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Friday, April 7, 2017

Collins says campaign reimbursements were legal By Mary Sell Montgomery Bureau Apr 7, 2017

Blogger Comments:  Our hope is that Terri Collins did nothing wrong.  It is easy to misunderstand, take responsibility, and correct your issues.  It is also more honorable for people such as Governor Bentley to resign than to embarrass our state.  Unfortunately, he is unwilling to take responsibility for his actions and to correct them.  The same goes for Sheriff Ana Franklin as it does for Bentley.
MONTGOMERY — A Decatur lawmaker said her use of her campaign fund to pay for and to receive reimbursement for trips is allowable and likely different than alleged wrongdoing by Gov. Robert Bentley.
Rep. Terri Collins earlier this year said she used her campaign fund last year to attend some out-of-state conferences by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Southern Regional Education Board. They reimbursed the expenses and $1,046 was put back in her campaign account.
“I didn’t get any contributions (in 2016). I got a reimbursement of my expenses,” Collins, chair of the House Education Policy Committee, said Thursday.
State law says officials and candidates can’t accept campaign donations prior to a year before an election. They can receive donations up to 120 days after an election if they have outstanding campaign debt they are trying to clear.
The reimbursement to Collins' campaign fund, like a reimbursement to Bentley's campaign fund, was not within the timeline for allowable contributions.
State law says officials can use campaign funds for expenses related to their office.
“I’m education policy chair. I went to education policy conferences,” she said. She said she also talked to officials, including the secretary of state, about her use of the fund.
The Alabama Ethics Commission this week said that based on evidence it reviewed, there is probable cause Bentley violated state law, including taking in a campaign contribution when he shouldn’t have. Other allegations involve using public resources to further his personal interest, improperly using campaign funds by paying legal expenses that were not his and improperly making a loan to his campaign outside the allowable window and when he was not a candidate.
The possible violations have been referred to the Montgomery County district attorney. An intentional violation of the Alabama Ethics Act is a Class B felony, punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.
Secretary of State John Merrill said Thursday that beginning today, his office will review all officials' 2016 campaign finance reports. Any possible violations will be referred to the Ethics Commission.
“We want to go back and check them all,” Merrill said. “We don’t want anyone to think we’re playing favorites with any office holder and candidate because we’re not.”
Merrill said when in doubt about expenses or contributions, public officials should check with the Ethics Commission.
At least one other north Alabama lawmaker’s 2016 report showed she’d taken in money. Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, had more than $12,000 in receipts. Hall was not available for comment Thursday.
Merrill said the Ethics Commission’s findings against Bentley should be a reminder to all about the seriousness of campaign finance laws.
“If it’s not, my friend, I don’t know what it’s going to take to get someone’s attention,” he said.
In March of last year, Bentley accepted an $11,641 from the Republican Governor’s Association. Two days later, he reimbursed the state General Fund the same amount. Bentley had attended the association’s conference in Las Vegas, along with several members of his staff, and taken a state plane. Bentley’s legal team said Thursday that Bentley conducted state business on that trip.
They said context was important in all of the allegations against Bentley. Attorney David Byrne said the loan Bentley made to himself was so that he could pay legal bills.
Attorney Ross Garber also said ethics violations are not grounds for impeachment.
“I think his political detractors are using this as an opportunity,” Garber said later about the ethics allegations. “It was a political detractor who filed the complaint and now (Bentley) has some political detractors in the Legislature who are trying to use this.”
“… People are trying to establish a standard not just for Robert Bentley, but for all officials. It better be a standard that they can all live with.”
The House Judiciary Committee will begin impeachment hearings against Bentley on Monday.
Bentley has acknowledged in the last year making personal mistakes but has repeatedly said he’s done nothing illegal or that should get him removed from the governor’s office.
Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, a year ago called for an impeachment investigation of Bentley.
“There’s a slight vindication,” Henry said Thursday about the ethics committee’s decisions. “There were many in the leadership of the House a year ago that basically ridiculed me and the 22 others that signed the articles of impeachment.”
He now said he thinks there is enough support to impeach the governor.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for the governor to resign,” Henry said. “If he could resign without all the details that have been collected during the (House) investigation, it would save the state a huge national and international embarrassment.”
mary.sell@decaturdaily.com. Twitter @DD_MarySell.

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