Monday, December 13, 2010

Ethics Reform: How about Buzz Free Lawmaking?

Make mine a double!
Now, let's go pass some laws!

      Each day brings news from Montgomery of the advancements of Gov. Bob Riley's ethics package through the legislature. However, one "reform"is not to be found: That would be a law prohibiting Alabama legislators from keeping alcohol in the Statehouse; and from drinking while there's lawmaking going on in the chambers.

        First, let me acknowledge that I am not averse to alcoholic beverages. In fact, I'm going to a Christmas part tonight and imagine that I will drink a beer or two. 
        The following chapter from my book, "The Governor of Goat Hill," is pretty self-explanatory. It tells, among other things, of my not only coming across alcohol in the Statehouse but drinking some (wine) myself.  I was, mind you, not on the job that night.

        I almost feel prudish to suggest there should be a law banning drinking in the Statehouse, so colorful and lengthy is this tradition. But then again, maybe not. I can promise you that if someone were caught so much as bringing a beer into the Press-Register building, there would be hell to pay. Adding alcohol to the high-pressure, late night editing process? There would probably be fights (hmmmm, Charles Bishop hitting Lowell Barron?, I don't know the answer but wouldn't be surprised.)
      What if you heard your doctor was sipping before surgery? Or your child's teacher was catching a buzz between classes? How about your pilot getting wasted before take-off?

         This chapter tells of the tension packed and, one might suppose, alcohol-tinged final night of the 2001 legislative session.
        As best as I know, only one person got in trouble.

Night on the Town

      “During the last night of this year’s Regular Session of the Legislature, Ted Hosp walked into a Republican Senate office, where he found Mr. Curran drinking alcohol with a Republican senator, Claire Austin, and others. Drinking is not allowed in the 
Alabama State House.”
      -- Portion of Aug. 17, 2001, letter sent from Siegelman chief of staff  Jim Buckalew to Register publisher Howard Bronson.

        “On the last night of this year’s session, Mr. Curran became so inebriated at a Montgomery bar that he was not able to drive home. He had no money and asked then-Chief of Staff  Paul Hamrick for $20 for a cab.”
      -- From the same letter.

