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Oliver Robinson shouldn’t go to jail alone

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

Oliver Robinson is going to jail.

Quite a few others should be going with him.

If Robinson, a former State Representative, wants to redeem himself and maybe help the constituents he’s sold out, he’ll spend the next few weeks and months working to make sure the jail cells around him are filled with other suit-wearing, fast-talking, greased-palm hustlers who have hijacked our State political system.

Because make no mistake about it, Oliver Robinson, dirty and slimy as he is – and he’s got a coating like a nightcrawler worm on him right now – is not the dirtiest and slimiest of the bunch.

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And I am happy to explain.

Robinson pleaded guilty, it was announced on Thursday by the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, to fraud, conspiracy, bribery and tax evasion charges. It was also announced that Robinson is actively working with the FBI, IRS and other agencies to build cases on other conspirators.

All of this stems from Robinson’s involvement, as a representative from Birmingham, in the North Birmingham Superfund Site (officially tabbed the 35th Avenue Superfund by the EPA).

That site, located in the area of Birmingham where steel mills operated for decades, is an environmental mess. Testing has found toxins in neighborhoods to be so high that the top layers of soil have been removed from hundreds of yards, businesses and school grounds. There’s pollution in the waterways and in the air, as well.

There have been various reports of significantly increased cases of cancer and off-the-charts-high reports of pollution-related illnesses, such as respiratory illnesses.

Care to guess the racial and economic makeup of the affected area?

Mostly black and poor? Why, you’ve lived in Alabama longer than 5 minutes, haven’t you?

You could also probably guess that even after decades of complaints and warnings from local activists and residents, it took the EPA – and released testing results from Walter Energy – to finally get something done. After more than 100 years of contamination, the EPA arrived in 2011. The site was designated a superfund in 2014.

When the EPA designates a pollution site as a superfund, it automatically goes about investigating and testing that site to determine the likely source(s) of that pollution. They did that in North Birmingham, and they returned with five likely suspects: Drummond Coal, Alagasco, Walter Coke, US Pipe and KMAC.

Those companies have fought the EPA, refusing to pay their shares of an estimated $20 million cleanup, according to reporting from al.com.

To put that $4 million-per-company payout in perspective, Drummond is listed in Forbes as one of the country’s largest private companies, with $2.2 billion in revenues for 2015.

So, multi-million dollar companies on one side. Poor, black residents in a depressed area on another side.

Guess which side the State of Alabama picked.

Both the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and then-AG Luther Strange took on the EPA, with Strange – a real man of the people – declaring that “no State money” will be spent to clean up the site. (No one asked him, but he probably would have been against spending the $30,000 in campaign contributions that Drummond has given to him the last two election cycles on the site, too.)

And yet, the EPA persisted.

What eventually happens in these cases is that the EPA compiles its evidence, reaches its conclusions, tries to work with the named parties, and then demands payment. If the parties continue to protest, lawsuits and legal actions are taken. And those things rarely work out well for the named parties.

And so, according to acting US Attorney Robert Posey, Drummond went a different way. Using an attorney from the law firm Balch & Bingham as basically a bagman, at least one Drummond exec funneled money to Robinson to undercut the EPA.

And Robinson did the job he was paid to do.

He fought the EPA at every turn, and went so far as to record meetings he had with EPA officials and with local environmental groups and give those recordings to Balch & Bingham and Drummond.

All of that makes Oliver Robinson the villain. He deserves to be the villain. In the shadows of Fred Shuttleworth’s church – a church that was firebombed three times because its trouble-making pastor was fighting to give black citizens a chance in Alabama – Robinson sold out those same people for a few thousand bucks.

But Robinson is not the only villain in this story, nor is he the main villain.

There are many others – from the CEOs who have enjoyed comfy lives while poisoning the communities where they earn their paychecks to the state officials who ignored the pleas from the affected neighborhoods and effectively turned their backs on dying children to the state officials who have joined the wrong side of yet another fight.

And then there’s the biggest villain: this persistent, and consistently failing, mindset in this State that places profits and wealth before people and their wellbeing.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | Sellouts are running Alabama’s environmental agencies. Why don’t you care?

Josh Moon

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There is contaminated tap water in north Alabama.

There are no oysters in the Gulf.

There is poison soil in Birmingham.

There are polluted lakes and rivers throughout the state.

There have been coal ash spills and a stalled poop train and imported toxic waste too dangerous for other states to allow.

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There’s a poison plume running under all of downtown Montgomery.

This is Alabama Outdoors.

In a state where at least 90 percent of the males hunt or fish with some regularity, and state law requires at least every third car have a “Salt Life” back window sticker, we don’t seem to give two good damns about the actual environment that make those things possible.

