3 years ago

Exclusive: A Behind The Scenes Look At Luther Strange’s Senate Appointment

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange

When Alabama rang in the New Year last January, Luther Strange was its Attorney General. At the time, his office was investigating Robert Bentley for crimes the former governor committed in his zeal to hide his affair with Rebekah Mason. Before Bentley resigned, he appointed Strange to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat in the U.S. Senate.

Because Strange was appointed by the man his office was investigating, a cloud has followed him since. Strange recently sat down with Yellowhammer to tell his side of the story, as did some of his critics.

For context, we must rewind to last November. Donald Trump won the presidential election on November 8th and ten days later announced that Jeff Sessions would be his new Attorney General. This appointment created a vacancy for Sessions’ U.S. Senate seat, which a host of Alabama Republicans was eager to fill. However, it was the embattled Governor’s job to appoint a successor. Bentley interviewed some twenty people for the job, including some of Strange’s opponents in this summer’s Senate race, who are now among his loudest critics for taking the appointment.

Some six weeks later, on December 27th, Strange and Bentley met, as Bentley required of anyone he was considering for the fill the vacant seat. That’s where we started our interview with Luther Strange. Specifically, we talked about the fact that some of his detractors have accused him of going to Bentley’s office that late December day to cut a deal. Their theory is that Strange told Bentley he’d drop the investigation in exchange for an appointment to the United States Senate. To this, Strange replied:

First, my former office prosecuted Robert Bentley after he appointed me, which obviously would not have happened if I’d cut a deal with him.

Second, Alice [Martin] and Matt [Hart] would have never gone for that. Matt Hart would have thrown me in jail if I’d gone to them with something that preposterous.

My first order of business when I was elected in 2011 was to create a special division to stop public corruption. I hired Matt and Alice, and staffed them with a half-dozen former FBI agents as investigators and told them to follow the truth wherever it leads. They removed Sumter County Sheriff Tyrone Clark from office for human trafficking—the first Sheriff impeached in Alabama in over a hundred years. In all, they convicted over two dozen corrupt public officials including the most powerful one in the state, House Speaker Mike Hubbard. That resulted in our budget being zeroed out by the legislature controlled by our own party. So again, we were hardly in the favor-swapping business because our own political party was stripping our funding. Plus, to drop the governor’s investigation in exchange for the appointment, I would have had to get prosecutors like Matt and Alice to agree to it. That’s an insult to that entire unit whose very mission was fighting corruption.

To that point, Representative Ed Henry told Yellowhammer,

No one believes that Luther ever said “give me this job and I’ll make your investigation go away.” The issue with Luther is we all knew he had enough to indict Robert Bentley. So, by Luther taking that meeting, it was kind of like he’s got this metaphorical loaded gun on his hip. Sure, he may not have ‘pulled it and pointed it at him’ by asking for the appointment, but if you’re the unarmed guy, you don’t stop thinking about this loaded gun that this man can and will use if he has to. Does that affect the way you view the situation and the decisions you ultimately make? You better believe it does.

I asked Senator Strange if he simply asked Bentley for the appointment in that late-December meeting, and again, he said no.

No. When Jeff [Sessions] said he was going to be the next U.S. Attorney General over a month earlier, I made a formal announcement that I was running for his Senate seat. I was already out running, regardless of who he was appointing to that seat. When the governor asked me if I’d accept it if he offered it, I told him I would, but I never asked him for the seat. I also told the governor that it was of utmost importance if he did appoint me that he must appoint someone to take my place who had the integrity and courage to keep that public corruption unit going, and Steve Marshall has obviously done that. In fact, that’s the same unit that prosecuted Governor Bentley, as I said earlier.

State Representative Paul Beckman, an attorney who serves on the Alabama House Judiciary committee and was heavily involved in Bentley’s impeachment investigation, views it much the same as Ed Henry.

Look, no one is saying this was illegal; it’s a matter of ethics. Luther’s office was in the middle of a criminal investigation of Bentley, so it just doesn’t look good for Bentley to turn around and appoint the man who’s investigating him. He took the appointment under questionable circumstances, and that took the decision out of the hands of the people. The undecided voters in this election represent a larger group than normal and I think that’s one reason why. You have to do what’s right and instead of waiting for it to play out, Luther created the stigma that now hangs over him.