       I was seeking neither drink nor trouble but enlightenment when I entered the Alabama Statehouse on the evening of May 21. I would get all three in a night that concluded with a 2 a.m. cab ride from a bar called Bud’s.
      By tradition, the legislature concludes each year’s session on a Monday evening, often not finishing until the midnight deadline, and then after a flurry of last minute shell games orchestrated by lobbyists and the craftier and therefore more influential lawmakers. The rest of the world finds out later, fingers are pointed, no
one can prove anything, and projects no one ever heard of get funded.
      Or so I’m told. First hand, I wouldn’t know because I’ve never covered the legislature. The bulk of my Montgomery coverage involves the executive branch and the state agencies under its control. I’ve attended a handful of committee meetings, retrieved records from legislative offices, interviewed many lawmakers,
and written a reasonable number of stories about legislation. But in terms of seeing the process in action, I was a neophyte.
      So I felt it would be interesting, even beneficial, to watch the sausage makers on their busiest night of the year. For that reason I scheduled meetings and record review appointments on Monday and Tuesday. Our Montgomery reporters didn’t need me.
       I’d be off  the clock, free to roam and watch, a tourist with a pass to the show. I ate alone and at about 8:30, walked from my hotel – the aging landmark Statehouse Inn – to its namesake, a few blocks away.
        The Statehouse – not the hotel, but the place where Alabama’s laws are made – is a white rectangular eight story building across from the Capitol. Within the top four floors, as if carved from its innards, are the two chambers, with the Senate above the House. 
       There’s something incongruous about the relative sprightliness of the chambers residing within what is now, with the impressively
modern Bronner buildings, among the plainer structures on Goat Hill. On their respective floors are the offices, with the senators – of which there are 35 – enjoying roomier accommodations than the 105 members of the lower house. I chose to start with the Senate, the more exciting and mischievous body.
        Exiting the elevator was like being dropped on a downtown Mobile street at Mardi Gras, with legislators, lobbyists, reporters, support staff, and hangers on racing about, some huddled talking strategy, others calling out for this or that cohort. It was a world unto itself, its inhabitants without a trace of self consciousness
and wired with energy. I was dodging people, winding my way toward the stadium seating above the senate when Claire Austin rushed out the door I was entering.
     “Guess who’s here? Suzanne! You’ve got to meet her. Come on!” said Claire.
     Sure! And why not?
    Claire was off , me tagging along. A turn here, down a hall there and into the office of Jabo Waggoner. I’d never met Waggoner, but knew of him. Who could forget a name like Jabo? Technically, Waggoner was State Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills. For giggles, reporters called him State Sen. Jabo Waggoner,
R-HealthSouth, a play on his day job as Richard Scrushy’s vice president for public relations. In any event, Waggoner was a conservative Republican from the Birmingham area who as I learned upon entering his suite maintains an impressive
stock of spirits and mixers.
       We found Suzanne seated, chatting away and drinking a glass of red wine.
       As her phone voice suggested, Suzanne was fun, and not one to take herself seriously. Among her duties was lobbying for passage of law enforcement-related bills important to the Attorney General’s office. No such legislation was pending that night, so she’d come over for kicks. She offered me a glass of wine, and after
a moment’s self-debate, I accepted.
     Suzanne wouldn’t have cared if I’d asked for a Coke, but I opted for the wine. Dumb, but not done in conscious violation of any rule prohibiting drinking in the Statehouse. I’d never given the subject a thought, and if I had, Senator Waggoner’s bar would have served as the final word on the matter. He should know the rules, right?
       Senators came and went, many with drink in hand. Suzanne introduced me around. It was a Republican crowd, and I received much hearty praise for the stories on G.H. Construction and Honda. At some point Ted Hosp stuck his head in. He didn’t ask for anyone       in particular, and I had the distinct impression he’d heard I was there and came to verify.
       A brief hello, something short of friendly, and Ted was off,
       “Oh great,” I thought. I hopped up and chased after Siegelman’s lawyer.
       In the hallway outside Waggoner’s office I gave some rushed and unnecessary explanation of how I came to be there. I couldn’t gauge his reaction and returned, slightly troubled.
        Ted, no doubt, was the source of the drinking in the Statehouse with Republicans charge made three months later in the letter to Bronson. In fact, two of the seven charges originated from what was for me a rare night out in Monkeytown.
       I seldom left for Montgomery before 9 p.m., primarily for procrastination reasons but also because of a preference for night driving. Daytime glare makes me sleepy, not so cooler nights with less traffic. Strong coffee and loud, fast-paced rock’n’roll make falling asleep impossible even should I seek it. Often as not I was
sorry I had to stop, and if lucky, was asleep in a cheap hotel by 1 a.m.
       During the Siegelman years, 8 a.m. generally found me walking into a state agency or courthouse. From then until 5 p.m., I didn’t stop, and then only because offices closed and people went home. Lunch often as not came from a machine – maybe a pimento cheese or chicken salad sandwich and a candy bar.
       Most of these trips lasted one day. After being booted out of offices or courts at 5, I’d swing by the Register’s Montgomery office, make some calls, do some computer searches, get back in my old station wagon and coff ee-up for the night ride back to Mobile.
         I was, as goes Montgomery, a saint. Couldn’t have named a bartender in town. With rare exceptions, a teetotaling working machine.
         As for the Republican aspect of the charge, had Suzanne been in the office of a Libertarian Party senator or a Green one that’s where I’d have gone, not that Alabama has any of those.
        After about an hour I left to go watch the senate, which, good to its reputation, provided fine entertainment. After the buzzer tolled on the session I returned to the party in Waggoner’s office. Claire said Fine & Geddie, the state’s premier lobbying firm, had rented Bud’s for a post-session gathering open to all, and asked
if I was interested.
        Should I go to a party paid for by lobbyists? The needle leaned to yes. I justified it on grounds that I’d never attended such a function and supposed it could prove educational, since lobbyists and lobbying appeared frequently in my stories. That and I felt like going out.
       My car was at the hotel and Claire offered me a ride. She dropped me off  at Bud’s and went across the street to Sinclair’s. “You go in alone. I’m scared to even be seen with you,” she said. Some already suspected her of being my source on the G.H. stories, and she didn’t want to encourage such thinking.
       I’m not sure what I expected, but more than I found. It was all guys, like a gathering of a fraternity to which I didn’t belong. Bud’s is a roomy bar, and against the far wall was a table with chicken fingers and other appetizers. In the near corner a mass of lobbyists and legislators drank and re-hashed the night’s action. I recognized a few, but knew none of them, or in any event, not well.
        I bought a drink – as in, paid for it myself -- and was relieved when Chris Pringle, a house member from Mobile and a year ahead of me in high school, walked in. We talked, and after awhile I walked across the street to Sinclair’s. By 1:30, more tired and bored than “inebriated,” I began thinking hotel and sleep.
        I asked people I didn’t know or to whom I’d just been introduced if they were heading back downtown, and if so, could they give me a ride?
       None were, and none offered to go out of their way. I returned to Bud’s. The only people I knew were sitting at a table nursing drinks. I remember thinking: Should I? The brief run-in with Hosp – his caught-you look -- weighed in favor of yes. I felt it wouldn’t be a bad idea, perception-wise, to make my night out a bipartisan aff air. Lawyers are famous for ripping each other’s heads off  in court
then meeting over drinks as if nothing happened. Might this sort of civility apply as well between a reporter and subjects of his political stories?
          “Mind if I join you,” I said, and Hamrick and Mabry motioned for me to sit down. Soon I wondered aloud if either was heading back downtown. Neither was. I asked the bartender if he could call a taxi. I’d not anticipated going out and
had spent what little money I had. h e bartender said the taxi company didn’t take credit cards. Was there a money machine nearby? No, there was not.
         I was staring at a 2 a.m. walk of three miles that would take me under an interstate and through some of the city’s more crime-ridden neighborhoods. I had a full schedule the next day and the clock was ticking against my sleep allotment. Walking was out of the question.
        Much as I tried, I could think of no other way. I approached Hamrick and Mabry and in a tone as apologetic as I could make it, asked if one of them could spot me money for a cab. Without a second thought Hamrick handed me a $20.
        I assured him that he would get it back in the morning and thanked him. The cab delivered me to the hotel, and sleep. I might have slept longer were I not so cognizant of owing $20 to Siegelman’s chief of staff. That slate needed wiping, fast. My first act post-breakfast was to retrieve cash from a money machine.
        I was in the waiting area outside Hamrick's office by 8 a.m., gave the receptionist a $20 and asked her to please make sure to give it to Paul Hamrick as soon as he arrived and, equally important, please tell him that it came from Eddie Curran.
     Hamrick was out $20 for about six hours, and for most of that time, it’s reasonable to assume, he was snoozing.


