Thursday, April 28, 2011

Melba Till Allen: We are not amused

Image from the Tuscaloosa News

Working to root out corruption at the state level early in her career, Melba Till Allen is credited with helping win adoption of a ethics law for Alabama in 1973. Five years later, she and her lawyers were scrambling to show that the law was unconstitutional in order to keep her out of jail.

The daughter of a farmer, Allen was born in March of 1933 in Friendship Community, Alabama. She lived in Hope Hull and Grady before marrying in December of 1950, at the age of 17, to Marvin E. Allen. From a young age she had dreamed of achieving political office, and finally did so in 1966. That year, she was elected state auditor on the Democratic ticket. It was a banner year for women in Alabama politics; Hull replaced Republican Alice Hudson, and five other women were also elected to high office. Hull held the job from 1967 to 1975, and became known as a crusader against state employees with padded expense accounts. It earned her the nickname "Melba 'Watching the Till' Allen."

Allen's first high-profile scuffle came in the years of 1969 and 1970. After Allen made allegations of violations of law in some contracts and purchases at the state docks in Mobile, Governor Albert Brewer ordered an investigation into the matter. The two were soon at loggerheads over the issue. When the governor's probe cleared docks director Houston Feaster of any wrongdoing, Allen accused him of incompetence. "I doubt the competence of his investigators. I believe they were deliberately trying to whitewash the situation or just doing a poor job," she said. Events continued to seesaw in favor of Allen's contentions and against. Brewer fired Feaster in July of 1970 after he failed to appear before a grand jury, reasoning that it was his right as a private citizen but conflicted with the gubernatorial administration. When the grand jury also cleared Feaster, however, Brewer had harsh words for Allen: "We have reached a sad state of affairs when an an elected official, for political expediency, will engage in character assassination and even attack a grand jury and court." Allen contended that the grand jury had been pressured into an early decision. Finally, in January of 1972, Feaster was convicted of one count of tax evasion charging $14,000 in under-reported income in 1966. The trial included testimony by Marvin Massengale, who testified under immunity and said his firm received $93,000 in kickbacks for construction projects at the docks. Though Feaster was accused of seven other counts of tax evasion charging failure to pay taxes on ill-gotten gains between 1965 and 1968, he was acquitted of all of them.

In the midst of these events, Allen announced that she would be running for the Senate. In December of 1971, she said she would be a candidate in 1972, declaring, "I believe that I could better serve my fellow Alabamians in this capacity." Commenting on the decision, Florence Times and Tri-Cities Daily staff reporter Mel Newman wrote, "Despite the imposing sound of her title and its constitutional prerogatives, the state auditor has been left without great power to ferret out mishandling of public funds, by lack of support from the governor's office, the legislature, and the general public." However, he said, Allen"can be expected to keep the contest a lively one." She kept the promise, but fell short in the primary. She began serving as state treasurer in 1975, and in April of 1977 said she intended to run for governor in the next year's election.

Five months later, the Birmingham News began printing a series of articles accusing Allen of failing to report to the State Ethics Commission a series of loans in 1975 and 1976. These loans were meant to finance the construction of Stars Over Alabama, an amusement park in northern Alabama which never got off the ground; the site itself was destroyed in a suspicious 1977 fire. The newspaper said a number of loans also aimed to boost other, mostly personal business ventures. By law, the state funds (as much as $550 million) had to be deposited in the 300 banks in Alabama; bankers were willing to play along with Allen, realizing they could get the state as a customer if they made personal loans to Allen. In the end, Allen had taken a total of $2.9 million from 58 banks. These included $400,000 in land investments, $378,000 to expand her husband's trucking business, $281,000 for Stars Over Alabama, $75,000 for a movie distribution company, and $14,165 in a wicker distribution company run by her two children. The loans, or rather Allen's failure to report them, attracted the attention of the State Ethics Commission as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service, and Federal Deposit Insurance Company. The Montgomery County district attorney, Jimmy Evans, said investigators would probe the allegations against Allen and her assistant.

