legislature in Special Session to address the issue on a solo stand-alone platform.  It will be tackled within the confines of the Regular Session.  If the solution is to build three new, modern men’s prisons the state will be faced with some heavy lifting because the big question becomes, how do we pay for them?

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The answer may be in a lottery.  For the umpteenth year, a proposal to let Alabamians vote to keep the money from lottery tickets in our state coffers.  We are one of only four states in America who derive no money from lottery proceeds.  We are surrounded on all four sides of our state by sister southern states that reap the benefits of our citizens purchase of lottery tickets.This could be the year that the legislature votes to allow their constituents the right to vote yes or no to keep our own money.

You can bet your bottom dollar that if it gets on the ballot, it will pass.  Alabamians, both Democratic and Republican, will vote for passage.  Even if they do not have any interest in purchasing a lottery ticket.  They are tired of seeing their money go to Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi or Florida.  Those that like to buy them are tired of driving to our neighboring states to give them money for their school children and roads.

It also may have a better chance of getting to the voters this year because the sponsor, Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) is a respected veteran and Chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee. His proposal is also a very simple paper lottery.

However, for the first time Gov. Ivey addressed the issue in her State of the State Address. She is calling for a study commission on the subject which could further delay our having a lottery.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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