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Indictments in superfund bribery case no win for Alabama citizens

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

If you believed the bribery scandal that emerged from a scheme to undermine the cleanup of an EPA superfund site in North Birmingham would turn into a massive scandal that brought down the state’s biggest political operatives and deal a blow to political corruption in Alabama, well, you probably haven’t lived here long enough to know better.

Because it’s not.

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The new U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Jay Town, made that clear at a press conference on Thursday in Birmingham.

This massive scandal involving one of the country’s largest coal companies, one of the largest and most influential law firms in Alabama and elected officials was carried out by … just four guys.

And only those four.

Joel Gilbert and Steven G. McKinney from Balch and Bingham, David Roberson from Drummond Coal and former state Rep. Oliver Robinson.

Nobody else!

Are you sure there wasn’t someone else, the media gathered in Birmingham repeatedly asked Town.

Not that we’re aware of, came the reply over and over.

Which, of course, seems farfetched. Like, plot of The Fast and the Furious-level unbelievable.

Let me explain why.

So, this superfund, as Town pointed out Thursday, came about when testing in northern Birmingham areas found high levels of chemicals associated with coal processing. The EPA designates an area of pollution, determines the responsible party(ies), starts cleanup and then begins working on forcing those responsible to pay for it.

Drummond, and its ABC Coke plant, was on the hook for millions almost immediately. And had the EPA continued to expand its testing area, which it was planning to do, the company would’ve been on the hook for even more.

So, Drummond and its attorneys from Balch set about doing everything possible to stop this superfund, entering a “consulting” contract with Robinson. In exchange for $360,000 over two years, Robinson used his public office and connections around Birmingham and the state to attempt to squash the EPA’s planned expansion.

Balch kept this contract with Robinson a secret – such a secret in fact that the Balch accounting office would remove any mention of Robinson’s foundation when noting payments.

And that’s Part One of why there’s no way anyone should believe that only two Balch attorneys were involved.

You’re telling me that $360,000 went out of that place over two years to an unnamed entity and NO ONE else knew?

Stop it.

Also, that $360,000 didn’t materialize out of thin air. It came from somewhere, and it sure didn’t come from Balch attorneys’ pockets.

So, this one Drummond executive, Roberson, can send out $360,000 extra – on top of the astronomical attorneys’ fees already being paid out – and no one stops by the office to make sure ol’ Roberson doesn’t have a coke habit?

Again, stop it.

Big companies don’t get to be big companies without at least semi-competent accounting and money management.

But there’s also a Part Two to why you shouldn’t believe this fairytale.

We KNOW other public officials were involved in this. We know Luther Strange was up to his eyeballs in it.

Strange mysteriously inserted himself and his office into this mess, writing two letters to the EPA and assuring the agency that the state of Alabama would not be cooperating. The head of Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management said flatly when asked that it never asked Strange to get involved, and ADEM was undeniably tasked by Gov. Robert Bentley to handle this issue.

So why did Strange get involved?

As always, the answer seems to be money.

Within days of each letter landing in the EPA’s mailbox, $25,000 in donations from Drummond found its way into Strange’s campaign accounts.

It stinks. And we all know it stinks.

And that’s why what happened on Thursday is no win for good people over corruption. While four guys could be going to jail, a large company will benefit by the millions for its crooked acts and a lawfirm will have raked in thousands for helping facilitate this scheme, all while poor people and children suffer on toxic ground.

That’s not a win. It’s just more of what we’ve come to expect around here.

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 | The Pulitzer Prize: The Good Journalism Seal of Approval

Joey Kennedy

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Alabama Media Group columnist John Archibald’s life has changed forever.

I know, because I’ve been there. Still am.

Archibald won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary this week, a much-deserved honor and one that underscores the journalism talent that existed at The Birmingham News for decades. Still exists on a few islands.

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It says much about those who run the media company now that they have destroyed the best of journalism in Alabama over the past six years. It also says much about Archibald, who hung in there and did his thing – write superb columns – under no telling how much pressure.

When digital became the primary means for consumers to get their news, Advance Digital focused on trying to make profits instead of keeping the best journalists in the state. To do that, the company cut their most valuable resource.

My wife, Veronica, was among the 60 or so journalists laid off during the first wave of decimation back in 2012. From there, year after year, some of the state’s best journalists were cut loose or fled before that happened.

