By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
When regulatory boards start acting like trade associations and trade associations have to fight to keep a commission on task, that signals real trouble, according to sources close to the Alabama Real Estate Commission (AREC) and the Alabama Association of Realtors (AAR).
“The Realtors Association is in a terrible place because the Real Estate Commission is acting like a quasi-association,” said an individual with knowledge of the situation who agreed to be a source of background information so he might speak freely.
AREC is Alabama’s regulatory licensure board responsible for consumer protection. Its stated mission is, “To serve the public through the licensing and regulating of real estate licensees.”
Under this statute, it is not like an association that lobbies for legislation to find benefits for its members, but a regulatory board that is there to protect the public.
During the last Legislative Session, it was common knowledge at the State House that AREC was lobbying for legislation, claiming, they were stepping in because they didn’t like the way AAR was handling certain pieces of legislation.
Since the Alabama Political Reporter first exposed the hiring of Danny Cooper as a lobbyist, lawmakers and agency leaders began asking why the real estate commission is lobbying and why do they have a lobbyist?
“They have an executive director,” said one source, “That is part of her job; so why the lobbyist.”
But AREC doesn’t have just any lobbyist, they have Danny Cooper, who was once head of the Realtors Association. Cooper is paid handsomely for his work, receiving a four-year contract worth $450,000. Cooper’s $150, 000 a year deal was awarded while he was part of former Gov. Bob Riley’s lobbying firm, Riley & Associates. He has since moved on, but the State Commission continues to pay him for, what it claims, is strategic consulting. However, Cooper is the Commission’s registered lobbyist, according to his Ethics Commission filings.
Alliances run deep within the Real Estate community where current commissioners have interweaving ties that feed industry friends and business relationships. From Birmingham to Huntsville and all points in between, is a network of overlapping business interests, which are drawing the attention of watch-dogs and government officials.
Failure of the Birmingham Association of Realtors Political Action Committee (BARPAC) to file its required FCPA reports has focused a spotlight on the Birmingham association’s activities.
AREC Commissioner Chairman Bill Watts, III, is Chairman of the Board of Watts Realty. Watts also served as President of the Birmingham Association of Realtors in 1988 and the 2006 President of the Alabama Association of Realtors. According to his bio in 2007, then-Governor Bob Riley appointed Watts the Alabama Real Estate Commission Commissioner for United States Congressional District 6.
Watts has strong ties to Cooper and reportedly was against Cooper’s ouster at AAR. Likewise, AREC Vice Chair Steve Cawthon is a long time associate of Cooper. It is widely believed that Cooper’s longstanding relationship with these commissioners led to him receiving his lobbying position with absolutely no competition.
Real estate insiders don’t think it is coincidental that the Commission’s Request for Proposal to hire a “consultant” was never published and the lone bid was Cooper. Watts and Cawthon were instrumental in helping to make sure Cooper received the contract as a means to pay him back for his removal from the AAR, according to industry insiders.
Cooper’s departure in 2012 was a divisive issue for the Realtors, allege some former and current members. Cooper’s departure occurred when past presidents banded together with current leadership at AAR to remove him from the Association after a series of issues and allegations of financial irregularities during the final years of his tenure were discovered. However, Cooper was never charged with any misdeeds, and these are only allegations by individuals during that period. Watts and Cawthon former presidents of the AAR remained loyal to Cooper and fought against his removal from the association, according to those within the organization.
Beyond the Commission’s self-appointed role to push legislation staffers at AREC are questioning what Cooper does to earn all that money? According to several employees, Cooper rarely comes to the office. “I’m here every day, and I see who comes and goes,” said a staffer, “but I never see [Cooper] him.”
In comparison, the Commission’s Executive Director Pat Anderson drew over $130,000 in the fiscal year 2016. As an employee of the State, Anderson receives an estimated $40,000 in additional benefits as a full-time government employee, which makes her State pay and benefits just a little higher than Cooper’s. As a top-tier staffer, she questions Cooper’s absence. “He’s never around. No one here knows what he does, and he makes more than Pat [Anderson], How does that work?” These staffer members agree that Cooper is only active during the Legislative Session, “but that’s it.”
Other State agencies are also questioning, not only Cooper’s contract but also the competitive positions the commission is taking on Legislation. One agency executive said, “There might not be problems right now, but some cases are coming down the road where there meddling is going to become a real issue.”