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Ethics Commission gives itself more power to reduce penalties for campaign law violators

Josh Moon

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The Alabama Ethics Commission is again making it less burdensome to violate campaign reporting laws.

In a 3-0 vote on Wednesday (with two abstentions), the Commission voted to give itself the authority to reduce the number of offenses levied against candidates and political action committees (PACs) that violate campaign finance reporting rules. Typical violations occur when candidates miss deadlines, fail to accurately report donations or fail to file altogether.

The Commission already has the authority to reduce penalties imposed on those who violate the filing laws — an issue that has created friction between it and the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, which is tasked with levying the fines.

The Alabama Legislature implemented a law that began in the most recent election cycle — but was passed three years ago — that assessed civil penalties for each instance in which a candidate or PAC failed to adhere to reporting laws. Also, once a candidate or PAC amassed four instances of violating the laws, the violations could be deemed a willful violation of the law, and the individuals responsible could be hit with criminal charges.

Earlier this year, the Commission — citing a number of instances in which candidates and PACs pleaded ignorance of the new laws — determined that it had the authority under the law to reduce penalties assessed to many candidates and PACs, and it reduced dozens of them. 

On Wednesday, the question was whether the Commission also had the authority to reduce the number of offenses assessed by Merrill’s office. For example, if a candidate was hit with five offenses and the corresponding fine, and the Commission elected to reduce the fine, could it also then reduce the number of offenses. Doing so would allow candidates and PACs to potentially avoid the four-violation threshold, which moves the violations from a civil fine to a criminal prosecution. 

“After evaluation of the statute and the intent of the Legislature, we conclude (the commission) is allowed to reduce the offenses,” said Ethics Commission attorney Cynthia Raulston told the Commission. “Each offense is a graduated penalty, and once you reach a fourth offense, it qualifies as an assumption to wilfully violate the act.

“We have concluded that the offense number is part of the penalty and can be reduced, along with any monetary fine, at the discretion of the commission upon a showing of good cause.”

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Raulston explained to the Commission in layman’s terms what the change means, saying that if a person came before the Commission with five violations of the reporting laws and the Commission elected to reduce that person’s fine to a single, $300 fine, it could also reduce the number of offenses committed to one.

And theoretically, if a person committed 10 violations and the Commission elected not to issue a fine for any of them, it could also make every offense vanish from the person’s record.

Raulston justified the change by saying that those issued fines have no due process means prior to coming before the Commission, and therefore the Commission should be allowed to wipe away both penalties and offenses.

“It’s clear that the Legislature intended this body to be the body for due process,” Raulston said.

Brent Beal, an attorney with the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, refuted the Commission’s interpretation of the law, and he noted that the statute makes it clear that a person who is assessed a penalty “may seek a review of such penalty.” And he noted that the statute said the Commission, under the statute, is permitted to “set aside a civil penalty.”

Beal then read for the Commission the legal definitions of “penalty” and “offense,” making the clear point that under the law, the two carry vastly different meanings.

Beal also questioned Raulston’s assertion that the Ethics Commission is the only avenue for due process, citing statutes that provide both the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and county district attorneys with the authority to review fines and penalties.

“You are essentially removing the authority of the AG’s office and DAs if you say the Ethics Commission has this authority,” Beal said. “That’s the reason we disagree with this opinion.”

Raulston disputed that, saying that the AG’s office and DAs still have the authority to pursue criminal charges no matter what the Ethics Commssion rules.

However, Beal explained that once the Ethics Commission reduced a penalty and the number of offenses, it would hamper the AG’s office or DAs from pursuing criminal charges. “An attorney could say, ‘The Ethics Commission said this wasn’t the seventh violation, it was the second,’ and the chances of getting a conviction out of that are basically null,” Beal said.

Commission chairman Jerry Fielding said during the debate that no one from the AG’s office or DAs’ association was present, which he took as a sign that they weren’t concerned with the change. A message left with the DAs’ association seeking comment was not returned. Spokesman Mike Lewis said the AG’s office was currently reviewing the Commission’s decision and would not comment at this point.

