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Josh Moon

Opinion | Alabama politicians aren’t even trying to hide the corruption anymore

Josh Moon

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Gov. Robert Bentley shakes hands with new Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, after signing his appointment letter at the state Capitol in Montgomery, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (Governor's Office/Jamie Martin)

The corruption within Alabama’s state government doesn’t surprise me anymore.

The brazenness of that corruption does.

Seriously, these people aren’t even hiding it anymore.

Former Republican majority leader Micky Hammon, before being busted, convicted and shipped off to federal prison, actually told a reporter about his illegal deal with a health care company.

Former Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard was scheduling official meetings and whining in emails about the ethics laws — the laws he helped pass — before he was busted.

Former Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and former Republican Attorney General Luther Strange stood in front of a room full of reporters and tried to pretend that Bentley wasn’t under investigation by Strange’s office, even after Strange wrote a letter all but saying he was. And he was.

I mean, maybe there’s an argument to be made that our people are more stupid than brazen, and they’re simply too ignorant to recognize that we all see what they’re doing. But that’s not a lot of comfort.

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Because we seem to have reached a point in this state where corruption and shadiness is the norm.

We simply expect the crooked deals and underhanded payoffs and backroom politics. So much so that our politicians aren’t really hiding it anymore.

Perfect example: Steve Marshall.

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Take a quick look through our interim AG’s campaign finance records sometime. And prepare to be amazed.

Not necessarily at the amount of the donations, although that figure, at well over $1 million raised so far — for a gig that pays $168,000 annually — should be scandal enough. But look at who’s giving.

On Feb. 26, a $2,500 donation came in from the Riley and Jackson law firm. That’s the firm of former Gov. Bob Riley’s son, Rob Riley. That firm also shares office space with Bob Riley’s consulting firm.

But more importantly to Steve Marshall, and the attorneys working for him at the AG’s public corruption unit, Rob Riley is currently representing Mike Hubbard in his appeal against a case brought by that aforementioned AG’s public corruption unit.

So the current AG is taking in donations from the attorneys of a convicted felon who was one of the most powerful men in the state.

Swell.

But in Marshall’s case, not at all out of the ordinary.

Because Marshall has indirectly hauled in tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Jimmy Rane and Will Brooke — two wealthy and prominent business owners, and major political donors, who were caught up in the Hubbard conviction.

And here’s the fun backstory there: Rane and Brooke could technically still be indicted for their roles in giving Hubbard money. Of the 12 felony counts against Hubbard, two involved in Rane and Brooke. And with a grand jury still empaneled in Lee County …

But no biggie to Marshall. He’ll take their cash.

And why not? In fairness to him, now that HB317 — a bill that altered the definitions of who is deemed a lobbyist under Alabama law — has passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature, it’s not clear how Rane and Brooke would now be defined under the law.

Yeah, sure, he took in most of the cash before this bill was even introduced. And yes, if you want to get all nitpicky, he was out there publicly pushing for the passage of this bill. (Really, sarcasm on pause for a minute, when’s the last time you remember an attorney general pushing for major exceptions to the ethics laws, particularly those that define who is and isn’t a lobbyist?)

But then, it’s not like he’s the top law enforcement official in the state or something.

I mean, is there anything that defines Alabama politics better than the state’s top law enforcement official accepting campaign donations from an indicted felon’s attorneys during the appeals process and from two subjects in an ongoing investigation being conducted by his office?

And doing all of it right out in the open for everyone to see.

Maybe it’s just what we’ve come to expect, and accept, in this state.

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Elections

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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Elections

Opinion | Voter suppression is still a deciding factor in Alabama elections

Josh Moon

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John Merrill is going to write me a snarky letter, and that’s OK. 

I’m going to write a snarky column about Alabama’s voter suppression — and Merrill’s role in it — and I don’t write these things expecting everyone to agree. I write them so at least a few people will at least consider that the way things are in this state aren’t the way they have to be. 

And nowhere is that more true than with Alabama’s access to the ballot box. 

Now, before Merrill and the other rightwing hacks start banging out replies, let’s get a few things straight. Because while all of them will be entitled to their own opinions, they won’t be entitled to their own facts. 