The other significant issue surrounding Strange’s appointment happened nearly two months earlier. By late October, the news of Bentley and Mason’s affair had been known to the public for several months. The House Judiciary Committee was investigating Bentley as part of a possible impeachment proceeding for his misconduct. To that end, the Committee had hired a special counsel, Jack Sharman, to head their investigation.
On November 1, Strange and his team met with state legislators about their impeachment investigation at the legislators’ request. In that meeting, Strange said his team expressed concerns that the House investigation would hurt their criminal investigation. As he told Yellowhammer,

We didn’t want to mess each other up, so they said they’d wait till our investigation played out. But they were under pressure from their membership to do something so they said, ‘If you don’t mind send us a letter to that regard.’ It was just procedural, so they could avoid our key witnesses that might be testifying in front of a grand jury and we didn’t want to jeopardize that process.

Two days later, Strange wrote the follow-up letter asking the House Judiciary Committee to pause their investigation of Bentley. That letter read, in part, “I respectfully request that the Committee cease active interviews and investigation until I am able to report to you that the necessary related work of my office has been completed.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, who was at the meeting, seemed to think pausing was the right thing to do. In his news release at the time, he stated, “As I said at the first meeting on the Articles of Impeachment, this committee would work cooperatively with other investigating agencies and today’s action testifies to that…We are temporarily suspending activity at the attorney general’s request, but we are not abdicating our responsibility. Everything the committee has done remains in effect.”

To this, Rep. Beckman said that while he respects Jones’ decision, he didn’t see the conflict. “First, the Committee never voted on this ‘pause for the cause’ idea. The AG’s office was pursuing a criminal matter, and we were pursuing a civil matter, an ethics violation. So, I disagree with the premise that the two investigations were conflicting. It wasn’t until Ed Henry had the courage to stand up on the House floor and point out that we were failing to do our constitutional duty by sitting back and waiting that we resumed the impeachment investigation. Once we restarted, Jack Sharman’s findings that played a big roll in Bentley’s resignation.”

Strange also pointed out that after he was in the U.S. Senate, Ellen Brooks was handing the A.G.’s investigation and she also asked the House Committee to pause, over her concern of double jeopardy. “The point is,” Strange said, “it’s not uncommon for prosecutors to ask for such a pause to protect the integrity of their investigation.”

To cut to the core of the issue, I asked Strange if he asked the legislative committee to pause the Bentley case so Bentley could appoint him to Sessions’ seat. Following is his reply:

No, that’s impossible. The meeting with the legislators was a nearly week before the presidential election and two weeks before Trump’s announcement that Jeff would be his new AG. Virtually every poll said Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. When I agreed to the legislators’ request for a meeting and sent the letter two days later, neither I nor anyone else knew Donald Trump was going to win the election and appoint Jeff. To suggest I delayed it to get Jeff’s Senate seat means I would have known what was going to happen two weeks in the future. Also, as I pointed out earlier, that theory would have required the participation of Matt, Alice and the public corruption unit, and that would have never happened.

Rep. Beckman doesn’t dispute the fact that Strange had no way of knowing who’d win the presidential election, but he says that doesn’t matter.

Of course, he didn’t know if Trump would win, but that’s not the issue. Luther Strange was in a great position—he had absolutely nothing to lose by delaying Bentley’s investigation, regardless of who won the presidency. If Trump won, we all knew Jeff Sessions would get appointed to something…everyone knew that his Senate seat would be vacant. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Luther was thinking that if he delays the investigation and Trump wins, he has a great shot at Sessions’ Senate seat. Or, if Trump loses, he can stretch the Bentley investigation out until just before the 2018 governor’s election, then get a conviction on Bentley, and he looks like a hero and he becomes governor. He had a strong card to play either way. All of this is just my personal opinion, but Luther had time on his side, with nothing and to lose, regardless of how the presidential election turned out. He was holding all the cards.

