Potential Felony: Alabama Ethics Commission Could Find ‘Probable Cause’ Luther Strange Violated Campaign Laws

Newly appointed Alabama Sen. Luther Strange speaks to the media during a press conference, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. Gov. Robert Bentley named Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to fill the U.S. Senate vacated by new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

The highly politicized Alabama Ethics Commission could find “probable cause” against Senator Luther Strange (R-AL) in a complaint filed by Secretary of State John Merrill that Strange violated Alabama campaign laws, sources tell Breitbart News.

That decision would likely come some time between the closing of the polls on Tuesday in the Alabama U.S. Senate runoff election and October 28, 45 days before the December 12 general election in which the Republican nominee will face Democrat Doug Jones.

The anticipated findings of the Alabama Ethics Commission on that complaint hang over Strange and the Alabama Republican Party like the sword of Damocles, making him a much weaker potential general election candidate against Democrat Doug Jones than his opponent in Tuesday’s Republican runoff election, Judge Roy Moore. According to the most recent polls, Moore leads Strange by 8 to 10 points one day before the runoff election.

“The Alabama Secretary of State’s office filed a campaign law violation complaint against Senator Luther Strange (R-AL) in April, but the Alabama Ethics Commission did not act on that complaint in either its June or August meetings,” Breitbart News reported earlier this month:

“We had some potential concerns with Senator Strange’s filings from the time he was Attorney General. That was from his annual report from the year 2016,” Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.

“Senator Strange and his team believe that federal law preempts contributions to his Alabama Principal Campaign Committee for Attorney General. With that said, it’s important to understand we have a responsibility to follow the law,” Merrill said.

Though the money involved in Secretary of State Merrill’s complaint against Strange is small–Strange moved a little more than $1,400 from his U.S. Senate campaign committee to his State Attorney General campaign committee — the actions appear to be a clear violation of Alabama statutes, which prohibit any such transfer in excess of $1,000.

It was the finding of the Alabama Ethics Commission of a similar campaign law violation against former Governor Bentley that was cited in his resignation in disgrace back in April in a plea bargain deal, even though there were other more salacious details involved in his case.

On April 5, “the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Governor Robert Bentley committed violations of both the Alabama Ethics and and the Fair Campaign Practices Act,” the commission said in a press release.

“We have referred those matters to the Montgomery County District Attorney for further consideration and possible prosecution,” the press release added.

Of great concern to Strange and Alabama Republicans is the fact that, under Alabama law, violations of these campaign finance laws are classified as felonies.

The next meeting of the Alabama Ethics Commission is scheduled for October 4, by which time either Judge Roy Moore or Strange will be the Republican nominee facing Democrat Doug Jones in the December 12 general election.

Should Judge Roy Moore be the Republican nominee, the findings of the Alabama Ethics Commission will have no impact on the outcome of that December 12 election.

But should Luther Strange be the Republican nominee at that time, a finding of the Alabama Ethics Commission of “probable cause” that he committed violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act and a referral to the Montgomery County District Attorney “for further consideration and possible prosecution” would be devastating for Strange as the Republican nominee and a boon to Democrat Doug Jones in the December 12 general election, potentially putting Republican control of the seat, and the tenouous 52-48 Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in jeopardy.

No one expects that Strange would ultimately serve time if he were to be ultimately convicted of violating Alabama campaign law–probation and a slap on the wrist would be the most likely outcome–but the Alabama Ethics Commission would be acting under its legal authority and following the letter of the law of it concluded that Strange, in fact, violated Alabama campaign finance law.

The politicized nature of such a finding would not be in the actual finding itself, but in the timing of the public release of the finding.

Under its rules, the Alabama Ethics Commission does not release findings related to a candidate for political office within 45 days of an election in which an individual who is the subject of a complaint is a candidate.

According to the Alabama Ethics Commission website:

Upon investigation, a complaint may be:
Closed because the Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction regarding the alleged wrongdoing or the Statute of Limitations has expired.
Dismissed due to lack of evidence to support the complaint.
Presented to Commission for Determination of Probable Cause.

Though the Alabama Ethics Commission has made no public comment about the current status of the Secretary of State’s ethics complaint against Strange, it has almost certainly been presented to the commission for “determination of probable cause.”

Sources tell Breitbart News that three of the current five commissioners–Jerry Fielding, Frank Ellis, and Charles Montgomery–have turned the Ethics Commission into a highly partisan political operation.

The remaining two commissioners are in the minority and, in effect, out of the decision making loop.

The Ethics Commission failed to take the matter up at its June 7 meeting, which was 68 days before the August 15 Republican U.S. Senate primary election in which Strange was one of three candidates.

It also failed to take the complaint up at its August 16 meeting, which was 41 days before the September 26 Republican U.S. Senate runoff election between Strange and Judge Roy Moore.

The next scheduled meeting of the Alabama Ethics Commission is October 4, which is a full 69 days before the December 12 general election between the Republican nominee and Democrat Doug Jones.

Should the Alabama Ethics Commission drop the hammer on Strange at that meeting, it would give his Democratic opponent more than two months to mercilessly attack him on the campaign trail for a full two months, should he be the Republican nominee in the December 12 general election.