A standard response from the right whenever these matters of ballot access pop up is to demand to know the identity of a single person who lacks the ability or necessary access to be able to vote. Name someone, Merrill loves to say, and I’ll go to their house and make sure … blah, blah, blah. 

But this is not the point, and they know it. 

As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out in a new report, what Alabama lawmakers have done is to place speed bumps between voters and the ballot in the hopes that with enough speed bumps they can discourage certain targeted groups from voting. 

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That’s the point of Alabama’s voter ID law. And it’s not hard to prove. 

Correspondence between lawmakers in North Carolina — which has ID laws that Alabama lawmakers essentially copied — laid bare just how targeted and intentionally suppressive the ID law was in that state. A federal judge wrote that it targeted black voters with “surgical precision.” 

The same thing is happening here. Because the same laws are being used here. 

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ID laws largely target poor, minority communities and young people, and they establish a barrier between those would-be voters and the polls. They also do absolutely zero to prevent fraud in this state. 

It doesn’t matter how many roving caravans Merrill and his staff set up to get IDs to people. The fact remains that thousands of people are being forced to take an extra step, and/or pay extra money, to cast a legal vote. 

Under our old system, which allowed dozens of different forms to establish a voter’s ID, we had zero issues. In fact, in the last 30 years, there has been one instance in which a voter’s identity was stolen and an illegal ballot cast. And that one instance was caught and prosecuted. 

Whenever a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is implemented into law, you can bet that the goal wasn’t to actually solve a problem. It was to create one for someone else. 

Alabama doesn’t stop there. 

In addition to a worthless ID law, we also don’t offer same-day — or even same-week — voter registration. Instead, the deadline to register is 14 days prior to an election, which, in this cyber world where everything is handled by computers, is an eternity. 

It used to be just seven days. But after the Voting Rights Act was gutted a few years ago, Alabama lawmakers took the opportunity to target a handful of different groups. They got minority voters with the ID laws, and they took aim at young voters by toying with the registration laws. 

Young voters tend to procrastinate and tend to be driven by their peers. As the hype around an election grows, the more interested they become.

And since young people tend to vote for Democrats, well, I think you see how we got here. 

That’s not all. 

There is also no automatic voter registration in Alabama, which makes no sense with the voter ID law in place. If you have the proper ID, why in the world couldn’t you register online and go vote the same day? Why couldn’t you fill out the registration form at the polling place? 

None of it makes any sense, unless, of course, your goal isn’t to make the process of registering to vote as easy as possible, but is instead to deter certain groups of people from casting a ballot. 

To be clear, I don’t necessarily blame Merrill for any of this, and you shouldn’t either. As far as Republican secretaries of state go, he hasn’t been that bad, and has on many occasions gone out of his way to offset the negative effects of these suppressive laws. 

That said, voting and ballot access is within the purview of the SOS’s office, and as such, Merrill has a duty to speak up when unfair laws are passed and implemented. He has a duty to correct injustices in the state’s voting processes, and he has a duty to inform the Legislature when laws they pass are having a negative effect. 

It doesn’t matter the percentage of people that Merrill’s office has registered to vote, or how many registrations he’s managed from his caravan. 

The goal is fair elections. And Alabama’s are far from it.

 

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Elections

Opinion | Tuberville, Byrne and Sessions: Selling fear because they have no good ideas

Josh Moon

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Tommy Tuberville wants to scare white people. Bradley Byrne wants to scare white people. Jeff Sessions wants to scare white people. 

The Muslims are going to kill us all. The black people are committing scary crimes and kneeling a lot. The Hispanics are hauling deadly drugs over the border to kill your grandkids. The terrorists — not the white ones — are coming for you where you sleep. Everyone hates the police.

Be afraid, Alabama. 

Be so afraid that you elect one of these mind-less, plan-less, fear-mongering buffoons to represent you in the U.S. Senate. 

This is what passes for a political strategy in this state, apparently. Three guys doing their dead level best to convince you — in a time of record low crime rates, mind you — that the non-white scary people are coming to injure or kill you and your loved ones. 

