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Did Steve Marshall violate campaign finance laws?

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. Marshall has served as the district attorney in Marshall County in north Alabama, appointed to the post in 2001 and re-elected three times. He is a past president of the Alabama District Attorney's Association and currently serves as commission chairman of the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center.(Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)

Let’s chat about campaign finance laws.

Oh, believe me, I know that sentence ranks right up there with “Hey, watch this video of my kid singing” and “Let’s watch two soccer teams not score for an undetermined amount of time.”

But give me a minute, if you would, because I’m going to do something few people ever do: I’m going to at least attempt to make a few specific campaign finance laws easy to understand and relatable.

We’re going to start here: Attorney General Steve Marshall’s allegedly illegal campaign contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

This is the thing that Troy King, Marshall’s opponent in next Tuesday’s runoff election, keeps prattling on and on about. King held a press conference in Huntsville on Tuesday to blast Marshall again, claiming that the more than $700,000 he’s taken in from RAGA in this election has been illegal donations.

The reason King believes this is where things usually get complicated, regular folks’ eyes glaze over and we all find a ballgame to watch to forget it all.

But hear me out.

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King claims these donations violate a rule in Alabama law that prohibits one Political Action Committee (PAC) from donating to another PAC in an effort to obscure the original source of funds.

Let’s not get all caught up in precise definitions. Just know that a PAC is a group of like-minded individuals — Republican AGs or Republican governors or construction companies or any group of two or more people — who form this PAC in order to donate money to their preferred candidates.

Why would they do this?

Easy: Politics is a slimy business and sometimes candidates want to have a level of deniability when it comes to donations.

For example, let’s say you’re an anti-gambling politician in Alabama, but boy, do you ever want to get your hands on that sweet, sweet Indian casino cash. Solution: You have the Indian casinos donate money to a PAC, mix their money with other money donated by not-Indian casinos, and tah-dah, there’s a bit of deniability there.

While these PACs do have to disclose their donors, they don’t have to disclose where each donor’s contributed money went.

And if you have one PAC donating to another PAC things can’t get particularly confusing. Which flies in the face of the goal: To ensure the voting public has some idea who is influencing elections in the state.

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So, did Marshall violate the law?

That’s a tricky question, but what’s stone cold for certain is this: He violated the spirit of the law.

Because there’s also no doubt that the RAGA PAC, before donating that $700,000-plus to Marshall, accepted transfers from other PACs.

Marshall’s camp is hanging its hat on alleged advice it received from the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, which says the state has no authority to force federal PACs located outside of the state to register in Alabama, or follow Alabama laws.

Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton, however, had a very different view when he answered that question in June from, saying that he had informed other campaigns that similar donations would not be legal. (Albritton wouldn’t discuss his statement on Tuesday, saying that because King has filed an ethics complaint against Marshall, it would be improper for him to discuss a pending case.)

But he hasn’t retracted his previous advice, and there’s one reason why. In the 2010 law that created the PAC-to-PAC ban, it states the law applies to both in-state and out-of-state PACs.

That sure looks like an illegal donation.

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But here’s the thing. Even if there’s a way to technically dodge a campaign finance law violation for this, Marshall can’t dodge the fact that he’s violating the hell out of the spirit of the law and trying to hide from voters who’s dumping huge buckets of cash into his campaign.

Unfortunately for Marshall, if you have enough time and know-how, you can dig through the RAGA contributions and expenditures and figure out where large chunks of money came from. And once you do, it’s easy to see why he wouldn’t want those donations disclosed.

For example, if one of your major talking points is your fight against opioids, you probably wouldn’t want it known that major drug companies — some of which have been sued by other states for their roles in the opioid epidemic — dumped more than $200,000 into RAGA in the first quarter of 2018 alone.

One of the biggest contributors, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, which dumped $100,000 into RAGA earlier this year, was found by the DEA to have supplied 66 percent of the oxycodone sold in Florida in 2016.

It also wouldn’t be too swell for voters to learn that the guy who was taking on gambling operations in Alabama a few months ago was accepting money from a PAC funded by Las Vegas casino owners, Caesars Entertainment and the lobbying firm that represents the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi.
This is why campaign finance laws — as boring as they might be — are vitally important to keeping elections open and giving the voting public a window into who is supporting each candidate. Because that support often says a whole lot about the candidate.

That the AG would be so willing to violate the spirit of that law seems like something you should pay attention to.


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Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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