Grand jury subpoenas arriving last week for Alabama legislators put the spotlight on how the officeholders spend contributions and whether their reports and expenditures comply with the state campaign finance law.
State Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, one of the few legislators to acknowledge getting a subpoena, said it was from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. Todd said she’s not the only legislator to receive a subpoena. House Speaker Mac McCutcheon also verified to WSFA that subpoenas had been delivered.
“They seem to believe we are putting things on the Visa that are for personal use, but I don’t have anything to hide,” Todd said.
Other legislators were being close-lipped about the investigation, most of them either not returning calls or saying they had no comment.
Candidates and officeholders must file forms on a regular basis with the Secretary of State’s Office declaring the contributions they have received and where the money or in-kind services came from. As part of that disclosure form, they also must report how much money they spent and to whom they paid any amounts of $100 or more. The campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office are available for public viewing.
Alabama election laws specify that candidates and officials must disclose the identification of each person or entity that has been paid more than $100 in a calendar year from their campaign accounts, along with the amount, date and purpose of each expenditure.
BirminghamWatch looked up financial records on Jefferson County’s 26 legislators and found several who had listed expenditures on their campaign finance reports without providing details about where the money went.
Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, reported on his forms that he had paid more than $4,000 to American Express during this term. He marked those payments as falling into the “administrative” category but did not detail what those charges were and whether any individual charge amounted to more than $100.
Efforts to reach Waggoner for comment were unsuccessful.
Sen. Priscilla Dunn, D-Bessemer, listed a payment to American Express for $606.96, classified as transportation, in 2016. She also could not be reached for comment.
Rep. Louise Alexander, D-Bessemer, reported more than $6,000 in ATM or checking withdrawals on her expense reports. They are classified as administrative expenses, but the forms do not indicate who was paid with that money. Alexander in a message said she had not received a subpoena and had no other comment.
Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, reported more than $2,600 in payments to American Express without indicating the individual people or companies that had been paid. The costs were classified as “transportation.”
Efforts to reach Scott were unsuccessful.
Rep. Todd, D-Birmingham, said her subpoena asked about expenditures from 2013 and 2014.
Todd said she’s hired an attorney to review and compare her records to those of the Alabama Secretary of State.
“There were three entries where my treasurer marked ‘Visa’ as the payee instead of listing the actual merchant,” said Todd. “I have those specific receipts, however, that clearly show the expenses are for campaign materials or technology.”
Todd said she is hopeful that providing the documentation will resolve the issue.
The Attorney General’s Office had no comment on the investigation.
John Bennett, deputy chief of staff/communications director for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the office had been cooperating with the Attorney General’s Office by supplying requested information to its investigators. However, he said he had not been informed specifically of the subject of the investigation or of the individuals who are the subjects of the investigation.
There are civil penalties for filing materially inaccurate reports. They range from $300 or 10 percent of the amount of contributions or expenditures not properly reported for a first offense. At the top end, officials can be fined $1,200 or 20 percent, whichever is less, of the amount of contributions or expenditures not properly reported for a third or subsequent offense.
A fourth offense creates a rebuttable presumption that the official intended to violate the reporting requirements, and the law requires the secretary of state or judge of probate to refer those cases to prosecutors for investigation.
Someone found to have intentionally violated the requirements for filing detailed reports on expenditures can be convicted of a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $6,000.
Penalties are steeper if candidates are found guilty of not just a filing violation, but of using contributions for personal gain. Those cases can amount to Class B felonies, punishable by two to 20 years in prison.
History of Investigations
The state has seen several cases involving use of contributions in recent years.
About a year ago, then-Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after a scandal involving sordid details of the governor’s relationship with an aide and his use of law enforcement to cover it up.
But in his guilty plea, he admitted to converting campaign funds for personal use, which involved $9,000 he used from his campaign account to pay legal fees for the aide involved. He also pleaded guilty to failing to file a major campaign finance report declaring a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign.
Bentley was given a 30-day suspended jail sentence and 12 months of probation. He was ordered to surrender almost $37,000 in campaign funds and serve 100 hours of community service, which he did by performing dermatological work in rural Alabama. He also agreed to never again run for public office and to forfeit his retirement benefits from the state.
In the fall, former Rep. Oliver Robinson, D- Birmingham, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to use his influence to oppose the EPA’s prioritization and expansion of a north Birmingham Superfund site. But he also pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud for spending $17,783 of campaign contributions on personal items unrelated to his legislative campaigns.
Robinson agreed to cooperate in further investigations in exchange for a prosecutors’ recommending a lighter sentence.
Former Alabama House Majority Leader Micky Hammon also in the fall pleaded guilty to felony charges of misusing campaign funds. Prosecutors said he drew money from a campaign account, then wrote himself personal checks.
Former Gov. Guy Hunt in 1993 also had to resign after being convicted of transferring political campaign and inaugural funds for his personal use, among other charges.
Former state legislator Steve Flowers, who writes a weekly column about Alabama politics that’s carried in scores of newspapers, said the tougher ethics laws written in Alabama in recent year have increased ethics law prosecutions in the state. Flowers said that if those laws had been in effect throughout the 20th century, all of the state’s governors would have run afoul of the law.
Flowers said that the record of gubernatorial corruption in recent years might make some aspiring younger politicians think twice about running for high office.
“If you’re a young person and you want to run for governor, the odds are probably 50-50 that you’re going to end up in jail,” he said.