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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Who’s Fooling Whom in Alabama?

A TV ad accuses Alabama congressional candidate Dean Young of fooling “good Christian people” into making contributions to a political action committee “for his own profit.” That’s nonsense.

Young, a political media consultant, created the PAC to produce TV and radio ads on behalf of a state judge best known for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. A whopping 80 percent of the PAC funds came from the wife and business partners of a longtime friend of the judge who told us the ad is “absolutely false.”

We found out in 2010 just how bare knuckles Alabama politics can be. At that time, we wrote about a largely bogus 11th-hour attack on gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne by a shadowy front group that refused to disclose its donors or leaders.

This time, it’s Byrne — now a congressional candidate in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District — who is using deceptive tactics.

Byrne and Young are running for the Republican nomination in a special House race to replace former congressman Jo Bonner, who retired in August. Each man failed to get enough votes to win the nomination in the Sept. 24 primary. A runoff primary election is schedule for Nov. 5, and the general election is Dec. 17.

The Byrne campaign on Oct. 21 began running a TV ad called “Profit” against Young. It includes cutaways to sad, innocent elderly people as the announcer describes how “good Christian people” were hoodwinked.

Byrne for Congress TV ad: Young set up a PAC that was supposed to promote Christian values. Good Christian people donated to the PAC. Dean Young closed the PAC a few months after paying his company 95 percent of the money. Over one-hundred-and-sixty grand. What kind of person fools Christians for his own profit?

Let’s start with the claim that Young created a PAC “that was supposed to promote Christian values.” The genesis of the PAC — which was formed in 2000 — was simple: to help elect Roy Moore chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Moore, a state circuit court judge at the time, gained national attention for displaying a plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. One of his biggest supporters was Dean Young, executive director of the Christian Family Association. In November 1999, Young started a petition drive to urge Moore to run for chief justice and later became a fundraiser and consultant for Moore’s campaign.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it would help encourage him to run,” Young said in a Nov. 9, 1999, Birmingham News article about his petition drive. Moore did agree to run for chief justice, and Young became a campaign fundraiser.

At the time, Young also owned a political media consulting firm called PMM Consulting Inc., which he formed in 1997.

In the spring of 2000 — about six months before the Nov. 7, 2000, election — Young created the Christian Family Association PAC  to raise money to produce TV and radio ads, brochures and other campaign material to help elect Moore.

In an interview, Young told us he formed the PAC because of Moore’s refusal to accept campaign contributions from lawyers and the campaign’s inability to launch an effective TV and radio advertising campaign. His recollection is corroborated by a May 14, 2001, story written by the Associated Press that was headlined, “Not all money spent on chief justice’s behalf shows up on his reports.”

So, it’s clear that the PAC was created to elect Moore — not to “promote Christian values,” although perhaps Moore’s supporters might say that was a byproduct of the election.

But were the donors misled by Young into making contributions under false pretenses? There is no evidence of that, and, when we asked, the Byrne campaign could not provide any evidence, either. In fact, there is evidence of just the opposite.

Six months after Moore won his election, the Associated Press reported for the first time the existence of Christian Family Association PAC and its decision to accept contributions from lawyers — contrary to Moore’s campaign policy.

The AP said — in the May 14, 2001, story we mentioned earlier — that most of the money came from two sources: Judy Bentley and a limited liability corporation of which her husband, John Bentley, was a member. A campaign finance report filed Sept. 25, 2000, shows that Judy Bentley wrote checks to the PAC for $100,000 on June 1, 2000, and $22,500 on August 24, 2000, and AGB Properties wrote a check for $20,000 on June 6, 2000. State records show John Bentley is a member of AGB Properties.

The combined $142,500 in donations from those two sources represented 80 percent of the $176,882.60 raised by the PAC, according to its annual report filed after the election.

We talked to John Bentley, who is now a state circuit court judge in Hamilton, Ala. He said he has known Moore since 1968, when both attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “I think the world of him,” Bentley said. In fact, Bentley remains close friends with Moore and administered the oath of office to him in January, when Moore was once again sworn in as chief justice.

Bentley said he knew about his wife’s contributions to Young’s PAC and, in fact, he helped Young spend the money. He said he did not know about contributions made by AGB Properties, which he said he formed along with his law partners at the time to purchase the land where the law firm has its building. He says his partners probably made that donation. “I’m glad they contributed,” he said.

Bentley says he can’t speak for other donors, but he knows his wife and partners were not fooled by Young.

“They knew for a fact where [the money] went and it didn’t go into Dean Young’s pocket,” Bentley told us. “I know that the money was spent on TV ads. If anyone is claiming that it wasn’t — that is absolutely false. I know exactly where it went.” He added, “I helped, somewhat, in designing the TV ads that were run.”

It’s true that Young’s company, PMM Consulting, received $168,000 from the PAC — which is, as the ad says, 95 percent of the PAC’s contributions. But not all of it, if any of it, was “profit,” as the ad claimed. For example, records show that most of it — about $129,000 — went for advertising and that would include the cost of placing TV and radio ads in addition to any production costs that were incurred by PMM.

We asked Young how he raised money for the PAC and under what pretenses. He said he called supporters of Moore and other individuals he knew — including lawyers who were barred by the Moore campaign’s policy of not accepting donations from lawyers.

“He wouldn’t take money from lawyers and I did,” Young said. “I told him, ‘If you don’t want to take lawyers’ money, don’t take lawyers’ money. But I’m going to take lawyers’ money.’ ”

Young said he also called and sent letters to conservatives around the country who were familiar with Moore’s fight with the ACLU over displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. “We made phone calls, sent letters. We would get lists, rent lists of conservative people around the country — Judge Moore was known all around the country — telling them that Judge Moore is in a ballot and we’re helping him.”

“Everybody knew that I was trying to help Judge Moore. There is no doubt about it,” Young said.

When we asked the Byrne campaign for evidence that Young fooled “good Christian people” into making contributions for “his own profit,” it produced only a statement claiming that the ad is “100 percent accurate.” We disagree for all the reasons above.

In a footnote, Chief Justice Roy Moore has unofficially endorsed Young’s congressional campaign.

In a June 4 letter released by the Young campaign, Moore says he cannot endorse any candidate for public office because of his position as chief justice. But he added, “Having worked with you for many years and through many of my own campaigns for public office, I know you to be a man of great ability as well as one of the highest moral and ethical standards. … Your courage and commitment to faith, family and freedom will be refreshing in Washington, D.C.”

— Eugene Kiely