But the AEA official who approved the expenditure of $12,500 for the Committee to Protect Alabama Jobs —- the PAC that ran the ad —- says he doesn’t recall any details about the organization.
“I’m sorry, but I write a lot of checks, and I don’t remember this one,” said Joe Cottle, director of governmental relations for AEA.
Cottle is the chairman of the Arbor Committee, a largely AEA-funded PAC that gave money to a number of other PACs in the 2010 election. Cottle’s group gave the Committee to Protect Alabama Jobs —- a Birmingham-based PAC — all but $100 of that group’s total $12,600 in funding.
Just days after the Arbor Committee’s donation, the PAC paid $12,425 to a Montgomery printing company to produce a pair of mass-mailed ads that criticized Marsh for trying to “invite illegal immigrants to burst through the border” and accused him of “moving his business to Mexico.”
Investigations by The Star found little truth to either claim.
The “burst through the border” ad cited a vague reference in an obscure political newsletter as evidence that Marsh had a plan to loosen restrictions on immigrant workers. In reality, Marsh was mentioned because he was one of several senators who introduced legislation to tighten restrictions on immigrants.
The “moved his business to Mexico” ad appeared to be equally bogus. Marsh told The Star that he was actually able to hire more U.S. workers after his business, a company that makes aircraft coatings, opened sales offices in Mexico and Europe.
But the pictures in both ads were the real attention-getters. One digitally altered image depicted Marsh as the leader of a mariachi band, while another image, also altered, placed him in a large sombrero.
Marsh isn’t Hispanic —- he has Lebanese ancestry on his mother’s side.
“I think they chose this angle because the immigration issue is big right now,” Marsh said. “It didn’t matter whether it was true or not. They just wanted to connect me with the issue.”
In The Star’s original stories on the ads, there was no comment from the Committee to Protect Alabama Jobs —- because there was no way to contact the group. The Secretary of State’s office had never logged the group’s organizing papers into its files. The ad listed one “Richard Williams” as the committee’s chair, but calls to numerous people by that name in Birmingham yielded no results.
After the paperwork was found this week, The Star tried again. The committee’s listed phone number was out of service Friday, but Birmingham lawyer Ezra B. Perry Jr., who notarized the papers, said the committee’s chairman was better known as Eric Williams. Perry said Williams works at a Birmingham restaurant called Billy’s Bar and Grill.
The Star contacted Williams at the restaurant. He confirmed that he was the chair of the organization, but wouldn’t comment further.
“Don’t call me here,” he said. “This is where I work.”
William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, said it’s not uncommon for political groups to find people to run PACs for them in order to fund ad campaigns that are difficult to trace.
“I’m not saying that’s what happened in this case,” he said. “But there are people who make a pretty good living running PACs, even though they don’t have a personal stake in the issue or race.”
According to Janice McDonald, director of elections for the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, a handful of PACs had no paperwork on record even after the Nov. 2 election. By early January, McDonald had tracked down all but one of them. Before she found the paperwork for the Committee to Protect Alabama Jobs, the group was considered the only PAC that had not filed a statement of organization.
But even when a PAC refuses to file paperwork —- as required by law —- it’s not a slam dunk that they’ll be prosecuted.
“We’re required to collect the paperwork, but we’re not required to audit,” McDonald said. “If someone called the attorney general and reported a violation, they would decide whether to pursue it.”
Stewart said he’s not surprised a PAC’s paperwork would get lost. Like other state agencies, he said, the Secretary of State’s office is likely working on a reduced staff, he said. And in Alabama’s current political culture —- where hundreds of PACs pass money among each other to hide their funding sources —- there’s a lot of paperwork to keep up with, he said.
“I would hope, under the new legislation banning PAC-to-PAC transfers, that a lot of this behavior will stop,” Stewart said. “I think that legislation will be a good thing for Alabama politics.”
Star assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.