Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why Lowell Barron Will Walk Away a Free Man, or, Why Luther Strange Will Never Be Governor - Part I


One of this year’s leading political news stories was the indictment of former State Senator Lowell Barron, shown here before his crippling tractor accident last year, and his former campaign employee Jill Johnson, on charges of violating the Alabama Ethics Act and the Fair Campaign Practices Act. As if on cue, media sources from across Alabama, which have never mentioned the corruption of “Choctaw Bob” Riley or Speaker Mike Hubbard, jumped on the story as an example of “corrupt Democrats.”

The relevant facts of this case are a matter of public record, fully disclosed in Barron’s campaign filings. Jill Johnson was a long-time political employee of Barron, and she is known all across his former district for her campaign and constituent services work. When Shad “Hands Off, He’s My Man!” McGill upset Barron in the 2010 general election, Barron had no further need of a campaign staffer. Like many grateful employers, Barron gave Johnson a well-earned severance bonus. He gave her title to the campaign’s high-mileage, four-year-old Toyota Camry, and two cash payments of $6,000.00 and $50,000.00. The indictment also charges Barron and Johnson for a payment of $2,000.00 during the campaign. I guess Republican Attorney General Luther Strange hasn’t practiced enough real law to know that it’s a crime under § 16 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C. § 216) not to pay your employees their wages.

In fact, his lack of real legal experience notwithstanding, Strange knows that his indictment of Barron and Johnson is frivolous, perhaps to the point of being unethical conduct on his part as a member of the Alabama Bar. In this post, I am going to look at the Ethics Act charges against Barron and Johnson. In a future post, I will talk about the Fair Campaign Practices Act part of the indictment.


 When Alabama first adopted the Ethics Act in 1973, it was one of the first of its kind in the country. To be sure, over the years, it has provided the means for ridding Alabama politics of a number of unsavory political figures. Republican Governor Guy Hunt comes to mind. Sometimes, it has been criticized as being too strictly applied, as when the Ethics Commission has fined public employees for using the office fax machine for a local personal fax, at no cost to the taxpayers. In balance, though, the law has been beneficial for the state. It is Strange’s blatantly political use of the Act – in the year before an election in which Barron is rumored to be seeking to regain his Senate seat – that is so worthy of condemnation.

The provision of the Ethics Act that Barron and Johnson have been charged with violating is deceptively simple:

Contributions to an office holder, a candidate, or to a public official’s inaugural or transitional fund shall not be converted to personal use. Ala. Code § 36-25-6.

Now, the first thing anyone has to realize is that this part of the Ethics Law only reaches contributions to Barron’s campaign. This case does not involve one penny of taxpayer money. The second is, as noted above, that Barron properly disclosed these payments on his campaign disclosure reports, which are available to anyone online. Finally, according to lawyers involved in the case, Johnson reported receiving these payments on her income tax returns, and paid tax on them. I think we can safely assume that is true, because otherwise she would have been charged with tax evasion.

Let’s unpack the language of the statute. No one is denying that the funds were campaign funds, or, in the words of the statute, “contributions to an office holder [or] a candidate ...” The only question is whether the payments caused contributions to be “converted to personal use.” Now, if Barron had paid these funds to himself, there would be no question that the law had been violated. That is the thing – with inauguration contributions – that got Guy Hunt convicted. But none of the payments in the indictment were to Senator Barron. They were to Johnson. So, Barron and Johnson are only guilty of violating the Ethics Act if payments to her constitute “conversion to personal use.”

