Former Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin walked out of a federal courthouse a free woman last week, uttering that phrase so many Alabama politicians have come to cherish.
“It’s all behind us now.”
Yeah, OK. No harm, no foul. Nothing to see here. The past is past and the future’s so bright you get to wear shades instead of stripes.
It’s all behind us now.
Behind us like a truck bearing down. Behind us like a tailgater late for his tailgate. Behind us like a steamroller of corruption that taunts us in the rear view and threatens to flatten us in our future. Alabamians have come to expect a system that considers the crimes of the powerful to be forgivable. They have come to expect that the most influential people – those who control the money and the direction and the very freedom of other citizens – are more likely to commit crimes because they know they are more likely to get every benefit of the doubt. I mean, formerAlabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, the erstwhile most powerful human in Alabama politics, figured he could stand in the middle of Dexter Avenue and ask for money and favors, and the people who decide what’s right and wrong in Alabama’s so-called justice system would see no evil there. He was right. The people of Lee County found Hubbard guilty of wrongs and he was sentenced to four years in prison, but he hasn’t seen a day behind bars. The Alabama Supreme Court seems as if it is searching for a way to make a brother’s crimes go away.
And Franklin, that sheriff who took $160,000 from the fund meant to feed her county jail inmates and loaned most of it as an investment to a now-defunct criminal-owned car lot, won’t have to eat jail food for a single day.
Not one stinking corn dog. Not one powdered potato with mystery meat and sawmill goop.
After pleading guilty to willful failure to file a tax return on that money, Franklin acknowledged to prosecutors she knew her plea could result in a year in prison, a fine of up to $100,000 or both, not to mention the cost of prosecution and fees.
But she didn’t get jail. Or a fine. Or a lesson.
Magistrate Judge Herman N. Johnson Jr., as reported by AL.com’s Ashley Remkus, sentenced Franklin to two years of probation and 300 hours of community service. She does have to re-file three years of taxes, and pay any she avoided. Like everybody else.
But what she got was freedom. So after a long and sketchy tenure as Morgan County sheriff, it’s all in her past now.
But it’s not in ours. Because every time a public official commits a crime in Alabama or anywhere else, it makes people more cynical and suspicious of government, and less likely to trust it with their money or attention. And every time a politician gets away with it – Republican or Democrat or whatever comes next -- it makes citizens less likely to tune in to the workings of their city or state or country, and less likely that honest and ethical people will bother to seek leadership roles.
And that’s a crime against all of us. Public officials rightly face a higher standard, for as Thomas Jefferson himself said, “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself public property.”
They should never get a slap on the wrist. Because that’s a slap in our face.
John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a columnist for Reckon by AL.com. His column appears in The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register and AL.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.