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Impeachment only way to oust public officials

By Sheryl Marsh
smarsh@decaturdaily.com · 340-2437

Witchcraft, bootlegging, slot machines and bribery were elements of past impeachments of public officials throughout the state.

When voters elect individuals to serve in public office and later decide they don’t like their agendas or conduct, they can’t get rid of them by recall.

Some states have provision for elections to oust officials but Alabama does not.

If Alabama had recall elections, some irate Decatur smokers might attempt to oust the mayor and City Council members over the smoking ban ordinance.

A segment of voters might even be tempted to recall some county commissioners.

Not easy

But impeachment is the only option to try to remove officials from office and impeachment is difficult, perhaps because no one wants to overturn the collective wisdom of voters who put officials in office.

Impeachment trials are civil proceedings mostly handled in circuit court where an official may ask for a jury to hear the case.

Elected officials, such as county commissioners and sheriffs, and municipal officials, such as mayors, may be candidates for impeachment on statutory causes that include alcohol and drug abuse, incompetency and willful neglect of duties.

State law also mandates that it is the duty of the attorney general and district attorneys to institute and prosecute impeachment proceedings.

In addition to the district attorney and attorney general, citizens may also call for impeachment of an elected official.

The state has had its share of impeachments, but they’ve been rare in Morgan County.

The last recorded impeachment proceeding in Morgan was 26 years ago.

For almost three decades no one has brought allegations for impeachment of any Morgan officials.

“There hasn’t been one since I’ve been in office,” said 21-year District Attorney Bob Burrell. “The last I remember was that of Gilbert Edwards, who was mayor of Flint.”

Records show that a grand jury brought charges against the late mayor and the former late sheriff Van Ward in April 1981 for bribery of a public servant. The grand jury recommended removal of both men from office.

The allegations were that the two officials paid a Flint employee to set up the police chief by getting him drunk so he could be arrested when answering a fake call.

The attorney general’s office prosecuted the case and a jury found Edwards innocent of the charge, ruling out impeachment.

Ward resigned and pleaded guilty to the charge against him, records show. A judge placed him on probation for a year and a day. Ward did not have an impeachment proceeding.

In other counties

Former Attorney General Bill Baxley recalled impeachments he handled while in office and others that he researched.

In Talladega County, there was Sheriff Luke Brewer, now deceased.

“I liked Luke,” said Baxley. “He was a colorful guy. He was a pretty decent country sheriff. He had good common sense and instinct for solving crime. He got to taking bribes from bootleggers when Talladega was dry.”

The corruption grew worse.

“After a while, Luke got to the point where he was almost dangerous,” Baxley recalled. “He threatened a couple of judges and went and got somebody to set one judge’s home on fire. That’s when my office got in it.”

Baxley successfully got the state Supreme Court to impeach Brewer.

“Even after that, I still ended up liking Luke, but you can’t let somebody like that get away with what he was doing,” Baxley said.

Voodoo dust

Near the Florida line in South Alabama, a mayor reportedly practiced witchcraft.

“It was in Florala, and the mayor was about 84 or 85 years old,” Baxley said. “He sprinkled voodoo powder on the door of the police chief’s office.”

The Florala mayor, H.T. Mathis, made national headlines as “voodoo mayor” in publications such as The Washington Post.

The newspaper reported that Mathis “who drew national attention for his strange public references to voodoo and repeated pardons of drunken drivers, was convicted at his impeachment trial and removed from office.”

That was published in The Post on Sept. 1, 1988.

Former Gov. Don Siegelman, who was attorney general at the time, prosecuted Mathis on charges of incompetence and crimes of moral turpitude. Mathis was 85 at the time, according to the newspaper article.

An article in The New York Times, dated Sept. 1, 1988, stated that Mathis once proclaimed a National Voodoo Week and purportedly tried to scare the Florala police chief by sprinkling “voodoo powder” around City Hall, the City Council chambers and corridors to the jail.

Also, The Times story stated that witnesses who testified against Mathis told how he pardoned more than 100 traffic offenders, including 27 drunken drivers. Officials said he undermined the law by abusing his pardoning power.

Slot machines

In the 1950s, Madison County had an impeachment of the sheriff receiving bribes for illegal gambling.

“It was Sheriff Oliver McPeters,” Baxley said. “He couldn’t read or write, and he was taking bribes for slot machines. They would pay him by check, and he would scrawl an X for his name on the back. One of the people paying him off got mad at him and turned him in. On the line on the check to tell what it’s for the person wrote, “bribe for payoff of six slot machines.” Because McPeters couldn’t read, he signed the checks and they had those in evidence. He got impeached by the Supreme Court.”

Impeachment of sheriffs

Impeachment of sheriffs is prosecuted in the state Supreme Court because they are constitutional officers, Baxley explained.

Baxley said throughout the years there have been numerous impeachments of county commissioners and circuit clerks, which county juries decided.

Baxley said it’s not uncommon for citizens to ask for impeachment.

“They can bring a suit, but they have to put up certain costs,” said Baxley.

That happened in Phenix City.

“Some citizens filed an impeachment in the Supreme Court against the sheriff in the 1950s,” Baxley said. “The court ruled against them and left the sheriff in office.”

The corruption there worsened.

“After that, the district attorney and the sheriff’s chief deputy assassinated the attorney general-elect because he had campaigned to clean up corruption in Phenix City,” Baxley said.

“I read the original case of every impeachment case filed in this state, and they were quite interesting and some were very colorful.”

A guilty verdict for impeachment against officials means automatic removal from public office. There is no jail time.

Baxley said impeachment is exclusive to each situation.

Impeachment

State law lists these causes for removing an elected official from office:

  • Willful neglect of duty.

  • Incompetency.

  • Corruption in office.

  • Intemperance in the use of intoxicating liquors or narcotics to such an extent in view of the dignity of the office and importance of its duties unfitting for an officer to discharge duties.

  • Any offense involving moral turpitude while in office or committed under color thereof or in connection.

    The process

    A grand jury investigates allegations.

    “It shall be the duty of every grand jury to investigate and make diligent inquiry concerning any alleged misconduct or incompetency of any public officer in the county which may be brought to its notice,” the law states.

    If a grand jury finds that an official has committed any one of the offenses in the law and should be removed from office, it must report the finding to the court, the law states.

    State law gives citizens the right to file allegations for impeachment against an official.

    “Any five resident taxpayers of the division, circuit, district, county, city or town for which the officer sought to be impeached was elected or appointed may institute proceedings of impeachment under Sections 174 and 175 of Article 7 of the constitution upon giving bond, with sufficient sureties, payable to the officer sought to be impeached,” the law states.

    Source: Code of Alabama

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