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Bill allowing AG to hide witness contracts passes the House

The bill would also alter the law concerning election challenges and give the Legislature the authority to build a new Statehouse.

Attorney General Steve Marshall speaks at a press conference after state and federal law enforcement raided 14 bingo halls in Jefferson County.
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A bill that would allow the attorney general to hide from the public contracts for expert witnesses and that would dramatically alter the process of challenging an election passed the Alabama House on Tuesday. 

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Sam Givhan, would also give the Legislature authority to move forward with the construction of a new Statehouse and would essentially put control of the Examiners of Public Accounts – currently the state’s independent auditing authority – under the Legislature (which the agency is tasked with auditing). 

At a recent committee meeting, Rep. John Rogers called the bill “a greased up pig.” 

Lawmakers took issue with the bill’s wide variety of topics – covering everything from Statehouse construction to contract review to election challenges to control of the Examiners of Public Accounts in a single bill. 

“I don’t understand why all of these things are in this bill,” Rep. Prince Chestnutt said to Rep. Chris Pringle, who sponsored the House version of the bill. 

The two most controversial aspects of the bill are the AG’s redaction powers and the altering of an election challenge. 

Currently, the AG’s office, like all state agencies, must submit its contracts for professional services to the Legislature’s contract review committee. That committee reviews every contract and can hold up any questionable agreements for up to 90 days. 

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There is little actual power in the committee, but the spotlight shined on bad contracts during the process has ended up killing more than a few bad deals. It has also caused significant embarrassment for state lawmakers and the AG’s office, which has been forced to disclose expensive contracts for expert witnesses who often have dubious, if not downright laughable, professional credentials. 

APR has reported extensively on the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of these contracts that have been dished out during the defense of legally questionable laws, such as transgender bans, abortion limitations and gay marriage challenges. In each case, the state has spent into the millions of dollars defending those laws, with a sizable chunk of money going to pay “experts” who make questionable claims or push junk science. 

In one recent federal trial over Alabama’s transgender treatment ban, the judge – a Trump appointee – outright dismissed the testimony of a state “expert” witness because the doctor had never treated a transgender patient. Taxpayers paid $75,000, plus travel, for that testimony. 

Questioned about the bill Tuesday, Givhan repeatedly told his colleagues that the bill’s aim was to prevent “doxing” – although Givhan offered no evidence or examples of doxing – and downplayed the secretive nature of the bill, saying that witnesses would have to be disclosed in court and during the pretrial discovery process. 

However, those names wouldn’t be disclosed in the public process for this state, and the amounts paid out to the witnesses will never be disclosed publicly under this bill. 

It’s unclear whether Gov. Kay Ivey would sign off on such a bill, given her push earlier this year for more government transparency and her mandate to state agencies that they make it easier for the public to obtain public records and information.

The bill also drew heavy criticism for the portion related to election challenges. It would make it impossible to challenge the election of any lawmaker who has been certified by the secretary of state, regardless of whether the individual violated state laws. 

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That proposal is related directly to an ongoing legal battle over the seating of Rep. David Cole, who apparently does not reside in the district he was elected to serve. Cole’s election was challenged and he’s almost certain to lose, unless his Republican colleagues disregard clear and concise election law that requires all candidates to reside in the district where they’re running for office for a full calendar year before the election. 

So to avoid having to hold a fellow party member accountable to the law, this bill would simply change the law. 

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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