       The night’s activities returned three months later like a boomerang bound for my neck with the seven charges list sent to (Register editor) Mike Marshall and (Register publisher) Howard Bronson; and again, in September, when the paper published a story
about the allegations.
      I made a cursory effort to research the supposed prohibition against drinking in the Statehouse and found a 1997 story by Robin DeMonia of the Birmingham News. She had reported finding empty bottles of Scotch, gin and Jack Daniels in a dumpster behind the Statehouse on the morning after the fi nal night of that
year’s session.
        Capitol Police Chief Cecil Humphrey told Robin that alcoholic beverages generally aren’t allowed in state buildings, but that the legislature makes its own rules. State representative Ron Johnson told her that no such rules were posted, and acknowledged that some lawmakers were known to drink in their offices.
    "They're the members’ offices, They pretty much free to have in them what they want,” he said.
        My personal research on the final night of the 2001 session supported Robin’s findings 100 percent. I was not, though, in a position to offer that in my defense or to suggest we consider the irony of this administration’s making an issue of me or anyone else taking a cab home from a bar.
     How could Don Siegelman, whose wife was almost killed by a drunk driver and who’d long advocated for increased punishment for drunk drivers, fault anyone for calling a taxi from a bar, even if it meant having to borrow money from one of his aides? He should have touted me as an icon of responsible drinking.
       I wanted to ask, “Hey Gov, how’d your buddies Paul and Henry get home? Drive? And after drinking? Saw ‘em drinking, Gov! Witnessed it myself. How’d they get home?”
      This was all inner-monologue, and ignored the real reason I didn’t drive home: I can’t say with any certainty that I’d have called a cab had my car been available.
       Our story in September about my seven transgressions concluded with comments by Keith Woods, an ethics professor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism graduate school in Florida.
         Curran, said Woods, “left himself and his newspaper open for attack” by cursing at a governor’s aide, drinking with a source and borrowing money from another.
         “When we start to say those things are OK, the risk begins,” he said.
         Something short of fun it was to read those words in my hometown newspaper, to say nothing of the one that employed me.


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