|The Bullock County Courthouse|
in Union Springs
The five commissioners who govern a rural Alabama county were arrested last week. What did the entire Bullock County Commission do to merit being charged with felonies? They violated the Alabama Competitive Bid Law, according to a statement from the state attorney general's office.
It's certainly possible that Bullock County's finances and procedures are a wreck--and that criminal activity was involved. Violations reportedly showed up when the Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts conducted an audit from October 2008 to September 2009. Irregularities also appeared on audits in 2006 and '07.
But a reasonable person, looking at the broad picture, could ask: Was the real reason these people were arrested that they represent a county that is mostly black, relatively poor, and largely Democratic? In other words, are political prosecutions still the tool of choice for the conservative elites who rule Karl Rove's Alabama--even with Barack Obama in the White House? Are such shenanigans still going on in other "deep red" regions of the country?
Alabama's new attorney general, elected in the Republican windfall of November 2010, is Luther Strange. "Big Luther" is a former oil lobbyist who used to work at Birmingham's Bradley Arant, one of the most right-wing, "pro business" law firms in the state. Strange also fell out of the "Bob Riley Political Family Tree," which includes some pretty ugly branches, bearing names such as Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Bill Canary, and of course, Karl Rove.
When Bob Riley was Alabama's governor from 2002-2010, Bradley Arant received millions of dollars in state contracts--and the firm employs Riley's son-in-law, Rob Campbell. Before Riley left office, he reportedly met with Strange to cut a deal--if Strange would pledge to protect the Riley children (Rob, Minda, and Krisalyn) and steer state dollars their way, Riley would help raise funds for a future Strange run at the governor's mansion.
The inquiry into Bullock County's finances started under the Riley administration, with Strange following through now on arrests. Is this payback for some slight that Riley perceived coming from Bullock County during his administration? Could this be part of a larger GOP plan to continue terrorizing Democrats in the Deep South?
To arrive at possible answers to those questions, it helps to understand the demographics of Bullock County. The county is 74.9 percent black, with a median household income of $24,440, well below the state average of $40,489. In the 2008 presidential election, Bullock County gave 74.2 percent of its vote to Barack Obama, with 25.7 percent to John McCain.
Bullock belongs to a strip of counties that starts to the northwest of Montgomery and runs to the capital city's southeast, representing what passes for a Democratic stronghold in Alabama.
What did the commissioners in Bullock County allegedly do that was so awful? Here is how one news report summarized it:
Attorney General Luther Strange announced the arrests of all five members of the Bullock County Commission on felony charges of bid law violations. The commission chairman is additionally charged with an ethics law violation.
Commission Chairman Ronald Wynord Smith, 56, of Union Springs, was arrested last night, as was Commissioner John Livingston Adams, 43, also of Union Springs. The remaining commissioners, who were arrested today, are Dock McGowan, 82, of Banks; Alonza Ellis Jr., 45, of Union Springs; and James McArthur Perry, 64, of Union Springs.
Attorney General Strange's Office presented evidence to a Bullock County grand jury, resulting in the indictments on May 18. Specifically, the indictments charge each commissioner with one count of intentionally, knowingly or recklessly spending an amount greater than $15,000 for inmate food at the Bullock County Jail without entering into free and open competitive sealed bids, in violation of Code of Alabama, Section 41-16-50. Additionally, the chairman, Smith, is charged with failure, as the head of a governmental agency, to report a possible ethics law violation.
The report goes on to state:
The matter was referred to the Attorney General's Office by the Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts. An audit covering the time period of October 2008 to September 2009 included a finding by the Examiners that “The Code of Alabama 1975, Section 41-16-50, states that all expenditure of funds of whatever nature for labor, services, work, or for the purchase of materials, equipment, supplies, or other personal property involving $15,000.00 or more should be subject to the Alabama Competitive Bid Law. The Commission paid at least $61,000.00 for supplies and $24,000.00 for food for the Jail without letting bids as required by the Alabama Competitive Bid Law.”
This involved food for inmates and a sum totaling $85,000. If we are to believe that the five commissioners conspired to enrich themselves, it looks like they each made $17,000. At this point, it's unclear if anyone benefited at all from this; the commissioners might mainly be guilty of sloppy or inadequate paperwork.
Was someone lax about following procedures in Bullock County? Possibly. Was someone getting rich off this scheme? Doesn't look like it. Does this merit punishment that could total 10 years imprisonment for each commissioner? We don't think so.
While we are in "question mode," here are a couple to consider: What are the chances that Luther Strange and the Alabama Examiner of Public Accounts will take a look at the books from Bob Riley's reign as governor, noting the gravy train that ran to Bradley Arant and the Riley Jackson law firm, headed by Rob Riley in Homewood? I suspect Sheryl Crow will bear Karl Rove's love child before we see that happen.
And what about this: The state's two major public universities, the University of Alabama and Auburn University, are run by boards that include some of the most prominent business titans in our state--and those institutions are subject to the competitive bid law. I've definitely seen signs that UA's campus in Birmingham (UAB) plays fast and loose with the bid law, and we will be taking a closer look at that. What are the chances that Big Luther and the Montgomery crowd will invade one of those hallowed campuses to arrest administrators and charge them with felonies? Did I mention Sheryl Crow, Karl Rove, and their love child?
This issue hits close to home because Mrs. Schnauzer and I have received an up-close look at the way a predominantly white county conducts business. We live in Shelby County, which is 86.7 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican. We know from first-hand experience that our county seat, Columbiana, is one of the most corrupt little hellholes on the planet. If financial hanky-panky was connected to the Shelby County Sheriff's Office--and I would bet my collection of Fleetwood Mac albums that it is--how would that be handled by Luther Strange and Co.? These options come to mind:
A. Ignore it
B. Quietly bring it to a commissioner's attention and say, "Please try not to do this anymore--or at least do a better job of hiding it. In fact, here is how you can hide it."
C. Arrest every commissioner and charge them with felonies.
"A" is the likely outcome, "B" is possible, and "C" comes under the heading of "no chance, no how, no way."
Shelby County commissioners could be burning babies and feeding them to wolverines, and they wouldn't suffer the indignities of "C." (If the babies were white future Republicans, option "B" would be called for; if the babies were "of color," option "A" would be the go-to choice.)
Folks who think America has reached a heightened state of reasonableness on race issues in the Age of Obama, might want to take a second look at what's going on in Bullock County, Alabama.