The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

June 13, 2013

UPDATE: Local GOP debates sheriff probe, vetting

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— The fur was flying Tuesday at the Limestone County Republican Executive Committee meeting over an alleged investigation of incumbent Sheriff Mike Blakely and a three-man committee chosen to vet future Republican candidates for public office.

One member, Rex Davis, resigned at the meeting, though he said he had planned to do so since January.

Several Republican office holders called for calm and tolerance among members near the end of the meeting, which lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes.

The meeting, which was punctuated with lively debate at times, is the monthly Executive Committee meeting, held this month at 306 Barbecue on U.S. 72 in Athens.

Davis, who resigned toward the end of the meeting, said in March a question was raised about a member of the executive committee conducting an   investigation of a Democratic elected official. Davis said that although he had no proof, “supposedly that report was heard by the steering committee.”

Sources confirmed the Democratic elected official in question was Blakely, the incumbent sheriff who has not formally announced plans to run for re-election.

“If an individual candidate wanted to investigate  (that is one thing) but I don’t think that should be the scope of the committee,” Davis said.

He said the committee should not be conducting investigations and that if a candidate is doing something objectionable it should be referred to the proper official, such as the district attorney.

The member conducting the investigation, John Lievsay, stopped by The New Courier office recently to ask a reporter about the sheriff’s rodeo, who owned the land off Alabama 99 where the arena is located and how proceeds from ticket sales are spent and to whom the land will revert when the sheriff is no longer sheriff. (The sheriff does not own the land and the proceeds from the event help the department purchase vehicles.) Someone also made other inquiries about the sheriff, including talking to donors to his campaign. 

Ronnie Coffman, executive committee chairman, told the executive committee members at the meeting the person who conducted the investigation, whom he later confirmed as Lievsay, did so without the committee’s approval.

“ We have not authorized any investigation as far as this party,” Coffman said.

On Wednesday, Coffman told The News Courier, “I don’t know who told him to do that or to look into that. He came to me one day and said I want to give a report on the rodeo to the steering committee and he said the report was that there was no report.”

Coffman said he did not want Blakely to perceive that the committee had anything to do with the investigation. He said he has instructed candidates not to try to down Blakely, who has been re-elected many times by popular vote.

“I told them don’t go out here and run down Mike Blakely because it will hurt you more than it will help you,” Coffman said.

Brad Pullum, a Republican candidate for sheriff who attended the meeting, wanted to make it clear he had nothing to do with the investigation and that he was just learning about it for the first time Tuesday night.

He stood and said, “I had nothing to do with it and I did not know it was going on at all.”

Other members also said they were not aware of any investigation and were learning about it for the first time Tuesday.

Davis said that the results of any such investigation — one without the backing of the full committee — should be ““impeached or disregarded.”

Call for calm

District Attorney Brian Jones and Limestone County Commissioner Ben Harrison both called for calm and cooperation among members.

Jones said he was “extremely disheartened and disappointed” in the group for bickering during the meeting.

“Don’t let individual ideas rip us apart,” he said. “We’ve got to put aside our differences …”

Harrison cautioned members to be tolerant of a variety of Republican philosophies.

“We need to treat each other with respect whether we agree or disagree,” he said. “We need to take the personal stuff outside.”

He said there were aspects of Libertarianism and Constitutionalism that he supported, though not many on the Democratic side.

“We need to learn how to speak with civility to each other based on principles, not emotion,” he said.

State Rep. Dan Williams, R-Athens, was not remotely rattled by any arguing at the meeting.

“What has gone on tonight is a constant, daily occurrence in the state Legislature,” he said, drawing laughter.

Vetting

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Republicans discussed the process of determining the suitability of candidates seeking to run on the Republican ticket, a process also known as vetting.

Although he encouraged more Democrats residents to become Republicans, Jones said the vetting process for candidates was important.

He said if a Democratic office holder who lost in the last election tries to switch parties to win, the committee should say, “Hell no, you’re not coming across the line.”

“You have to ask yourself, do you want quality or quantity,” Jones said.

Williams also strongly encouraged the committee to carefully vet candidates for the upcoming races.

“The AEA (Alabama Education Association) is going to run candidates in the next state election and they will try to run as Republicans,” Williams said. ‘So, this idea of vetting is very important when a candidate comes up to run as a Republican.”

He said it is easy to identify those who simply ran on the Republican ticket or switched parties to try to win an election because they get elected and the party never sees them again.

At one point in the meeting, Committee Vice-Chairman Toney Llewellyn complained that Coffman had said Davis should be kept off future ballots (for public office) because Davis was “a weak Republican” who had breakfast with Blakely.

Llewellyn said if members were going to be defined as strong or weak Republicans, he wanted to know the criteria for such assessments and how each member of the committee would rank.

Coffman said the comment about Davis angered Llewellyn because the two men are friends.

“Rex has told me he believes in the Libertarian way, and he said in the paper Sunday he is not a conservative,” Coffman said. “The Republican Party stand for conservative values and I stand for conservative values.”

Davis, who was allowed two minutes to speak, said he never said he was associated with Libertarian views. He said he was a Goldwater Republican and a classical liberal, the latter began the nation, he said.

He also noted that there are several types of Republicans, including conservatives, libertarians, constitutionalists, and classical liberals.

“Those who do not understand should, perhaps, study it and not throw rocks,” Davis said.

Coffman said the state committee said that it is the job of the executive committee to determine who is a good Republican candidate before approving money (for campaigning).

Davis said Wednesday that although Blakely is a friend, he is also a Democrat who needs to be replaced by a Republican.