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Decatur man played key role in 1969 ouster from Senate

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — A Decatur attorney who played a key role in a 1969 Senate ethics investigation recalls little about events surrounding a fellow lawmaker’s ouster because of bribery charges.

Former Decatur Sen. Robert H. “Bob” Harris also sees little or no similarity between the bribery accusation against Sen. William G. “Mack” McCarley almost 40 years ago and a Senate Ethics and Conduct Committee investigation going on now.

The current investigation involves one or more conduct complaints stemming from a June 7 incident in the Senate chamber when Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, socked Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, and caused him to fall backward over a desk.

Experts say federal court decisions in the McCarley case, however, helped define boundaries for investigations of suspected legislative misconduct that still apply today.

Athens State University political science professor Jess Brown said courts usually take a hands-off position on issues involving the legislative branch of government.

Both sides

But decisions in the McCarley case specify that even in legislative misconduct evaluations, a person accused must have adequate opportunity to tell his side of the story and proper notice of the charges against him.

“Members of the Legislature are the ultimate judge of who is qualified to serve,” Brown said.

While many people point to the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government as having equal power, Brown said that is erroneous.

“The legislative branch controls the purse strings and they can determine who serves,” Brown said. “That is tremendous power.”

“There is a longstanding tradition that legislative bodies, not just in the U.S., have the authority to determine and judge the qualifications of people who serve in those bodies.”

Brown said the practice goes back to English common law.

Thinking back almost 40 years, Harris remembers few specifics of the McCarley case.

“The only thing I remember about it is that it found its way to federal court and Judge (Frank M.) Johnson ruled it was a violation of due process,” he said.

Harris is skeptical about how much impact an ethics committee can have on issues involving lawmakers.

“If there was some meaningful measurement of public officials’ conduct, half the people in Montgomery wouldn’t be there,” he said.

He also has little hope that remedies exist to correct the situations that lead to ethical problems for lawmakers.

“Things are probably too far gone to be remedied,” Harris said. “Once the rascals get control, they are going to act like rascals.”

The influence of special interest groups and lobbyists, he said, are too rampant.

Harris was chairman of the Senate committee that investigated the accusations against McCarley printed in an Aug. 12, 1969, newspaper article in the Montgomery Advertiser.

The newspaper article that prompted the investigation alleged that McCarley acted as a messenger in proposing that the Fraternal Order of Police pay $3,500 to two other senators in exchange for their agreement to get a police pension bill passed in a Senate committee.

The grand jury indicted McCarley on charges of soliciting a bribe Sept. 19, 1969. The Senate voted to expel McCarley on Aug. 20, 1969. On Nov. 20, a jury acquitted him after a two-day trial, but the Senate did not reinstate him. The federal court suit followed.

The senator and his attorney Morris Dees successfully fought in federal court. In an opinion released Jan. 27, 1970, the federal court ordered McCarley reinstated in the Senate with back pay. The court opinion said due process issues were the reason.

Senate historian Jon Morgan said the current Ethics and Conduct Committee does not meet on a regular schedule, but only occasionally as the need arises. While the committee establishes its operating rules, Morgan said, the guidelines follow sections of the Alabama Constitution that are supposed to make sure they align with federal law as well.

McCarley, who later moved to Georgia, died in January 2007, after a brief run in the 2006 Georgia governor’s race, according to news accounts in Atlanta newspapers.

Only two other lawmakers ever faced ouster by their peers, one in the House and one in the Senate. Both cases were in the 1930s.

On the issue of Bishop and Barron, political scientist Brown said it is politically in the best interest of both factions in the Senate to reach for one goal.

“Settle, settle, settle,” Brown recommended. “If they are really interested in the health of the body, they will settle.”

Brown believes that some lawmakers and political party loyalists on both sides may hold split opinions because they think one wrong action deserves another action in return. The average voter back home, however, will see two wrongs.

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