 

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Elections

National Right to Life Committee endorses Aderholt

Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday, the campaign to re-elect Congressman Robert Aderholt, (R Haleyville) announced that the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) has endorsed him for re-election to Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District.

“I am truly humbled to have the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee,” said Congressman Aderholt. “I have, and I always will, fight for those who are the most vulnerable among us. I cannot think of anyone more vulnerable than the unborn. The National Right to Life Committee is committed to this fight, and it is an honor to fight along side them. As I have said before, no argument on the Pro-Choice side can get around one fundamental fact, abortion stops a human heartbeat.”

The NRLC Committee commended Aderholt in its endorsement:

“National Right to Life is pleased to endorse you for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives,” the Committee wrote. “We strongly commend you for maintaining a perfect 100% pro-life voting record throughout the 116th Congress.”

“You voted in support of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” the endorsement letter continued. “This legislation would require that a baby born alive during an abortion must be afforded the same degree of care that would apply to any other child at the same gestational age. You support the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. This Act would protect unborn children at 20 weeks, a point by which the unborn child is capable of experiencing great pain when being killed by dismemberment or other late abortion methods. You oppose using tax dollars to pay for abortion, and you oppose taxpayer funding of abortion providers.”

“You are a strong advocate for life,” the Committee said of Rep. Aderholt. “This endorsement reflects your commitment to strengthening a culture of life throughout our nation and in the U.S. House. We look forward to continuing our important work with you to protect the most vulnerable members of the human family – unborn children, the medically dependent, and persons with disabilities, whose lives are threatened by abortion or euthanasia.”

“All voters who are concerned with the right to life and with the protection of the most vulnerable members of the human family should vote to return you to the U.S. House, so that you can continue to work to advance vital pro-life public policies,” the endorsement letter concludes.

Robert B. Aderholt is a member of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, which has jurisdiction over funding the operation of the federal government. He serves as Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. Aderholt also serves as a member of the Agriculture and Rural Development Subcommittee and the Defense Subcommittee. Aderholt is an advocate of fiscal responsibility, truth in budgeting and a federal government that operates within its means.

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Aderholt also serves as a commission member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (commonly known as the Helsinki Commission). The Helsinki Commission is comprised of 56 countries around the world that together monitors human rights in Europe and Central Asia.

Aderholt believes the federal government serves a critical role in assisting state and local projects regarding economic development. He support pro-growth initiatives that create jobs, strong immigration standards, and robust national security.

Prior to his election to Congress, Aderholt served as Assistant Legal Advisor to Governor Fob James (R) as well as Municipal Judge for the city of Haleyville, Alabama. Aderholt has a bachelor’s degree from Birmingham Southern College and a law degree from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. He was born on July 22, 1965, and raised in Alabama, Aderholt and his wife, Caroline, have two children.

Congressman Robert Aderholt is seeking his thirteenth term representing Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District.

Aderholt faces a general election challenge from Democratic nominee Rick Neighbors.

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Phyllis Schlafly Eagles’ President Ed Martin endorses Bill Hightower for Congress

Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday, Bill Hightower’s campaign for Congress announced that Phyllis Schlafly Eagles’ President Ed Martin is endorsing Hightower.

In addition to serving as President of Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, Ed Martin also co-authored Phyllis Schlafly’s last book: ‘The Conservative Case for Trump.’ Martin succeeded Schlafly after her death late in 2016. She was 92.

“In the tradition of the late Phyllis Schlafly, I am pleased to endorse Bill Hightower for Congress in Alabama’s First Congressional District” said Ed Martin. “We endorse candidates who support President Trump and his Pro America agenda. Those candidates must be pro-life, pro-family, and pro-Constitution. Bill Hightower is a strong conservative with a proven track record of supporting these fundamental American values.”

“I am thrilled to receive Ed’s endorsement,” Hightower said. “Phyllis and her Eagles were foundational leaders of the pro-family, conservative movement and ensuring traditional values were engaged in the political process. Those are the same values I support, those are the same values that made me one of Alabama’s most conservative state senators during my time in Montgomery, and those are the same values I will take with me to represent south Alabama in Washington.”

