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Bill Britt

Opinion | Poarch Creek’s offer is a pipe dream opening the door to a nightmare

Bill Britt

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Over the last ten years, the political influence of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has grown so powerful that they can kill any legislation that poses a threat to their business interests.

Each year PCI and its Republican allies have doomed legislation that would have created a state lottery or allow others to offer competition to the tribe’s three gambling operations.

Currently, the tribe is offering to pay the state a billion dollars to codify under the law its gaming monopoly and allow it to expand its casino operations to include Birmingham and a yet unnamed location in North Alabama.

For now, PCI is content only to apply its political power to block or promote legislation that is in its immediate gaming interests. But as Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke noted, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”

Imagine what the tribe might do if they had state-sanctioned control over all gaming with casinos stretching from the Tennessee Valley to Mobile Bay. Suddenly all state and local legislation could affect the tribe’s businesses.

In 2017, then-Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, draped a Confederate memorial with plastic and surrounded it with plywood. His action was met with admiration by some and condemnation by others.

In response, the state Legislature overwhelmingly approved The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which requires local governments to obtain state permission before moving or renaming historically significant buildings and monuments that date back to 40 years or longer. This action was seen as a move to protect Confederate monuments, which are loathed by some and revered by others. It is a good bet that if PCI had a mega-casino complex in the Birmingham-Jefferson County metro area, the tribe’s lobbyist would have used their political influence to block that piece of legislation if they felt it might have cut into the tribe’s profits. While it is hypothetical, it is possible. Those Republicans who want to protect certain monuments might consider that PCI has proven they only care about what’s good for their business.

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What about pro-life legislation like The Human Life Protection Act, which, supports a near-total ban on abortion in the state? Privately many business entities lamented its passage because they believed it hurt Alabama’s public profile, costing the state business opportunities. If PCI’s political influence increased exponentially as it inevitably will if they are given carte blanche over gambling, could they not halt any future pro-life legislation because it might damage their profit margin? Some conservative Republicans are being tempted to make a Faustian bargain with PCI for the money, a choice they will one day regret.

The above scenarios are speculative but possible. And while some may view these laws unfavorably, they are core conservative agenda items. There are an array of issues on which a dominant group can impose its will and PCI has shown it will use its political weight to get what it want regardless of others’ interests.

When the Alabama Education Association began, it didn’t seek to influence all legislation, but over time as its political clot grew, it exercised more control over the state legislature, expanding its mission into every area of local and state action.

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The same was true of The Business Council of Alabama, in the past which for a time held sway over every bill that came out of the speaker’s office under former speaker Mike Hubbard.

Neither AEA or BCA ever had access to a billion dollars with which to entice the appetite of money-hungry lawmakers.

Currently, PCI is engaged in an advertising campaign that is swamping television, radio, newsprint and social media with its offer of a billion dollars in exchange for a gaming monopoly. Over the last week, a mail flyer has appeared in mailboxes across the state asking, “Would you say “No” to a $billion?” Again neither BCA or AEA ever had the resources to launch such a massive media campaign; still, they were effective in controlling the outcome of legislation.

PCI says its money, “Could make life better for you, your family, your community,” but will it?

Political power is not inert.

The state already has gaming, so there is no realistic way to do away with it. What the Legislature can do is enact legislation that favors a free-market solution where competition produces to best results for the consumer and the state.

Gaming, like other potential vices, should be strictly regulated and heavily taxed.

PCI’s offer of a billion dollars is a pipe dream that, if accepted, will open the door to a nightmare.

Today, PCI may appear to be a benevolent tribe of historically oppressed people, but given human nature, ultimate power is never benign for long.

 

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | In Alabama, the past is prologue

Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.

Bill Britt

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Like people, governments have pasts, and today’s fortunes are either furthered or frustrated by the things that came before. It might be said that even history leaves DNA.

Understanding Alabama’s past is essential to navigating its future because its government’s origins determine that the past is prologue.

Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.

Those who observe Alabama’s governing process closely see the same structural problems impede progress year after year. Resistance to home rule and a regressive tax system are just two of the many roadblocks to a more prosperous state.

Some unresolved issues are due to a lack of leadership, but others are inherent within the state’s original governing procedures. Even the state’s architects’ elitist attitude is still prevalent with near total power given to a Legislature dominated by one-party rule. The earlier settlers’ prejudices are enshrined in every process of governing.

Failure to understand, acknowledge, and change the state’s historical patterns hinders advancement, leaving the state nearly dead last in every metric of success. It doesn’t have to be this way, but the cure is always met with fierce rejection because beyond admitting ingrained inequities, any change would upend 200 years of consolidated power.

When Republicans promised a new day in Alabama politics in 2010, some sincerely believed that change was possible. Still, after nearly a decade of Republican one-party rule, there isn’t a substantial difference in governing practice.

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It’s not because good people haven’t tried to make a difference; it’s that there are systematic flaws that thwart reformers while rewarding the status quo.

A region’s founders and its dominant settlers are the creators of what can be called a state’s DNA. Alabama’s government still reflects the make-up of its original colonizers.

Much of the Deep South was established by slave owners who intended to recreate a society based on the Caribbean colonies of Great Britain.

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In his 2011 non-fiction work American Nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America, Colin Woodard shows how Deep South states were “Marked by single-party rule, the domination of a single religious denomination, and the enshrinement of a racial caste system for most of its history.” He also writes that these cultures supported regulation on personal behavior while opposing economic restraint.

Today, Alabama’s governance framework and, to a lesser degree, its society is much like the Deep South characteristics Woodard describes.

One Party rule.

A dominant religion.

A racial caste system.

And a willingness to impose regulations on personal behavior while opposing almost every economic restrictions.

Woodward’s findings mirror Alabama’s state government.

Alabama’s central governing power is based on a top-down fraternity where a privileged few hold the reins of authority with a whip hand ready to strike.

Even before statehood, Alabama was regulated by an upper class who built the territory’s economy slave labor. The same class gained even more control after statehood.

“By the antebellum period, Alabama had evolved into a slave society, which…shaped much of the state’s economy, politics, and culture,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Slaves accounted for more than 30 percent of Alabama’s approximately 128,000 population when it was granted statehood in 1819. “When Alabama seceded from the Union in 1861, the state’s 435,080 slaves made up 45 percent of the total population,” writes Keith S. Hebert.

The state is currently home to approximately 4.9 million individuals. If 45 percent were slaves today, that would account for around 2.2 million people in bondage.

After the South lost the Civil War, Reconstruction ushered in an era where “a larger number of freed blacks entered the state’s electorate and began voting for the antislavery Republican Party,” according to Patrick R. Cotter, writing for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

But the old establishment fought back and instituted the 1901 Constitution, which permanently ended any challenge to one-party rule and restored white supremacy in government.

A major feature of the new constitution was a poll tax and literacy tests and other measures to disenfranchise Black people and poor whites.

As Republicans reminded voters in the 2010 campaign cycle, Democrats controlled Alabama politics for 136 years. But these were not liberals; far from it. Alabama’s old Democratic Party for generations was home to racists, not radicals.

It was only over time that the Democratic Party became the diverse collation it is today.

With Republicans holding every state constitutional office and the Legislature, the one-party rule continues as it has throughout the state’s history; only the name has changed.

Looking back over the founding years of Alabama’s history, barbarity is searing, and the atrocities unimaginable. Yet, the fact remains that these early framers thought nothing of enslaving Blacks or treating poor whites as little more than chattel. It shocks our modern sensibilities as it should. Still today, the state continues in a system of government steeped in framers’ institutionalized prejudices.

Famously 19th-century British politician Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Alabama’s fathers wanted a government that gave absolute power to the few at the expense of the many; that is as true now as it was then.