Allen denied any wrongdoing, saying, "My only mistake has been in putting too much trust in some of my business friends." Her tactic was clearly that the best defense was a good offense. She asked state and federal attorneys to look into whether elements in organized crime were trying to discredit her. She also criticized the February 1978 arrest of her financial adviser and University of Tennessee at Nashville professor John Byron Pennington, who was caught in a sting operation while trying to buy information on grand jury proceedings against her. Allen found out what the grand jury had been doing soon enough. The next month, she was indicted on four counts. These charged her with soliciting or accepting the use of an airplane from Florida financier E.A. Gregory (who was associated with one of the Alabama banks during the time of the alleged offenses); two counts of depositing state funds in the American Bank of Geneva in exchange for loans; and demanding a fee, reward, or compensation from the bank for depositing money. One month later, she was indicted again on a charge of violating the State Ethics Act by failing to disclose her banking activity to the State Ethics Commission, reporting only 12 of 36 loans. Allen pleaded innocent to all counts, declaring she would "fight for what is right. I will never give up." She also announced that she wanted to avoid a "trial by newspapers" and that she still intended to run for governor later in the year.

At her trial in May, one banker testified that Allen deposited $100,000 in their institution. In return, Allen borrowed $175,000 and granted the banker 10,000 shares in Stars Over Alabama stock. Another banker said Allen deposited $775,000 in state funds after he granted a $50,000 loan. The defense tried to throw the case out by arguing that the 1973 ethics law was unconstitutional, but when that failed they could only rely on a string of character witnesses, including Governor George Wallace. After only 45 minutes, the jury found Allen guilty of two counts of using her office to gain loans, a violation of the State Ethics Act. She was the first person convicted in Alabama under the law.

In June of 1978, Allen was sentenced to three years in prison. Her attorneys argued that no one in the state lost money by her actions, and that Alabama had made a net gain due to her cost-saving measures. When asked if she had anything to say, she responded, "So help me God, I am not guilty." A new element was thrown into the mix when a legal argument came up regarding her status as treasurer. Though state law declared that public officials sentenced to prison or hard labor automatically forfeited their office, it was unclear whether it applied to the treasurer since that position and other constitutional officers were normally removed by impeachment. Her attorneys vowed that Allen would stay firmly seated in the treasurer's chair until the issue was cleared up.

In response, the state supreme court returned a decision almost immediately saying that the law was different from an impeachment process, and that Allen was out of the job. Governor Wallace replaced her with Annie Laurie Gunter, director of the State Office of Consumer Protection, to fill the remainder of her term. Meanwhile, Allen tried for a new trial, alleging that one juror said several months before the trial that he thought the treasurer guilty based on news accounts. Right on the heels of the first trial, Allen returned to court on the second indictment. She was quickly convicted and sentenced to serve a year, concurrent with the three-year sentence already pending. The judge also dismissed the remaining counts against her. At the latest sentence, she again proclaimed innocence, saying, "I am absolutely not guilty."

Allen kept up a dogged resistance. In August of 1978, she held a press conference to allege that there had been a conspiracy to oust her from office and asked state attorney general Bill Baxley to investigate while both convictions went to trial. She remained free in February of 1979 and proclaimed, "I know I serve the same God Daniel did and God saved him in the lion's den. I will take whatever I have to take." In March of 1980, an attempt to pardon her died in the state house of representatives' rules committee. Seven months later, Allen had won some stays in the execution of her sentence, but had reached the end of the line with the United States Supreme Court's refusal to hear her appeal. The same month, a circuit court judge finally ordered her to serve six months of the sentence. The judge, Perry Hooper, thought she had suffered enough "humiliation and embarrassment" and felt that the county jail was a more fitting lockup than the state penitentiary. Hooper said Allen had led an exemplary life prior to conviction and was "pulled from the pinnacle of political success" with the conviction. The remaining two and a half years were to be served as probation.