Unless you elect God-fearing, gun-toting Tuberville/Sessions/Byrne to … hell, who even knows? They never get around to telling you how they’re going to save you from black/Hispanic Antifa, just that black/Hispanic Antifa is definitely going to kill you/change the America you love if you don’t elect someone who loves America/the Anthem/Trump/filming selfie videos while driving. 

They also never get around — and pay attention here, please — to telling you how they’re going to do anything. 

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Like, at all. 

They have no plan for anything. Not for bettering education. Not for solving our rural health care issues. Not for correcting the low-wage issues that kill this state. Not for getting more than 300,000 Alabamians into a doctor’s office for regular checkups. 

Not even for these scary terrorists and non-whites.

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Seriously, go to their websites. Look at the “issues” portion. It’s the dumbest, most generic bunch of garbage you’ll read today. (Well, except for Sessions’ website, which doesn’t even bother with an “issues” section.)

I’m not going to waste time with their pandering BS on phony issues like guns, “the economy,” and abortion. No one is coming for your guns, the courts will decide the abortion issue, not the legislative branch, and the idea that you can reduce the complexities of “the economy” into a single topic covered by a single paragraph from a candidate tells you how seriously they’re taking this. 

Let’s instead focus on the two biggest issues for most Alabamians: Health care and education. 

We’re dead last or pretty close to dead last in both large categories and in most of the sub-categories related to both. Basically, we’re sick and dumb. 

Here are the candidates’ plans for addressing these issues. 

On health care, both Byrne and Tuberville want to abolish Obamacare (because polling told them that that’s a popular thing to say) and they want to replace it with … “a free-market plan” that magically covers everyone for less money and with pre-existing conditions covered. 

Those are not plans. Those are dreams. 

Actually, I take that back. They’re not even dreams. They’re lies. 

Neither has a single, solitary idea on the specifics of how to solve Alabama’s complicated issues related to health care. Not a single idea.

And, again, Sessions didn’t even pretend that he had an idea, either. 

On education, where Alabama is lagging both in churning out well-rounded students and in producing a job-ready workforce, Byrne and Tuberville are similarly plan-less. 

Tuberville believes that our education woes can be solved by “school choice,” and “improving existing public schools.” Which is like saying you’re going to overcome your diabetes by not having diabetes anymore. 

Byrne, on the other hand, wants to improve education by opposing “the federal government telling teachers and parents how to educate our children in Alabama.” In other words, nothing. He wants to literally do nothing. 

(And just as an aside for Mr. Byrne: historically, the only really good things that have ever happened in this state have come because the federal government told us to do some things). 

Also, again, Jeff Sessions didn’t even attempt the education question. But we know from his past work in the state that his answer is always to give less money and resources to the black kids. 

Are Republicans really this stupid? 

And I ask that not as an insult but as a challenge.

Because, honestly, I don’t believe you’re that stupid. That’s why I keep writing these columns, consistently shocked by the decisions of my friends and neighbors to elect obvious morons to office simply because those morons chose to pay their registration fee to the Republican Party. 

When are you going to stop this madness? When are you going to realize that government isn’t a team sport? 

Our system of government was meant to be representative of the people. That’s why we divvy up districts like we do — to assure that all communities and all people have representation that looks out for their best interests.  

But that doesn’t work if a whole bunch of people are just voting for a party and ignoring their own interests and problems. 

That’s what Byrne, Sessions and Tuberville are hoping for — that you’ll continue to be part of the team, sacrificing your well-being, and the well-being of your family and friends, to elect unprepared, ignorant mooches to office. That you’ll continue to fall for the scare tactics and generic fear-mongering. That you’ll ignore the candidate that best serves you and instead vote for the team that best scares you.  

The idea that you might is what scares me.

 

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House

Opinion | Jim Zeigler has reminded everyone how useless the state auditor is

Josh Moon

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Alabama is known for its bad politicians. 

From George Wallace to Mike Hubbard, and all the Guy Hunts and Robert Bentleys in between, we do political crooks better than anyone. And we’ve got more do-nothing, pander-happy, waste-of-space political dolts per capita than any other state. 