There is a path to a better government, but as Lord Acton also said, “Great men are almost always bad men.”

History may not repeat itself, but politics does, and that is why Alabama’s history is prologue for today.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Hubbard did the crime; he should do the time

Hubbard may not be a violent offender but his actions are a danger to society and a threat to the public.

Bill Britt

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Mike Hubbard looks toward his family after receiving sentencing on Friday, July 8, 2016, in Opelika, Ala. (Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool)

Attorneys for convicted felon, former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, believe he has suffered enough, and his sentence should be reduced because six of the charges against him were overturned on appeal.

The remaining six counts against Hubbard call for a prison term of four years, 16 years probation, and substantial fines independent of the charges the upper courts set aside. Therefore, there exist no reasonable grounds under which trial Judge Jacob Walker III should lessen Hubbard’s sentence.

This action on Hubbard’s behalf is simply another attempt to subvert justice.

A Lee County jury found Hubbard guilty of twelve counts of public corruption, most notably using his office for personal gain and using state resources and personnel to enrich himself—and those counts still stand.

The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Count 5, and the Alabama Supreme Court struck down another five, which primarily dealt with the charges surrounding “principals.”

The upper-court’s finding appears more political than judicial, but most people in the state are used to jurists who bend the law for the rich and politically connected.

Of the remaining charges against Hubbard, five carry a ten-year spit sentence of two years in prison and eight years probation, and one count has a six-year split sentence with 18 months in jail with the remainder served on probation.

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Why would Judge Walker reverse his judgment since the appeals process left in place the charges that carry the very sentence he imposed?

Does Judge Walker think he erred in his sentencing? Does he now, in retrospect, believe he was unfair as Hubbard’s lawyers contend?

Hubbard’s appeal is merely more subterfuge and trickery disguised as a legal argument.

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Astonishingly, in their latest filing, lawyers, David McKnight and Joel Dillard, assert that Hubbard is not “a danger to society, nor a threat to the public” as a reason to let him out of prison.

Hubbard may not be a violent offender but his actions are a danger to society and a threat to the public.

Prison is not only for brutal inmates it is also for those who break a certain class of laws. Because a felon wears a thousand dollar suit doesn’t mean they deserve less jail time.

Hubbard’s crimes are some of the most heinous perpetrated against civil society.

Public corruption undermines the rule of law and the principles of good government and is an offense more potent than property theft, drug use, or other nonviolent crimes because it rips apart the very fabric of society and its trust in the foundations of the republic.

A corrupt politician’s actions subvert the very meaning of representative government.

Hubbard is not now a danger to society, or a threat to the public because he is behind bars. But make no mistake he is a menace to public good. Even before his indictment, Hubbard used every scheme at his disposal to thwart justice, entice lying and manipulate public trust. And now he wants one more shot at corrupting the system.

There are only two occasions when every individual should expect equal treatment: when they stand before a court of law and when they stand before their maker. Yes, a wealthy defendant like Hubbard can afford better legal representation, but it doesn’t mean he can purchase special justice.

Hubbard has been given preferential treatment by lawmakers, the media, and even some on the courts. All along the way, Hubbard was handled with kid gloves and given unwarranted privilege.

McKnight and Dillard argue with a straight face that letting Hubbard out of prison early will, “Preserve scarce prison bed-space for habitual offenders and others from whom society needs protection… [and] more likely result in the defendant’s rehabilitation than incarceration.”

The word rehabilitation is used several times in Hubbard’s most recent court filings as if somehow allowing him to avoid prison time will serve to rehabilitate him. To this day, Hubbard doesn’t believe he’s committed a crime, so how is rehabilitation possible?

His attorneys lastly make the most laughable argument possible by indicating Hubbard has suffered enough.

“[The] Court should consider the punishment that Hubbard has already suffered. The convictions in this case alone have resulted in a wide range of punishments which include his removal from office, the loss of his right to vote, the divestment of his business interests, and his current incarceration.”