Strange said if that were true, he would have been the one to ask for the November 1 meeting. But as he points out, it was the legislators who reached out to him, not the other way around.

My team and I met with the legislators because they asked for the meeting. They sought us out, so Alice Martin, Matt Hart, and I met with them. This included House Judiciary Chairman Mike Jones, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and a few others. We were being responsive to them, and as Mike Jones indicated, we expressed our concerns in an honest attempt to preserve the integrity of the investigation. The bottom line is, they would have never gotten a letter from us asking for a pause if they hadn’t come to us and asked for the meeting in the first place.

In the final analysis, it seems no one seriously believes Luther Strange broke any laws or arranged any sort of back room deal. Those with strong opinions seem to fall into one of two camps: one group believes his acceptance of the appointment was unethical and that he should have waited until this special election to run, removing any appearance of wrong doing. Others believe he did what any of the others Bentley interviewed would have done if they’d been asked to go to the U.S. Senate: accept the appointment and enjoy the advantage of running as the incumbent.

In two short weeks, the voters will have their say in the matter. On August 15th, we’ll then find out if there will be a Republican primary runoff or if one candidate will emerge as the Republican nominee to face the Democrat (likely Doug Jones) in the fall.

2 hours ago

7 Things: College students with coronavirus will be isolated, PPP saved 672,861 jobs, State Rep. Dismukes has another bad day and more …

7. Fauci is already looking at coronavirus next year

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci has predicted that the coronavirus is going to be something that we live with for a while since it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to completely get rid of it due to how “highly transmissible” it is.
  • Fauci said that we need a “combination of a good vaccine and attention to public health measures,” and he doesn’t mean more shutdowns, but we could be wearing masks and social distancing for quite some time. Fauci added that “by the time we get through 2021 and go around for another cycle that we’ll have this under control.”

6. No plans to clean the Madison County monument

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  • Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong has addressed the issue of the vandalized Confederate monument outside the Madison County courthouse in downtown Huntsville, saying, “It will be left as is for now.”
  • Strong clarified that there are no plans to clean the monument currently, adding, “[It] would not be right to ask county employees to do it.”

5. Democrats don’t want a deal

  • As negotiations continue between Republicans and Democrats over another coronavirus relief bill, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) has said, “Democrats might not want a deal, politically.”
  • There’s further evidence that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have minimal intention of reaching a deal. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has said that four offers have been made that include $600 per week unemployment benefits, but Pelosi and Schumer have rejected each offer and given no counteroffers.

4. Majority favor mask order

  • A new poll released by Hill-HarrisX shows that among registered voters, 82% would support a national mask mandate, with 61% strongly supporting and 21% somewhat supporting.
  • The age groups of 18-34 and 50-64 showed 81% support a mandate, and those in the 35-49 and 65 and over age range show 83% support a mandate, but even 66% of Republicans, 93% of Democrats and 85% of independents support a mandate.

3. Arrest warrant issued for Will Dismukes

  • State Representative Will Dismukes (R-Prattville) was ordered to report to authorities by 4:00 p.m. on Thursday per an arrest warrant issued for first-degree theft of property, which is a Class B felony. It is alleged that Dismukes stole well over $2,500 from his former employer Weiss Flooring.
  • The issue has been investigated since May 20, and the business owners were the ones who brought the allegation forward. The illegal activity is said to have happened “from 2016 to 2018,” according to Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey. Governor Kay Ivey commented on the arrest, saying, “If true, it is disappointing when a public official, elected with the confidence of the people, abuses that trust.”

2. Paycheck Protection Program saved a lot of jobs

  • It’s estimated that the Paycheck Protection Program managed to save 672,861 jobs throughout Alabama, according to a new analysis released by Business.org. Nationally, there were more than 50.9 million jobs saved.
  • There have been more than 700,000 Alabamians file for unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic started, but last week has been the lowest for unemployment claims since March with 11,692.