Schlafly was the founder and longtime President of Eagle Forum. Ed Martin was President of Eagle Forum, but was forced out by the Board led by Schlafly’s daughter who were backing Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for President. Schlafly and her sons endorsed Trump and created the break-away Eagles group in response.

Martin’s endorsement is the latest conservative leader to endorse Hightower’s campaign for Congress. Hightower has been endorsed by the nation’s oldest and largest pro-life organization, National Right to Life; as well as former Senator Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, and Sen. Cruz.

Hightower was ranked as one of the most conservative State Senators in Alabama when he was in the legislature. There he advocated for smaller government, lower taxes, term limits, and a flat state income tax. Hightower was a candidate for Governor in 2018; but was defeated by Gov. Kay Ivey in the Republican primary.

As a boy, Hightower worked on his grandparent’s farm, cleaned swimming pools, and as a laborer on construction projects. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Alabama and a Master’s in Business Administration from Vanderbilt University.

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In business, Bill has worked with Fortune 500 and other corporations including Emerson Electric, AlliedSignal, Eaton, and Balfour-Beatty. In 2002, he moved back to Mobile, to be closer to family. He now runs several small businesses.

Bill Hightower is married to Susan Binegar Hightower. They have three children and three grandchildren.

Hightower faces Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl in the Republican primary runoff on July 14.

The winner of the GOP runoff will face the winner of the Democratic Party runoff where James Averhart is running against Kiani Gardner. The general election will be November 3.

Incumbent Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, is not seeking re-election.

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DOJ defends Alabama absentee voting law

Josh Moon

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The U.S. Department of Justice isn’t using its vast powers to ensure the country’s most vulnerable people can exercise their right to vote, but is instead focusing its efforts on defending laws that clearly violate the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center said Tuesday. 

The comments, from SPLC senior staff attorney Caren Short, came in response to a DOJ filing in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of several plaintiffs by SPLC, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. That lawsuit seeks to implement curbside voting for at-risk citizens during the current pandemic and also to remove requirements for certain voter IDs and that witnesses sign absentee ballot requests. 

The DOJ filed a brief on Tuesday stating that it is the agency’s position that Alabama’s law requiring witnesses for absentee ballots does not violate Section 201 of the Voting Rights Act, because it is not a test or device as referenced in the Act. 

“It is not a literacy test, it is not an educational requirement, and it is not a moral character requirement,” Jay Town, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said in the brief. “Nor, contrary to Plaintiffs’ position, is it a voucher requirement prohibited by Section 201’s fourth and final provision.”

Plaintiffs in the case have argued that the requirement for a single person with a pre-existing condition could pose a grave risk and reasonably lead to them being unable to safely cast a vote. In fact, they point out in the lawsuit instances in which the DOJ, prior to the Trump administration, also had argued against states requiring witnesses. 

“Our complaint demonstrates how Alabama’s witness requirement violates Section 201 of the Voting Rights Act,” said Deuel Ross, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “In the past, the DOJ itself has objected to witness requirements, but since February 2017, it has brought zero new voting rights cases.”

The “voucher” requirement was one of many tactics utilized by whites to prevent black citizens from voting. In practice, it required that any black person wishing to vote must first obtain the signature of a white person. 

Towns argued in the brief that there were differences between voucher requirements and the witness signatures, including that the witness doesn’t have to be a registered voter and the witness is merely signing that he or she witnessed the absentee voter filling out the ballot.

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Sessions slams Tuberville for saying China has “a better military” than the U.S.

Brandon Moseley

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“On the day after Memorial Day, Tommy Tuberville is exalting the Chinese Communist Party’s military over our own,” GOP Senate candidate Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

This was in reaction to Tommy Tuberville’s Tuesday comments on the Jeff Poor Radio Show when he said China has a “better military” than the United States.

“We’ve got China that’s got a better military, and things, than we have,” Tuberville said.

Sessions responded with this statement:

“Mr. Tuberville should immediately apologize,” Sessions said. “His views further prove that he’s not fit to be a United States Senator. His comments are an affront to the thousands of American military members who constitute the best fighting force the world has ever known.”

“I have been to Afghanistan and Iraq and visited with our troops numerous times and have been to every one of Alabama’s military bases countless times, and let me tell you, there is no better friend and no worse enemy than the United States military,” Sessions stated. “This is personal to me. I served proudly in the armed forces as a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve for over a decade. What Tommy Tuberville said is objectively wrong and reveals a lack of real understanding.”

Tuberville has said that he favors free trade.

Sessions has called China a threat to the United States and has suggested that Tuberville’s attitude is passive “appeasement” towards the Chinese Communist Party.

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In an April radio interview on the Matt & Aunie Radio Show, when asked what should be done about China’s cover-up of the details about the coronavirus, Tuberville said, “We can’t worry about China right now.”

The host then followed up: “You say you don’t need to worry about China, but this came from China and our economy depends on China. Specifically, how to overcome some of that dependence on Chinese goods and specifically in the pharmaceutical industry because right now we’re dependent on the country that covered this up.”

“Now we’re seeing firsthand the results of letting everything go to China,” Tuberville responded. “The good thing about this is we’ll have manufacturing come back and drugs and all those things….we’re headed in that direction, just the simple fact that we can’t control our own destiny. Everything’s controlled by China. But that’ll take care of itself.”

During the Matt & Aunie interview, Tuberville also characterized the Wuhan Virus as “just a virus.”

Sessions has suggested that Tuberville’s comments show that he lacks a depth of understanding of the issues and has challenged Tuberville to a series of five debates.

“Mr. Tuberville, It is time for you to stop running away, and face me and the voters of Alabama,” Sessions said. “No candidate who is scared to debate, or unable to defend our values, is worthy of support from the people of Alabama. I challenge you to a series of five debates before the voters of Alabama, one for each major media market in our state. This will allow us to discuss the unique issues of each geographic area, as well as national and international issues.”

“Being a United States Senator is more than just casting the occasional vote,” Sessions continued. “Effective senators must be ready to debate Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others on many issues and away from the safety of talking points scripted by Facebook’s chief open-borders lobbyist, who you’ve hired to help lead your Senate campaign. And anyone representing Alabama needs to be fully vetted before they are trusted to represent Alabama Republicans in a race against Doug Jones.”

Sessions also charged that Tuberville’s character would be exposed in a national campaign against Doug Jones, by Democrats.

“The Alabama voters need to hear you answer questions about the time you were sued for more than a million dollars in fraud at the failed hedge fund you started,” Sessions said.

Tuberville’s alleged partner went to prison for securities fraud and several prominent football coaches lost money investing in that hedge fund.

Sessions even attacked Tuberville’s football coaching prowess.

“They need to hear you answer questions about the suspicious circumstances of the unceremonious end to your Auburn coaching career—where you took millions of additional dollars beyond the buyout for which you weren’t even eligible,” Sessions charged. “They need to hear about the times you walked out on college recruits or quit jobs just days after promising you wouldn’t do so. They need to know everything. Because there is no question that the Democrats and Doug Jones already do, and they will spend millions using the skeletons in your closet against you.”

“If you won’t debate me now before the voters of Alabama, with two months to go until the election, there is no doubt that you would be eaten alive by Doug Jones, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer,” Sessions said. “You like to call me weak because I follow the law, and call yourself strong as you hide behind Silicon Valley’s talking points and clips from coaching jobs that you quit. Ok. Time to man up. Say it to my face. You are either strong enough to debate, or weak and scared.”

Tuberville maintains that he is endorsed by Donald Trump and that Sessions failed the President as Attorney General. As of this date, Tuberville has not agreed to any debates.

Sessions will face Tuberville in the July 14 Republican primary runoff. The winner will represent the Alabama Republican Party on November 3 against incumbent Sen. Doug Jones.

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