And we sure don’t seem to care much about the people who are supposed to be in charge of protecting those things.

If you did, you would know that two of those people were indicted this week on ethics charges. There are serious — and widely known and widely believed and widely supported with a mountain of evidence — allegations that Trey Glenn, the current head of the EPA’s southeastern region, and Scott Phillips, a former commissioner with the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, accepted bribes from polluters to actively work against cleaning up pollution and holding those polluters responsible.

Or to put that more simply: They sold out.

They sold out you.

They sold out the environment.

They sold out their oaths.

(Allegedly, of course.)

And these two aren’t the first ones. If you paid the least bit of attention to the recent trial involving a former Balch & Bingham attorney and a former Drummond Co. executive, you heard of all sorts of shady dealings flowing back and forth between companies highly suspected of polluting our soil, air and water and the agencies — Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), EPA and AEMC — that are supposed to stand in the gap between us regular folk and big business.

Instead, it seems, these guys have spent most of their time standing in big businesses’ pockets.

In addition to Phillips to Glenn, ADEM head Lance LeFleur was accused of having a cozy relationship with Drummond, and once wrote a letter opposing the EPA’s listing of a pollution area in north Birmingham as a superfund site. In court testimony, attorneys openly questioned if that letter was written at the encouragement of Drummond and its attorney.

A few weeks after the trial, 12 environmental groups sent a letter to AEMC demanding that LeFleur be removed and cited examples of his department’s failures and compromises. LeFleur denied the allegations, calling them “mean-spirited” and “untrue.”

But the problems don’t even end there.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley was actively writing — or signing his name to letters pre-written by Drummond’s attorneys — to stop the superfund site and cleanup.

Former attorney general Luther Strange signed off on pre-written letters from his office to the EPA demanding that the site not be listed on the superfund registry and proclaiming that the state would provide no funds for cleanup.

Think about that.

That’s the guy whose main job is consumer protection.

You’re the consumer. We’re all the consumers.

So, why, why, why do you not care?

I’m begging someone to explain this to me. Why do you not care that you can’t eat fish out of the Tennessee River? That you can’t swim in Wheeler Lake? That you can’t drink the tap water in Courtland? That there will literally be NO oysters harvested from the Gulf this year? That poor people in one of the poorest areas of this state have dealt with constant illnesses? That your “salt life” and your “lake life” and your hunting and your fishing and your kids swimming and your just everyday existing is being jeopardized by sellouts?

Why don’t you care?

And I know you don’t care, because you just voted 60-40 to put the same people back in charge who put all of these people in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources.

And those same people you put back in office are taking your indifference seriously. When I sent a question to the governor’s office today asking for a comment on the sad state of Alabama environmental management programs, they didn’t even bother to respond.

Because Kay Ivey knows you don’t care.

There wasn’t a peep from any state lawmakers, because they also know you don’t care.

You know, I hear people ask all the time how Alabama — in the middle of the Bible Belt and with a church on every corner — could have a government that’s so corrupt, so filled with people willing to take bribes and sell out their constituents.

This is how: You stop paying attention.

 

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Elections

Opinion | The Alabama Democratic Party has no plan, no hope for the future

Josh Moon

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The Alabama Democratic Party is a dumpster fire.

This cannot be news to you by now.

Not after last Tuesday. Not after the last eight years.

Actually, that description might not be harsh enough. Try this: The Alabama Democratic Party is a flaming bag of poop way down at the bottom of a dumpster fire.

And before you go away thinking that to be too harsh, consider this: In the midst of a legit blue wave nationally — Democrats will gain around 40 House seats and receive around 8 million more votes when all of the counting is finished — Democrats in Alabama lost five House seats to an existing GOP supermajority.

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Alabama Dems’ best crop of candidates in YEARS received roughly the same percentage of the vote as its worst candidates ever.

Gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox traveled more than 30,000 miles around this state, spent years attending county commission meetings and getting to know citizens on both sides of the aisle. His likability numbers among likely voters, regardless of party, were fantastic.

He got roughly the same number of votes as Lt. Governor candidate Will Boyd, who you couldn’t pick out of a lineup with The Beatles.

Party chairwoman Nancy Worley and Democratic Conference head Joe Reed had quite the answer for this disaster of an election, saying, and I’m paraphrasing here: “eh, whatchagonnado?”

That was basically Worley and Reed’s response after they were heavily criticized by their own candidates last week. The criticisms, which came most loudly from Congressional candidate Mallory Hagan, centered on the Alabama Democratic Party’s lack of assistance with campaigns, lack of messaging, lack of financial support, lack of planning, lack of Get Out the Vote efforts, lack of organization and lack of visibility. To name a few.

Worley and Reed attempted to explain it all away by noting that Hagan and other candidates faced insurmountable odds, that the deck was stacked against them, that they would have been wasting resources to have even tried.

Don’t you dare buy it.

Because while it’s true that dropping a half-million the last month of the campaign wouldn’t have saved any candidate (except maybe Johnny Mack Morrow), that’s not when the money should have been spent. That’s not when the party office is most useful.

Winning elections takes effort. It takes planning. It takes information. It takes a long-term strategy.

Republicans didn’t take over the State House after 100-plus years of Democratic control because they prayed about it harder, even if that’s what they’d like you to believe.

They had a plan. They executed that plan.

They started down the ballot, winning races where a handful of votes swayed by the top of the ticket or a county initiative could land a few judgeships, maybe put a new House rep in place. Then they built on that.

They also did it through messaging.

I loathe Mike Hubbard, but that dude knew how to win elections. And he knew how to drive a point home. From the mid-2000s on, Democrats couldn’t go to the bathroom without Hubbard holding a press conference or issuing a press release claiming the Dems were in the bathroom plotting to take your guns or steal your money.

He went to major businesses around the state and started making deals for campaign contributions. And then he used those funds to push the party message even harder. Year after year, Hubbard and the rest of the ALGOP highlighted every bad thing Alabama Democrats did, and told people how Republicans would fix it and make their lives better.

Hubbard could do that, because as party chairman, he spoke for the ALGOP. And because he controlled the purse strings of the party, he could ensure that his message was the message resonating throughout the ALGOP.

ALGOP candidates were prepared with the best polling, the best opposition research, the best ads and the best volunteers. And they were all pushing just the right messages to voters.

They got to be so good at it that it didn’t matter if the candidate was essentially a door stopper. The ALGOP brass, led by Hubbard and a few others, had established a system so good and so efficient that they could get Shadrack McGill elected to the Alabama Senate.  

It didn’t even matter that the messages were mostly BS, and all Hubbard really wanted to do was take all of the money he could get his hands on.

The plan, the message and the execution were so good that it didn’t matter.

Alabama Democrats don’t have any of that.

Not the plan. Not the voice. Not the leadership.

And for some reason, the people in charge of the party seem to be OK with that. Because they just continue to not do anything at all to fix it.

The state deserves better.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Will Republicans bring change or status quo?

Bill Britt

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For eight years, Republicans have dominated state government in Alabama, but those years are not a fair representation of Republican leadership because, for most of that time, corrupt, crazy or compromised men were at the helms in the State House, the governor’s office and throughout the political infrastructure.

Already, Republicans are laying the groundwork for the next four years by determining who will staff the governor’s office and cabinet, the committee chairs in the House and Senate and key leadership roles within the caucus. Those choices will show whether there will be a change in character, conduct, and competence or status quo.

Beginning in 2008, then-Gov. Bob Riley, ALGOP Chair and minority leader Mike Hubbard, along with BCA’s Billy Canary, began to methodically execute a plan to take control of Alabama’s political structure. While they personally failed due to greed and incompetence, their plan succeeded and even today, after Hubbard’s felony conviction and Canary’s ouster at BCA, many of their handpicked legislators, cronies and co-conspirators still enjoy dominant positions in government and the accompanying political apparatus.

Reportedly, Riley is laying low but will seek a comeback in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. Senate election, positioning either himself or his son Rob to take on Democrat U.S. Senator Doug Jones.

A scan of Hubbard’s book, “Storming the State House,” offers a look at those candidates who Hubbard, Riley and Canary selected and groomed to do their bidding. Some of their staunchest allies have either quit government or have been indicted or convicted, but still many remain.

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Some have changed horses, but not everyone is happy that their former masters do not still hold the reins.

Some miss Hubbard’s whip hand, Riley’s conniving and Canary’s money and outsized influence.

The Republican House caucus will meet Tuesday to determine key leadership roles.

Current Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon will not face a challenge even though there are some among his ranks who would like to return to a Hubbard-style leadership.

Rep. David Standridge has put his name forward for House Pro Tem, a position presently held by Rep. Victor Gaston. Standridge, it is believed, wants to bring new life into the position, however, Gaston is a well-known fixture. What is unclear is why U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers is lobbying for Gaston’s return as Pro Tem?

It is not sure if House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter will face opposition or if he should.

Where the rubber wheel hits the road is with committee leadership assignments that will come later. Several committees are still chaired by Hubbard loyalists who, again, long for his dictatorial command. Even the House Ethics Committee is currently headed by a man who believes Hubbard’s conviction was a grave conspiracy involving prosecutorial misconduct.

