In a state that’s made national news for public corruption multiple times in recent years, the race to become Alabama’s next attorney general has been unusually competitive, especially among candidates in the Republican primary.
Incumbent Steve Marshall, who is trending second in recent polls, has received many of the race’s coveted endorsements, but has also had to deal with the stigma of having been appointed by former Gov. Robert Bentley before he was arrested on ethics charges and ousted from office.
Former attorney general Troy King has his own political baggage, after being defeated as an incumbent eight years ago and leaving office under a federal investigation and a cloud of allegations that he misused his office for political purposes.
Former U.S. Attorney and Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin might have an impressive resume, but she, too, has had to distance herself from Bentley after admitting to asking him for the job Marshall eventually was awarded — a request she was initially reluctant to disclose.
Chess Bedsole, a former criminal court judge who also worked with President Donald Trump’s legal team, has raised more money than his opponents, but recent polls show him trending at the bottom of the pack heading into the June 5 primaries.
Things are simpler on the Democratic side, where the race is between Chris Christie, a Birmingham-based private attorney, and Joseph Siegelman, the son of former governor Don Siegelman and a managing partner of a law firm in Birmingham.
Marshall said he has the benefit of talking about what he’s done in office, not what he will do.
Speaking with Lagniappe last week, Marshall, who spent years as a state prosecutor before his appointment last year, said he’s emphasized public safety through statewide initiatives with law enforcement agencies aimed at combating violent crime, cybercrime and human trafficking.
He said he’s also pushed such legislative efforts as the Fair Justice Act, which is expected to streamline and ultimately shorten the appeals process for death sentences, and a substantial overhaul of Alabama’s ethics law that’s currently under review by a statewide committee.
“We need to make sure that we have strength and clarity in our ethics laws, so that people don’t think it’s a ‘gotcha’ bill and so people truly understand where the lines are so they don’t violate them,” Marshall said. “We also need to make sure that, going forward, we have the ability to train people as to what those requirements are.”
Marshall recused himself from the Bentley investigation, but said he shares concerns about gaps in state ethics laws that may have prevented further charges against the disgraced governor. He said some of those gaps could be closed in the effort to retool those laws in Montgomery.
In her many campaign appearances around the state, Martin has emphasized a desire to prioritize public corruption — something she says the state has failed to do in recent years.
“When I first served as U.S. attorney, I saw there was no public corruption work being done in the state, and back then the ethics laws were even weaker than they are now,” she said. “And so I said, ‘I have strong laws — wide fraud, mail fraud, conspiracy — let’s pair together [with the state attorney general] and form a task force,’ and in eight years, I was able to convict more than 140 appointed or elected officials or contractors.”
She made a name for herself overseeing several high-profile corruption investigations in the state, including of those into Alabama’s two-year college system and the HealthSouth fraud case.
However, Martin, who was heavily involved in the initial investigation of Bentley, has also faced criticism throughout her campaign over conflicting statements she’s made about whether she sought the post Marshall was appointed to while investigating the governor. After claiming she “never asked for anything” from Bentley, Martin acknowledged meeting with him but said it was “not really an interview.”
Later, the Associated Press published emails showing she had sought the meeting, which she followed up with a letter thanking Bentley “for the opportunity to interview” for the AG position.
Martin has also raised concerns about the funding the state provides to law enforcement and Alabama’s judicial system. Of the attorney general’s roughly $24 million budget, Martin said around 60 percent is self-funded through court costs and fees. A lack of funding is already affecting the state’s judicial system, and Martin said she would advocate for more funding if elected. She said courts and law enforcement “should not be put in a position where they have to live off fees.”
As the only woman to run for attorney general in Alabama’s history, Martin said she’s particularly suited to “clean up the good ol’ boys’ club in Montgomery.”
Bedsole said his experience with criminal, civil, constitutional and regulatory law give him the broadest experience of the candidates vying to lead “Alabama’s law firm.” Working in Washington, D.C., Bedsole said he was able to see what other states were doing and learned “what Alabama does well, but also what it doesn’t get right.”
“We don’t have a statewide crime plan. We don’t go into every county and assess what crimes are occurring and how to solve them,” he said. “With no plan, you can’t track progress, and if you don’t know where you’re losing and winning, you don’t know where to put resources.”
Bedsole agreed that public corruption has been a “big problem” in Alabama, but said it isn’t a tough problem to solve. He said if two or three officials were “put in the same prisons as everyone else, not on ankle monitors or country club camps,” others would get the message.
He’s also been critical of his opponents’ connections to Bentley and other public officials who have come under scrutiny. As the only candidate who declined an interview when Bentley was looking to appoint an attorney general, Bedsole said he’s the only candidate with “clean hands.”
