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State Sen. Ben Brooks mulls age-old conundrum:
Is it paranoia if they really are out to get you?

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Recent campaign financial disclosures show state Sen. Ben Brooks with a big money advantage over his Democratic challenger and more reason to suspect political motivations behind an Alabaster attorney's demand for records related to BP oil spill recovery funds spent in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Brooks entered the final 45 days leading up to the Nov. 2 general election for the potentially pivotal south Mobile County senate seat with $157,417.77 compared to political newcomer Scott Buzbee's $7,226.91.

For the reporting period, Brooks raised $53,315 to Buzbee's $24,900. Expenditures by the two foes for the period were close -- Brooks, $20,173.08; Buzbee, $19,287.11.

Brooks balked earlier this month when Shelby County lawyer John Aaron sought the Mobile attorney's files stemming from projects and contracts awarded in the wake of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

After Aaron refused to identify his clients in the "freedom of information" action, Brooks filed suit in Mobile County Circuit Court seeking a judgment on Aaron's right to the documents. Brooks' attorney Don Beebe described Aaron as "a political hack."

Aaron said he also requested documents from other governmental bodies and legislators -- including Mobile and Baldwin counties, the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, the city of Bayou La Batre and state Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington -- but only Brooks chose to "stonewall" him.

“I am puzzled why Ben Brooks has chosen to lawyer-up and engage in intimidating tactics to prevent the lawful disclosure of public documents,” Aaron said in a prepared statement.

Through his attorneys, Brooks has said he does not object to producing the records for the court, but his own  experience as an attorney and Aaron's approach made him wary. Furthermore, according to Brooks' attorneys, Aaron's broad request for documents and communications between the senator and the media, constituents and state and federal governmental agencies was extraordinarily burdensome and more in the nature of a political fishing expedition than a sincere request for information. That Aaron sent Brooks the same letter twice -- first one dated Aug. 2 and later an identical letter dated July 16 -- only heightened Brooks' suspicions, said his counsel. Also, he noted, it appears that, of Aaron's targets, only Brooks' failure to immediately comply prompted a threat of litigation.  

Aaron has ties to former Gov. Don Siegelman who he served, according to media reports, as a "campaign researcher." Aaron also assisted fellow attorney Jill Simpson, an Alabama "Republican operative" unanimously unknown as such to the party and its leaders, who swore to a momentous role in the federal case against Siegelman and his co-defendant HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, appearing time and again almost omnipresently in scenes betraying a conspiracy among Karl Rove, Gov. Bob Riley and GOP-appointed prosecutors and judges to derail Siegelman. Aaron helped Simpson in the preparation of affidavits to support her allegations, according to her testimony three years ago before the U.S. House of Representatives. Aaron draws mention in Eddie Curran's book on the Siegelman affair, "The Governor of Goat Hill."

According to the county officials, Aaron has contacted the county commission on at least two other occasions, once about some verbal outrage allegedly committed by ex-Commissioner Stephen Nodine and another time to inquire about a "severance package" for Jennylyn Sumrall, a former employee as district administrator in the office of County Commissioner Mike Dean.

According to Sumrall, her efforts prior to her departure as a county worker involved "problem-solving for just about everything under the sun." Ultimately, she was not paid a "severance package," according to an attorney for the county.

Sumrall registered Capitol Solutions, a governmental relations/consulting services and research company, with the Alabama Secretary of State's office on Aug. 27, 2009.  
The Buzbee campaign has paid Sumrall's Capitol Solutions almost $3,000 in the past month for advertising and consulting/polling -- $457.50 on Aug. 25 and $2,500 on Sept. 9.

The Buzbee campaign also shows an expenditure on June 9, 2010 of $6,500 to Capitol Services in the category of consultant/polling.

Capitol Services was incorporated Feb. 13, 2007 to provide public relations and governmental affairs consulting. Its registered agent is Tricia Aaron. The concern's address is 18 Frankies Lane in Alabaster. That is also the address listed as the residence of John and Tricia Aaron, according to the phone directory for the Bessemer, Birmingham and Shelby County metropolitan area. 

Of the apparent ties between Aaron and the Buzbee campaign, Brooks said, “I can’t say I’m completely surprised."

But Buzbee campaign manager Sumrall said those ties do not extend to the north Alabama attorney's FOIA requests.

Responding by email, Sumrall stated: "I myself nor my consulting company are the client for John Aaron's FOIA request. Also, Scott Buzbee nor The Scott Buzbee for Senate Campaign are the client for John Aaron's FOIA request. Mr. Aaron's research and consulting company have done research for our campaign and the research was not connected to Mr. Aaron's FOIA request."

Collier said Aaron sent him a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence from his office regarding the oil spill.

According to Collier, he wrote back to Aaron suggesting he make an appointment with the legislative office allowing Collier time to first gather the information.

FOIA petitions are "fairly common," said Collier, noting that Aaron's didn't seem to be "a big deal."

As far as he knows, said Collier, Aaron has not followed up.

Sumrall also worked for Collier as a legislative assistant for constituent issues from 2005-2008, although, according to Collier, for much of that period she served as a volunteer.

Although they are both Republican lawmakers representing south Mobile County, Brooks and Collier have clashed occasionally, including most recently when Brooks expressed reservations about local handling of millions of dollars in BP monies related to oil spill response. Brooks was particularly critical of a $500,000 fee paid to grant writer Janey Galbraith and Associates to oversee an $8 million BP appropriation to Bayou la Batre to fund the hiring out-of-work fishermen to help in the oil spill cleanup.

Collier and Brooks have also disagreed over legislation to regulate commercial gillnet fishing and bills to expand the Mobile County Commission. Collier favors a larger full-time commission as a more representative body. Brooks took a fiscal conservative tack, preferring an expanded part-time commission that didn't increase the cost of government. One proposal that was floated followed the Madison County model which features seven part-time commissioners and a central full-time commissioner elected countywide.

Buzbee did not return a call Thursday.

Brooks' action against Aaron remains pending before Mobile County Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter.

Contributors to Brooks' re-election campaign for the reporting period included:

Among Buzbee's backers were:



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