Obviously, that phrase “converted to personal use” is the key to these charges. The Ethics Act does not define “personal use.” This leaves no obvious answer to the question, whose “personal use” are we talking about? When it comes to the Alabama Ethics Act, I think it’s safe to say that no one knows more about it than the Alabama Ethics Commission, the independent agency that enforces it. Their staff spends a minimum of 40 hours every week thinking about it, and the Commissioners themselves spend countless hours studying it before and during meetings. In a 2005 opinion to Circuit Judge Joseph Brogden of Escambia County, the Commission had this to say about this statute:

Provided the disposition of excess campaign funds are not converted to the personal use of the candidate, a member of his or her family or a business with which he or she is associated, the disposition of excess campaign funds is controlled [only] by The Fair Campaign Practices Act, found in Title 17 of the Code of Alabama. Alabama Ethics Commission, Advisory Opinion No. 2005-15 to Hon. Joseph Brogden, p. 5 (April 6, 2005)(emphasis added)(approving transfer of surplus campaign funds to church of which officeholder was member, on proviso that he was not an officer or director, and advising that such a transfer was only subject to the FCPA).

In other words, if the transfer is not to the candidate/officeholder, his family member, or his business, Ala. Code § 36-25-6, which is what Barron and Johnson are charged with violating, does not apply to the transfer, and there is no crime. Yes, this Opinion adds words (“a member of his or her family or a business with which he or she is associated”) that are in the statute only by implication, limiting “personal use” to the candidate/officeholder or his family. But when you think about it, no other reading of the law makes sense. 

First, at some point, when campaign contributions are spent on the campaign, they are going to be “converted” to someone’s personal use. When a candidate buys a radio spot, the funds are “converted to the personal use” of the owner of the radio station. Purchase of a newspaper ad means campaign contributions are “converted to the personal use” of the owner of the newspaper. The newspapers that have been condemning Barron without a trial ought to think long and hard about what that interpretation means to their owners. And today, every campaign above the level of dogcatcher has at least one paid staffer. There is no real difference in the legitimate remuneration of a staff member, and the purchase of an ad in the media. If candidates are to exercise their First Amendment right to campaign, contributions to their campaigns have to be “converted to the personal use” of their staff and vendors. “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits ... fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310, 349 (2010). Hiring and paying a campaign staff member is “simply engaging in political speech.”

Secondly, the interpretation of the Ethics Commission makes even more sense when you think about the obvious purpose of this section. Both the Ethics Act and the Criminal Code have bribery provisions. This provision is just a backstop to them. If it weren’t there, a candidate or officeholder could evade a bribery charge by just having the bribing party make a contribution to his campaign, then disburse the funds to himself, rather than directly pocketing a bribe. That’s obviously not an issue when the money goes to a staffer who is not a candidate’s family member.

Finally, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 has a very similar prohibition stating that a “contribution or donation described in subsection (a) of this section shall not be converted by any person to personal use.” 2 U.S.C.A. § 439a(b)(2). The Federal Election Commission has interpreted that statute to prohibit only transfers to the candidate or his family, and even then, allows such payments if the payment to a family member for campaign work is not “in excess of the fair market value of the services provided.” 11 C.F.R. § 113.1(g)(1)(H). Ms. Johnson, it goes without saying, is not a member of Senator Barron’s family.

In short, Senator Barron’s payment of compensation to his staffer, for work done, is not a violation of the Alabama Ethics Act. Attorney General Strange and his assistants know this, and should never have charged Senator Barron or Ms. Johnson. In fact, this law is so clear, that Attorney General Strange has probably violated Rule 3.8 of the Rules of Professional Conduct of the Alabama Bar, which states that a “prosecutor in a criminal case shall ... refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause.” A criminal defense lawyer I know recently pointed out to me that there have been many cases where both trial and appellate courts have thrown out convictions of even clearly guilty murderers because of intentional prosecutorial misconduct. He went on to tell me that he had searched the back issues of The Alabama Lawyer, in which all disbarments, suspensions, and reprimands of lawyers are published, and had never found a single case in which a prosecutor had been given a sanction for prosecutorial misconduct. (I welcome any correction to that observation in the Comments.) Not even when that misconduct was in a death penalty case. Perhaps this will be the case that changes that.
North Carolina disbarred Mike Nifong, the district attorney who brought bogus rape charges against members of the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006. At least Nifong had a witness who claimed to have been a victim of an actual crime. Perhaps someone with skin in the game will file a complaint with the Alabama Bar when these charges are disposed, and we can do as well as North Carolina.

There is another rule – this one a rule of common sense, involving glass houses and stones – that Attorney General Strange seems to have violated. Meet Jessica Medeiros Garrison. The photo below shows the petite Ms. Garrison next to the 6’9”, former college basketball player, Mr. Strange.
Like Ms. Johnson, Ms. Garrison spent 2010 working for a
candidate. In her case, the candidate was her fellow Mountain Brook resident, Luther Strange. She also owns a corporation, MDM27 Holdings, Inc., which tells the Secretary of State that its purpose is to provide “political marketing services.” As Strange’s 2010 campaign expenditure disclosures show, one of MDM27 Holding’s clients was his campaign. As calculated by the blog Legal Schnauzer, based on these compiled expenditure disclosures, Ms. Garrison and her corporation “converted to [her] personal use,” by Strange’s definition, some $227,727.99 of the campaign contributions to the Strange campaign - over three times what Senator Barron paid Ms. Johnson. You can review these reports, and a compilation of the sums paid Ms. Garrison, and check Legal Schnauzer’s math, here:

Ms. Garrison was paid for all this “work” while, as these reports show, Strange had different firms and consultants handling most of the parts of his campaign, such as media, polling, direct mail, and so forth. During part of the time in which she was getting these payments, she had joined the payroll of a white-shoe Birmingham law firm, Balch and Bingham, and couldn’t have been working full time for Strange. Nice work if you can get it.

Now, since the Attorney General is doing the exact same thing for which he indicted Senator Barron and Ms. Johnson, may we presume he will demand that he and Ms. Garrison be indicted, as well? That would, of course, be the honorable thing. And surely, the Attorney General is an honorable man. His fellow Republicans – Governor Bentley and Speaker Hubbard included – allowed contributions to their campaigns to be “converted to personal use” by their staffs.
Will Mr. Strange see to it they are indicted? That would be the honorable thing, and surely the Attorney General is an honorable man. So are they all, all honorable men.

I would ask that the readers of this post, and the coming post on the Fair Campaign Practices Act, do a service for their State, but more importantly, for Senator Barron and Ms. Johnson. Attorney General Strange has played this case for maximum political effect. His investigator arrested Ms. Johnson, and coordinated her arrival at the DeKalb County Jail with the news media. The major media in this state, especially our three largest newspapers and their joint website, have relied almost exclusively on the Attorney General’s office for the “facts” and “law” of this case, and have accurately reported neither as a result. What I want you to do, reader, is bookmark this post, and the coming Part II, in your browser. Keep your eyes on both the TV and newspaper coverage of this case as it proceeds. If you see a story about the case that does not point out the identical behavior of Mr. Strange and Ms. Garrison, or fails to point out the interpretation of the law by the Ethics Commission means there was no violation, get the reporter’s email, and send them a link to this post and/or Part II. Tell them you expect them to do better, since the information about the Attorney General and his “consultant” is also a matter of public record. Tell them you expect them to accurately report the law, as these posts set out, and attorneys for Senator Barron and Ms. Johnson will doubtless do in court. Send letters to the editor

This is not a criminal prosecution, because there has not been a crime. As a result, these charges will not stand up, regardless of what the media report. But if we can keep the media honest, not only will Senator Barron and Ms. Johnson walk away vindicated, the real criminal in this case – Luther Strange – will limp back to Montgomery with his dream of riding Barron and Johnson into the Governor’s Mansion in tatters. We can control the headlines with pressure on the media.

Before I close this Part I, let’s return to the cute, petite, pixyish Ms. Garrison. What on earth would Ms. Garrison do with that kind of money “converted to [her] personal use?” Well, it costs a lot to raise a proper Mountain Brook kid these days. Meet Michael Garrison, who just turned six in March, sitting next to Mommy, and, as you can see with your own eyes, already reaching her ears. Isn’t he a cute, tall six-year-old, growing like a weed on triple-13?