1. Beds being prepared to isolate college students

  • College students are returning to campuses across the state, and everyone has to be tested before classes resume. The University of Alabama board of trustees has decided to spend $1.2 million to rent out 252 apartment beds so that they will have beds free on campus in the event that students test positive and need to be isolated.
  • Their plan will free up 450 beds on campus for isolation. Keeping coronavirus positive students on campus will make meal delivery and medical attention easier, according to vice president of the division of finance and operations Matthew M. Fajack. Currently, there are 8,281 students assigned to live on campus for the fall semester.

18 hours ago

Nick Saban named to board of National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches created by former Tide assistant

Former University of Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley on Thursday announced the creation of the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches.

Locksley served as an offensive assistant for the Crimson Tide in 2016, followed by a year as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach the next season before becoming the full-time offensive coordinator in 2018. He is now the head coach at the University of Maryland.

Speaking to NFL.com, Locksley cited a lack of black head coaches in the National Football League as well as among the college Football Bowl Subdivision.

“I wanted to create an organization that would be able to help prepare, promote and produce the next group of coaches coming up through the ranks at every level,” he told the outlet.

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Locksley is not the only Bama connection to the new nonprofit group, which will reportedly “seek to not only identify and groom coaches of color (male and female) for upward mobility, but also create a candidates list that will be vetted by a board of directors that includes some of the most respected and powerful names in sport.”

Included on that venerable board of directors is Tide head coach Nick Saban, as well as Ozzie Newsome.

Newsome was named to the College Football Hall of Fame after a four-year playing career at the University of Alabama. He also enjoyed a successful playing career in the NFL and is a two-time Super Bowl winning executive with the Baltimore Ravens.

Speaking about the board of directors featuring the likes of Saban and Newsome, Locksley explained, “These are all people that have either hired head coaches or coordinators or filled upper-level positions throughout their careers. They all have been at the top of the mountain, per se, in their respective areas, whether winning Super Bowls or national championships or being pioneers…”

“We want to use their experiences to help us formulate and produce the list of qualified candidates, so when people say there aren’t enough minorities to fill the positions that have come open over the years, we’re going to produce a list of qualified people that shows there are qualified people. What’s needed is opportunities,” he added.

RELATED: Alabama ranked No. 3, Auburn No. 11 in preseason coaches poll

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

18 hours ago

UAH receives grant to research how drones can aid disaster response

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) announced Thursday that it has received $1.1 million in grant funding to study how unmanned aircraft can aid the response to both manmade and natural disasters.

The money comes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who granted a total of $3.3 million to the 24 universities in that comprise an Alliance for System Safety that focuses on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

“These grants will help develop a greater array of innovative strategies to more effectively deploy drones during emergency response situations,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.

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UAH says it aims “to provide insight into the safe integration of UAS into the disaster preparedness and response areas,” with the funding provided this week by the federal government.

A release from the university points to a FAA study that shows there are currently 1.65 million recreational and commercial drones in the United States.

Huntsville’s biggest university says that the FAA program from which the grant is derived enables the agency “to conduct research in airspace and airport planning and design, environment and aviation safety.”

“These important grants fund the research which allows us to learn and implement the safety measures associated with UAS operations in the airspace,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

19 hours ago

Warrant issued for State Rep. Will Dismukes

MONTGOMERY — A felony arrest warrant has been issued for State Rep. Will Dismukes (R-Prattville), Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey announced in a Thursday press conference.

The warrant is for first-degree theft of property, a Class B felony. The freshman state legislator allegedly stole more than $2,500 from a former employer, Weiss Flooring in Alabama’s capital city.

Bailey said Dismukes has not yet been arrested and has until Thursday at 4:00 p.m. CT to turn himself in.

The district attorney reminded the public that a warrant represents “a mere allegation” and that Dismukes remains presumed innocent “until and unless proven guilty in a court of law.”

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Bailey advised “the alleged amount is a lot more than” $2,500 stolen. He added that he was limited on providing specifics on the case and the allegations at this time.

The DA advised that the business owners brought the allegation to authorities. The time period of the alleged offense was “from 2016 to 2018,” per Bailey.

Dismukes reportedly told WSFA that he is innocent.

The state representative from Autauga County has come under fire recently for his participation in a celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

According to the Montgomery Advertiser, Weiss Flooring made the complaint on May 20, which would have been before Dismukes initially made headlines for Confederate-related issues. Authorities have since that date been investigating, leading to a warrant being signed on Thursday.

While Dismukes has rejected bipartisan calls for him to resign over his recent controversies, a felony conviction would automatically remove him from office.

UPDATE 3:00 p.m.

In a statement, Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) reacted to the news.

“If true, it is disappointing when a public official, elected with the confidence of the people, abuses that trust. I support the letter of the law, and no one is above it – especially those in public office,” the governor stated.

UPDATE 4:00 p.m.

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan released a statement on Dismukes.

“We expect our elected officials, regardless of Party, to follow the laws of our state and nation,” she commented. “No one is immune to these standards. It is very disappointing to hear of these allegations. This is now a legal matter and it must run its course.”

This is breaking news and will be updated.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

20 hours ago

Shelby cautions on COVID-19 relief: ‘The Democrats might not want a deal, politically’

As the White House continues to lead negotiations with congressional Democrats over the latest COVID-19 relief package, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is sounding the alarm over election year politics possibly being put ahead of the welfare of the American people.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has been at the forefront of negotiations on the Republican side of the aisle. He has said that Democrats, led by the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), have rejected four different offers to extend the $600 per week federal unemployment supplemental that expired this past Friday.

“Those four different offers have been actually rejected — but more importantly than that, they’ve not even been countered,” Meadows said last week.

Democrats have said they want a broader deal that lasts through the first quarter of 2021, however Republicans have admonished items seemingly unrelated to the pandemic that their counterparts on the left have tried to force through in negotiations. This includes Pelosi’s defense of funding for marijuana businesses in the latest Democratic relief proposal.

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The Democrats’ proposal also “omitted language restricting abortion funding [with federal monies] and added protections against deportation of illegal immigrants,” as reported by the New York Post.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said the Pelosi-led proposal “reads like the speaker of the House pasted together random ideas from her most liberal members and slapped the word ‘coronavirus’ on top of it.”

Despite this Democrat proposal being dead on arrival in the Senate, U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) has for weeks been calling on McConnell to take up the legislation. However, even though the Pelosi bill got just one Republican vote in the House, Jones has blamed Republicans for making “this into a partisan issue.” Alabama’s junior senator, while decrying the partisan nature of the negotiations, has also campaigned on the issue, seemingly adding to the politicization of coronavirus relief efforts.

“This election, more than any other I can remember, shows us the stark choice we can make as a country. We can stand together, listen to the experts about how to beat COVID-19, work together to make real change and end racial injustice and protect our health care – or we can let the extremists drive us apart and block any hope for real change,” Jones wrote in a July 31 campaign email.

However, Alabama’s senior senator — considered one of the most bipartisan elected officials in Washington, D.C., and a true statesman — on Thursday seemed to rebut Jones’ claims that it was Republicans playing politics with COVID-19 relief.

While some on Capitol Hill have expressed relative optimism at reaching a deal in the coming days, Senator Shelby explained why a final compromise might never come to fruition, no matter how much Republicans give ground.

Per Politico, the Senate Appropriations chairman told reporters in the Capitol, “We might not get a deal. … I think there’s a lot of pessimism here — ‘will we get an agreement? Are we too far apart?'”

“We’re at an impasse right now,” Shelby advised. “I would hope over the next few days we can get together and do something that will help a lot of working people in America. Republicans and Democrats, get together. At the moment, it doesn’t look promising.”

Per Hill pool reports, Shelby further explained, “The Democrats might not want a deal, politically. Think about it.”

McConnell, an Alabama native himself, in a Thursday afternoon tweet seemed to back Shelby’s idea.

Both Republicans and Democrats have publicly voiced their support of another round of stimulus checks for Americans, likely up to $1,200 each to match the first round of checks that went out earlier this year. It remains to be seen if agreement can be reached on the many other items on the table.

If a deal cannot be reached soon, President Donald Trump has now said that he will take executive action to provide relief to the American people. Issues Trump is considering acting on himself include “Payroll Tax Cut, Eviction Protections, Unemployment Extensions, and Student Loan Repayment Options,” per a Thursday tweet by the president.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn