By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
Anyone who thought the state could take a break from political news after the Legislature adjourned had another thing coming. This past week in Alabama politics was action-packed, to say the least.
First, on Monday, federal prosecutors announced three arrests in an alleged State House bribery scheme. State Rep. Jack Williams of Vestavia, Marty Connors, a lobbyist who was the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party 15 years ago, and G. Ford Gilbert, a California-based medical executive, are the ones being charged.
This seems to be the first upshot of former State Rep. Micky Hammon’s guilty plea for misuse of campaign funds and mail fraud some months back. Many times, a guilty plea signals a defendant is deciding to cooperate with the government and provide information about other potential crimes.
Prosecutors say Gilbert paid Hammon to promote legislation that would require Blue Cross insurance to cover diabetes treatments that his Triana clinic offered. Neither Williams or Connors are accused of bribery, but rather of knowing about Hammon’s financial stake in the clinic and helping the bill along in the legislative process. Williams, who chaired the House Commerce and Small Business Committee, called a public hearing on the legislation, but the bill never advanced any further.
What has people scratching their heads in Montgomery is this: public hearings get requested and called on bills all the time. It’s hard to say that’s a surefire way to advance legislation. In fact, many times opponents of bills will ask for public hearings to drum up more opposition or delay a vote. That’s why some believe these arrests could be a ploy to get Williams and Connors to become additional cooperating witness for federal authorities investigating State House activities.
For his part, Williams is fighting back saying he has “done nothing wrong” and fully expects to be exonerated in court. Innocent or not, it’s a political dagger to Williams, who is retiring from the Legislature to run for Jefferson County Commission.
Then, on Wednesday, state prosecutors announced that the criminal investigation of former Gov. Robert Bentley is over. Former Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks – who was called out of retirement last year to take over the investigation – announced that the Special Grand Jury empaneled to investigate the former governor and others has been dissolved after it was determined no other charges were warranted beyond those to which Bentley already pleaded guilty.
Few outside of the legal and political circles probably even remembered that Bentley was still being investigated after his guilty pleas to misdemeanor campaign finance violations and subsequent resignation from office. It turns out he was, but the state couldn’t prove that Bentley himself ever profited personally from all his questionable conduct. Others who could have profited, such as Bentley’s former aide and confidante Rebekah Mason, were not subject to the ethics law because they weren’t employed by the state at the time and there was no spousal relationship.
Prosecutors also said that some questionable activity investigated by the Special Grand Jury is not expressly prohibited under Alabama law.
For one, the Governor is apparently legally authorized to direct law enforcement to initiate a criminal investigation, even if if is for illegitimate political purposes. Bentley reportedly dispatched State Troopers to intimidate staff members and others whom he suspected of leaking information about his alleged affair with Mason.
Also, state law does not bar individuals from serving in top governmental roles while being paid by outside companies, firms or organizations. This so-called “loaned executive” practice was common throughout the Bentley administration.
I would expect these suggestions to be discussed next legislative session when lawmakers are expected to take up a major update to the Alabama Ethics Code. One example of a grand jury recommendation later becoming law is the PAC-to-PAC transfer ban, as Associated Press State House reporter Kim Chandler noted.
Finally, the latest campaign finance reports were released, revealing how much candidates are raising and spending going into the last two months of the primary campaign.
Incumbents Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall posted the most impressive fundraising numbers for March, putting them in a good financial position amid their primary challenges. Their closest competitors were, respectively, Huntsville Tommy Battle, who raised the third most of any statewide candidate for his bid to unseat Ivey, and former Trump campaign official Chess Bedsole, who loaned $300,000 to his campaign for Attorney General. You can see a complete chart of how much major statewide candidates raised at www.ALDailyNews.com.