Luther Strange has been Alabama attorney general for less than one month, and he already is sending signals that he intends to use his office as a political weapon. We would suggest that Governor Robert Bentley and his associates watch their backs--very closely.
If Strange indeed acts as a political tool, it will be a continuation of modern Alabama history, especially when a Republican sits in the AG's chair. Remember that the political prosecution of former Governor Don Siegelman started with an investigation by William Pryor, a Karl Rove acolyte who served as attorney general from 1997 to 2003. The Siegelman case only became a federal matter after George W. Bush was "elected" president and named Leura Canary as U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama.
Pryor was rewarded with a federal judgeship on the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Strange is showing signs that he will use the AG's office to help further his political career.
The first hint came when Bob Martin, of The Montgomery Independent, reported that outgoing Governor Bob Riley had tried to cut a deal with Strange. In exchange for Strange agreeing to "protect" Riley's children and steer state dollars their way, Riley would raise $2 million to help Strange run for governor in 2014.
(Here is an obvious question: Why do Bob Riley's children need to be "protected"? And protected from whom? Law enforcement? If so, that implies the kiddies have done something wrong, doesn't it? Gee, wonder what that might be.)
The second hint came last week when Strange announced, with much blaring of trumpets from The Birmingham News, that he had hired Matt Hart as a "public corruption special prosecutor." Hart served as a federal prosecutor under Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama during the Bush years.
During that time, Hart seemed to specialize in political prosecutions of Democrats, such as former Alabama Rep. Sue Schmitz and former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford. Hart played a prominent role in the first Siegelman prosecution, which was thrown out of court in Birmingham, leading to a second prosecution in Mongomery.
Hart reportedly was involved in the prosecution of one Republican, former Jefferson County Commissioner Gary White. But history has shown that White was prosecuted only because he refused to testify falsely against Siegelman. Judy White, Gary's wife, filed an affidavit stating that federal authorities repeatedly pressured her husband to make false statements regarding Siegelman. (See affidavit below.)
I've encountered Matt Hart in an up close and personal way, and he didn't come across as the sort of person who has any business overseeing criminal cases at any level. Here is how we reported it in an earlier post:
I had a brief encounter with Mr. Hart a few years ago, and I came away unimpressed. I called him in an effort to let him know about criminal conduct I had witnessed from Republican judges and lawyers in Shelby County, Alabama. Hart made it clear that investigating Republicans was not a high priority in the Alice Martin era. Here's how I described the experience with Hart, as part of my effort to alert the FBI and other law-enforcement officials of GOP sleaze in Shelby County:
Somehow, I came up with an e-mail address for Matt Hart, director of the white-collar crime unit. I sent him an e-mail and never received a reply. I decided to take a shot at calling his office, and by some miracle, managed to get him on the phone. First, Hart told me I didn't have a clue about the applicable law--honest services mail fraud. When I made it clear that I certainly did know about both the statutory and case law behind honest services mail fraud, Hart changed his tune. Whether I had been the victim of a crime or not, Hart was "kicking" my case. "I kick cases all the time," he said. I found it interesting that he could "kick" a case he hadn't even looked at yet.
Hart sounded real interested in GOP public corruption, didn't he?
I suspect Hart will continue to wear political blinders in his role with Luther Strange. But that might not preclude him from going after certain Republicans, especially if it can help his boss.
Under Alice Martin, Hart tended to practice his thuggish ways against Democrats, and that might continue in the Alabama Attorney General's Office. But how many high-profile Democrats are left in public office in Alabama? I can't think of many prime targets for Hart to pursue. If Luther Strange's No. 1 goal is to become governor in 2014, that means he will need to attack the current office holder, fellow Republican Robert Bentley. And we suspect that will be Matt Hart's primary role.
Here is one thing we have learned in recent months: Not all Alabama Republicans fit into the corrupt, fat-cat, pro-Riley arm of their party. In fact, multiple sources have told me that quite a few Republicans despise Bob Riley and his cronies, who collectively are described as "Riley Inc."
One source says it's likely that Strange has promised to push Hart for attorney general if Hart can help take down Bentley and open the governor's chair for "Big Luther" in 2014.
Let's count the number of quid pro quos that might be going on here:
* Bob Riley promises to raise $2 million for Strange's run at the governor's chair if Strange will "protect" Riley's children and steer state dollars their way.
* Strange agrees to do it, with assurances from Riley that Bentley's tenure as governor will be a "disaster."
* In order to help make sure Bentley's term is a "disaster," Strange hires Matt Hart to go after members of the governor's administration, helping to portray Bentley as "corrupt"--much the way Pryor did with Don Siegelman roughly a dozen years ago.
* Strange, riding high as a front runner over the weakened Bentley, throws his support behind Matt Hart as attorney general.
All of this, if proven in a court of law, would amount to massive federal crimes. It's much too early to know if the above scenario actually will play out. But if I were a part of Robert Bentley's administration, I would definitely be on the look out.
As for Strange, he might want to watch his step, too. He is a former partner at the Birmingham law firm of Bradley Arant, which might be one of the most corrupt outfits in our state--and that's saying something. We've seen firsthand evidence of possible unlawful actions by Bradley Arant attorneys, helping to pervert the justice system in a sickening fashion that harms children. We've seen no signs yet that Strange is involved in that case. But a source tells us that Strange directly was involved in a Bradley Arant scheme that could bring most unwelcome attention to the firm--and Big Luther himself.
The bottom line? Luther Strange's tenure as attorney general could get very interesting, very quickly.
Here is Judy White's affidavit, which says a lot about how Matt Hart and his associates tend to operate:
Judy White Affidavit