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Corruption

Former state senator challenges Poarch Creek legal status

Josh Moon

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Former state Sen. Gerald Dial raised questions at a Tuesday press conference over the legal status of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, distributing letters from high ranking officials in the Department of the Interior who question the tribe’s history and its legal rights to operate casinos. 

In one letter, written by then-Interior Department solicitor David Bernhardt, Bernhardt flatly questions the Poarch Creeks’ history as a tribe and states that: “… the record simply does not support the Band’s existence as a separate tribal entity with a government relationship with the United States.” That letter also determines that the tribe should not have authority to operate a casino on lands in Montgomery, where PCI currently operates a casino. 

“What if they’re not really legal?” Dial asked during his press conference. “Would this not be the biggest scam on Alabama?”

It is unclear what weight the letters, which were written between 2009 and 2011, currently hold, since statute-of-limitations considerations would certainly come into play. Dial tied the revelations in the letters to a recent issue with a Florida tribe, which was forced to repay around $1 billion in back taxes. It’s also unclear how the two cases are similar. 

What is almost certainly an issue for PCI, given the opinions expressed in the letters from Bernhardt, who is now the Interior Department secretary, is future gaming expansion for the tribe within the state. Any expansion without a compact for the Poarch Creeks would require the Interior Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve trust lands. Such approval appears highly unlikely. 

APR has reached out to the Interior Department for more information but has not yet received a response. 

At the press conference, Dial questioned why the Poarch Creeks have not received a compact with the state — the only federally recognized tribe operating gaming casinos in the U.S. without a compact — and raised questions about the billions of dollars the state has lost because of that fact. 

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“They have spent billions all over the U.S. and outside of the U.S. — if you have a child with college debt, that should bother you,” Dial said. “The Poarch Creeks and their money have been directly responsible for killing lottery bills that would have paid for that college. And they put that money into other states, to help their kids go to college debt free.”

To that end, current state Sen. Jim McClendon led off the press conference with legislation that would prevent PCI, and all other gaming entities in the state, from contributing to political campaigns — directly or indirectly. 

“I am not making claims of corruption, but we must be very wary of the appearance of corruption,” McClendon said. “I’m not making claims of undue influence based on monetary donations, but we must be very wary of undue influence. 

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“Now is the time to put a stop to this invasion of gambling dollars.”

McClendon and Dial each claimed the Poarch Creeks have dumped more than $4 million into recent elections, and McClendon also blamed the tribe for his recent lottery bills dying quick deaths despite receiving favorable receptions from voters and other lawmakers.    

Mclendon predicted that there would be legal challenges to his legislation, but he compared it to laws barring regulated industries from contributing to the Alabama Public Service Commission. 

“I expect there will be legal challenges to this legislation,” he said. “Rest assured, it will come from those with big bucks.”

He also expects some pushback from his colleagues in the Legislature. 

“Since a number of people in the Senate have taken gambling money, I’m sure they will speak up,” McClendon said. “It’ll be interesting to see what position they take. 

“There is a lot of money flowing from gambling interests and I don’t think it’s healthy at all.”

Tuesday’s press conference comes as the 2020 legislative session gets under way and lawmakers are expecting to tackle new gambling legislation that might finally put an end to the purgatory state in which Alabama gambling exists. 

Currently, PCI operates three electronic bingo casinos, but doesn’t have a compact with the state and pays zero state taxes on the billions they collect each year. There are also three operating dog tracks, two of which offer electronic bingo games and a third that offers pari-mutuel wagering machines. 

For years, lawmakers have toyed with the idea of legalizing some form of gambling, but the various interested parties involved have never been able to come together and reach an agreement. That usually results in gambling bill after gambling bill dying for lack of support in one house or the other. 

Most recently, it has been the Poarch Creeks who have done the majority of the killing, knocking down gaming bills — with the help of tribe-friendly lawmakers — that they believe will cut into their current near-monopoly. In 2019, for example, one state senator, Greg Albritton, with the help of Senate President Del Marsh, managed to kill a McClendon-sponsored bill that was very popular with other lawmakers, because it cut all interested parties, including the Poarch Creeks, in on the games. 

Another bill that would have allowed the tracks at VictoryLand and GreeneTrack to operate the same games as PCI was also killed. 

Such heavy-handedness has rubbed a number of lawmakers the wrong way, and PCI’s quick ascent to power has also ruffled the feathers of longtime powerbrokers around the state. 

Those hard feelings helped spawn Poarch Creek Accountability Now (PCAN), for which Dial serves as spokesperson. The non-profit has not disclosed its funding sources, which is legal, and Dial said at Tuesday’s press conference that it wouldn’t out of fear of retribution from PCI. 

Dial released a trove of documents to the media, many of which show that federal authorities question PCI’s federally recognized status because of the Alabama tribe’s sketchy history. That status was achieved in 1984, and no one questioned it for several years. However, when PCI asked the Interior Department to approve trust lands for gaming at the Tallapoosa site in Montgomery, Bernhardt and his legal team apparently discovered that there fatal flaws. 

Most notably, for a tribe to achieve federally recognized status, it has to prove that it had a pre-existing relationship with the U.S. government. The Poarch Band, which was a mish-mash of former Creek groups left behind after the Trail of Tears, never had such a relationship, according to documents contained within Interior Department legal research. 

That is why Bernhardt and his team refused to approve the Tallapoosa lands for gaming in 2009. That decision was later withdrawn after the Interior Department failed to come to a comprehensive agreement on the lands, and PCI overall, within the required timeframe, and PCI was allowed to move forward with gaming operations at the site. 

The state has challenged PCI’s standing in a federal lawsuit, and Escambia County challenged it another, with both citing problems with its history. However, neither lawsuit specifically addressed the issues raised by Bernhardt, nor did they challenge individual land trust decisions.

 

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

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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