Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange reportedly has agreed to return $7.9 million his office received as former Governor Bob Riley's term was winding down.
Riley, on the Friday before his term ended in January, transferred the money from the state's BP oil-spill account. Current Governor Robert Bentley has asked for the funds to be returned, according to a report today from Dothan-based rickeystokesnews.com. Rebekah Caldwell Mason, Bentley's communications director, says Strange has agreed to return the funds.
It all reminds us of a classic John Fogerty song, one Alabamians need to learn and remember. More on that in a minute.
Dave Stewart, who was Riley's chief of staff, reportedly engineered the suspicious transfer. Stewart has joined Bradley Arant, the Birmingham law firm that received millions in taxpayer dollars during the Riley era. Stewart has been unavailable for comment about the $7.9 million deal with Luther Strange, who is a former partner at Bradley Arant.
What were Riley and Strange trying to pull, with Stewart's help? Was Sonny Reagan, Riley's former legal adviser who now works for Strange, involved? Was this part of a reported plan for Riley to support Strange for governor in 2014 in exchange for the AG "protecting" Riley's children (Rob Riley and Minda Riley Campbell) and steering state dollars their way?
The answer to those questions remain unclear, but the deal clearly is emitting a foul odor. Reports Dana Beyerle for The Gadsen Times:
The $7.9 million in unrestricted funds that Riley transferred from the state’s BP oil spill account was earmarked for litigation relating to the oil spill and to anti-gambling efforts, according to a Legislative Fiscal Office memo.
“I know they transferred money for legal expenses,” Riley said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
He said details were handled by his former chief of staff, who could not be immediately reached for comment.
The deal immediately produced howls of protest from several quarters. Alan Collins, of myfoxal.com, reported that a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Office confirmed the deal:
"According to the Office of Attorney General, it plans to spend those funds in FY 2011 and FY 2012 on salary, benefits, and professional services expenses incurred for litigation related to the oil spill and gambling," the memo said.
The transfer occurred three days before Riley left office.
Legislators, understandably, had questions about an attempted end run around propriety--and perhaps the law:
"Somewhere along the line, Bentley should say I'm governor of this state and I should have a say about the money being transferred," Birmingham Rep. John Rogers said.
Rogers sits on the legislature's budget writing committee. He questions spending BP money on anything other than oil spill litigation.
Troy King, Strange's predecessor as attorney general, also found the deal troubling:
The memo says the attorney general's office claims there are no restrictions on the funds use. Former Attorney General Troy King, who was attorney general at the time, knew nothing of the transfer. King has butted heads with Riley over the Illegal Gambling Task Force and suing BP.
King also questions the use of BP money to fight gambling.
"The state of Alabama represented to BP that any money we received from them were going to mitigate and pay for damages that was done by them on Alabama's gulf coast," King said.
What's our take on the story? It seems clear that Bob Riley and Luther Strange have formed an alliance, through their mutual ties to Bradley Arant, essentially trying to keep the Riley agenda alive even though Robert Bentley now is governor.
What is the Riley agenda? Ensuring that his family members and cronies can continue to benefit from state dollars seems to be the No. 1 action item. Our guess is that Rob Riley, Minda Riley Campbell, and the fine attorneys at Bradley Arant have enjoyed having their sticky fingers in the state cookie jar for eight years--and they don't want to see them removed.
It's all reminiscent of a song called "Zanz Kant Danz" by the immortal John Fogerty. The song is a thinly veiled shot at Saul Zaentz, the head of Fantasy Records when Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival were tearing up the charts in the late 1960s and early '70s. Zaentz filed a lawsuit, and the song's title was changed to "Vanz Kant Danz." The tune is on Fogerty's Centerfield album, and I am proud to say that my cherished vinyl copy has the original title for its most controversial song. (I keep telling Mrs. Schnauzer the record might be worth something someday; she's not holding her breath.)
What's the song about? Zanz is a little pig who can't dance but is prone to make off with money that doesn't belong to him. "Watch him or he'll rob you blind," Fogerty sings.
Alabama citizens had better pay attention to that theme. We have plenty of little pigs running around in our fine state. Here is a live version of a John Fogerty classic: