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Gov. Bentley Among Those Testifying at Montgomery Special Grand Jury

Bill Britt

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 By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—At 8:39 am, Wednesday, Gov. Robert Bentley walked into the Special Grand Jury being held in Montgomery County as Alabama Political Reporter reported yesterday.

Bentley’s entourage included legal counsel David Byrne and one of his personal attorneys, Bill Espy.

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Following the governor was Hal Taylor, chief of staff to former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier.

After lunch Collier’s replacement Stan Stabler, current ALEA head, entered the special grand jury room.

The prosecution was comprised of Attorney General Luther Strange, Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin, and Special Prosecutions Divison Chief Matt Hart.

Not only was APR there to observe those entering the Grand Jury, sources around the courthouse confirmed that others who appeared earlier in the week were J.T. Jenkins, ALEA’s second-in-command under Collier, and Ray Lewis, who served as Bentley’s “Body Man” before becoming Chief of Protective Services.“

“Lewis knows what skeletons are stashed in Bentley’s closet and where to go looking for them,” said a former Trooper who spoke to APR on conditions of anonymity.

The presence of Stabler and former ALEA staff would indicate at this stage the grand jury is hearing testimony concerning events leading to Bentley’s firing of Collier, for filing an affidavit concerning the criminal trial of former Speaker Mike Hubbard.

While the Governor has denied Collier was fired over the affidavit, that does not square with others in the administration or Collier.

In April Collier filed a civil lawsuit against Bentley, his alleged paramour Rebekah Caldwell Mason, Stabler, and others, for defaming his character when they “maliciously published numerous false and defamatory statements accusing Collier of misusing State funds, and that ALEA was conducting a ‘criminal investigation’ of Collier,” according to the suit.

The special grand jury was impaneled on Monday, July 11. If the past is prologue this is just phase one of what may prove to be a long process, given the Lee County special grand jury that indicted Hubbard is still ongoing.

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Analysis | Matt Hart’s dismissal raises a number of questions, some with national implications

Chip Brownlee

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Prosecutor Matt Hart and defense attorney Bill Baxley have a conversation over objections in court during the Alabama speaker Mike Hubbard trial on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 in Opelika, Ala. (Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool Photo)

The forced resignation of Deputy Attorney General Matt Hart — the head of the Alabama attorney general’s public corruption unit who is widely known as the most feared man in Alabama politics — has raised a number of serious questions about ongoing investigations, some of which have national implications.

Hart’s resignation, which was hastily forced Monday morning, sources have told APR, comes at a time when President Donald Trump’s appointee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s operations in the Southeast was recently indicted along with a former Alabama Environmental Management commissioner.

The administrator, Trey Glenn, who was one of Trump’s first appointees to the EPA, resigned Monday after he was indicted last week on ethics charges in Jefferson County.

Though the indictment is being handled by the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office and was announced by the Alabama Ethics Commission, Hart and his team, who generally handle high-profile public corruption cases, were overseeing a special grand jury investigating some of the same issues that led to Glenn’s indictment.

Glenn and Scott Phillips, the other defendant in the case, were witnesses in the federal corruption trial involving a severely polluted site in Birmingham and efforts to buy out Alabama politicians to oppose its clean up.

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It still isn’t clear why Hart — who was still overseeing that special grand jury empaneled in Jefferson County at the time of his dismissal — wasn’t the lead on the new indictments, which still have not been publicly filed, or why Ethics Commission Executive Director Thomas Albritton directed the case to the district attorney instead of going through the more typical procedure of a commission vote, considering Hart’s team already had a grand jury empaneled in Jefferson County.

The commission could have then sent findings to the AG’s office or a DA to be brought before a grand jury.

Albritton has said the district attorney’s office requested the Ethics Commission’s involvement in a letter. But multiple sources have told APR that it was the Ethics Commission who approached the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office in an effort to grab headlines before Hart’s team could investigate the pair properly.

The commission has been heavily criticized in recent years for punting ethics cases to local DA’s, avoiding handing cases to Hart’s team and taking increasingly more lenient approaches to campaign finance violations, which culminated earlier this year in a decision from the Commission giving itself the authority to collapse FCPA violations into fewer counts and less fines.

Only a week after Glenn and Phillips’ indictment was announced, Attorney General Steve Marshall forced Hart out from his post as the top public corruption prosecutor in the state.

It’s been reported that Marshall had already begun moving resources away from Hart’s special prosecutions division over his first year in the office, and the two have had an adversarial relationship since Marshall took an appointment from former Gov. Robert Bentley.

Since then, Marshall has taken campaign contributions from some of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s most frequent supporters, some of his business investors and witnesses in his corruption trial, which Hart prosecuted.

Hart is well-known for his track record prosecuting tough public corruption cases. He and his team convicted Hubbard in 2016 on 12 out of 23 ethics violations, and all but one of those charges were upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals earlier this year. Hart was also investigating Bentley when Bentley agreed to resign and pleaded guilty to two campaign finance violations in 2017.

It took less than two weeks after Marshall won his first full term for him to force Hart out, a development that has come as no shock to most in Montgomery’s political circles who knew of their contentious relationship and a welcome move for many politicians who feared Hart and his team.

Marshall’s office has given no reason for Hart’s resignation, saying it doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

But those who are tuned in know Hart has had a particular knack for picking battles with powerful politicians. When he began investigating Hubbard, Hubbard was widely considered the most powerful person in Alabama politics and the most heavy-handed speaker in recent Alabama history. And his prosecution didn’t just target Hubbard, it angered his powerful friends and supporters who were forced to testify at his trial and were mentioned in the charges, many of whom are the big-dollar donors who fund Republican campaigns.

Before becoming the AG’s chief corruption prosecutor, he was a federal prosecutor who rose through the ranks tackling tough cases. He prosecuted Jefferson County commissioners, former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford and officials within Alabama’s community college system.

National media have also taken note of Hart’s dismissal. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who has followed Alabama corruption cases since Hart prosecuted the former Alabama House speaker, highlighted the developments on her show Tuesday.

Hart’s hasty ouster leaves several special grand juries without a prosecutor to guide them, and it leaves Hubbard’s ongoing appeal, which is making its way to the Alabama Supreme Court, in question.

At the time of his removal, Hart was believed to be overseeing at least two grand juries, one in Jefferson County and another that is believed to remain empaneled in Lee County. It isn’t clear whether Hart’s grand juries will continue their hearings now that he is no longer at the AG’s office.

The Jefferson County grand jury had already indicted the heads of the Birmingham Water Works Board and former Jefferson County District Attorney Charles Todd Henderson, who was convicted on a first-degree perjury charge, and Hart was making his way through other parts of the government in Jefferson County.

Marshall announced Tuesday that federal prosecutor A. Clark Morris, who has served as an assistant U.S. attorney and acting U.S. attorney in Alabama’s Middle District, would replace Hart as the division’s chief. She’ll be the one who will now oversee all of these ongoing grand juries and investigations.

Morris has largely prosecuted drug crimes during her 20-year tenure at the Department of Justice in both the Northern and Middle Districts of Alabama, though she also served in the Middle District’s white collar crime unit.

She is expected to take over the AG’s special prosecutions division on Jan. 7.

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Possession of cannabidiol is still illegal in Alabama with few exceptions

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday Alabama Attorney General Marshall (R), the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Office of Prosecution Services and the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences issued public guidance on Alabama law concerning possession of cannabidiol (CBD).

This guidance comes in response to a growing number of inquiries about increasing sales of CBD around the state. The legislature has confused the issue by making CBD legal for persons with certain medical conditions under certain controlled circumstances.

Section 13A-12-212 of the Alabama Criminal Code makes it illegal to possess or receive a controlled (regulated) substance, while Sections 13A-12-213 to 214 specifically address the possession of marijuana—punishable by a Class A misdemeanor when possessed for personal use or by a Class C felony when possessed for reasons other than personal use.

Under the Alabama Criminal Code it is “illegal to sell, furnish, give away, deliver, or distribute a controlled substance, including marijuana. A violation of this section is punishable by a Class B felony. Section 13A-12-231 of the Alabama Criminal Code makes it illegal to “traffic”—sell, manufacture, deliver, or bring into the state—any part of a cannabis (marijuana) plant in an amount greater than 2.2 pounds. This crime carries mandatory prison time that increases with the weight of the marijuana in question.”

Marshall wrote that under the law, “The use of the term “marijuana” or “cannabis” in each of the crimes described above includes the marijuana extract cannabidiol, or CBD.”

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There are some narrow exceptions:

In 2014, the Alabama Legislature passed Carly’s Lawi to provide an affirmative defense to a narrow class of individuals, those with a debilitating epileptic condition and who have a prescription for CBD authorized by the UAB Department of Neurology.

Carly’s law allows those patients, who would otherwise be in illegal possession of CBD, to possess and use the drug. The law also extends the affirmative defense to possession of CBD by a parent or caretaker of an individual who has both the required condition and a prescription for the drug. Carly’s Law will sunset on July 1, 2019 unless scientific evidence is presented to the Alabama Legislature that this experimental treatment is working and the legislature renews the legislation.

Carly’s Law did not legalize the possession or use of CBD.

Two years later, the Alabama Legislature passed Leni’s Law to provide an affirmative defense for another class of individuals, those who have a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition that produces seizures for which a person is being treated, who would otherwise be in illegal possession of CBD.

