By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
During his introductory press conference in early February, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was immediately met with questions about a long-rumored investigation into then-Gov. Robert Bentley.
Marshall said at the time that he didn’t know about the investigation, hadn’t been briefed yet, but planned to speak to his new team and then make a public announcement. Two days later, he acknowledged the investigation and recused himself.
That was an odd sequence of events to Alice Martin, the then-chief deputy of the AG’s office.
That’s because three days earlier, on the Friday prior to Marshall’s press conference, Martin said she briefed the incoming AG on “an open and active investigation into the Governor.”
“I don’t know why he would have stood up there and told everyone that he didn’t know if there was an investigation,” Martin said. “The Friday before, I told him. I offered him a briefing packet.”
That investigation would, of course, prove to be substantial for the history of this State, and in regards to ongoing elections.
Bentley later resigned after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges. Former AG Luther Strange, who accepted an appointment to the US Senate from Bentley – while Strange was an active participant in that investigation – has been dogged by that decision.
Martin and Marshall have been at odds over it from the start. And this situation is no different.
Marshall flatly denied that Martin told him about the Bentley investigation prior to his press conference. In a statement from his office, he said his only interaction with Martin on Friday, February 10, was a phone call, during which Martin apologized for a negative news story that she said she had nothing to do with and offered her resignation, which Marshall did not accept.
“There was no discussion of the Bentley investigation nor did AG Marshall receive a packet of info,” the statement read.
Marshall said he first spoke of the Bentley investigation on the following Tuesday, during a meeting with Martin and others in the AG’s office. He recused on Wednesday.
The early war of words and accusations are likely indicative of tight, contentious race between the two Republicans, and a statewide election that should be unusually equal.
Martin and Marshall are basically on the most level of playing fields. They each are similarly funded. They each have their share of backers and detractors. They have similar experience. They each struggle with name recognition in certain parts of the State. And they each have enough public service to be mined for negative info.
Marshall has a clear advantage in holding the office – a position that allows him to remain almost permanently in the public spotlight. But that position also has it drawbacks, with Martin lobbing bombs at Marshall from the sidelines.
Take the Bentley outcome – a resignation, two misdemeanors, public service.
“It’s a slap on the wrist,” Martin said. “We’ve got to do something about the follow-through on these prosecutions. Too many times we have judges and others who see themselves when they see these dirty lawmakers. We have to put an end to that and start treating people the same. If you’re breaking the law, you’re breaking the law.”
Marshall is left to defend a decision that he says he had little to do with.
“To this day, (Marshall) has not consulted with Ellen Brooks or the Special Prosecution team of the Attorney General’s Office over the facts of the case,” Marshall’s statement read.
Marshall also said he was “surprised” to learn that Martin is now criticizing the special prosecutions team’s work, since she once praised it.
But Martin’s objective is clear: turn the race into one about the prosecution of public corruption. Because she clearly has an advantage in that area and it’s a topic that the general public – in this scandal-weary State – cares about.
Marshall has a long, distinguished career as a district attorney in Marshall County, but his public corruption resume is thin. Martin, in the meantime, was basically the originator of the modern public corruption task force in the state, starting with her work in the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama.
Whether that’s enough to overcome the advantage Marshall has as the sitting AG isn’t clear. But it should at least make for an interesting race.