Connect with us

Bill Britt

Opinion | Deception, subtlety and the wholesale destruction of current ethics laws mark proposed rewrite

Bill Britt

Published

on

Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would radically alter the existing State Ethics Act rendering it useless as an effective tool to regulate the behavior of public officials, much less prosecute a rouge lawmaker.

Testifying at a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in April 2015, Ball said the ethics laws needed amending to avoid prosecutions like Hubbard’s in the future.

If HB179 becomes law, Ball will have fulfilled the words he spoke at the Lee County Court House, where Hubbard was tried and convicted.

As House Ethics Committee Chair, Ball has sought to change the State’s Act since Hubbard was indicted.

Ball’s bill is subtly written from an enforcement and trial perspective to neuter the law.

Words are added, deleted, and meanings changed in ways that might look harmless but actually open the door for the kind of corruption Republicans vowed to change in 2010, when they passed the toughness in the nation’s ethics laws.

ADVERTISEMENT

Beyond changes that would allow for general corruption to go unpunished, Ball’s legislation would strip the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute anyone who violates the ethics laws without first securing approval from the State Ethics Commission.

All prosecution of any public official would first have to be approved by the Ethics Commission, a group that has repeatedly shown that it bends its decisions according to the prevailing political winds.

HB179 reads in part, “This bill would prohibit the Attorney General or a district attorney from presenting a suspected ethics violation by an individual subject to the code of ethics, other than a member or employee of the commission, to a grand jury without a referral by the commission.”

In other words, Ball would have a politically-appointed commission decide if law-enforcement agencies can seek indictments against wrongdoers.

Public Service Announcement

Neither the Attorney General or a county district attorney can even impanel a grand jury in an ethics probe without the commission first finding probable cause.

Some of Ball’s alterations come in the form of removing whole sections of the law under the guise of redefining words, like “a thing of value” or “widely attended event.”

An example of how Ball’s legislation plays with the law is under the section of code, which defines a family member of a public official. Currently, a family member is “[t]he spouse, a dependent, an adult child and his or her spouse, a parent, a spouse’s parents, a sibling and his or her spouse, of the public official.” Ball changes it so it only includes a spouse and a dependent. That means that a public official may act to enrich his adult children, a parent, an in-law a brother, or a sister. These small but destructive alterations to the law are at the heart of Ball’s legislation.

Some loopholes are so extensive that a sitting legislator could be paid by a city or county governmental economic development entity and still seat in the Legislature voting on bills that might directly affect his consulting client.

Out-of-state junkets make a comeback as do several other goodies lawmakers have been desiring.

It seems Republicans want to cash in on the rewards of office like Democrats did once upon a time.

One thing is clear, Ball didn’t write the bill, but whoever did knew precisely what they were doing and were probably paid handsomely for their efforts.

There are so many cunningly deceptive changes to the ethics laws in Ball’s bill as to make it impossible to catch them all without days of intense study—and perhaps a team of lawyers.

Ball, one of Hubbard’s most an ardent defenders has said Hubbard’s indictment and conviction was a political witch hunt. He has said he wants to rewrite the ethics laws to save future Hubbards; it now looks as if he has.

 

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.

Advertisement

Bill Britt

Opinion | Let’s hope for Reed’s success

Reed’s temperament and style appear right for this moment in Alabama’s history.

Bill Britt

Published

on

State Sen. Greg Reed has been chosen as the next president pro tem of the Alabama State Senate.

State Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, will lead the Alabama Senate as president pro tem during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. What changes will Reed bring to the upper chamber, and how will his leadership differ from his predecessor? No one knows for sure.

Reed succeeds Sen. Del Marsh, who has served as president pro tem since Republicans took control of the Statehouse in 2010. Marsh, along with then-Gov. Bob Riley, current felon Mike Hubbard and ousted BCA Chair Billy Canary orchestrated the 2010 takeover that saw the Republican rise to dominance.

Reed, who won his Senate seat the same year, was not a charter member of the Republican ruling class, but he benefited from the power sift.

Mild-mannered and studious with a quiet charm, Reed has steadily ascended the ranks of Senate leadership. His silver hair and calm determination have served him well. Reed is a senatorial figure straight out of Hollywood’s central casting.

In all, Reed is nearly universally liked and respected, which in the near term is a hopeful sign of potential success. But political leadership always comes with a warning: “Friends come and go, enemies accumulate.”

Reed’s relationship with Gov. Kay Ivey is certainly less contentious than Marsh’s and gives rise to the belief that there will be greater cooperation between the executive and the Senate.

ADVERTISEMENT

With the economy and public health under dire stress due to the ravages of COVID-19, legislative priorities are fixed: get people back to work and eradicate the coronavirus.