For the affirmative defense to apply, the CBD must have been tested by an independent third-party laboratory. The law also extends the affirmative defense to possession of CBD by a parent or guardian of a minor with such a condition.

The effect of Leni’s Law is that an individual who has a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition that produces seizures, who is criminally prosecuted for unlawful possession of marijuana for personal use may be excused for his or her otherwise unlawful conduct. The same would apply to possession of CBD by the individual’s parent or guardian.

Leni’s Law did not legalize the possession or use of CBD.

On October 28, 2018, the Alabama Department of Public Health adopted a rule allowing for the medical use of FDA-approved drugs that contain CBD (i.e., Epidiolex). In other words, Epidiolex is now legal for a doctor to prescribe for the treatment of two forms of epilepsy—Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. While Carly’s Law and Leni’s Law provide only an affirmative defense to the otherwise illegal possession of CBD, Epidiolex will be regulated in the same way as any other prescription drug.

Selling, delivering, or distributing CBD, other than the FDA-approved prescription drug Epidiolex, is illegal under Alabama law. The affirmative defenses found in Carly’s Law and Leni’s Law can only be raised by individuals prosecuted for unlawful possession of marijuana. In other words, Carly’s Law and Leni’s Law offer no “safe harbor,” even to the narrow class of individuals covered, for selling or distributing marijuana, or trafficking in marijuana.

Marshall said that this is a conclusion of law based on a plain reading of the statute, regardless of what the Alabama Legislature may have intended. Carly’s Law protects only the UAB Department of Neurology and the UAB School of Medicine from being prosecuted for marijuana-related crimes (like distribution) arising out of the prescription of CBD to those with a debilitating epileptic condition.

It is illegal for CBD to be sold by any convenience store, gas station, or private individual.

Also Carly’s Law and Leni’s Law include a provision that, for an individual to successfully assert the affirmative defense, the THC level of the CBD must be “no more than 3% relative to CBD according to the rules adopted by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.”

All CBD whether above or below 3 percent THC is illegal under Alabama law, except for the prescription drug Epidiolex. The affirmative defense provided to a narrow class of individuals under Carly’s Law and Leni’s Law is available when the THC level is below 3 percent relative to CBD, but unavailable if the CBD in question has a THC level above 3% relative to CBD.

It is the responsibility of the law enforcement agencies of the State of Alabama and its subdivisions to interpret and enforce the law as written by the Alabama Legislature. This public notice does not address federal law pertaining to CBD, which is enforced by federal law enforcement agencies.

Marshall wrote that if you have questions about this guidance or its application to your situation, please contact your local district attorney’s office. Law enforcement officials with questions may contact ALEA or the Opinions Division of the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. All health-related questions should be directed to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

This memorandum can be read here:

https://ago.alabama.gov/Documents/News/PUBLIC%20NOTICE%20RE%20CBD.pdf

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2020 Mars rover will land near Jezero Crater

Brandon Moseley

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Monday, NASA announced that it has chosen Jezero Crater as the landing site for its upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. The site was selected after a five year search, during which every available detail of more than 60 candidate locations on the Red Planet were scrutinized and debated by the mission team and the planetary science community.

“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”

The rover mission is scheduled to launch in July 2020 as NASA’s next step in exploration of the Red Planet. It will search for signs of not ancient habitable conditions, including past microbial life. The rover will collect rock and soil samples and store them in a cache on the planet’s surface. NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) are studying future mission concepts to retrieve the samples and return them to Earth, so this landing site sets the stage for the next decade of Mars exploration.

Jezero Crater is located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Western Isidis presents some of the oldest and most scientifically interesting landscapes Mars has to offer. Mission scientists believe the 28-mile-wide crater was once home to an ancient river delta and could have collected and preserved ancient organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago. Jezero Crater’s ancient lake-delta system offers many promising sampling targets of at least five different kinds of rock, including clays and carbonates that have high potential to preserve signatures of past life. In addition, the material carried into the delta from a large watershed may contain a wide variety of minerals from inside and outside the crater. That geologic diversity is what makes the Jezero Crater so appealing to Mars 2020 scientists.

“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive,” said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies.”

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Landing a rover at Jezero crater presents a challenge for the team’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) engineers. Along with the massive nearby river delta and small crater impacts, the site contains numerous boulders and rocks to the east, cliffs to the west, and depressions filled with aeolian bedforms (wind-derived ripples in sand that could trap a rover) in several locations.

The mission engineers have refined the landing system such that they were able to reduce the Mars 2020 landing zone to an area 50 percent smaller than that for the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover at Gale Crater in 2012. This allowed the science community to consider more challenging landing sites like Jezero Crater. The sites of greatest scientific interest led NASA to add a new capability called Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN). TRN will enable the “sky crane” descent stage, the rocket-powered system that carries the rover down to the surface, to avoid hazardous areas.

