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Are Black Public Officials More Likely Than Whites to be Prosecuted in the Deep South?

By       Message Roger Shuler     Permalink
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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

The five commissioners who govern a rural Alabama county were arrested last week. What did the entire Bullock County Commission do to merit being charged with felonies? They violated the Alabama Competitive Bid Law, according to a statement from the state attorney general's office.

It's certainly possible that Bullock County's finances and procedures are a wreck--and that criminal activity was involved. Violations reportedly showed up when the Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts conducted an audit from October 2008 to September 2009. Irregularities also appeared on audits in 2006 and '07.

But a reasonable person, looking at the broad picture, could ask: Was the real reason these people were arrested that they represent a county that is mostly black, relatively poor, and largely Democratic? In other words, are political prosecutions still the tool of choice for the conservative elites who rule Karl Rove's Alabama--even with Barack Obama in the White House? Are such shenanigans still going on in other "deep red" regions of the country?

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Alabama's new attorney general, elected in the Republican windfall of November 2010, is Luther Strange. "Big Luther" is a former oil lobbyist who used to work at Birmingham's Bradley Arant, one of the most right-wing, "pro business" law firms in the state. Strange also fell out of the "Bob Riley Political Family Tree," which includes some pretty ugly branches, bearing names such as Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Bill Canary, and of course, Karl Rove.

When Bob Riley was Alabama's governor from 2002-2010, Bradley Arant received millions of dollars in state contracts--and the firm employs Riley's son-in-law, Rob Campbell. Before Riley left office, he reportedly met with Strange to cut a deal--if Strange would pledge to protect the Riley children (Rob, Minda, and Krisalyn) and steer state dollars their way, Riley would help raise funds for a future Strange run at the governor's mansion.

The inquiry into Bullock County's finances started under the Riley administration, with Strange following through now on arrests. Is this payback for some slight that Riley perceived coming from Bullock County during his administration? Could this be part of a larger GOP plan to continue terrorizing Democrats in the Deep South?

To arrive at possible answers to those questions, it helps to understand the demographics of Bullock County. The county is 74.9 percent black, with a median household income of $24,440, well below the state average of $40,489. In the 2008 presidential election, Bullock County gave 74.2 percent of its vote to Barack Obama, with 25.7 percent to John McCain.

Bullock belongs to a strip of counties that starts to the northwest of Montgomery and runs to the capital city's southeast, representing what passes for a Democratic stronghold in Alabama.

What did the commissioners in Bullock County allegedly do that was so awful? Here is how one news report summarized it:

Attorney General Luther Strange announced the arrests of all five members of the Bullock County Commission on felony charges of bid law violations. The commission chairman is additionally charged with an ethics law violation.

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Commission Chairman Ronald Wynord Smith, 56, of Union Springs, was arrested last night, as was Commissioner John Livingston Adams, 43, also of Union Springs. The remaining commissioners, who were arrested today, are Dock McGowan, 82, of Banks; Alonza Ellis Jr., 45, of Union Springs; and James McArthur Perry, 64, of Union Springs.

Attorney General Strange's Office presented evidence to a Bullock County grand jury, resulting in the indictments on May 18. Specifically, the indictments charge each commissioner with one count of intentionally, knowingly or recklessly spending an amount greater than $15,000 for inmate food at the Bullock County Jail without entering into free and open competitive sealed bids, in violation of Code of Alabama, Section 41-16-50. Additionally, the chairman, Smith, is charged with failure, as the head of a governmental agency, to report a possible ethics law violation.

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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)

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