Hard-to-track money fuels battle over Accountability Act
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Apr 08, 2013 | 10686 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this file photo, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, debates Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, during regular legislative session at the State House in Montgomery. (Photo: AL.com, Julie Bennett/The Associated Press)
In this file photo, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, debates Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, during regular legislative session at the State House in Montgomery. (Photo: AL.com, Julie Bennett/The Associated Press)
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MONTGOMERY — A direct-mail advertisement alleging ties between Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and Native American gambling interests landed in Calhoun County residents' mailboxes last week — but just who sent the mailer remains a mystery.

The flyer, sent from a Carrollton, Ga., post office box by a group called the Foundation for Education Accountability, appears to be another volley in an advertising war over the recently passed Alabama Accountability Act. It's a battle fueled largely by money that, due to longstanding laws and new loopholes, may never be reported in campaign finance documents.

"It appears that a lot of this stuff can go on right now and not be reportable," said Julie Sinclair, elections attorney for the office of the Alabama Secretary of State.

Late last week, Calhoun County residents began receiving mailed flyers with photos of Marsh, alleging that the senator "begged for $350,000 from Poarch Indian Gambling Casinos to run his campaign."

The ad includes mention of Birmingham News story about a $350,000 contribution in 2010 from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians — which operates a casino in Atmore — to the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee. That committee, a nationwide Republican group, gave $1 million to Alabama candidates in 2010, the report says.

The ad also mentions blog posts alleging that Marsh approached the Poarch Creeks and requested that donation.

Marsh said on Monday that he did meet with Creek leaders, at their request, before the 2010 election — but didn't ask for money.

"Anybody that wants to meet with me, who is a legitimate operation, licensed to operate in this state, I'll meet with them, as long as it doesn't interfere with my duties as pro tem," said Marsh, who was elected president pro tempore of the Senate in 2010.

"I have nothing to hide," Marsh said.

In an emailed statement to The Anniston Star, Poarch Creek governmental relations advisor Robert McGhee said the group met with Marsh at the urging of a third party.

Marsh “emphasized the pro-business agenda that he intended to pursue if they succeeded,” McGhee wrote. "I do not recall Sen. Marsh specifically asking for a contribution."

Marsh said he has no involvement with the nationwide Republican group's decision to donate to Alabama candidates.

"The reality is, we have no control over how the party spends money at that level," he said.

Unknown source

Just who created and sent the mailer attacking Marsh is unclear. As of Monday, the Foundation for Education Accountability didn't show up in Alabama's state records as a nonprofit corporation or a political action committee. The group has no website, and no listed phone number in Carrollton, Ga., the location of its post office box.

Officials in Carroll County, Ga., said the Georgia Secretary of State's office would have records of any nonprofit formed in the county. The Secretary of State's online records showed no entry for a Foundation for Education Accountability. Department spokesman Chris Perlera said the online records were the best source of information on corporations, profit or nonprofit.

"That's the same search I would go through here," he said.

Maria Bazile, spokeswoman for the Georgia Campaign Finance Commission, said there were no records of the group as a political action committee. Bazile said the group wouldn't have to file a report with the commission if it raised less than $25,000.

Sinclair, the elections attorney for Alabama's secretary of state, said the group didn't have to file a finance report in Alabama if it wasn't formed in Alabama.

Similarities

The group's name is similar to the name of another group, the Foundation for Accountability in Education, a nonprofit formed by Marsh last month to promote the Alabama Accountability Act, a recently passed law that would give tax credits to some parents of children in private schools.

That law was originally introduced in the Legislature in February as a measure to allow schools to opt out of some state rules for educational purposes. In the hours before its final vote in the Legislature, the bill morphed into a school tax-credit bill, largely at Marsh's direction. That led to criticism from some educators' groups.

Marsh and other Republicans formed their nonprofit shortly afterward. According to Marsh, the goal of the group was to clear up misconceptions about the bill.

Marsh's foundation spent at least $18,000 on radio ads in March, according to records maintained by Anniston-area radio stations. But Marsh has not yet revealed the names of the foundation's donors. The foundation was formed as a 501 (c)(4) nonprofit, which can run advertising on political issues without disclosing its finances.

Marsh said Monday that his organization had raised "close to $100,000." He said the group could soon release the names of donors, though it would need to hold a board meeting first and ask donors if they are willing to allow the disclosure.

"I can tell you it's all from in-state sources interested in education reform," he said.

Little love lost

Marsh said he believes the organization running ads against him is funded by the Alabama Education Association, the state's largest teachers' association and a fierce opponent of the Alabama Accountability Act.

Historically, there's been little love lost between Marsh and the AEA. In past interviews with The Star, Marsh has questioned whether unions — including AEA, which he identifies as a teacher's union — fill a need in society. The AEA has run ads against Marsh in the past, typically through PACs set up to obscure the AEA’s role.

Attempts to reach AEA executive secretary Henry Mabry, through the group's public relations consultant, were unsuccessful Monday. AEA spokesman David Stout said he was unaware of any connection between AEA and the Foundation for Education Accountability.

"I don't know anything about it," Stout said.

State records show the AEA's political action committee, known as A-VOTE, making only two donations since the Accountability Act was passed, neither of them to a Foundation for Education Accountability. The group gave $5,000 to the Alabama Democratic Conference on Friday and $5,000 to the Alabama New South Alliance on March 8.

The New South Alliance is registered as a political action committee. Contributions from one PAC to another are banned in Alabama, but Sinclair, the state elections attorney, said a court ruling allows contributions if they're spent only on a PAC's operating costs.

It's unclear whether any group would have to report expenditures on an ad — even one criticizing a potential candidate — at this point in the election cycle. Sinclair said restrictions on campaign advertising don't kick in until June, about a year and a half from the 2014 election. Until then, she said, some organizations don't even need to report their spending.

Marsh said his organization's ads were focused on issues, not on an electoral campaign.

"All we've done are radio ads basically letting people know what the act does," he said. "We haven't attacked anybody."

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.


PLAYERS:
Foundation for Accountability in Education

Creator/supporter: State Sen. Del Marsh

Donors: Unknown

Issue: Supporting Alabama Accountability Act

Spending: at least $18,000

Foundation for Education Accountability

Creator/supporters: Unknown

Donors: Unknown

Issue: Criticizing Marsh for alleged links to Creek gambling

Spending: Unknown

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