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Senator switched sides after AEA donation

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Education Association gave a $10,000 campaign contribution to state Sen. Phil Poole one day before he switched sides in the Senate’s organizational struggle and voted to put AEA allies in control of the chamber.

A campaign finance report filed by AEA’s political action committee shows the $10,000 donation occurred on Jan. 8. The next day, Poole was on the winning side of an 18-17 vote to elect Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, as the Senate’s new president pro tem.

Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said Tuesday that Poole’s switch and the campaign donation “are not connected.” He said if AEA were concerned about the propriety of the contribution, it could have held the donations for a few days and not had to report it until later in the year.

Poole, D-Moundville, did not return phone messages left at his law office on Monday and Tuesday seeking comment.

Poole was originally one of seven Democrats who planned to side with the Senate’s 12 Republicans and help Republican Gov. Bob Riley organize the Senate. Their goal was to elect Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, as president pro tem.

But shortly before the vote, Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, changed sides and then Poole followed. Poole provided the deciding vote that made Mitchem pro tem and kept in power many of the Democrats who had controlled the Senate for the last eight years.

Preuitt said Tuesday he received a phone call from Poole at 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 9 — one hour and 15 minutes before the Senate met to elect the president pro tem — to inform him that he had changed sides. He said AEA and trial lawyers worked hard to get Smitherman and Poole to change sides, and the contribution doesn’t surprise him.

“Pretty much nothing surprises me about Poole any more. I’m sorry Poole’s word is not worth more,” Preuitt said in an interview.

The Jan. 9 vote wasn’t the first time Poole switched sides in a Senate organization battle. He did the same thing in 1999 and provided the winning vote that helped then-Gov. Don Siegelman’s allies organize the Senate. After that vote, Siegelman announced a major road project for Poole’s district, but both said there was no connection between the project and Poole’s vote.

After the most recent Senate vote, Poole told reporters that he switched sides because he thought Mitchem’s group would be better for his district and would be more supportive of two big employers in his district: The University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College.

Hubbert said he already knew that Poole was switching sides before they talked on the morning of Jan. 8 and Poole “mentioned almost as an afterthought” that he had a campaign debt to pay off.

Poole defeated Republican Joe Nathan Saxton Jr. of Coaling in the general election Nov. 7.

AEA’s campaign finance report shows it gave a $5,000 contribution on Jan. 5 to state Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, who was also on the winning side of the vote in the Senate. Mitchell had one of Alabama’s most expensive legislative races against Republican Joan Reynolds of Greenville.

Alabama law allows candidates to raise money for 120 days after an election if they have unpaid bills. A campaign finance report Poole filed shortly before the Nov. 7 election showed he had $15,562 on hand, but his report covering through the end of the year is not due until Jan. 31.

One of Preuitt’s supporters, Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, said the AEA donation raises questions.

“It’s just stupid on AEA’s part to do this, and it’s stupid on Senator Poole’s part if he deposited that check,” Dixon said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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