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Opinion | Want to fight public corruption? Start with the Alabama Ethics Commission

Josh Moon

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What can I do?

That question has come to me more than a few times since I wrote Monday that the last line of defense between the public and political corruption are the people — an informed, active, engaged people.

To be fair, it’s awful easy to sit behind a keyboard and say everyone should get involved in government and be watchdogs, and it’s a whole other thing to actually go and do it.

So, I’m going to give you a suggestion here. I’m going to recommend a good starting place, a way to flex your watchdog muscles.

The Alabama Ethics Commission.

That’s the five-member commission that is supposed to hold politicians and public servants accountable, that’s supposed to uphold the state’s ethics laws and investigate violations.

But more than a few times, the Alabama Ethics Commission has served as a safety net for crooks and given soft landings to public officeholders who should have fallen hard.

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The reason the Commission is able to get away with things like not upholding campaign finance reporting fines is because you — the general public — usually isn’t paying attention. And I get why.

The meetings are boring and filled with complex and complicated arguments. And right in the middle of every meeting is a looooooong executive session, which sometimes stretches on most of the day. It’s hard to find agendas prior to meetings, and even if you do, the specifics of what’s taking place aren’t usually included.

That said, your attention to what happens at these meetings is vitally important. Remember, this is the same group that started the ax falling on Robert Bentley.

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And as luck would have it, we know of something that’s supposed to be happening at a meeting in the near future, most likely at the Dec. 19 meeting.

The Commission will be asked to rule on Attorney General Steve Marshall’s accepting more than $730,000 in questionable campaign donations.

Now, I’m not telling you what to believe on this. Although, I’ll gladly tell you that I think the donations Marshall accepted clearly violate Alabama law and that the Commission should find him guilty of ethics violations and send the case to the Montgomery district attorney’s office for prosecution.

But you make up your own mind, and no matter what you end up believing, contact the Alabama Ethics Commission and let the commissioners and staff know that you’ll be paying attention.

Here are the facts of the case:

Alabama has a ban on multiple political action committees transferring funds between them and then donating that money to a candidate. The reason for this ban is simple: those transfers mask the original source of the funds, leaving it impossible for regular folks to determine who’s paying to influence their government.

As Steve Marshall argued in a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court, the ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers is the only thing standing between the citizens and a quid pro quo government.

There is no corresponding federal law, meaning federal PACs are free to participate in the transfers. The Republican Attorneys General Association PAC participates in such transfers, and it has long used those tactics to hide the source of funds going to GOP candidates.

RAGA made five donations to Marshall totaling $735,000, and it used funds that had been part of PAC-to-PAC transfers.

While Alabama law does not trump federal law, there are specific guidelines within the Alabama ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers that make it clear that the responsibility of following the law is the candidate’s. For example, the law says it applies to both state and federal PACs and it provides a remedy for the candidate if he or she accepts PAC-to-PAC money.

That remedy gives the candidate 10 days to return the funds. If he or she doesn’t, each instance is a crime and accepting multiple donations in violation of the law rises to a felony.

Those are the facts.

It’s unclear what the Ethics Commission plans to do about all of this, but given the fact that it let this matter — which was filed back in the summer — go unaddressed until after the election gives me a good idea.

But what should be made clear to the commissioners — chairman Jerry Fielding, Charles Price, Butch Ellis, John Plunk and Beverlye Brady — is that you’re watching them. You’re paying attention to what they do and that you expect the right thing to be done.  

Call 334-242-2997 and ask to speak with Fielding. He’s the chairman. Or you can email the Commission at [email protected].

That number is the main line for the Commission and the email is the general office email. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there are no individual phone numbers or email contacts for them. Corruption grows best in a dark, quiet hole.

They’re counting on you not paying attention.

 

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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Corruption

Prosecution accepts misdemeanor plea in high-profile environmental administrator’s case 

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Bill Britt

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Almost two years ago, Trump administration EPA Region 4 Administrator Onis “Trey” Glenn III was charged with more than a dozen state felony ethics violations. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecution.

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

According to a statement from the Ethics Commission at the time, Glenn, along with former Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Scott Phillips, was charged after a Jefferson County grand jury returned indictments against the two on Nov. 9, 2018, according to a statement from the Ethics Commission.

Rather than moving forward with the case, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Glenn. They opted to reach an agreement to accept a plea on three counts of “unintentional” violations of the ethics code. Glenn received a two-year suspended sentence for his actions.

“In the interest of efficiency, we were pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to resolve this matter,” Glenn’s attorney Matt Hart told APR when reached for comment. “My client pleaded to unintentional, misdemeanor violations of the ethics law, and the matter is concluded.”

Questions surround the prosecution’s decision to settle the case for a confession to minor offensives in such a high profile case. Still, from the beginning, the case was marred by allegations that the Alabama Ethics Commission’s lawyers had mishandled the investigation and indictments.

Indictments against Glenn and Phillips were reported by AL.com even before the pair was arrested or served with the indictments. In AL.com’s report, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said that then-Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help indict the two men.

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As first reported by APR, shortly after Glenn and Phillips’ indictments, Albritton and his team’s actions raised serious questions about the process that led to charges against the two men. APR reported that Albritton and Ethics Commission lawyer Cynthia Propst Raulston approached Anderton, and he did not request help with the case from the commission, as was reported in AL.com.

Later, APR confirmed that the Ethics Commission approached Anderton, contradicting Albritton’s public statement. In a sworn statement given on Feb. 9, 2019, Anderton said it was Ethics Commission lawyers who approached him, as first reported by APR in November of last year.

According to Anderton, in the fall of 2018, Propst Raulston approached him because “she had a case she wanted to present to the Jefferson County Grand Jury.”

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He further states, “I told Ms. Raulston that I would facilitate her appearance before the grand jury but that my office did not have the resources to support her case. I also told her that she would have to prosecute the case herself.”

These and other aberrations came into sharper focus when Hart — the state’s most famous prosecutor of his generation turned defense attorney — began diving into the particulars of the prosecution’s case.

Glenn’s defense argued from the start that procedural process was circumvented when Albritton and Propst Raulston took the complaint directly to a grand jury rather than the Ethics Commission as prescribed by the Legislature.

An ethics commissioner told APR privately that the commission was never informed about a complaint against the two men, nor was the investigation.

According to internal sources, actions taken by Albritton and Propst Raulston created turmoil at the commission and raised a question about who would prosecute the case on the state’s behalf.

During the process, Albritton, Propst Raulston, and other attorneys for the commission asked the attorney general’s office to take over the case; however, according to sources within the office, the AG turned them down after a review found “statutory problems” with how the case against Glenn and Phillips was handled.

In a motion to dismiss, the defense said, “In sum, the Ethics Commission Staff trampled Mr. Glenn’s rights in obtaining the indictment without giving him his required notice and an opportunity to be heard as required by the Alabama Ethics Act, and then after indictment denied him notice as guaranteed by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act and failed to protect his presumption of innocence as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

While not explicitly noted in the motion to dismiss, the relationship between environmental group GASP and the prosecution was a subject that would have been heard in the hearing on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Immediately following Glenn and Phillips’ indictment, GASP posted a celebratory tweet, even taking credit for the indictment.

Former GASP director Stacie Propst is the sister of Ethics Commission lawyer Propst Raulston who presented the case to the Jefferson County grand jury.

While many in the environmental community celebrated Glenn’s indictment, the defense argued the prosecution took an illegal short cut to indict him, which denied Glenn due process and amounted to selective and vindictive prosecution.

Monday’s plea agreement ended the two-year drama without further exposure as to what happened behind the scene. Phillips’s case is still pending.

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Corruption

Former Barbour County sheriff arrested, charged with taking money from sheriff’s office

Upshaw was charged with two crimes connected to taking more than $85,000 from several accounts that belong to the sheriff’s office.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Tuesday announced the arrest of Leroy Davie Upshaw, the former sheriff of Barbour County, on charges that he used his office for personal gain. 

Upshaw, 49, surrendered to the Barbour County Sheriff’s Office on Monday and was released on bond, according to a Marshall’s office. He had served as sheriff until his term ended in January 2019. 

Upshaw was charged with two crimes connected to taking more than $85,000 from several accounts that belong to the sheriff’s office, Marshall’s office alleges. One charge alleges that he used his public office to receive personal financial gain and the other charge alleges that he used his office to obtain financial gain for members of his family. 

The Dothan Eagle reported in 2018 that Upshaw’s troubles began when the sheriff’s office was audited and cited for 11 errors, including one in which Upshaw gave himself the additional salary that had gone to the former work release administrator.

If convicted of the class B felony of using his office for personal gain, Upshaw could face up to 20 years in prison.

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Corruption

Attorney general opposes motion to reconsider Hubbard’s prison sentence

“Hubbard is not being punished for his reversed convictions. He is being punished for the crimes of which he remains convicted,” Marshall wrote to the court. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard reported for his prison sentence at the Lee County Detention Facility on Sept. 11.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a court filing Tuesday opposed a request by former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s attorney for the court to reconsider his 4-year sentence on six felony ethics violations.

Marshall in the filing said that after four years of appeals, Hubbard remains convicted of those felonies.

“This Court’s carefully calibrated sentence of a four-year split, among other penalties, properly accounted for the severity of Hubbard’s crimes, the position of trust he abused, and the need for serious penalties to deter other wrongdoers,” Marshall wrote to the court. “In addition, Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency now that he is finally in jail.”

“In sum, nothing material has changed since Hubbard earned his four-year sentence four years ago. It’s simply time for him to serve it. Accordingly, his motion should be denied,’ Marshall continued.

Hubbard had originally been convicted by a Lee County jury on 12 ethics violations, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of those convictions, but the Alabama Supreme Court later reversed five of those convictions and upheld six.

He began serving his four-year sentence for the six convictions of using his office for personal gain on Sept. 11.

Hubbard’s attorney argued in a separate court filing that the court should reconsider his sentence because five of the 12 convictions were reversed, but Marshall told the court Tuesday that the sentence Hubbard received was just.

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“Hubbard is not being punished for his reversed convictions. He is being punished for the crimes of which he remains convicted,” Marshall wrote to the court.

Hubbard’s attorney in his request to reconsider sentencing also argued that Hubbard has already suffered from a “divestment of his business interests.”

Hubbard’s convictions related to consulting contracts that enriched him while he served as speaker.

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The state’s attorney general at the time of his conviction determined that Hubbard had bilked Alabama out of more than $2 million.

“Suffice it to say, it is a bad advocacy strategy for Hubbard to mourn his loss of an income stream worth millions, which he financed on the backs of hard-working Alabamians who expected an honest elected official. That Hubbard has lost some of these ill-gotten gains in no way suggests that Hubbard has paid back his debt to society,” Marshall wrote to the court.

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Corruption

Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail

Josh Moon

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Former Alabama Sen. David Burkette

Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday. 

Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.

He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal. 

“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports. 

The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations. 

The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.

The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign. 

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“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”

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