Alabama State University paid Luther Strange at least $41,250 in apparent consulting fees during the 2010 campaign for state attorney general, according to a report yesterday in The Montgomery Independent. The payments raise new questions about possible conflicts of interest involving our state's chief prosecutor. And those conflicts take on heightened interest with this week's reopening of the VictoryLand casino amid renewed threats from Strange to close it down.
We have known for weeks that Strange received about $100,000 in campaign cash from the Poarch Creek Indians and seemingly has tried to reward them by targeting a prime competitor, VictoryLand, for possible raids and closure. Now the Alabama State story supplies new evidence that Strange conducts his official business by granting favors to those who supported his campaign. And it comes against the backdrop of a grand jury that Strange has convened in Montgomery, supposedly to investigate possible illegal actions of state office holders.
Is it possible that Strange himself belongs in the cross hairs of a criminal investigation? Could the attorney general be close to committing acts that meet the definition of bribery under federal law? Bob Martin, editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent, hints that the answer is yes. I will do more than hint at it; the facts, as we know them now, strongly suggest that Strange has engaged in illegal "quid pro quos" (something for something deals) that define federal bribery. And he might have broken the law, or be in the process of breaking the law, on at least two fronts--the Poarch Creek/VictoryLand issue and the Alabama State issue.
Let's take the ASU story first: The university likely will face an investigation after placing new president Joseph Silver on administrative leave when he started asking questions about campus contracts. According to The Independent, Strange did little or no work for Alabama State, and his cozy relationship with the school should preclude his participation in any investigation of the Joseph Silver matter.
Bob Martin reports that at least $15,000 of the payments to Strange came after he had won the primary and general elections and taken office as attorney general. How can a public official who has been paid by Alabama State conduct a thorough investigation of Alabama State? Martin suggests that he can't.
If Strange tries to protect his ASU benefactors from an investigation, could that amount to a "quid pro quo" that would violate federal bribery laws? Let's consider the evidence:
The checks from ASU to Strange came between May 24, 2010, and February 8, 2011, Martin reports. With Joseph Silver having launched a potential scandal at ASU, the attorney general finds himself in a touchy situation. Writes Martin:
This revelation comes at a time when Mr. Strange should be exercising the duties of his office by investigating the potential corruption at ASU arising out of the selection of a new president; [the president's] attempted investigation into campus contracts; and his subsequent placement on leave by the university's board of trustees.
But the acceptance of this money by Mr. Strange will, I believe, disqualify him from being involved in any ASU investigation or prosecution and may create more problems than that for him. It should, however, also mean that no "play for pay" allegations can be made in the upcoming ASU probe since the Alabama AG's office should be totally disqualified in my opinion.
The line in bold above suggests that Martin believes Strange is walking a thin ethical line. Martin then provides more information to back up his concerns:
This week I was provided a 17-page document listing nearly 700 ASU payments by check in 2010 and 2011 and involving multi-millions of dollars. The seven checks to Mr. Strange were not on this list. The first check to Mr. Strange was in the amount of $18,750, dated May 24, 2010. The remainder included one dated July 9, 2010, in the amount of $3,750; on August 16, 2010, in the amount of $3,750; on January 28, 2011, three checks each in the amount of $3,750; and on February 8, 2011, one in the amount of $3,750.
What did Strange do to earn those checks? Not much, reports Martin:
I have been told from more than one source that Strange did little or no work for ASU, which is now embroiled in a controversy over the attempted firing of its newly hired president, who was benched after he threatened to reveal bones buried on the ASU campus dealing with contracts and other matters.
A question must then follow as to whether or not some of those bones are associated with the attorney general, and if so, will they be brought before his very own grand jury, a panel which was put together initially several months back to investigate possible illegal actions of state office holders.
As for the Poarch Creeks, Strange appears to be earning his paychecks by harassing their competitors at VictoryLand, referring to the casino's reopening as "the path of confrontation." Writes Martin:
A few weeks ago, I reported about a $100,000 contribution Mr. Strange accepted from the Poarch Creek Indian Casinos in 2010. That should have confirmed Mr. Strange as the "gambling AG," but as he continues to threaten to close VictoryLand . . . , it merely confirms him as the newest pawn of the Poarch Creek Tribe. . . .
The attorney general owes the citizens of Alabama an explanation of these Poarch contributions, and with regard to the principle of equal justice, a clear recusal of his office in any action that might involve the Poarch Creeks or their competitors.
It also appears that Strange needs to come clean about his connections at Alabama State, especially if the Joseph Silver case leads to a criminal investigation.
Will Luther Strange prove to be an impartial and professional prosecutor or a glorified stooge who allows justice to be bought and sold? That question might shape one of the most important Alabama stories of 2013.