By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
As a tsunami of subpoenas swept across the state earlier this week, both Democrat and Republican elected officials and campaign consultants were left reeling in near panic.
A Montgomery Grand Jury under the direction of the state’s Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Unit is looking into violations of the state Fair Campaign Practice Act. More specifically, they want to know whether candidates or campaign workers used credit cards to pay personal expenses.
Under Section 17-5-7 of the FCPA, it is illegal to use campaign funds for personal or legislative living expenses. “For purposes of this section, expenditures that are reasonably related to performing the duties of the office held do not include personal and legislative living expenses, as defined in this chapter.” Violations of 17-5-7 are prosecuted as a Class B felony.
According to several individuals with knowledge of the subpoenas issued by the public corruption unit led by Divison Chief Matt Hart, Hart is requesting copies of campaign records and credit card statements showing a detailed account of what was paid for using campaign donations.
Some candidates have been found to use various credit cards to pay expenses without itemizing each purchase. While state law requires a complete list of expenditures, it is believed some campaigns have ignored the black letter of the law.
Around the State House, a few lawmakers are casting stones at Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who, as promised, has made a thorough inventory of various irregularities related to the FCPA.
However, Merrill’s office reportedly didn’t initiate this investigation but is fully cooperating with Hart’s team. Numerous files were requested from the Secretary of State’s Office, which is in full compliance with those requests.
The Goat Hill rumor mill is suggesting that embattled Attorney General Steve Marshall is pushing the grand jury probe to distract from reporting on his failure to hold an assistant district attorney accountable for a sexual assault when he was Marshall County District Attorney. Most recently, Marshall misled readers of al.com on why he neglected to punish a sexual predator in his employ, even giving a false statement about when he learned of the event.
Meanwhile, those close to the grand jury probe speculate that Hart is being spurred on in this investigation by the state’s Ethics Commission’s failure to hold violators accountable. In late 2017, the five-person commission voted 4-1 to dismiss fines levied by the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office for the late filing of required campaign finance reports by six political action committees (PACs) and candidates.
Violations by these PACs and individuals were not in question, but the commission determined to let them go without punishment as voiced by Commissioner Butch Ellis, who said of the perpetrators, “I feel like these people learned their lesson because they didn’t do it again.”
Despite clear violations, the commission failed to enforce the laws as written in 2015.
Secretary Merrill expressed his displeasure at the time saying, “This sends a terrible message that if you’re somebody or you know somebody, you have a way out of following the laws everyone else has to follow.” Merrill continued, “I’m just so terribly disappointed in this decision, and I don’t know what effect it might have on people following this law. It can’t be good; I know that.”
Repeated failure to hold lawbreakers to account by Commission Chair Judge Jerry Fielding and some others has certainly raised the ire of notorious prosecutor Hart.
During his lengthy career, Hart has pursued Democrats and Republicans alike, without fear or favor. Once again, it appears he is determined to root out public corruption; in this case, one credit card at a time.
General belief holds that anywhere from 30 to 50 subpoenas were issued to current officeholders and previously elected officials from both parties.