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October 19, 2014

Fact-checking AEA's claims against Anniston Senator

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Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2014 6:40 pm | Updated: 9:29 pm, Thu May 22, 2014.

Did Del Marsh funnel state funds to a family member?

Truth Rating: 1 of 5

The claim: In a direct mail advertisement sent out earlier this month, A-VOTE — a PAC affiliated with the Alabama Education Association — claims state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, "voted for a loophole that lets a family member's company receive millions from the state." Variations on the claim have appeared in several A-VOTE ads in recent weeks.

Summary: Marsh voted for a bill that allowed Sarrell Dental Center, an Anniston-based nonprofit dental clinic, to expand its service to kids on Medicaid. Marsh's daughter works as a lobbyist for the nonprofit, but doesn't own or run it.

Analysis: The AEA claim is simple. Some of the group's ads say Marsh "used his power to give taxpayer funds to a family member." Others say Marsh "handed millions from the state to his daughter's employer, tripling their income."

The ad cites a 2011 vote on a bill to allow nonprofit organizations to operate dental clinics. Reports from The Star at the time of the vote show that the bill was intended to clarify the legal status of Sarrell Dental Centers, an Anniston-based nonprofit.

For years before the bill, Sarrell operated clinics across the state that provided dental care for children on Medicaid, the state-and federal health insurance program for people in poverty. Advocates for the center said Sarrell was providing dental care to patients who otherwise wouldn't get it, but Sarrell ran into opposition from some dentists, who claimed the center, as a nonprofit, couldn't legally operate a clinic. The 2011 bill passed the Senate 28-0, with Marsh among the "yes" votes.

"The House bill that passed unanimously in 2011 helped provide access to care for Alabama's at-risk children, who are the beneficiary of that legislation," Sarrell CEO Jeffrey Parker said in an email Thursday.

Marsh's daughter, Christine, is on the Sarrell staff as a lobbyist. In that sense, Sarrell is "her company" — but she doesn't own Sarrell, and Sarrell isn't a for-profit business.  

There's little doubt that the center is getting state money, in the form of payments through Medicaid. Most of the money in the program is federal, but the state does kick in a significant amount — $615 million this year —  to keep Medicaid going. Dental care is just a small part of that.

It's not clear whether Sarrell's income has tripled in the past three years, but it wouldn't be surprising if it had. In the five years leading up to the 2011 vote, according to press reports, the center expanded from a single clinic serving 3,500 children a year to 12 clinics serving 80,000 kids.

"I thought what they had was a great program," Marsh said.

Did Marsh fail to report $5 million in investments?

Truth rating: 1 of 5

The claim: A-VOTE's ads claim Marsh "failed to disclose over $5 million in personal investments."

Summary: Marsh's filings with the Alabama Ethics Commission don't paint a full picture of the senator's personal wealth, but that seems to be due, largely, to the limitations of the reporting system. Marsh sought an opinion on his filings from the Ethics Commission and was told he's in compliance with the law.

Analysis: Marsh's filings with the Ethics Commission show him as the owner of three parcels in Alabama, each worth at least $250,000.

That may sound odd for a man like Marsh, the former owner of an aerospace company, who is widely believed to be one of the wealthier men in the Senate.

A-VOTE claims Marsh hasn't come clean about the real estate he owns.

Ed Still, a lawyer for AEA, sent The Star a packet of documents that indicates that Marsh personally owns at least two out-of-state properties, in South Carolina and Colorado. Still's documents also list more than $4 million in property owned by entities created by Marsh, including the Marsh Family Limited Partnership.

Still later told the Star he was no longer authorized to speak on behalf of AEA. Attempts to reach AEA spokeswoman Amy Marlowe were not successful.

Marsh said the partnership is a family trust he set up for the benefit of his children. He told the Star he doesn't believe he's required to report properties held by the trust, or other similar entities, on the state's ethics forms. He also said he didn't believe he was required to file out-of-state properties on those forms.

The point of the ethics law, he said, isn't to disclose the net worth of public officials. It's to disclose conflicts of interest, he said.

"I have no leases with a governmental entity in this state," he said.

Attempts to reach Ethics Commission counsel Hugh Evans for comment on the matter were unsuccessful. The commission often declines comment on specific cases, but Marsh has a letter from Ethics Commission director Jim Sumner, dated May 8, that indicates Marsh is within the bounds of the law.

"You have not failed to disclose your investments; on the contrary, you have disclosed them correctly in full compliance with the requirements of the Alabama Ethics Law," the letter states.

Even if Marsh had reported every property on A-VOTE's list, disclosure documents wouldn't give a full picture of the value of those holdings. That's because properties worth more than $250,000 are reported as just that — properties of "at least $250,000." Thus a property worth millions wouldn't look any different than, say, a sizable two-story house.

"The only way I could report $5 million in property is to report 20 properties worth at least $250,000," Marsh said.

AEA dropped the $5 million claim from television ads after Marsh's lawyers sent a legal warning, along with the Sumner letter, to television stations in the Birmingham market.

Print ads with the claim continued to arrive in Anniston-area mailboxes as late as this week.

 

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