Stay tuned, friends, for Part II. And would someone get General Strange something to drink? He is not looking at all well over there.

11 comments:

  1. This was a very enlightening read....can't wait to read part 2...let's hope that Senator Barron walks free with his head held high, and the glass house residents intent on throwing stones have glass masters on speed dial...we don't need a strange governor anymore than we need a plastic governor...hoping after the past UN-Accountability legislation session that the dominoes fall very hard...

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  2. Publius,
    Can you get confirmation from Ms. Johnson that none of the money she received from the campaign ended up in Senator Barron's hands...or his bank accounts?

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    1. No, I cannot get confirmation or denial from Ms. Johnson about anything. However, I can tell you why your premise is implausible in the extreme. First, Barron is an exceptionally successful businessman. That I know of, Barron owns some kind of window manufacturing company at Fyffe, and the apartment complex at which he was injured is one of only several he owns. He hardly needs $58,000.00 in cash, certainly not badly enough to risk jail for it. And even speculation about re-transfer wouldn’t apply to the car. You can hardly launder a car back through a bank account.

      More importantly, if there were any evidence to support that, Strange would have been able to get an indictment from the Jackson County Grand Jury, where he failed to do so, despite repeated efforts. And he wouldn’t have needed repeated grand jury meetings, over months, to get the indictment he finally obtained in DeKalb County. Finally, in order to protect the indictment from dismissal, and to satisfy the law regarding fair notice of the charges, that “fact,” if it exists and Strange is relying on it, should have been specifically alleged in the indictment. Failure to do so would preclude use of that allegation at trial. If I am charged with “shooting” somebody on a certain date in Montgomery, I may think I am OK, because I have five witnesses and airline records who can put me in New York all that week. The prosecutor can’t indict me with a misleading indictment that says “Publius shot Jane Doe in Montgomery on June 10, 2013,” and wait on me to show at trial with my witnesses, then try to put on proof that I set a booby trap that shot Jane that day.

      All of which fails to take into account that Strange wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to add that “fact” to his press release, if there were any evidence for it.

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    2. Publius, if Ms. Johnson transferred some of the campaign money that she received back to Senator Barron, do you think that would that be a violation of the ethics law or the campaign finance law? I'm thinking that's probably what happened. Please ask them or their attorneys and let us know what they say.

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    3. @ Anonymous June 12, 2013 at 10:54 PM:

      For the reasons I set out in my June 10, 2013 at 9:37 PM post, your presumption is implausible. It’s like accusing Bill Gates of shoplifting a candy bar – why would he? You say “I'm thinking that's probably what happened.” I would be very interested to know any facts in your possession that would support such an assertion. Do you know something the rest of us don’t?

      What I do know is, the indictment, as returned, does not allege a crime. Even my ironic assertions that Strange is guilty for paying Ms. Garrison are just that – ironic. If Strange has evidence that the Johnson payments were a sham transaction, he could and should have averred that in the indictments. It is basic criminal procedure that the sham nature of an otherwise legal transaction has to be specifically averred in an indictment or information. United States v. Rigas, 490 F.3d 208, 227 (2nd Cir. 2007)(bank fraud; sham nature of transactions averred); United States v. Scott, 37 F.3d 1564, 1575-76 (10th Cir. 1994)(tax obstruction; sham status of trusts averred). If the evidence is there, what you are essentially saying is that the Attorney General’s staff doesn’t know how to draft a proper indictment. It seems more logical that the evidence isn’t there.

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  3. When can we expect Part Two???? Can hardly wait!!!

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  4. This is BS reporting. Gotta be a sick dude to waste time writting a blog like this

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    1. Big Luther looks sleazy.

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    2. Big Luther looks sleazy.

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  5. What a solid post this is and more informative that's help all to know Alabama Democrats problems .. flsa status fair labor standards act [/url] Fair labor standard act is working for United state Federal and local law relating labor standards and to help all employer their right and law under role of law. All worker can be conscious about any kind of the labor law to read http://flsa.net/

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