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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. 

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“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.”

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.

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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.

 

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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Etowah County Republicans rally for Trump

Brandon Moseley

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The Etowah County Republican Party and the Trump campaign will be holding a Celebrate America rally and prayer meeting on Sunday in anticipation of Tuesday’s general election.

“We the People plan to peacefully assemble at our town square Tomorrow, November 1st at 2:00 PM to rally around President Trump and pray for our nation, our first responders, and for our President,” organizers said.

Remarks will be made by special guest Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville.

Singer songwriters Camille and Haley will perform.

Pastors Mark Gidley, Joey Jones and Bruce Word will be speaking.

“Bring your friends and family as we pray, celebrate and rally for America!” organizers said. “Our outdoor program and rally will be an amazing hour that you will not want to miss! Please mark your calendars and please share.”

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Patriotic attire, American flags, and Trump flags are welcome. The event will be in the Rainbow City Town hall parking lot.

Robert Aderholt is in his twelfth term representing Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District. Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District is where Trump had his greatest margin of victory in the entire country in 2016.

President Trump and Congressman Aderholt both face Democratic challengers in Tuesday’s general election.

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Slow absentee voting in Tuscaloosa sparks outrage, possible legal action

Among the issues were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours. 

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Long lines and slow absentee ballot processing in Tuscaloosa County have left voters outraged and incumbent Sen. Doug Jones’s campaign threatening legal action. 

On Wednesday, Jones’s campaign attorney, Adam Plant, sent a letter to Tuscaloosa County Circuit Clerk Magaria Bobo, outlining a number of issues with ongoing absentee voting and promising to take legal action if Bobo doesn’t improve the process on the final day, Friday. Among the issues documented by Plant were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours. 

Additionally, Plant noted that Bobo has hired her family members to help process absentee ballots and at least one family member had made disparaging remarks on social media about voters. 

“You and those acting on your behalf are suppressing the vote of qualified Alabama voters,” Plant wrote in the letter. “If you are unable or unwilling to execute your duties competently, and allow Tuscaloosa voters to exercise their voting rights without undue burdens, we will take further action.”

In an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser on Wednesday, Bobo noted that her office had received more than 13,000 requests for absentee ballots — a remarkable uptick from the 3,000 or so her office usually receives — and there had been problems in managing that number of ballots while also adhering to social distancing guidelines within the office. 

However, as Plant’s letter notes, the massive increase in absentee ballots for this election shouldn’t have been a surprise. Also, Secretary of State John Merrill had made additional funds available to absentee managers to facilitate hiring extra staff, purchasing additional computers and staying open for longer hours to accommodate the anticipated increase. 

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In a press release on Wednesday, the Alabama Democratic Party criticized Bobo and her family members, and the release included screenshots of Facebook posts from Bobo’s daughter lashing out at voters who complained about the long wait times. 

“No voter should have to wait in line for hours to exercise their rights,” said ADP executive director Wade Perry. “We should leverage every tool we have to make voting easier, not harder. Also, it should go without saying that election workers should not insult the very people they are employed to serve. If Ms. Bobo is incapable of processing voters quickly, someone else needs to do the job.”

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Jones campaign calls Tuberville a “coward” after no-show at Auburn forum

“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” Jones’s campaign said.

Brandon Moseley

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville, right.

There are only four days left before election day, and incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’s re-election campaign is slamming Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville, accusing him of “hiding” and calling him a “coward.”

On Wednesday, Jones addressed an Auburn University forum. Tuberville did not attend.

“Tonight, the College Democrats and College Republicans at Auburn University co-hosted a debate between Doug Jones and Tommy Tuberville, offering students a chance to ask the candidates about the issues that matter most to Alabama,” the Jones campaign said in an email to supporters. “But Tuberville never showed up – he’s too scared to face Doug… even on his own home turf. Tuberville has repeatedly refused to debate Doug Jones. He’s consistently refused to be interviewed by the press. He’s refused to tell Alabama the truth about who and what they’re voting for – and it’s clear why.”

“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” the campaign continued. “If he won’t tell the truth, we will. Tuberville expects to win this race off of his blind allegiance to the President and his party affiliation. But Alabamians know better.”