However, one of Reed’s first tests will be whether he can cool the smoldering anger of those senators who still feel the sting of Ivey’s rebuke over the allocation of CARES Act funds. He will also need to resist those who want to punish the administration over its use of public health statutes to implement mask mandates and other safety measures to prevent the deadly coronavirus spread.

Despite outward declarations of a unified body, the State Senate is a small, insular and unwieldy beast where egos loom large and consensus on policies is often tricky to achieve except on “red meat issues.”

Building a coalition on policy in the Senate is often a combination of horse-trading, cajoling and carefully applied pressure. The way forward in the near term is exact: pass legislation that spurs economic recovery and mitigates the health crisis at hand.

Public Service Announcement

But Reed will also simultaneously need to recognize what comes next for justice reform, prison construction, gambling and a myriad of other pressing issues. His job will be to understand the prevailing winds, which are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

As author Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: “For political leaders in a democracy are not revolutionaries or leaders of creative thought. The best of them are those who respond wisely to changes and movements already underway. The worst, the least successful, are those who respond badly or not at all, and those who misunderstand the direction of already visible change.”

Reed’s temperament and style appear right for this moment in Alabama’s history.

As President Abraham Lincoln said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Let’s all hope that Reed passes the test.

Continue Reading

Bill Britt

Opinion | Clorox, anyone?

There is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the upcoming legislative session safely — not even a rudimentary one.

Bill Britt

Published

on

(STOCK PHOTO)

In less than 100 days, the state Legislature will return to Montgomery for the 2021 Legislative Session. As of now, there is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the session safely — not even a rudimentary one.

But perhaps there is a reason to keep the statehouse shuttered as the Legislature seems to have forgotten the governing principles that the nation was built upon, and (hint, hint) it was never a slogan.

One individual at the Statehouse said that there would be a vaccine by February, so why worry about holding Session as usual. Perhaps this individual also believes that a disinfectant cure or a UV light remedy is right around the corner. News flash, as of press time, intravenous Clorox and lightbulb suppositories are still in phase one trials.

Pandemic humor aside, the surprising thing would be if the Legislature actually had a plan at all.

There have been rumors of a plan, even mentions of one, too, but nothing that would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and the public to realistically gather to conduct the peoples’ business in a relatively COVID-free environment.

We all want a miracle, but miracles are outside legislative purview, and while prayer is needed at the Statehouse, so is commonsense and a plan.

ADVERTISEMENT

One plan in consideration is to limit the number of people who can enter the building. That’s a bad idea because the public has a right to witness government action and advocate for causes.

At the end of the truncated 2020 session, the Legislature curtailed the number of people in the Statehouse, which violates the law and good government spirit.

Lawmakers come to Montgomery to do the peoples’ business — at least that’s what they say at campaign events and pancake breakfasts. Of course, they don’t really conduct the people’s business in Montgomery. That’s just a figure of speech.

Legislators represent the people when they are running for office or giving chats at Rotary, but when most — not all — enter the Statehouse, they work for special interests.

Public Service Announcement

Yes, some do care, and all are convinced they are doing a great job, but just like the plan to open the Statehouse safely on Feb. 3, it’s sadly an absurd pretense.

The majority of the Legislature consists of Republicans, who used to have a firm sense of what the party represented. While I hate to offend my many friends, the current party couldn’t find the most defining principles of traditional governance in our nation if you gave them a GPS and a flashlight.

Let me humbly run down a short list of things that should matter in no particular order.

For the list, I will turn to the 2006 book American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia: “Classical liberalism is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

Classical liberalism has nothing to do with modern liberalism and everything to do with our Republic’s founding. Classical liberalism underpins the Constitution’s foundation, Federalist Papers and the vast majority of the founding generation’s ideology, which created our nation’s governing structure.

Private property rights are fundamental to what Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness.

And guess what is an individual’s most precious piece of property? Their person. Yes, a person’s body and mind are an individual’s greatest possession. A person’s right to live freely with only a minimum amount of government intrusion is essential to happiness. The government’s job is not to tell us how to live, rather keep others from harming us, killing us or taking our stuff.

Every year Montgomery seems intent on an ever-expanding agenda to meddle in people’s private lives.

Real estate and other property is significant but can’t be thoroughly enjoyed if we are dead or in chains designed by the good intentions of the Legislature. Lawmakers are not to be the central planning committee for the soul.

The government should promote a relatively unhampered market economy. Tariffs anyone? Trade wars? No one wins a trade war. Everyone loses. Winning simply means the other side lost more or gives up. It’s like a bar fight. Nobody wins it because everyone gets beaten up — but one got it worse.

How about the rule of law? I hear it talked about a lot, but the law must be just for everyone. If the law is applied unequally, is it really the law?

