By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
The State Legislature begins its four-day sprint to the finish this Tuesday. To-date, 1025 bills were introduced over the 27 days, and still, there is much more to be accomplished. The Legislative leadership hopes to sine die on Friday, ending a drama-filled Session that saw Governor Robert Bentley resign, Governor Ivey sworn in, topping the melee of competing interests that always seems to accompany a Legislative Session.
Perhaps more telling than what did happen is what didn’t happen during the 2017 Session.
The most important bill of the session was never introduced and now lies on a desk in the Office of Attorney General Steve Marshall.
For over a year, top lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office have worked to craft legislation to clarify and strengthen the State’s Ethics Laws. The proposed bill was ready before the Session but was never introduced because of political interests. Large companies and special interests could be blamed for the bill never making it in, but in reality, it was a lack of leadership that killed this single, most important piece of Legislation.
It has almost been a full year since Mike Hubbard was convicted on 12 counts of felony public corruption. Hubbard remains out of jail pending appeal, and there are those who are working in the shadows to make sure Hubbard is the only person ever convicted under the current Ethics laws.
Some lobbyists, business principals, and lawmakers want to return to the old days, before the Ethics Reforms of 2010. Others know those laws hastily passed and written by Bryan Taylor, Gov. Kay Ivey’s Chief Legal Counsel to empower the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and former Gov. Bob Riley’s business interests need to be amended. But, the leadership chose to do nothing, and the blame can be laid at the feet of Attorney General, Steve Marshall.
Marshall inherited this Ethics bill “dilemma” when he was appointed Attorney General after former Gov. Robert Bentley anointed Luther Strange to replace Senator Jeff Sessions. Marshall has privately used the excuse that the bill was not his own and therefore could not champion the Legislation.
Marshall is a smart man. He could have very easily read what was in the Ethics bill in a few days. There was ample time for him to have made the changes he felt necessary and championed his Ethics Legislation at the State House. Instead, he is currently working on an Ethics package with the help of his legal advisor, Katherine Roberts, a former columnist and consultant with the Alabama Policy Institute. API, far from being just a joke, is a dangerous policy shop that churns out blowhard so-called conservative position papers to satisfy its donors. It may stun Roberts to discover that cutting and pasting articles from the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute does not even remotely prepare someone to tackle the morass of writing a code of Ethics.
Before Strange traded his integrity for a seat in the US Senate, he and his people met with the House and Senate leadership, where he received a promise from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Speaker Mac McCutcheon to pass the Ethics package during the 2017 Session. Marsh and McCutcheon worked with Strange’s team to reach an acceptable bill. Many lawyers and stakeholders who questioned any new provisions were counsulted. But even with all the players mostly in agreement, Marshall gave them all a way out, because he chose to be a politician and not a lawman.
Every politician knows that any ethics bill with teeth is going to make someone mad; more importantly, it’s going to alienate some in the monied class, those with the big bucks count come campaign season.
Marshall is not weak, corrupt or anything of that nature; but what he has proven is that he’s a politician first. Politicians make decisions based on the next election. They concluded that it is better to win an election than to take a principled stand if there’s another way. Most rationalize that if they win the next election, they can then do the more difficult things they wanted to do. The problem: there is always another election.
At The Alabama Political Reporter, our staff is often admonished not to fear to report a story that might cause them to anger or needle powerful politicians, or even an advertiser. Our job is too important to compromise today and hope to live to write an uncompromising story tomorrow.
The same goes for a prosecutor. Any prosecutor that will not take a case because it might end his career is in the wrong job.
When a journalist cowers in the face of power, when a prosecutor turns away from the severe cases, justice and the rule of law are always the first victims. Personally, I often remind myself, “What profits a man if he gains the world, but loses his soul.” ~ Mark 8:36
In politics as in life, there are times when hard choices slam up against self-preservation. Like the athlete who throws himself in front of a 350-pound lineman to protect a pass or the soldier who runs headlong into a fire-fight, Attorney Generals, District Attorneys, and prosecutors must be willing to enter the political fray without a sense of self-preservation.
Of course, Marshall can recover. He’s a good guy. He was in a tough spot, but he should have done more.
Our State is always in want of needful things, but too often Alabama’s lawmakers lack the courage to fight to bring them home.
The Lee County Grand Jury remains empaneled; there are many more Hubbard.
In this case, politics ruled the day, and we are all the worse for it.