“People deserve to know who they’re really voting for if they vote for Tuberville: someone who … won’t protect our health care, doesn’t believe in science, has no idea what the Voting Rights Act is, and doesn’t care about the lives and livelihoods of Alabamians,” the Jones campaign concluded. “Alabama will never elect a coward. Pitch in now and help us spread the truth about the man hiding behind the ballot.”

“I am disappointed that Tommy Tuberville is not here,” Jones said. “I think it is important that people see two candidates side by side answering the same questions.”

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Tuberville meanwhile is canvassing the state, speaking to rallies and Republican groups to turn out the Republican vote for himself and President Donald Trump. Tuberville spoke at Freedom Fest in Madison County on Thursday and at the Trump Truck Parade rally in Phenix City.

“It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who represents our conservative beliefs and traditional values,” Tuberville said in Phenix City. “It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who supports the Second Amendment, the right to life, and putting God back in the classroom.”

Polling consistently shows Tuberville with a commanding lead over Jones. Real Clear Politics lists the race on their current board as a likely Republican win. FiveThirtyEight’s election model gives Tuberville a 79 percent chance of defeating Jones.

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Tuberville says election is about “the American dream”

“It is not about me. It is not about Biden or Jones. It is about the American dream. They are trying to take it away from us,” Tuberville claimed.

Brandon Moseley

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Republican Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville (TUBERVILLE CAMPAIGN)

Thursday, Tommy Tuberville spoke at Freedom Fest asking Madison County voters to support him and re-elect Donald J. Trump Tuesday.

The former Auburn University head football Coach told the estimated crowd of 350 that, “It is great to be here. This has been a lot of fun for me. Two years ago, my wife and I started to pray on whether or not to run. When we decided to run, she said don’t come back until you win.”

“This is a very serious election,” Tuberville said. “This is not about Donald Trump. It is not about me. It is not about Biden or Jones. It is about the American dream. They are trying to take it away from us.”

“I always told my players this: this country gives you the opportunity to fail and if you fail you get back up and try again,” Tuberville said. “When I was growing up in Arkansas I wanted to be a college football coach. People in high school laughed at me for it and people in college. It takes perseverance.”

Tuberville said that this country gives you the opportunity to succeed, more so than any other country in the world. Most of the rest of the world is socialist.

Tuberville warned that the other side is trying to turn America into a socialist country.

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“We are not going to let them ruin this country,” Tuberville vowed.

The 2020 Madison County GOP Freedom Fest was held at the brand new Toyota Field, the new home of the Huntsville Trash Pandas minor league baseball team.

Tuberville praised President Trump whom “I have gotten to know through all of this and we have become friends. He never slows down; and he is sharp as a tack.”

Tuberville said that the President once called him at 2:30 in the morning, “He said sleep is overrated.”

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To protect the American dream we need to vote on Tuesday to keep the Senate and get Donald Trump re-elected.”

Tuberville said that he has spoken with, “A lot of people who as nervous as I am about Tuesday.” Coach Tuberville, who is being outspent, urged the crowd to ignore all of the television ads by his opponent, incumbent Senator Doug Jones (D).

Tuberville vowed to defend the Second Amendment if elected, “They ain’t getting my guns….or your guns.”

“We need to get God back in our schools and teach values again,” Tuberville stated. “The other side does not talk about values and morals.”

We are not going to allow them to tear down our country,” Tuberville said. “God will not allow them.”

“We are going to get God back in our country like it is supposed to be,” Tuberville said.

Coach Tuberville was introduced to the crowd by State Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville).

Scofield said that he “is ready to send Doug Jones back to California.”

“Yes I know he is actually from here; but he sure votes like California. He certainly doesn’t vote like the vast majority of the people of Alabama want him to vote.”

Scofield called Tuberville is “A fighter” who will stand up for the values of the people of Alabama.

Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) said, “This is the most important election of my lifetime.”

“Do we believe in freedom and liberty or do we believe in socialism?” Brooks said. “We need to beat them like a drum.”

The general election is on Tuesday. You must bring a valid photo ID with you to your assigned polling place in order to participate.

Secretary of State John H. Merrill predicted that the state would have record participation on Tuesday.

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