Alabama’s top political leaders have a big problem: they just can’t seem to tell the truth. Well, they can tell the truth, but they prefer to soften it with a lie first. Lie first, and fess up later. And sadly that’s the case on all levels of government here in the Heart of Dixie. Our halls of political power are filled with those more eager to gain than give and more eager to deceive than disclose.
Exhibit A: Back in July, this column included a reference to the Alabama Lenders’ Association, a special interest group that lobbies state government for rules and regulations favorable to the lending industry. As reported, the state’s new head of the State Banking Agency, the body that regulates lenders, had just weeks before his appointment been wined and dined along with others at a vacation paid for by the Lenders’ Association. That was just the tip of the iceberg.
Last month, Kyle Whitmire of AL.com noticed that trip and previous ones paid for by the Alabama Lenders’ Association had not been reported, as required by law, to the Alabama Ethics Commission. In fact, the ALA had indeed made reports for those periods of time when the trips took place, but they didn’t list the expenditures on lawmakers’ (and former ethics commissioners’) lodgings, food and entertainment. After Whitmire inquired about the missing expenditures, the Ethics Commission wrote to the Lenders’ Association by email to confirm whether the reports with no expenditures were correct:
“Could you please confirm the reports filed for the Alabama Lenders Association for the period of 2014-2016 are correct and if there were or were not any reportable expenditures?” a representative of the commission wrote to the ALA.
Just a day later, in reply, a representative of the ALA’s director responded: “How do we file an amended report for 2015 and 2014?”
Days later, the amended reports from the lobbying group flooded in, detailing tens of thousands of dollars spent on catering to nearly every legislative leader in the state of Alabama.
In 2014, lawmakers got $200-a-night hotel rooms at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, about $200 in food and attended hundreds of dollars worth of events.
In 2015, Alabama’s top political leadership instead enjoyed rooms costing more than $300 per night at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort in Point Clear.
These lawmakers all knew this spending should have been reported. The former and future Ethics Commissioners who also attended the trip knew. The Alabama Lenders’ Association — whether they choose to admit it or not — knew this, too. But that wouldn’t have been helpful to their image, so they did what many in Alabama politics do: lie now, and admit the truth when and if you absolutely have to.
Enter exhibit B: Jon and Rebekah Mason. The Masons were really only known to those familiar with state politics until Rebekah Caldwell Mason, who worked as a top adviser to Gov. Robert Bentley, was outed as his alleged paramour when a recording of a phone call between the two was leaked to the press. After the inappropriate relationship came to light, Mason resigned her position as adviser to the governor, a position which had been paid by gubernatorial campaign cash in a somewhat shady financial arrangement.
In any case, it was what came after her resignation that falls into the category of “lie now, truth later.” After her resignation, in the midst of the media maelstrom that followed, both Rebekah and her husband, Jon, amended ethics disclosure filings from years earlier, editing them to reflect much higher income than they had previously reported, much of it from the University of Alabama.
In earlier filings, the Masons had stated their outside income from personal businesses was less than $50,000. Now, after sweating in the media limelight, those same filings reflect income closer to $200,000.
And these discrepancies aren’t trivial either, as Alabama law provides penalties for intentional violations of disclosure provisions:
“(d) If the information required herein is not filed as required, the commission shall notify the public official or public employee concerned as to his or her failure to so file and the public official or public employee shall have 10 days to file the report after receipt of the notification. The commission may, in its discretion, assess a fine of ten dollars ($10) a day, not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000), for failure to file timely.
“(e) A person who intentionally violates any financial disclosure filing requirement of this chapter shall be subject to administrative fines imposed by the commission, or shall, upon conviction, be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, or both.
“Any person who unintentionally neglects to include any information relating to the financial disclosure filing requirements of this chapter shall have 90 days to file an amended statement of economic interests without penalty.”
So, while the state can ultimately fine — or even jail — those who intentionally violate disclosure requirements, there’s an exception: “Uh-oh, I forgot.”
Forgetting seems to be a popular excuse in Alabama politics. Earlier this year, incumbent Trussville Mayor Gene Melton faced questions over his case of “oops, I forgot” when he was confronted about property he owned and income he received — including his salary as mayor — that he failed to report as required by law.
“That had to be a typo or error on my part. I didn’t take a cut in pay and I don’t recall not cashing my checks.”
Later, in an interview with Alabama Today, Melton made the situation even worse, revealing other income he hadn’t disclosed:
“During all this time, I draw state retirement, too.”
Oops. He must have forgotten.
When pressed about why he didn’t disclose the info, Melton, who just lost re-election, responded: “If it’s off, I just failed to disclose it … Now that I’ve been made aware, I’ll go back and make the proper corrections.”
A few days later, Melton indeed filed amended reports reflecting his actual income and economic standing. What a surprise. He did what Alabama politicians are best at.
Lying now and fixing it later.