Ever since the Robert Bentley scandal broke a few weeks ago, it’s been compared to the Netflix drama House of Cards. While not yet a hit tv series, the story did get a boost this weekend as Last Week Tonight‘s John Oliver took Alabama legislators to task over the situation and possible impeachment of Governor Bentley.
This impeachment process alone shows how bad things currently are in Alabama politics because under the state constitution, articles of impeachment must be presented by the Speaker of the House. In this case, Mike Hubbard, who is currently awaiting trial on 23 felony charges. And once the trial begins, it will be presided over by the chief justice of the state supreme court, Roy Moore, who was once himself removed from office for the dumbest possible reason.
And this is just the latest in a long history of corruption in Alabama politics. Former Alabama governor Don Siegelman remains in prison on federal corruption charges which, regardless of your view, is either a sign of corruption on his part or that of the people who put him there. Similarly, former Birmingham mayor Larry Langford is serving 15 years in a federal prison on corruption charges. And the problem runs even deeper.
A 2014 Harvard study that measured both legal and illegal corruption in state legislatures based on the perceptions of state political reporters found illegal corruption to be “very common” in the Alabama legislature. Even more severe was legal corruption, defined as “political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups,” which was categorized as “extremely common.”
The Center for Public Integrity gave Alabama a grade of D+ on overall integrity. Noting that 2 of the state’s last 6 governors are currently in prison, the Center elaborates on Alabama’s “pattern of corruption:”
In 2011, three people — a lobbyist, a casino developer and a state representative — pleaded guilty in a case that alleged legislators were bribed to vote for a bill to legalize electronic bingo. Eight other people, including four legislators, were found not guilty after a federal trial.
An investigation into corruption in the state’s two-year college system netted more than a dozen guilty pleas and convictions between 2009 and 2012, including three legislators, the college chancellor and other state officials.
So what drives this type of corruption? Policy has something to do with it as CPI’s report details, but another aspect is elected officials’ sense of accountability to voters. Just this week, Senate Leader Del Marsh, speaking on his decision not to fully fund Medicaid, acknowledged it was a problem but said the public simply wasn’t calling to say they were upset about it. This is what happens when only 41% of the electorate turns out to vote.
If voters are engaged, then legislators will be far less likely to engage in questionable behavior. But with loose policy and no one watching, well, we see what happens. Whether Bentley will be impeached remains to be seen, but he is only one small part of the corruption plaguing Alabama. Voters, particularly progressive voters, need to take this seriously and commit to cleaning house in the next election.