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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Alabama Mystery Solved

The mystery of who was behind a largely bogus attack ad in Alabama’s Republican gubernatorial runoff election has been solved. The answer: the Alabama Education Association, an organization headed by the co-chairman of the state Democratic Party. 

But don’t look for the answer in the state Elections Division. You have to go the IRS to track down the shadowy group’s financing.

According to IRS reports, the Conservative Coalition for Alabama formed on June 22 as a 527 political committee. A day after it was formed, the Conservative Coalition for Alabama received $750,000 from the AEA. It was the group’s sole donation. Nearly all of that money ($711,020) was spent the same day it was received on advertising attacking Bradley Byrne in the July 13 runoff election for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

The group did not file a report with the IRS until the day of the primary runoff. The IRS didn’t release the report until after the runoff, which Byrne lost to Robert Bentley.

The Conservative Coalition for Alabama never registered with the state Elections Division and the AEA didn’t disclose its donation to state officials — so voters weren’t sure who was behind the attacks. How is that possible? That answer, we are now told, can be found in a March 6, 2007, opinion rendered by the state attorney general’s opinions division.

Brenda Smith, chief of the opinions division, told us that the Conservative Coalition did not have to register with the state Elections Division and did not have to disclose its donations to the state, because its advertising did not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. She cited the 2007 opinion, which says the state’s campaign finance law "only applies to communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate."

For the same reason, Smith said, the AEA did not have to report its contribution to the state Elections Division. The AEA contribution came directly from association funds and not from Alabama Voice of Teachers for Education (A VOTE), a state registered political action committee.

The fact that AEA was using the "conservative" group as a front comes as no surprise. As we wrote before, Byrne suspected AEA was behind the attacks. During the primary, the AEA funneled money to True Conservative PAC to run attack ads against Byrne. But AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert refused to say during the runoff election whether his group was funding the Conservative Coalition’s advertising, and state election records provided no answers. 

The only mystery now is why the state of Alabama permits this gigantic loophole in its campaign finance law.

— by Eugene Kiely, with Michael Morse