Profit over journalism.

Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have continued doing the best journalism in America, despite cutbacks. But they had better plans for digital. They didn’t give away their product, which is NEWS, by the way, not newspapers.

Instead, Alabama Media Group cut a great newspaper to three days a week, turning its back on its most loyal subscribers.

That Archibald won the Pulitzer for Commentary – one of the most prestigious of the prizes – says everything about him and not the company.

Archibald is an outstanding writer, a veteran of more than 30 years at the newspaper. He’s a good person, sharp, and works tirelessly. He has compassion and cares. Archibald has built a huge audience. It’s not unusual to see him on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and he has weekly segments on WBHM, Birmingham’s National Public Radio affiliate.

Now, his life has changed.

Archibald will forever be known as a Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s journalism’s top honor. That’ll likely be in the lead of his obituary.

Mine, too. I was one of three editorial writers who won the first Pulitzer Prize at The News and, indeed, at any newspaper owned by the Newhouse company at the time. The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson, and I won in 1991 for a series on tax reform in Alabama.

This week, as Alabama Media Group showered Archibald with praise, and deservedly so, it recapped the other two Pulitzer Prizes won by the “company.” In 2007, Brett Blackledge won for investigative journalism, and, of course, we won in 1991 for editorial writing.

You’ll see Blackledge’s award acknowledged, but the media group’s story just mentioned that The News also won for editorial writing in 1991. That’s misleading. Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to individuals, unless there is a team of four or more writers, and then it’s a staff award.

The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson (now Philadelphia Enquirer Editorial Page Editor), and I were awarded Pulitzer Prizes, individually. Nowhere on our Pulitzer Prize awards is The Birmingham News mentioned. The News editorial board had a good team, too. We were cited as top-three finalists for Pulitzer Prizes in 1994 and 2006.

But, you see, I wasn’t “eased” out the door at Alabama Media Group, like so many were. I was fired outright, for “threatening” sources and for “being too personally involved with my stories.”

Any good journalist has threatened sources. Not with violence or something that stupid. But we “threaten” all the time if a source isn’t going to respond, or is going to respond with a known lie.

“If you don’t give your side of the story, I’m still writing that story.”

Or,

“If you are going to just tell that lie, I’m going to report the truth.”

“Threats.” Journalism, as Archibald and any good journalist will tell you, is a confrontational business.

And, yes, since I became an advocacy journalist in 1989, I’ve become personally involved in my topics. I write about subjects that I’m passionate about. Hard not to become personally involved when one actually cares, whether it be about undocumented immigrants, or abused children, or how badly this state treats its poor residents, or race, or equality, or education, or, yes, animals.

That’s the very characteristic that helps make us good advocacy journalists and keeps us human: We care, even if our bosses don’t.

Thank goodness I was fortunate enough to win a Pulitzer Prize. It did change my life, and it’ll change Archibald’s.

I found myself in an elite community. I began to really study writing. I wanted to deserve to be in the company of Ernest Hemingway, and Russell Baker, and Cynthia Tucker, and William Safire, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

So many great writers.

I returned to university for a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in creative nonfiction. I have a rewarding second career, now in my 18th year, teaching English at UAB, my alma mater.

Archibald, too, will see new opportunities ahead of him. He has always been a star, for at least three decades, but now he’s got the official sanction of our profession, the ultimate seal of approval in journalism.

What opportunities will open before him: Who can say? But they’ll be there.

John Archibald knows a good column when he sees one. He’ll know the good opportunities, as well.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Races to watch

Steve Flowers

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Our antiquated 1901 Constitution was designed to give inordinate power to the Legislature. During the Wallace years, the King of Alabama politics, George Wallace, usurped this power and controlled the Legislature from the Executive Branch of Government. Over the last couple of decades the Legislature has wrestled this power back and pretty much excluded the Governor from their bailiwick. Governors Bob Riley and Robert Bentley were ostracized and pretty much ignored.  Their proposed budgets were instantaneously tossed into the nearest trashcan.

Legislative power is derived from controlling the state’s purse strings. Thus the old adage, “Those who have the gold set the rules.” The Legislature has gotten like Congress in that incumbents are difficult to defeat. Therefore, the interest will be on the open Senate and House seats. Most of the Montgomery Special Interest money will be focused on these Legislative races.

