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Corruption

Opinion | An ethics-less day at the Alabama “ethics” commission

Josh Moon

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Alabama does not have an ethics commission.

Oh, sure, there’s a group of people who meet once per month in a room in Montgomery, and the sign out front reads “Alabama Ethics Commission,” but trust me, they’re not.

Because an ethics commission — a real one — has one primary goal: To uphold the ethics laws.

A real ethics commission holds politicians accountable. It punishes them appropriately when they break the ethics laws that govern them. And they never bend or mold rulings based on political pressure or influence.

Alabama doesn’t have that.

It has the opposite of that.

It has a group of people whose job seems to be figuring out ways for the powerful and corrupt to avoid jail time and fines when they violate our laws, and to hand out free passes to their pals, and to consistently bend to the will to special interests, lobbyists and big businesses when they say to jump.

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At no point has the utter incompetence and corruption of Alabama’s faux-ethics commission ever been more obvious than it was on Wednesday.

Behold the work of the five-person panel tasked with upholding ethics laws in this state:

  • The commission kicked off its day by ignoring both the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office, which asked the commission to reconsider the improper power it bestowed on itself last meeting, when it decided it could now make campaign finance violations simply vanish.
  • The commissioners then spent several minutes making some of those violations of the law vanish, including doing away with violations for repeat offenders.
  • The commission also approved a request from a former state senator who wanted to go to work the Alabama Policy Institute — a job that would almost certainly lead to him violating the state’s “revolving door” policy that prohibits lawmakers from lobbying their former colleagues within a two-year window. But hey, blowing up properly passed laws is what this commission does.
  • The commission declined to consider an opinion from its own director that would have stated plainly that federal political action committees that donate to Alabama candidates are subject to Alabama’s PAC-to-PAC transfer ban.
  • And finally, it voted 3-2 that there was “insufficient evidence” to determine that AG Steve Marshall violated that PAC-to-PAC ban when he accepted $735,000 in campaign contributions from a PAC that participated in PAC-to-PAC transfers prior to those donations.

So, to sum up, the commission arbitrarily overturned two properly passed laws, ignored attorneys from the state’s top agencies in order to retain improper power, and without the backing of law or reason dismissed clear violations of the laws the commission is supposed to uphold.

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All in a day’s work for this group.

But let’s be honest, this is the way many people want this state to operate. They like the backroom deals and under-the-table payoffs. They enjoy being able to buy a legislator here or a two-year schools chief there. They sleep better knowing that they can pay the speaker of the House a monthly stipend and he’ll make sure their business — and no other business in the state — gets an advantage.

These are the people served by Alabama’s ethics commission.

Those people want a weak AG, like Steve Marshall, left in charge of policing them. And why wouldn’t they? Hell, he’s already rewriting the ethics laws to better suit them and he’s fired the one guy who any of them feared. And that’s on top of accepting campaign donations that quite clearly violate Alabama’s laws.

That’s why Marshall got a pass on Wednesday. A weak “ethics” commission protected a weak AG so busines, as usual,l could proceed in Alabama.

The commission did the job it was supposed to do, the job we’ve come to expect it will do. It ignored the law and all ethics to protect the status quo.

Which would be a much more appropriate name.

The status quo commission.

 

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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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Corruption

Mike Hubbard’s attorney asks court to reconsider prison sentence

Eddie Burkhalter

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Mike Hubbard reported to the Lee County Jail on Sept. 11, 2020. (VIA LEE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE)

One week after he began serving his prison sentence, the attorney for former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard has asked the court to reconsider his four-year sentence.

Hubbard, 57, began serving his sentence on Sept. 11 after being free on an appeals bond for four years. He was ultimately convicted on six felony charges of using his office for personal gain.

“Mike Hubbard is not a danger to society, nor a threat to the public and a revised sentence will better serve the State’s interest in rehabilitation and the ends of justice,” Hubbard’s Birmingham attorney, David McKnight, wrote to the Lee County Circuit Court on Friday.

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.

McKnight, in his motion to the court, argues that due process compels the court to reconsider Hubbard’s sentence, and that his removal from office, loss of the right to vote and “divestment of business interests” have already punished the former House speaker.

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

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