At least we didn’t have to wait long to find out what Steve Marshall is all about.
Alabama’s newly elected attorney general took just 13 days before giving comfort to those of us who worried he was too involved in the quid pro quo that helped former Gov. Robert Bentley slip away with barely a slap on a wrist that should have been adorned with handcuffs. Last week he fired his office’s top political crimes prosecutor, Matt Hart, then hid behind the old “personnel matters” excuse to avoid explaining why.
Why would you fire the man who nailed corrupt former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard? The guy who helped evict the Luv Guv from the mansion? The fellow who so often has been the only face this crooked state has when it comes to holding corrupt politicians accountable?
If you’ve been paying attention, the answer appears quite obvious. Ever since Marshall was plucked from relative obscurity to become the state’s top lawyer, he has made one move after another that leaves little doubt he is part of a bigger plan.
Marshall was picked by Bentley to take over for Big Luther Strange, who was so power mad that the country-doctor governor was able to play a U.S. Senate seat as his get-out-of-jail-free card. Luther rose to the surface like a big, dumb bass and took the artificial lure, meeting with Bentley to solicit the dream job regardless of the legality and ethics of doing so, even while his office was actively investigating the governor.
The bribery was so obvious, so in-our-faces, that the only way it could possibly fly is by involving another politically ambitious person to help clear the table. Naturally Marshall couldn’t investigate the man who’d just given him a job, so he quickly recused himself but chose Ellen Brooks, a DA with a track record of letting big fish off the line. She “investigated” but came back saying it wasn’t that Bentley did nothing wrong, it’s just that there weren’t any laws against the bad things he did. The state just needs better laws, she offered with little explanation.
Never mind that Bentley and Luther met to discuss something of great value — a U.S. Senate seat — while the governor was under investigation. Never mind that Bentley sent armed law enforcement officers to a state employee’s home to try to retrieve the tape his wife had recorded of him and his girlfriend. Never mind that he’d paid Rebekah Mason through a strange “dark money” account no one has ever made public. Hell, never mind he used a state helicopter to fly his wallet to the beach after storming out after a fight with his wife. Apparently there are no laws against any of that. But let’s not forget, that’s the same excuse Brooks offered after her 2012 investigation of Hubbard.
Marshall’s firing of Hart just looks like the starter’s pistol on even more ramped-up political corruption throughout the state. And that’s saying something.
When Marshall met with our editorial board before the election, I asked him point-blank how he would respond to the many critics around this state who think he was in on the deal. He mealy-mouthed around that day, but I think we can consider this his definitive answer.
Pressed about whether his administration would get active about looking into whether Strange and Bentley colluded to make the governor’s problems go away in exchange for that senate seat, Marshall offered one of the more flabbergasting answers I’ve heard in my 51 years on this lovely planet. He said because of the sanctity of grand jury secrecy and his own recusal, Brooks could very well have already investigated Strange’s behavior and Marshall just wouldn’t know about it. He’s just not in the loop.
“There are just some things we may never know,” he said.
Spoken like a real bloodhound of an investigator.
The Hart firing/resignation wasn’t a big surprise, though. Marshall had been taking campaign money from Hubbard supporters, including the “Yella Fella” Jimmy Rane, who landed on the witness stand during his buddy’s trial, and reportedly wasn’t a fan of Hart’s style. Media reports as far back as the spring claimed Marshall had promised to investigate Hart.
And it’s understandable Marshall may not really want any gung-ho types stalking around his office, since he’s already up to his neck in ethical issues.
Somehow the state’s top lawyer managed to take $750,000 in PAC-to-PAC donations during the campaign even though such money laundering is illegal in Alabama. The flaccid Ethics Commission has twice passed on addressing the matter and some lawyers are trying to get the Montgomery County DA to get involved, but I doubt it’ll happen. If only there were a top-notch political prosecutor around …
Anyway, even if Marshall is able to weasel out of getting hammered for that move, you have to consider whether he is living up to the spirit of the law. The PAC-to-PAC ban was passed to keep candidates from hiding who’s giving them money. We can’t easily see who passed that $750,000 to Marshall through the Republican Attorney Generals Association PAC. If Marshall believed in transparency and the spirit of Alabama’s campaign laws, he wouldn’t be trying to argue that a loophole let him legally take RAGA’s money.
In addition to firing Hart last week, Marshall’s office also issued a rather odd press blast about the scourge of CBD oil in this state. If you’re unaware, CBD is the nonpsychoactive (won’t get you high) compound found in marijuana and hemp that has been determined to help people with seizure disorders, among other things. CBD has been for sale all over the state for a few years now and is being used by thousands.
But while public corruption or campaign law isn’t a front-burner issue for Marshall, hitting people with criminal charges for selling or possessing a harmless, buzz-less oil apparently is. A cynic might guess the issue became more front-and-center for him when the FDA approved an expensive CBD-based seizure medication earlier this year and the giant pharmaceutical company that holds the patent on the medicine got themselves high-falutin’ Alabama politico Steve Windom to lobby their causes.
Want to guess who’s been giving campaign cash to Marshall?
The CBD “clarification” offers a very interesting juxtaposition in considering Marshall’s priorities as attorney general. He has no interest in going after the Luv Guv or Big Luther, or even in finding out how Mason was paid. The firing of Hart seriously calls into question his desire to go after public corruption. He also told our editorial board he has no interest in his office digging into past molestation issues within the Catholic Church, as so many other AGs’ offices are doing around the country.
But what he is interested in is playing tough on drugs by going after an innocuous plant compound that’s helping thousands of people feel better and live more normal lives. For now we’ll assume donations weren’t part of the decision-making process.
Steve Marshall came into office with the Luv Guv stank all over him, and he knows that. He has four years to wash it off and prove the cynics wrong, but so far the stench is getting worse.