The Democratic candidate for attorney general believes Alabamians “don’t have confidence” in the state’s leadership following the investigation into former Gov. Robert Bentley.
Joseph Siegelman said the investigation was “problematic” given former Attorney General Luther Strange was appointed by Bentley to a U.S. Senate seat.
“The fact that there is even some suspicion over whether a deal was struck tells you it never should have happened,” Siegelman said. “There never should have been the need to ask these questions.”
GOP incumbent Steve Marshall believes the investigation was handled correctly once he was appointed, noting he recused himself from the case, a prosecutor was appointed and six weeks later Bentley resigned.
Yet Marshall admitted the people of Alabama would probably never get a full accounting of what happened because of grand jury secrecy laws.
“I don’t know that people will ever know,” Marshall said.
While he said he can’t speak to someone else’s suspicion, he said everything he did was aboveboard and he can only “control what I did.”
“I wasn’t offered anything to take the job and I didn’t get anything to take the job,” Marshall said.
As for Strange, Marshall said there is no evidence the former senator did anything criminal. Asked if he thought what Strange did was ethical, Marshall said given the results of the special Senate election last December, even Strange might question that.
The son of former Gov. Don Siegelman is running on the slogan “people not politics” and hopes to make the office nonpartisan.
“In my view the attorney general’s office is a nonpolitical office,” he said. “The No. 1 responsibility is to apply the laws of the state and the country fairly and impartially.”
Marshall said he’s running in his first election for the office after his appointment because as a former district attorney, he has a passion for the work.
“When the opportunity came, I expressed an interest in the appointment,” he said. “I’ve had the job for 18 months and it’s a fascinating place to practice.”
Last month, a judge ordered the city of Mobile to release body camera footage captured during a 2016 incident where several teenagers were pepper-sprayed by a Mobile police officer. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by local Fox affiliate WALA.
The lawsuit led to debate among city leaders over the future release of police body camera footage. Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office asked for an attorney general’s opinion on the matter.
Siegelman said everything should be reviewed on a “case-by-case basis.” He said he believes the cameras help build trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
Marshall said he sees no distinction between the Mobile case, which received heavy media interest, and a random murder in Mobile that is still under investigation. He believes it “makes sense” to have the Legislature look into the issue.
Marshall said there have been “very positive reviews” of body cameras so far among the state’s law enforcement agencies. Not only are they helpful in collecting evidence, but he said agencies feel they’ve helped cut down on citizen complaints.
While prison overcrowding has been a constant discussion in the state’s political circles, Marshall said diversion programs and other initiatives have helped reduce the number of inmates.
“We were at — right before I took office — the 190 [percent mark],” he said. “Now it’s 150 [percent]. I’m not saying that we’ve made it to where it needs to be.”
Marshall credits diversion programs such as drug courts, veterans’ courts and others for the reduction in the percentage of inmates. Also, Marshall added, state prisons are not full of inmates charged with nonviolent drug offenses. He said possession is now a Class D felony. Offenders are sent to diversion courts, he said.
The incumbent also took some credit for helping to improve conditions at the state’s prisons.
Siegelman acknowledged prison overcrowding would not be solved by the attorney general’s office alone. However, he does believe diversion programs could be expanded in some cases.
“There are people in prison who need to stay in prison,” he said. “In other circumstances, we need to see whether diversion programs can be used. We also need to provide rehabilitation services.”
A lack of those services leads to recidivism, which further strains the state’s resources, Siegelman said. Without rehabilitation services, prisons are “warehousing drug addicts” and those suffering from mental health issues.
While Siegelman said an expansion of the state’s mental health courts would help keep patients out of jails, Marshall said he is looking to broaden the role of the attorney general and become involved in litigation over the mental health side of the prison system. He acknowledged the Department of Corrections is probably the state’s largest mental health care provider.
Both candidates said they are working hard and are buoyed by feedback on the campaign trail.
In July, Marshall raised $7,400 in cash contributions and $41,543 on hand. Following his mid-July defeat of Troy King in the GOP runoff, Marshall raised $105,725 in August. He finished the month with $119,417 cash on hand.
Siegelman accused Marshall of accepting “dark money” contributions in the form of a PAC-to-PAC transfer. He mentioned an ethics complaint had been filed against the incumbent.
Marshall said the transfer was made by the Republican Attorneys General Association and he believes they fully complied with the law.
Siegelman took in $78,410 in July and finished the month with $147,990 cash on hand. In August, his campaign took in $70,599 in contributions and ended the month with $162,121.
Siegelman and Marshall will face off on Tuesday, Nov. 6.