by Quin Hillyer


Is Alabama’s 80 year-old U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby a “shakedown” artist?

State House Speaker Mike Hubbard says so. But most Alabama media outlets have been surprisingly uninterested.

Shame on us all. Whether or not there is illegality in anything Shelby has done (or in what the 23-count-indicted Hubbard has done), there seems to be venality aplenty – venality that, if it’s as rampant in Alabama politics as indictments and rumors suggest, should be attracting a frenzy of competitive investigative reporting. It’s the kind of story to which old-time, shoe-leather journalists would have congregated like hyena to desert carrion.

Less than a decade ago, various reporters (especially the Mobile Register’s Eddie Curran) led prosecutors by the nose to make them sniff out and eventually punish the rampant corruption surrounding former governor Don Siegelman. And in 2007, Brett Blackledge of the Birmingham News won a Pulitzer for his reporting on rotten shenanigans in the state’s two-year college system.

Now, though, despite the emergence of rather spectacular e-mails among Hubbard and a who’s who of Alabama political power-brokers, all we get from most of the state’s media is dutiful but bloodless recounting of whatever prosecutors deign to feed us. If there’s any independent shovel work occurring, it’s certainly not evident.

As an admirer of a number of policy initiatives successfully enacted through Hubbard’s leadership, I’m on record hoping that nothing he did turns out to have been illegal. And, once formal indictments have been filed, sometimes discretion (and respect for the legal process) is wiser than reportorial valor.

But if, in the midst of following the trail of one set of alleged illegalities, claims emerge of other, unrelated, skullduggery, well, those new claims should be catnip for old-style reporters.

Claims, for example, like the following, directly quoting from e-mails between Hubbard and former governor Bob Riley (as reported almost exclusively by the Alabama Political Reporter). From Riley: “Ray Cole [former Shelby aide, now federal lobbyist] has a racket…. Someone said he makes over 2 million a year and doesn’t do anything but get people in to see Shelby.”

From Hubbard: “Ray Cole has made millions off Shelby. Those two have a shakedown routine like you wouldn’t believe.”

Back in 2010, the national publication Politico tried to make a fuss about Shelby “steer[ing] cash to ex-aides,” including Cole, but nothing much came of it. This is probably because there isn’t necessarily anything illegal occurring. Plenty of things can avoid being illegal and still be ethically unsightly. (The late-19th Century New York politician George Plunkitt called it “honest graft.”)

The solution isn’t necessarily more criminal penalties. The solution(s) could just involve removing the incentives and opportunities for feather-nesting. Putting a moratorium on special-interest spending “earmarks,” as the U.S. House of Representatives has done, is one such solution. Another might be a law forbidding any federally financed project from being named for any public officeholder until at least, perhaps, five years after he leaves office.

Dan Greenberg, a onetime Arkansas state legislator, pushed a bill like that – the “Edifice Complex Prevention Bill” – in his state a few years back, but got nowhere.

Lord knows that Sen. Shelby’s name adorns enough public buildings in Alabama, especially on college campuses, to house entire herds of red elephants, tigers and jaguars – all fed by legislative pork.

The rules of the political jungle are complicated. One man’s shakedown might provide a jump-start for hordes of students searching for pathways through the brush. Either way, though, investigative reporters should be wading through the thickets, searching for clues, unearthing enough information so the public can decide which is which.