Suffered enough?

When lawmakers break ethics laws, it upends society because it shatters trust while nullifying the social contract that binds us together in peace and safety.

State ethics laws are an attempt to force the government to rule themselves honestly.

Hubbard ignored the very ethics laws he championed and would do it all again.

He deserves punishment for his unlawful acts, and his prison sentence should stand as a reminder to others that justice doesn’t play favorites.

Hubbard did the crime, and he should serve the time.

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Bill Britt

Perspective | Can the Legislature write a stronger, clearer and enforceable ethics code? There’s a way

Bill Britt

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When the cell door closed behind former Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard at 5:05 p.m. on Friday, Sept 11, 2020, there was a momentary sign of victory, but also a chill braced the state’s political landscape.

What happens next will be most consequential as the Alabama Supreme Court, and to a lesser degree the Court of Criminal Appeals, set in motion a need to rewrite certain aspects of the Alabama Ethics Act.

Due to the court’s tortured opinion, the Legislature will be forced to revise portions of the ethics statute to correct the so-called flaws the court found.

The question is, will they refine and reinforce the statute or dilute and weaken it?

Given the recent legislative history, the chances are likely that they will opt for the latter unless the press and public pay scrupulous attention to any changes to the present legislation.

Fortunately, there already exists a framework from which the 2010 Ethics Act can be rewritten to make current law better.

And there are some faint but encouraging signs that not all lawmakers and public officials will work to undermine the law. But in Alabama politics, there is often a vast sea of gray between what politicians say and what they do.

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In April, when the ALSC tossed six of Hubbard’s convictions, current Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon said, “The Supreme Court’s ruling has made it clear that our ethics law has flaws that must be addressed. Our task now is to fix those flaws without weakening any of the provisions that make our ethics law among the toughest in the country.”

After the court’s ruling, Gov. Kay Ivey released a statement saying, “I support seeking clarity on our state’s ethics laws to ensure those who want to abide by them may not be unfairly targeted,” Ivey said. “However, let me be abundantly clear, I do not support weakening a system that is meant to hold our elected officials accountable. The rule of law must be upheld.”

Attorney General Steve Marshall’s comments on the courts finding were on target, “While I am pleased that the Supreme Court agreed that former Speaker Hubbard broke the law and will be held accountable for his abuse of power, I am also disappointed in the court’s interpretation of Alabama’s ethics law concerning the definition of a principal,” Marshall said. “While I can live with the court’s insistence on a clearer definition of principal, going forward, that definition must also be strong.”

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The court’s ruling on principals smells more political than judicial. The current definition is not necessarily murky but has jeopardized some of the state’s political and business elites.

Ethics reform legislation that strengthened and clarified the Alabama Ethics Act of 2010, was approved by Republican House and Senate leadership in 2017, but quietly died because of politics as usual.

The legislation was written under the guidance of then-Attorney General Luther Strange with Matt Hart and Mike Duffy of the Special Prosecution Division taking the lead.

Lawmakers, ethics experts, and stakeholders were consulted throughout the process and eventually agreed that the bill would fix major concerns found in the 2010 Ethics Act.

An annotated version of the bill is still available on the attorney general’s website, where it could be quickly taken out of mothballs and prepared for passage.

This existing bill would substantially improve, the Alabama Ethics Act. It also codifies current law and can easily be updated to include the decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and various advisory opinions from the Alabama Ethics Commission.

The proposed legislation from 2017 achieves three important goals: (1) encouraging honest people to serve in government by clearly defining the line between legal and illegal activity; (2) creates a clear and definite process through which people serving in government can obtain guidance regarding where a particular situation falls on that line; and (3) ensuring that those persons who violate the public’s trust are held accountable.