“I don’t do business with crooks,” he said. “I’ve ever been investigated by the Department of Justice, I’ve never had a federal grand jury called to investigate me and I’ve never gone into a room with a corrupt public official and came out with a job. Other candidates can’t say that.”
Bested in a primary election by Luther Strange, King left office in 2010 after a tumultuous few years. As attorney general, he had been the subject of a federal investigation after issuing an opinion that greenlighted a casino being developed in Dothan by Ronnie Gilley — a man who would later go to prison for “bribing Alabama lawmakers” in hopes of seeing Alabama’s gambling laws relaxed.
Since leaving office King has worked as a private attorney with his law firm in Montgomery, but now aims to return to public service in a campaign promising to “Take Alabama back” from what he’s called a “cesspool of corruption” in Montgomery.
King was unavailable to comment for this report, but his campaign ads have accusing Martin of having “lied” about her interactions with Bentley, and Marshall of “trading a plea bargain for his appointment.”
Other than targeting his opponents, King has said his main goal is to “keep Alabama families safe” by focusing on violent crime. Some of the key issues listed on his campaign website are fighting crime, political corruption and the political establishment, as well as addressing Alabama’s opioid crisis.
King has also touted a 2009 law his office pushed that expanded what information the state requires convicted sex offenders to disclose to authorities — including details about their online activity and vehicles.
After seeing the law passed, King personally presented evidence to a Walker County grand jury against Richard Conway Dobbins, who ultimately faced 311 child pornography charges and received 115 life sentences plus an additional 1,960 years in prison.
On the Democratic ticket, Siegelman has the best-known name, though it’s one associated with his father, former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who served nearly six years in prison for a federal bribery conviction after leaving office.
Siegelman has not shied away from his father’s legacy, and has even incorporated the alleged political bias some say motivated his father’s prosecution into his campaign for attorney general.
“My father’s case was highly controversial and remains so. I’m proud to have represented him and the work I did on his behalf,” Siegelman wrote via email. “His case highlights the importance of a strong and independent judiciary and demonstrates the need for those who administer justice, including and especially the attorney general, to do so fairly, equally and impartially.”
As a private attorney, Siegelman said he’s spent years in court representing people who needed help, and now he wants to help Alabama return to leadership focused on public service while addressing such judicial reform issues as the state’s use of cash bonds.
He said cash bonds are a way to ensure defendants show up for their court dates, but the “practical effect is that if you’re rich you don’t have to sit in jail, and if you’re poor you do.”
“That’s wrong,” Siegelman continued. “We have to make sure that dangerous criminals who are a threat to our communities are not immediately released solely because they have funds to make bond. Similarly, we don’t need to keep others locked up for minor, nonviolent offenses who simply cannot afford the bond.”
Siegelman also told Lagniappe he believes Alabama, as one of the states most impacted by the opioid crisis, has to get more involved in combating misuse by punishing the companies that mislead customers and regulators to push their products.
He noted Alabama has joined civil lawsuits targeting some opioid manufacturers and distributors for their alleged role in exacerbating the issues, but asked why a state with “more pills per person” than any other was so late to the game.
“I’m happy to see, for example, that the U.S. attorney for the middle district of Alabama has encouraged some state/federal partnerships to jointly address some of the problems facing our state,” Siegelman wrote. “That said, I also think the state government could do more on its own, and I would certainly intend on doing that.”
Christie told Lagniappe he’s spent 30 years winning as a trial attorney in civil and criminal courts, and wants to serve Alabama as attorney general with that experience.
A former member of the Peace Corps, he says he knows what service looks like and decided to enter the race last year after Alabama’s governor, speaker of the House, and chief justice were were removed from office.
“With corruption, we cannot have good government,” Christie said. “I am fed up with Alabama being last in almost everything that matters and for which state government is responsible, including government corruption, public safety, crime and corrections.”
Like other candidates on both sides of the aisle, Christie expressed frustration with the way the Bentley investigation played out. Christie acknowledged that only those in the special grand jury proceedings know all the evidence that was presented, but said it seems the attorney general’s investigation was the weaker of the two probes leading to Bentley’s departure.
“As the Legislature’s investigation found, the governor was using state law enforcement officers to intimidate and threaten innocent witnesses to the inappropriate relationship he had with the woman acting as his chief of staff,” he said. “This woman was not a state employee but was paid by a foundation with ‘dark money.’ At a minimum, why was she not prosecuted for not registering as a lobbyist paid to influence executive action?”
Christie said if what Bentley did wasn’t against the law, it should be, adding that, if elected, he would make reforming state ethics laws a top priority.
Christie also said he’d use his position as attorney general to increase consumer protection and take on big corporations that “take advantage of Alabamians.” Another top priority, he said, would be the victims of payday lenders. Christie said he’d use his office to work with the Legislature to put a stop to “predatory lending practices in Alabama.”