We hear a lot about Second Amendment rights as if that’s the big one. But what about freedom of the press? Is that less important? As the nation’s second president John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

The press is not the enemy of the people. Is there bias? Sometimes. Is there poor reporting? On occasion. But the real enemy are the politicians who defame or attempt to delegitimize the media for not supporting their political agenda. An AR-15 can be coercive but have a free county without a free press in impossible.

Freedom of religion is also paramount to our nation’s principles as free people have a right to worship without government interference or mandate. But believe me, some religious leaders would see a government-imposed religion as long as it’s the one they like. I often wonder, does religion require a strong man or strong faith? Today it’s hard to tell. Like all rights, if you take away the freedom to worship or not, and the whole system of liberty fails.

Last but not least, international peace based on free trade: If a nation is making money by trading with another country, it doesn’t have a good reason to bomb it. Likewise, the bounds of capital are generally stronger than political ideology. Money may not make the world go ’round, but a lack of it sure can unleash terrible conflict.

After this exercise in futility, I’ve decided I’m glad the Legislature doesn’t have a plan to open the 2021 session. Why bother? Because the very ideals that genuinely make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a reality are the ones at greatest risk of being trampled upon by the Legislature.

Clorox anyone?

Continue Reading

Bill Britt

Opinion | Prisons, justice reform and the art of the possible

Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.

Bill Britt

Published

on

(STOCK PHOTO)

For years, prison reform advocates, media outlets and even a few public officials have called for new correctional facilities to address Alabama’s dangerously overcrowded prisons.

Now that it’s happening, some aren’t happy with how Gov. Kay Ivey is addressing the problem.

Is the Ivey Administration’s plan perfect? No. But building new facilities along with criminal justice reform — while all imperfect — is the last best hope to correct generations of cruel treatment, endangered correctional officers and corrupt practices.

German chancellor and statesman Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best,” this is the state of a workable solution to Alabama’s prison needs and criminal justice reform.

Yet, there is a concerted effort underway to stop the Ivey Administration from acquiring three new men’s prisons under a build-lease agreement.

Some lawmakers want another crack at financing additional facilities through a bond issue, and others want more say in the process. Still, the fact is that Ivey’s actions are the result of decades of legislative indifference and inaction to adequately address the appalling conditions at Alabama’s correctional facilities.

ADVERTISEMENT

Even some advocates are working against the prison plan and while their intentions may be good it seem to their hand wringing is almost as disingenuous as lawmakers whining.

What’s worse are those who spread disinformation to discredit process.

Many good people have worked hard to bring about an end to the state’s barbaric prison system and unfair justice, but lately it seems there is an outright movement to derail much needed change— simply because it’s not enough. As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

There have been so many false claims and sly manipulations of facts about the prison plan as to make even a hardened journalist want to cry “fake news.”

Public Service Announcement

But as for Ivey, frankly, my dears, I don’t think she gives a damn.

Here’s the hard truth. The Ivey Administration is building three new men’s prisons, and nothing will stop it. The fact is that three prisons are not enough; the administration should move forward to build a new women’s facility as soon as practicable.

Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.

Failing to recognize when the once impossible is coming to fruition is a sad reality. Still, in politics, as in life, good things happen while most people are navel-gazing or complaining.

Having visited three state prisons, St. Clair, Elmore, and Tutwiler, I can say without a doubt, the conditions in those places are a living hell.

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice released in April 2019, found “reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”

DOJ’s investigation revealed that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.

When the state incarcerates a criminal, it assumes custodial care for that individual. No matter how heinous the crime or foul the person, the state has an obligation to feed, clothe, house and provide essential human services for their care and welfare. Another element is often overlooked; when a person is committed to prison, they lose their freedom, not their humanity. Therefore, under the law, they cannot be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.

Building three new men’s prisons is just the start; it must be accompanied by criminal justice reform.

“We are able to have a serious discussion about prison reform in Alabama because we have a governor who is serious about putting solutions into place,” Ivey’s press secretary Gina Maiola recently told APR. “Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation, but criminal justice reform is also needed,” Maiola said.

By executive order on July 18, 2019, Ivey established the Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. The Study Group released its findings on Jan 31, 2020.

The Study Group entered its mission with one pressing question; “What policies and programs can the State of Alabama implement to ensure the long-term sustainability of our prison system without jeopardizing public safety?” according to Supernumerary Associate Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, Jr., who led the effort.

In a letter to Ivey on the Study Groups finding, Lyons wrote [T]he challenges facing our prison system are exceedingly complex—ranging from the elimination of contraband weapons and drugs to the recruitment, retention, and training of correctional staff to the size of the inmate population and to the physical condition of an aging and far-flung prison infrastructure.” He further wrote, “But having thought through many of these issues with my Study Group colleagues, especially our legislative members, I can report to you that some meaningful answers to this question are not just possible; they are within our grasp.”

Prisons without justice reform is a hollow victory, and the Ivey Administration is committed to bringing about reasonable reforms.

“Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation,” said Maiola, “but criminal justice reform is also needed.”

The issues facing Alabama’s prisons and criminal justice system are complex, and generations in the making; therefore, arriving at a universally acceptable solution is not imaginable for the moment if ever. But what once seemed impossible is soon to be realized.

No one gets everything they want, but it’s a great step toward getting what is needed simply because it’s possible.

Continue Reading

Bill Britt

Opinion | Amendment 4: Stairway to heaven or highway to hell?

If you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.

Bill Britt

Published

on

(STOCK PHOTO)

Amendment 4 will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot asking the voters to approve a constitutional amendment to remove racist language from the 1901 Constitution and recompile other sections for content and clarity.

If you trust state lawmakers to “recompile” the state’s governing document, then vote yes.

If, however, you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.

The question is straightforward. Do you trust this Legislature with this important task?

The ballot measures lead sponsors were Sen. Rodger Smitherman and Rep. Merika Coleman, both Black Democrats, and it was passed with an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate. This would seem to give legitimacy to the claim that at its heart, this is a referendum to remove racist language from the state’s Constitution.

However, Amendment 4 is a Trojan horse to allow the state Legislature to manipulate the state’s Constitution using past racism as cover. (Let’s not forget the recent racially charged monuments preservation act.)

ADVERTISEMENT

This Amendment isn’t a benign effort to cleaning up the Constitution; it is a way for lawyers, lobbyists and lawmakers to rewrite the Constitution using sleight-of-hand.

After speaking about the need to eliminate racist words in the Constitution, Coleman actually points to the real reason the Republican supermajority supported the measure.

“Coleman said it’s not just a social issue,” according to reporting by Mary Sell. “But an economic development issue ‘for those of us who want to bring industry, new ideas, new technology, new research, new employees that are diverse into the state of Alabama.'”

The driving force behind the so-called recompilation is mostly about money, bringing more in and for the government to spend it more easily.

Public Service Announcement

Eradicating racism from the state’s Constitution is a noble effort, but not if it opens the flood gates to more mischief.

In 2012, the Legislature offered a more narrow amendment which claimed to remove racist language from the Constitution only to have it revealed that it also eliminated a child’s right to a state-provided public education.

About that Amendment, also known as Amendment 4, then-Sen. Hank Sanders wrote, ”It proposes to remove racist provisions from the Alabama Constitution that have no real legal impact.”

The indent of the 2012 measure was to do away with a child’s right to public education; removing racist language was simply bait for the unaware.

The same is true of the current Amendment 4 because the offensive words have no bearing on how the state is governed.

The U.S. Constitution contains racist language and holds racist ideals, but they no longer have the weight of law.

“Consider the 14th Amendment. No part of the Constitution speaks more forcefully to the power of law to transform social relations,” notes Richard Albert, a constitutional law professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “It guarantees that no state shall ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ And yet the Constitution still today counts a slave as ‘three-fifths’ of a person.”

“The First Congress debated whether a constitutional amendment should entail changes to the original text but ultimately chose to record changes in the higher law as sequential amendments to the end of the document,” according to Albert.

The founders determined it was best to leave offense clauses in the text and add amendments to the end; Alabama has followed their example.

Hurtful words matter and should be condemned but protecting citizens from a Legislature who would exploit constitutional change for their own benefit is also dangerous.

Removing racist language from the state’s constitution is morally right, but not if it lets deceptive lawmakers legalize unethical conduct. The state shouldn’t exchange one wrong for another.

Those who support Amendment 4 say that it will not change the Constitution; just cleans it up by removing all racist language; deleting duplicative and repealed provisions; consolidating provisions regarding economic development; and arranging all local amendments by county of application. And nothing in the amendment permits more money to be spent on economic development than is currently available. Those who want to foster greater commercial growth believe that condensing and clarifying sections of the Constitution will help define Alabama as a more business-friendly state.

However, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of textural construct knows that merely moving a comma can dramatically change a sentence’s meaning. Consider the many tricks which can occur with a cut and paste constitution.

For example, “I say to you today, I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That statement means at some point in the future, I’ll give you the money. But, “I say to you, today I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That means you’re going to get cash now. One little comma makes a lot of difference.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is some 800 pages long. How many lawmakers have read it; how many will read the “recompiled” Constitution? Most? Like none.

The Legislature asks us to suspend disbelief, pretending that nothing nefarious is going on and that they are sincere, and their intentions are good.

Sincerity is no guarantee of honesty, and as for good intentions, we all know where that leads.

Rock songs say there is a stairway to heaven and a highway to hell. Obviously, rockers understand the traffic patterns better than our lawmakers.

Amendment 4 is a fraud that will weaken the state and lead to further legalized corruption.

The ballot measure is in fact about money and power under the guise of racial equity.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement