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

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The French have a proverb that's been around since the 19thcentury, but it still applies so well today to political scandals inAlabama:  "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

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

In the past two decades, the political landscape in Alabama hasbeen transformed from one almost totally dominated by Democrats to one in whichRepublicans control all statewide elective offices and both chambers of theLegislature.

But as events of recent weeks have shown, political scandalsinvolving legislators are still a fact of life in Alabama politics. It's alsoclear that some of the Republicans who took over from the Democrats aren'timmune from cutting ethical corners.

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

The revelations in Wren's plea deal have emboldened critics of theGOP leadership in Montgomery. One shadowy group, the Foundation for LimitedGovernment, has gone so far as to run an attack ad that claims that when itcomes to scandals, "it's even worse" than before. (As of thiswriting, 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'sdifficult to imagine that it is worse.

It remains to be seen whether the Wren indictment is just theopening wedge in what will become a full-fledged political scandal involvingwidespread political corruption. But even if the  probe spreads, it'sgoing to have to grow by leaps and bounds to eclipse the scandals Alabama hasseen 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 criminalconvictions.

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

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

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

The two-year college corruption scandal, which first surfacedpublicly in 2006, took more than three years to unwind. Like the currentfederal probe, it started as rumors. Eventually it brought down the chancellorof the state's two-year college system, a former powerful Alabama legislatorwho pleaded guilty to accepting or facilitating more than $1 million in graftfor himself, family members and political allies.

In addition, two Democratic legislators who also worked in thetwo-year college system were found guilty of using their dual roles to raidpublic 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 oflegislation aimed at preventing legislators from also working for publiccolleges -- a prohibition against so-called "double dipping" thatwill go into effect following the general election in November.

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

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

Which brings us to the current probe.  Republican Greg Wren'sguilty 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 heardthat only one or two legislators are under the microscope, but I've also heardthat the number of targets could be as many as 10 or 12. Who knows? I certainlydon't.

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

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


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

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