But rarely — I’d say maybe even never — has a politician come along who is so annoying, so pander-rific, so unbearable, so attention-starved, so utterly useless to everyone, including his own party, that legislators decided to completely eliminate his entire constitutional office. 

Not until State Auditor Jim Zeigler. 

On Thursday, Sen. Andrew Jones, who’s been in the Senate for about an hour, introduced a bill that would eliminate the state auditor’s office. That decision would have to be approved by voters, since the auditor is a constitutional office, so if the bill is approved by the Legislature it will appear on the November ballot. 

It would eliminate the office in 2022, which is when Zeigler would vacate it. But make no mistake about it, this bill came about because of Jim Zeigler. 

For years now, everyone has quietly wondered to themselves just what in the hell the state auditor does. And all of us secretly suspected that the auditor didn’t really do anything at all, but was instead like Milton from “Office Space” — surviving because someone forgot to fix a glitch in the system and the auditor, long after the invention of the computer and Internet, was somehow still getting a check. 

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Truthfully, the auditor’s position should have been eliminated once purchasing and inventory records landed online and were easily accessible by everyone in the state. 

Because all an auditor ever did was check purchases against inventory lists and ensure that the desk chair bought by the AG’s office wasn’t being used at the AG’s house. 

We don’t need that guy anymore. We haven’t needed that person in about 30 years now. 

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But we were all content, I believe, to go on allowing the position to remain because, honestly, it’s such a pain to eliminate it. You have to pass the bill in one house, then the other, then put it on the ballot and then get the people to vote — it’s a whole thing. And no one wanted to waste time on it. 

Until Jim Zeigler showed up. 

With his ridiculous ties and his shameless attention seeking. Worming his way into every controversial story. Issuing press releases and holding press conferences about things that have absolutely zero to do with auditing. Filing lawsuits against anyone for the simple pleasure of seeing his name in print somewhere. 

Along the way, though, as Zeigler alienated anyone within a 50-foot radius, he also reminded people that the state auditor’s office was still a thing. And when people tried to figure out just why in the world the state auditor was holding press conferences about the governor having an affair, those people had to first consider just what in the ever-loving hell the state auditor was actually supposed to be doing. 

And all of them came to the same conclusion: We have no idea, but we know it’s not much. Because if it was much, we wouldn’t let Zeigler do it. 

And then some people started to take a look at Zeigler — this seemingly harmless guy who has managed to insert himself, as state auditor, into a bridge debate in Mobile, a school tax debate in Athens, a governor’s investigation in Montgomery and a U.S. Senate race. 

Is he actually so harmless? 

This is, after all, the same guy who, by all appearances, misused a client’s funds so badly that the fee dispute committee of the Mobile Bar Association — a group of attorneys not exactly well known for its harsh strictness in punishing other attorneys — ordered him to give back $10,000 of a $12,000 retainer. 

A letter to Zeigler provided details of what he didn’t do after being paid by his elderly, veteran client: He didn’t do anything. 

The “complete estate planning,” for which his client had paid him, was left completely undone. Instead, Zeigler charged her for a number of services that did not require legal assistance, such as filling out a Medicaid nursing home eligibility form and a veterans aid and attendance application. 

Somewhere along the way, Zeigler was forced to give up his law license. 

Oh, he sold this story to everyone that he just didn’t want to pay the attorneys’ fees anymore, but that was nonsense. He could have placed the license on inactive status and not paid a dime. Instead, he agreed to surrender it to the disciplinary committee, and he told that committee that he would not try to get it back for at least two years.

Suspiciously, that is the exact same process and waiting period for a disbarred attorney. 

The bar keeps all of those records private, even after disciplinary action is taken, so there is no complete record of Zeigler’s possible transgressions. There’s no way to say for certain exactly what it is that Zeigler did, or didn’t do, or how he might have embarrassed us all one more time. 

But it was one more straw on the camel’s back. One more reminder that the state auditor wasn’t doing anything, except being an embarrassment. One more reminder that the state auditor was Jim Zeigler. 

And the response to all of that, from even his own party, is to get rid of the entire office.

 

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