“Nothing has been more difficult in robotic planetary exploration than landing on Mars,” said Zurbuchen. “The Mars 2020 engineering team has done a tremendous amount of work to prepare us for this decision. The team will continue their work to truly understand the TRN system and the risks involved, and we will review the findings independently to reassure we have maximized our chances for success.”

A final report will be presented to an independent review board and NASA Headquarters in the fall of 2019.

Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Scientists believe that Mars is 4.6 billion years old (~slightly older than Earth) and that early Mars had seas, an atmosphere, and perhaps life; but Mars is smaller than Earth so over time its molten iron core cooled off. Without the internal core rotation, Mars lost its magnetic field. Without a magnetic field it began losing it’s atmosphere to outer space. Water that evaporated was lost to space instead of returning to the surface as rain or snow and slowly most of the planet’s surface water dried up and Martian life either went extinct or is relegated to some minor habitat we have not yet discovered. It is an intriguing theory; but scientists are still trying to prove that all of that happened. Mars Rover 2020 hopes to add to our knowledge of Mars.

Huntsville is the home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.  Thousands of Alabama workers are employed by NASA and the American aerospace industry.

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday marks the Thanksgiving holiday. Thanksgiving is a national holiday, first declared by President George Washington (Federalist) in 1789 after it was requested by the U.S. Congress.

President Thomas Jefferson (D) made the decision not to celebrate the holiday and the holiday went in and out of fashion depending on the whims of each President until Abraham Lincoln (R). Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863, during the height of the Civil War. Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.

In 1620, a group of religious dissenters left England aboard the Mayflower bound for the English colony in Virginia, founded in 1607. En route they diverted the ship towards the American wilderness and landed near modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts to set up their own colony separate and totally isolated from the Virginians, the then dominant Church of England, and theoretically separate from England. 45 of the 102 immigrants died during that first winter, and there was only one recorded birth.

Unlike the Virginians, who quickly got into a decades-long war with the Indians of the Chesapeake Bay area, the pilgrims strived to have friendly relations with the Indians. With tremendous help from the Native Americans, the surviving Pilgrims celebrated a bountiful harvest that would sustain them for the next winter. Following the harvest, they invited their Wampanoag Indian friends to a celebration thanking God that they survived such a dangerous gamble, and the first Thanksgiving was born.

According to the colony’s governor, William Bradford, and future governor, Edward Winslow, the first Thanksgiving meal included onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, peas, corn, potatoes, lobster, bass, clams, oysters, turkey and various waterfowl. The Wampanoag Indians brought an offering of five deer. The pilgrims gave thanks to God, offered prayers and sang hymns in celebration.

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In 1628, a much larger colony, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arrived to create a “New England.” They were shocked to find the hardy pilgrims already there, cementing the pilgrims a place in the history of what would eventually become the United States.

The Pilgrims were not the first English settlers in North America. Virginia was founded thirteen years earlier and they celebrated a day of Thanksgiving in 1610. The English were not the first European settlers in North America. St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565, 55 years ahead of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth; but somehow it was the Pilgrims with their distinctive black clothes, religious fervor, turkey dinners, and friendly relations with the Native Americans that captured the national imagination.

“Thanksgiving is a uniquely special holiday because it provides us an entire day each year to pause as a country and give thanks to God for the countless ways He has blessed us,” said Congresswoman Martha Roby, R-Montgomery. “The stress and craziness of everyday life often make it easy to lose sight of just how much we have to be thankful for, so as we all have the opportunity to gather with loved ones this Thanksgiving, I hope we all take time to count our numerous blessings.”

“While we have a lot to be thankful for in our state and country right now, there are also people in our district and throughout the Southeast who are in the midst of a very challenging recovery period in the wake of Hurricane Michael,” Roby, who represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District said. “During this season of Thanksgiving as you’re gathered with family and friends, I hope you will join me in prayerfully remembering our neighbors in the Wiregrass and throughout the Southeast. While the challenge of rebuilding won’t be easy, I am confident that we will get through it together.”

“In the spirit of the holiday, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that I am thankful for the responsibility to serve our state and country in the United States Congress,” Rep. Roby, who was just elected to her fifth term in the U.S. Congress said. “It is a true honor to be in a position to make a difference on behalf of Alabama’s Second District, so thank you for allowing me to serve you. From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.”

Thursday is a federal and state holiday. Banks, government offices, the postal service, most schools, and many businesses will be closed.


Original scholarship by Dr. Stan Cooke and Wikipedia contributed to this report.

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Gov. Bentley Among Those Testifying at Montgomery Special Grand Jury

by Bill Britt Read Time: 2 min
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