(WAFF) - A 'Sunday school picnic' is how Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler describes his meeting with a Southern Poverty Law center identified hate group.
We spoke to Zeigler shortly after we learned of his meeting with the League of the South. Zeigler called the group 'salt of the earth' people. But the SPLC describes them as a neo-confederate secession group.
Ties to the League of the South led to the firing of an Anniston, AL police officer. So how does a cop get fired and Zeigler doesn't even get a reprimand?
The main difference is Zeigler said he's not a member of the League of the South and the Anniston police officer was.
But, Zeigler is responsible for keeping the state "financially accountable". He represents all citizens in this state and that has many asking if he should have any association with a group led by a man who said black Americans owe white Americans for taking them out of the heathen and idolatrous continent of Africa.
"My mission as state auditor is to enable our state government to be better stewards of your tax dollars," said Zeigler during his January swearing in.
And just nine months later, Zeigler took the stage in front of a much different crowd, the League of the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, classifies the League of the South as a neo-confederate secession group.
We asked Zeigler about his speech to the League days after that meeting.
"They were interested in my fight to return to the portraits of George and Lurleen Wallace to their legal and historical place in the Capitol rotunda. That is a legitimate issue that has nothing to do with hate," said Zeigler.
"Perhaps he would like to define a group whose leader says that the South is our land, the white man's land, in his very own words," said the SPLC's Mark Potok.
After repeated phone calls to the League of the South, we spoke to their leader, Michael Hill, on the phone Thursday. He said he wears the SPLC's "hate group" label as a "badge of honor." In 2011 Hill spoke to us on camera after the SPLC put them on their annual nationwide Hate Group watch list.
"We want an independent southern republic," Hill told us during the 2011 interview. "We want to rule ourselves."
And the League of the South leader didn't stop there about his group and his thoughts about the SPLC.
"We're a love group. We love the South, we love our traditions, we love our people," said Hill. "I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is being a bit ingenious here. They're the real haters."
Zeigler's relationship with the League isn't the first time a public servant has been questioned about ties to the group.
Former Anniston Police Department Lieutenant Josh Doggrell gave a speech at a League conference back in 2013. This year, the Anniston Police Department learned about Doggrell's affiliation and city leaders fired him. We asked the department about that decision. Police Chief Shane Denham declined an on-camera interview but did release a statement to us that reads:
The Anniston Civil Service upheld city manager Brian Johnson's decision to terminate Doggrell. Doggrell spoke at a League of The South national convention without the knowledge of or permission of any city official. The bottom line - officers of the Anniston Police Department cannot associate with groups or individuals that undermine the mission of the Anniston Police Department and or harms our reputation or creditability toward any segment of the population we serve. The Civil Service decision supporting Johnson's original decision sends a clear message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated in the City of Anniston. "
Once upon a time, the League of the South was a fairly benign organization. It essentially stood up and said don't make fun of white southerners, stop calling us rednecks, that kind of thing. But the group has gone plumb off the rails," said Potok.
Which leads us back to the question about why State Auditor Jim Zeigler, as a representative of the State of Alabama, whose budget is funded by your taxpayer dollars, and whose job it is to make sure that money is spent a in responsible way, felt compelled to visit with the classified hate group.
Zeigler stands behind his decision and openly defended and justified the decision to us.
"The group wanted to invite me to come and speak, they have a first amendment right to do that, and I came and spoke," said Zeigler.
Zeigler is no stranger to controversy. This July, Zeigler posted on social media that Alabama Governor Robert Bentley secretly removed Confederate items from the state capitol's museum store. The post prompted the Governor's communication director to tweet back that Zeigler's accusation was inaccurate, told him to get his facts, and called it absurd.
Then in August, a day before voters went to the polls to decide a referendum on Athens City Schools funding, Zeigler called a press conference on the Limestone County Courthouse steps claiming district leaders were illegally campaigning. Again, Zeigler was wrong. He had previously gone to court over similar issues with Baldwin County Schools and lost.
When it comes to questioning the group he supports, The state auditor had some parting words for the SPLC.
"The Southern Political Correctness Center does not know a hate group when they see it," said Zeigler.
"What I can say about Jim Zeigler is he's an embarrassment to the state," said Potok. "He seems to have forgotten that he is serving black Americans, black Alabamians as well as white Alabamians."
The League of the South issued the following statement to WAFF 48 on Thursday:
The League of the South is proud to have had State Auditor Jim Zeigler speak to us recently on the matter of the removal of the George C. and Lurleen Wallace portraits from the rotunda of the Alabama State Capitol. When attacked by the very liberal Southern Poverty Law Center for having met with us, Mr. Zeigler, unlike most elected officials, stood his ground and sided with those who built Alabama's traditional culture rather than those who are busy trying to tear it down. The League encourages other Alabama elected officials to stand with Mr. Zeigler - and against the SPLC and their liberal, anti-Christian allies - in support of our State's traditional, Southern Christian heritage.
We talked to Zeigler on Wednesday over the phone and asked him whether he aligns himself with the League of the South's views. He said no, and reiterated that in his opinion, they are not a hate group.
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