Specifically, the Act has been revised as follows: Improves the definition of “principal” to make clear that any person in a business that directs the activities of a lobbyist is a principal, while others in the business or on boards are not necessarily principals. This bill also gives the Ethics Commission more flexibility in identifying principals in disclosure forms.

Enforcement for minor violations is improved by giving the Ethics Commission and attorney general or appropriate district attorney more flexibility, subject to specified criteria, in resolving minor violations through administrative resolutions for public employees.

This bill also narrows the Act’s application to lower-level public employees to ease compliance and improve enforcement. To that end, it exempts grade school teachers, higher education athletic coaches, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders from the limitations on taking things of value from lobbyists and principals, filing statements of economic interest, and asking a lobbyist for something. Additional lower-level public employees are also exempt from filing statements of economic interests. The bill further provides discretion for the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General to exempt any class of public employee supervisors, subject to specific criteria.

The framework of the 2017 presented legislation offers many needed additions and restrictions.

The legislation offered in 2017, had a broad agreement, among lawmakers, business interests, lobbyists and others, and while massive, it was painstakingly reviewed and revised.

Hubbard’s imprisonment and the court’s ruling opens a door for the Legislature to create an even better ethics act, but it must be done with care and subject to rigorous oversight.

Justice prevailed in the Hubbard case even while it was assaulted at every turn.

Now it’s time for the Legislature to ensure that the ethics code is more robust, precise, and enforceable.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Mike Hubbard: Prisoner No. 1

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is now the state’s most famous inmate, and as prisoner No. 1, he deserves no more and no less than to serve his time in a state correctional facility.

Bill Britt

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Mike Hubbard looks toward his family after receiving sentencing on Friday, July 8, 2016, in Opelika, Ala. Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool

When former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard turns himself in to began his four-year sentence a few days from now, he will be the most high-profile inmate in Alabama’s state prison system.

Many suspect that Hubbard will be granted special considerations because of his connections and wealth, but that would be a travesty of justice.

Hubbard committed crimes against the people of Alabama and should serve out his sentence like any other criminal.

“Public corruption tears at the fabric of our communities and our national security,” according to the FBI. “Elected or appointed officials are entrusted and expected to protect the interests of the people with integrity. When that trust is betrayed, the security and stability of our government is put at risk.”

Among his many crimes, Hubbard used his elected office for personal gain, used public resources and personnel to illicit millions illegally to enrich himself.

During his time as speaker of the house, Hubbard presided of an orgy of greed and corruption; he swindled businesses and used his office’s power to destroy lives, all while building an empire on deception.

When he sold his office for ill-gotten profits, his family earned around $500,000 annually with a net worth in the neighborhood of $8 million. But Hubbard was not satisfied; he wanted more. To Hubbard, voters were fools, legislators pawns, and big-business patrons all there for his use.

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Before his conviction and afterward, Hubbard used every avenue of the justice system, legal and extra-judicial.

To keep Hubbard from justice, lawmakers, lobbyists, financial backers and some of the most prominent names in the state worked to undermine the judicial process.

Even the Alabama Supreme Court twisted its final opinion on his guilt like a Cirque du Soleil contortionist reluctantly saying in essence, “We are sorry to send you to prison, Mike, but we have no other choice.”

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It is up to the Department of Corrections to make sure that Hubbard does every day of his sentence behind bars in state prison.

There should be no more special treatment for Hubbard because he is wealthy or once held sway over Alabama politics.

Today, Hubbard is a criminal who stole when he didn’t need to, cheated when the rules were inconvenient and abused people and the political system because he could.

Hubbard must not be permitted to serve his time in county jail. He should not be set free because of the prison’s health hazards or overcrowding. Hubbard never lifted a finger for inmates’ health or prison conditions.

Hubbard disgraced himself but feels no remorse. He dishonored the state and must pay for his crimes.

Hubbard is now the state’s most famous inmate, and as prisoner No. 1, he deserves no more and no less than to serve his time in a state correctional facility.

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