Over at the Capitol, Gov. Ivey’s staff and cabinet have well placed Hubbard and Rileyites, but there are no signs that Gov. Ivey will replace them.

Most troublesome are rumors that Ivey’s Chief of Staff Steve Pelham is leaving to take a post at Auburn University. No one can blame Pelham given the enormous burden of guiding the office for nearly two years, but replacing him will be a difficult task.

As for the Senate, President Pro Tem Del Marsh will continue his business management approach with few surprises in store. There are rumors of some significant changes, especially among budget chair assignments, but even that is mere speculation at this point.

Republicans have an opportunity to show their governing abilities beginning with its choice of leadership. This is extremely important because Republicans overwhelmingly control every office in state government. Moral, effective leaders are always essential but never more so than when there is no opposition.

If Republicans do not put forward honest leaders, they will be forced at some point in time to look around and say, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us.”

As President Harry Truman noted, “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

The people of Alabama have selected a Republican super-majority to lead the state. Let’s pray they are ready to prove the people were right.

 

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Opinion | It’s time to end Veteran’s Day

Josh Moon

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Forget Veteran’s Day.

We need a Veteran’s Month.

Every year, as November 11 rolls around, and the parades start slowly marching and the wreaths get laid on graves and everyone seeks out a veteran to thank for their service, I can’t help but think how completely disingenuous it all is.

Seriously, it’s noise.

Tomorrow, the day after Veteran’s Day, most of this country will go back to not giving a damn about veterans or their many, many problems.

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One day we’re tying ribbons on trees. The next we’re stepping over homeless vets on the sidewalk.

Maybe if we had a little more time each year — breast cancer, alcoholism and diabetes all get a month — maybe we could actually address a few problems, raise a little money, have enough time to get really, really ticked off about the way we — along with our federal government — consistently fail these men and women.

Because we do fail them.

And nowhere more so than with their health care.

We’ve got billions upon billions to waste on jets that the Air Force doesn’t even want, but we consistently cut and trim the health care services provided to the men and women who fought to protect us.

(And for just a moment, I want you to consider what “fought to protect us” actually means. Because it gets tossed around easily. But the reality is that many, many of these folks flew into a sandy/mountainous/jungle/Nazi-infested hellhole, tiptoed around roadside bombs, ducked enemy gunfire, and generally lived scared out of their ever-lovin’ minds every minute of every day for YEARS on end.)

And failing on veterans’ health care is not a partisan thing. Every recent administration and every recent Congress have done it.

President Obama included cuts to some benefits in Obamacare. Trump proposed cuts in his budget. George W. Bush made cuts, while two wars were still being fought. Clinton made cuts.

This functional indifference is a relatively new thing in this country. Following WWII, a country that had been scared to death gladly gave returning soldiers the rewards they deserved, primarily through the G.I. Bill.

Housing. Cheap loans. College tuition. Entire neighborhoods (unless you were black, of course). And no expenses were spared when it came to treating the returning wounded.

Much of that healthcare was provided by the newly consolidated Veterans Administration, or VA. And some of those hospitals would become world-class centers for care.

Today, many of them are world-class centers of embarrassment.

I know. I’ve written the stories. I’ve followed veterans and their family members around as they tried desperately to get the care promised. Or to simply get a doctor to show up for an appointment inside of a year.

I could tell you stories that would blow your mind.

Like the time a VA doctor and nurse left an 85-year-old Korean War vet lying on the floor, gasping for air, for more than 15 minutes. They saw him, left the room, and didn’t return.

Or the time a VA administrator took a patient to a crack house.

Or the many times VA workers spoke up about patients having to wait YEARS for an appointment, only to have top brass retaliate against them. As former soldiers died waiting.

That’s what we’ve done. Democrats, Republicans, Alabamians, liberals, conservatives, independents — all of us.

And for God’s sakes, don’t even get me started on mental health care, or the lack thereof. It’s a national crisis all by itself. And as last week’s shooting in California indicates, it’s not getting any better.

But you know what makes it all even worse?

The promise on the front end.

That slap-on-the-back promise made to the volunteer heroes heading off to war that if they’d go fight so we don’t have to, we would pick up the tabs, no matter the cost. You go fight our wars, keep us free and safe, and we’ll pay for your health care.

That was the deal we made.

They upheld their end. But like a bunch of used car salesmen, we’ve tried every shady trick in the book to weasel out of ours.

Instead, we give them one day each year, when we close up the banks and government offices, let kids out of school and walk around thanking vets for their service. And while that’s nice and all, it’s just not enough.

Maybe if we had a month, we could actually make good on a few of these promises.

 

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Oliver Robinson shouldn’t go to jail alone

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