One thing being a newspaperman in Alabama affords me is the routine opportunity to reach new levels of incredulity at what is considered “normal” or “OK” behavior in state and local government.
Consider me on the Pike’s Peak of incredulity concerning Gov. Robert Bentley allowing some of his top staffers to be paid by outside organizations. For instance, Chief of Staff Seth Hammett was being paid by the PowerSouth Energy Cooperative in Andalusia instead of receiving a check bearing the seal of the great state of Alabama.
It’s sort of mind-boggling to consider a governor of a state would have a chief of staff whose salary is paid by a business, but that’s what we had until Hammett suddenly resigned a couple of weeks ago. Totally bizarre situation.
I’ll admit this wasn’t a huge secret, as it was reported in the media earlier this year, but it didn’t cross my radar screen until recently. And Bentley got an official okey-doke from the Alabama Ethics Commission, so I don’t suppose there was anything illegal about it. People really only started making noise about the situation after the governor’s wife decided to divorce him and the subsequent scuttlebutt about him possibly having an affair with chief adviser Rebekah Mason became the talk of the town.
While those pushing the Bentley-Mason liaison story were left kind of flat after the divorce documents were unsealed and Mrs. Bentley hadn’t filled them with tales of her dermatologist hubby performing nighttime “mole checks” on Rebekah, the fact Mason’s salary as an adviser is also not being paid by the governor’s office did bubble up. And Hammett’s arrangement made it back into the news.
Who exactly is paying Mason’s salary still doesn’t seem to be clear, although it appears most likely it’s a group named The Alabama Council for Excellent Government, which sounds like Wayne and Garth had a hand in the naming. The group is one of the dreaded 501(c) nonprofits politicians love to use to keep nosy people from looking at how money is being spent. In this case, ACEGOV, as it likes to be called, was the brainchild of Dr. Governor himself.
Of course some of this is the usual kind of shadiness we’re used to as Alabama citizens. Mobile, after all, has its fair share of 501(c)s, making it nearly impossible to follow quasi-governmental actions. But the part that still blows me away is that it’s OK for some of the state employees working closest to the governor to actually be someone else’s employees.
I guess in Mason’s case calling her an employee of ACEGOV is really not accurate, so much as she gets paid by it. And since Bentley ostensibly controls the nonprofit, one could argue it would be hard for it to use Mason to unduly influence the governor. It really just comes off looking like he wants to pay her in some way no one else can see.
But Hammett’s setup is a bird of a bit different feather. The company paying Seth’s bills provides wholesale power to 16 cooperatives and four municipal systems in Alabama and Florida and his title is vice president of business development. So, at least in theory, Seth had a whole other job working for a power company that just thought it would be cool to lend him to the governor while they still paid his salary.
A company spokesman was quoted saying, “We saw it as an opportunity to continue to work hand in hand with the governor’s staff. He [Hammett] continues to take care of his duties here.” In the same article, though, Bentley said, “He works for me.” Confusion sets in.
So how dumb are we all supposed to be? Dumb enough to lap up this from the State Ethics Commission in giving the deal a thumbs up? “The main prohibition, which I know Speaker Hammett, as well as the governor understand, is that, he cannot use his influence to benefit PowerSouth.” — Ethics Commission Chief Counsel Hugh Evans
Of course since Hammett, the former Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, was having his salary paid by PowerSouth, it means the public has no idea what his compensation was for managing two high-powered jobs at the same time. His predecessor in the governor’s office was making more than $170,000 a year, though.
So this is what we’re supposed to believe: that a big power company wanted to help out Gov. Bentley so much it sent a guy who is likely a very highly paid employee in charge of business development over to the governor’s office to help out, even though that employee was ethically bound never to do or say anything that would help the company paying his fat salary, AND the Alabama Ethics Commission is sure enough that wouldn’t happen that they sign off on it. Whew! I guess next they’ll want us to believe Nick Saban collects furbies.
I can totally understand why a company would want to donate a highly paid employee to someone else with the understanding it wouldn’t benefit them in any way. Sure. Happens all the time.
While Bentley has clearly created a lot of enemies in trying to raise taxes and pass his budget, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him when he’s pulling bush-league stunts like this. Regardless of whether the Ethics Commission puts a stamp on it, Bentley has to know having his chief of staff paid by a power company looks slimier than a hardhead catfish. Bentley can claim Hammett worked for him, but his paycheck says otherwise.
It seems like Dr. Governor is scrambling to try to get his house in order to some extent now, but it may be too late. With these types of shenanigans, Bentley’s got many voters counting the days until this lame duck governor waddles back to T-town.
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