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One of the most talked-about political ads of the primary election season comes courtesy of a relatively obscure race: the Republican primary for the Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries.
It's the tough-talking, rifle-toting Dale "Cowboy" Peterson who propels the ad to an instant classic. To date, the ad has been viewed more 1.2 million times on YouTube. In it, Peterson aims his most pointed verbal attack against Republican primary opponent Dorman Grace.
"Dorman Grace brags on his Facebook page about receiving contributions from industries he would regulate. Bragging about receiving illegal money on Facebook. Who on earth would support such a dummy?"
It's one thing to call your opponent a dummy. It's another to call him a cheat. And so we decided to check out Peterson's claim that Grace was guilty of taking illegal campaign contributions. And then bragging about it on Facebook.
Campaign finance reports submitted to the Alabama Secretary of State, and viewable online, show that Grace has taken contributions from several "farms." Among them, deer and poultry farms. And on his Facebook page, Grace thanked some of the supporters who have contributed to his campaign, including some of the farmers in question.
So are the contributions "illegal"?
In 1998, the Alabama Legislature passed a law "to prohibit the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Industries or a candidate for the office of commissioner from accepting campaign contributions from persons associated with businesses regulated by the department."
The contributions to Grace have given rise to several complaints with the state Ethics Commission -- not by Peterson -- but the commission has yet to rule on them.
He's no expert on election laws, Peterson said in a phone interview with PolitiFact, but this seems pretty cut and dry.
"You can readily see that industries that we regulate, he's accepting money from them," Peterson said.
End of story? Not necessarily.
The Grace campaign says it has done nothing wrong because the contributions to the campaign don't come from industries regulated by the agriculture commissioner.
Tullie Culverhouse, campaign manager for Grace, contends the law was intended to bar contributions from agencies regulated by the ag commissioner, such as fertilizer and pest control companies which have to come to the department for a permit to operate in Alabama.
"Poultry farms are not regulated by the department," Culverhouse said. "They are serviced by the department. The only thing they do is serve the industry with disease control. This is frivolous."
So those are the competing opinions of the two campaigns.
We spoke with Glen Zorn, the assistant ag commissioner and Democratic candidate for the top agriculture job. Zorn doesn't think it would be accurate to say, for example, that poultry farms are "regulated" by the commissioner. He hasn't taken any money from any poultry farmers, he said, but he would.
The law about not accepting contributions from "persons associated with businesses regulated by the department" has never been tested, and remains a gray area, said Jeff Webb, legal advisor to the Agriculture Commissioner.
"We can go on anyone's property that is growing hens and make sure they are following all of the mandates to prevent outbreaks of infectious or contagious disease," Webb said. And so, he said, "There is an argument that they are regulated by us."
But there's a pretty good argument in the other direction, too, he said.
Ray Hilburn, Poultry Program Director for the Alabama Department of Agriculture, said he doesn't view the department's role as a regulator of poultry farms.
"We regulate diseases," he said. "We do disease work. We make sure the birds are disease-free. But we don't regulate the poultry growers themselves, in my opinion."
Ultimately, it appears the state Ethics Commission is going to have to decide whether these contributions were improper (and it seems unlikely we'll hear a decision before next month's Republican primary). But we think it's fair to say that when the state's poultry program director and the legal advisor to the Alabama Department of Agriculture say the law is untested and unclear, it's a bit of a gray area. And so we rule Peterson's statement Half True.
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