Allen finally began her term of incarceration in November of 1980. The reduced time, along with other perks, led to some editorials charging that her station had helped to get her more leniency than would otherwise be found in similar cases. Allen was not only allowed to visit her family for Thanksgiving, but spent the remainder of her prison term after that time working as a bookkeeper at a retirement home under the supervision of a nun.

In January of 1986, Allen again entered the political fray by putting her name up for consideration in the lieutenant governor's race. She had to again argue that she had been wrongly convicted, and mustered less than 2,000 votes at the June primary. The next April, she opened The Little Red Hen Restaurant in Wadsworth. Allen died of cancer in Montgomery in October of 1989.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, "The Petticoat's Place in Alabama Politics Assured" in the Sumter Daily Item on Nov. 17 1966, "Brewer Orders Probe of Docks" in the Tuscaloosa News on Feb. 13 1969, "Docks Probe Called Whitewash" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jun. 17 1969, "Ala.'s Dock Director is Fired" in the Ocala Star-Banner on Jul. 27 1970, "Brewer Charges State Auditor With 'Witch Hunt' at State Docks" in the Gadsden Times on Aug. 1 1970, "Reporter's Notebook" in the Florence Times and Tri-Cities Daily on Dec. 5 1971, "In Alabama" in the Florence Times and Tri-Cities Daily on Dec. 6 1971, "Feaster Denied A New Trial" in the Tuscaloosa News on Apr. 19 1972, "Allen Has Eye on the Governorship" in the Tuscaloosa News on Apr. 21 1977, "Melba Till Allen Denies Charges" in the Tuscaloosa News on Sep. 24 1977, "Melba Till Allen Challenges Reports" in the Tuscaloosa News on Oct. 17 1977, "Ethics Probe on Allen" in the Tuscaloosa News on Oct. 22 1977, "Allen Says Crime Tied to Probes" in the Tuscaloosa News on Dec. 1 1977, "DA To Probe Allen Affair" in the Florence Times and Tri-Cities Daily on Dec. 9 1977, "Mrs. Allen Raps Arrest" in the Tuscaloosa News on Feb. 24 1978, "Melba Till Pleads Innocent" in the Gadsden Times on Mar. 30 1978, "Mrs. Allen is Indicted a Fifth Time" in the Tuscaloosa News on Apr. 12 1978, "Mrs. Allen is Candidate for Governor" in the Tuscaloosa News on Apr. 30 1978, "Melba Convicted on Two Counts" in the Gadsden Times on May 25 1978, "Melba Till Fights Ouster From Job" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jun. 9 1978, "Nation: Too Much Trust" in Time on Jun. 11 1978, "Alabama Treasurer Lost Her Job On Conviction" in the Lewiston Evening Journal on Jun. 10 1978, "Mrs. Allen Loses Bid For New Trial" in the Florence Times and Tri-Cities Daily on Jun. 11 1978, "Governor Wallace Replaces Melba Till As State Treasurer" in the Gadsden Times on Jun. 13 1978, "Melba Till Sentenced to One Year" in the Gadsden Times on Jun. 28 1978, "Conspiracy is Charged" in the Tuscaloosa News on Aug. 25 1978, "Melba Till Allen Faces Jail" in the Tuscaloosa News on Feb. 22 1980, "Allen Pardon Proposal Dies in House Committee" in the Florence Times and Tri-Cities Daily on Mar. 20 1980, "No Hearing, Melba Till Told" in the Gadsden Times on Oct. 7 1980, "Melba Till Gets 6 Months in Jail" in the Tuscaloosa News on Oct. 29 1980, "Melba Till Allen Goes to Jail" in the Gadsden Times on Nov. 3 1980, "Justice: Holiday at Home For Some" in the Tuscaloosa News on Nov. 30 1980, "Melba Till Allen Kicks Off Her Political Drive" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jan. 5 1986, "Official Vote Tally Reflects Only 'Minor' Changes" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jun. 5 1986, "Former State Treasurer Opens Restaurant" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jul. 31 1987