Ken Hare In Depth: Despite political shift, Alabama political sc - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

Ken Hare In Depth: Despite political shift, Alabama political scandals still alive

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

The French have a proverb that's been around since the 19th century, but it still applies so well today to political scandals in Alabama:  "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

In other words, when it comes to scandals involving the state's political leaders, I believe that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the past two decades, the political landscape in Alabama has been transformed from one almost totally dominated by Democrats to one in which Republicans control all statewide elective offices and both chambers of the Legislature.

But as events of recent weeks have shown, political scandals involving legislators are still a fact of life in Alabama politics. It's also clear that some of the Republicans who took over from the Democrats aren't immune from cutting ethical corners. 

For months now, speculation around Goat Hill has centered around a grand jury investigation aimed at the Alabama Legislature. That speculation proved to have at least some substance when veteran Republican legislator Greg Wren of Montgomery recently pleaded guilty to an ethics charge. His plea agreement made it clear that he was cooperating in a much deeper probe into the Legislature.

The revelations in Wren's plea deal have emboldened critics of the GOP leadership in Montgomery. One shadowy group, the Foundation for Limited Government, has gone so far as to run an attack ad that claims that when it comes to scandals, "it's even worse" than before. (As of this writing, the foundation has refused to reveal its donors.)

That claim, dear reader, is political hype, at least for now. Political corruption in Alabama may  be as bad as before, but it's difficult to imagine that it is worse.

It remains to be seen whether the Wren indictment is just the opening wedge in what will become a full-fledged political scandal involving widespread political corruption. But even if the  probe spreads, it's going to have to grow by leaps and bounds to eclipse the scandals Alabama has seen in state government in the past two decades.

Consider that since the 1990s, Alabama has had two governors -- one a Republican, one a Democrat -- removed from office following criminal convictions.

The late Guy Hunt's removal from the governor's office in 1993 essentially involved just the GOP governor's own mishandling of political donations for personal use. Democrat Don Siegelman's conviction in 2005 mostly revolved around the governor's office.  

Not a single one of the many rumors I have heard suggest that the current investigation will involve Gov. Robert Bentley.

There have been two other major scandals in recent years that focused on the Legislature. One was the long-running and sweeping investigation of the state's two-year college system, and the other involved allegations of vote-buying involving casino gambling.

The two-year college corruption scandal, which first surfaced publicly in 2006, took more than three years to unwind. Like the current federal probe, it started as rumors. Eventually it brought down the chancellor of the state's two-year college system, a former powerful Alabama legislator who pleaded guilty to accepting or facilitating more than $1 million in graft for himself, family members and political allies.

In addition, two Democratic legislators who also worked in the two-year college system were found guilty of using their dual roles to raid public coffers. Two public college presidents were also caught in the scandal, as well as businessmen and family members of others convicted in the probe.

The two-year college corruption scandal led to the passage of legislation aimed at preventing legislators from also working for public colleges -- a prohibition against so-called "double dipping" that will go into effect following the general election in November.

The two-year college probe had just wound down when rumors surfaced of another investigation, this time involving legislation to approve widespread casino-style gambling in the state. Those rumors eventually proved to have substance when 11 people, including four state senators, were indicted in 2010.

When the case was over, only four people were found guilty -- a casino developer, two lobbyists, and a Democratic state representative, each of whom pleaded guilty. All those who went to trial were acquitted.

Which brings us to the current probe.  Republican Greg Wren's guilty plea made it clear that he was cooperating in an "ongoing" investigation, so clearly prosecutors believe there are other fish out there to catch.

Once again, rumors abound about who is being targeted. I've heard that only one or two legislators are under the microscope, but I've also heard that the number of targets could be as many as 10 or 12. Who knows? I certainly don't.

But this much is clear: Neither political party in Alabama has a monopoly on public corruption. Despite the sweeping political transformation of the past few decades, Alabama has had an almost unbroken string of scandals involving high-ranking public officials.

Sadly, it looks as if that losing streak is going to continue.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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