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Panel begins Senate punch deliberations

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — A Senate committee unlike any that ever convened before will begin deliberations Thursday on the fate of one senator who socked another senator on the last day of the 2007 session.

The Senate Ethics and Conduct Committee, which meets at 10:30 a.m. at the Statehouse, must decide whether to discipline Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper.

Bishop socked current Senate rules committee chairman and former President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, during a recess on the last day of the regular session June 7.

Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, will chair the committee's organizational meeting until members elect a chairman.

Chip Hill, a spokesman for Lt. Governor Jim Folsom Jr., said the committee will set priorities and decide how to proceed but does not expect to take any action on Bishop's future at the first meeting. Folsom requested the meeting and appointed Little, the Senate majority leader, as temporary chairman.

Under Senate operating rules, an expulsion vote within the committee requires a majority of four members, Hill said. A vote for censure only takes a vote of three members.

Either way, the full Senate must vote on the committee recommendation while the Legislature is in session. In the Senate, expulsion would take approval by a majority of 21 senators, but censure would require only a majority of 18 votes.

The Senate logjam that marked much of the 2007 regular session hinged on a vote split of 18 to 17. The makeup of the ethics committee may give some clue about whether an expulsion vote is likely.

In addition to Little, committee members include Sens. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, and Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

Benefield won her Senate seat in a hotly contested 2006 race against former Sen. Gerald Dial, D-Lineville. Longtime Secretary Senate McDowell Lee said Dial made the 2003 proposal to set up an ethics and conduct committee in the Senate. Before that time, the Senate had no such committee.

But in years leading up to his defeat in 2006, Dial often aligned with conservative Democrats and Republicans to oppose Barron decisions while Barron was pro tem. Political action committees that received large contributions from Barron's re-election campaign also contributed to Benefield's campaign.

Both Beason and Preuitt are aligned with a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats who wanted bipartisan control in the Senate in 2007. The coalition slowed down much action in the Senate during the session that ended two weeks ago while attempting to make operating rules more favorable to the minority.

Preuitt, also had opposition in the 2006 Democratic Party primary from former Talladega Mayor Larry Barton, a convicted felon who also got campaign contributions from PACs that received money from Barron's re-election campaign.

The act in question happened when Bishop, 69, hit Barron on the jaw near his ear. The blow, recorded on videotape by Alabama Public Television, sent Barron sprawling backward over a desk in the Senate chamber. Bishop said Barron called him a SOB. Barron and other senators near the scene said he did not do so.

"My long-departed mother was not in the senate today and not part of the discussion," Bishop said. The three-term senator said that in the hills of Arkansas near his home in Moro Bottom, when someone insulted your mother, that was a reason for a fight.

Bishop apologized to his colleagues and Secretary of the Senate McDowell Lee, saying he was sorry the altercation happened in the Senate chamber. He did not apologize to Barron, whom he said is verbally abusive to other lawmakers.

He said if the same thing happened again, he might retaliate again.

Barron said he will not press charges against Bishop.

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