Speaking of Montgomery, two open and most interesting Senate seats in the state will be in the Montgomery/River Region. One is currently in progress. Montgomery City Councilman, David Burkette, Representative John Knight and Councilman Fred Bell are pursuing the Democratic seat vacated by Senator Quinton Ross when he left to become President of Alabama State University. Burkette has already bested Knight and Bell in a Special Election last month. A rebound race is set for June 5.

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The Republican Senate seat in the River Region held by Senator Dick Brewbaker is up for grabs. This seat was expected to attract numerous well-known aspirants. However, when the dust settled at the qualifying deadline two relatively unknown candidates were the only ones to qualify. Will Barfoot and Ronda Walker are pitted against each other in a race that is considered a tossup.

The Etowah County/Gadsden area was considered one of the most Democratic areas of the state for generations. However, in recent years it has become one of the most Republican. State Representative, Mack Butler, should be favored as a Republican. Although, polling indicates that veteran Democratic Representative, Craig Ford, could make this a competitive race in the Fall. He is running as an Independent.

Veteran State Senator Harri Ann Smith has represented the Wiregrass/Dothan area admirably for over two decades. She has been elected several times as an Independent. However, she has decided not to seek reelection. Her exit leaves State Representative Donnie Chesteen in the catbird seat to capture the seat.

Republican State Senator Paul Bussman, who represents Cullman and northwest Alabama, is a maverick and very independent. This independence makes him powerful.  He will be reelected easily.

State Representative David Sessions is predicted to win the seat of Senator Bill Hightower who is running for Governor.

Most of the state Senate’s most powerful members are unopposed or have token opposition. Included in this list of incumbent State Senators are veteran Senate leader and Rules Chairman, Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia, Senate President, Del Marsh, R-Calhoun, Senate Majority Leader, Greg Reed, R-Jasper, veteran Senator Jimmy Holley, R-Coffee, as well as Senate leaders Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, Clay Scofield, R-Marshall, Clyde Chambliss, R-Autauga, Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, Tom Whatley, R-Lee, and Shay Shelnutt, R-Gardendale. The Senate leadership will remain intact, as will the House leadership.

Almost all of the House leaders are unopposed or have token opposition. This prominent list includes:  Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Madison, Budget Chairmen, Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, Speaker Pro-tem, Victor Gaston, R- Mobile, Rules Chairman, Mike Jones, R-Covington.

In addition, there are numerous Veteran lawmakers, who will be reelected, including Lynn Greer, Mike Ball, Jim Carnes, Howard Sanderford, Kerry Rich, and Jimmy Martin; as well as rising leaders: Nathaniel Ledbetter, Kyle South, Connie Rowe, Tim Wadsworth, April Weaver, Paul Lee, Terri Collins, Danny Garrett, Dickie Drake, Chris Pringle, Randall Shedd, Allen Farley, Becky Nordgren, Mike Holmes, David Standridge, Dimitri Polizos, Reed Ingram and Chris Sells.

Even though there are 22 open House seats and 10 open Senate Seats, the leadership of both Chambers will remain the same.

There are some competitive House seats that will be interesting. In the Pike/Dale County Seat 89, Pike Probate Judge Wes Allen is pitted against Troy City Council President Marcus Paramore. Tracy Estes is favored to replace retiring Mike Millican in Marion County. Alfa is going all out for Estes. David Wheeler is expected to capture the open House seat in Vestavia.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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Opinion | Hot buttons worth pressing

Joey Kennedy

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They don’t want you to vote.

Remember that.

And “they” are mostly the Republicans today. Voters scare Republicans just about to death.

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I stand corrected: “They” don’t want you to vote unless you vote for them.

But to be fair, when Democrats controlled all the branches of Alabama government, they weren’t too crazy about you voting, either, unless you were voting for them.

“They” usually could get you to vote for them, too. For years, Democrat George Wallace used the race card in vicious ways to scare black voters away and draw equality-challenged whites to the polls. There were no race-baiting tactics too vile for Wallace to use.

It wasn’t simply that Wallace was a racist, though he was. But he knew, after losing to John Patterson in 1958, that he’d been out-N’d by Patterson, and he vowed that would never happen again.

And it didn’t. Wallace won in 1962 on a strict segregationist platform, and he dominated Alabama politics through the mid-1980s using some form of the same themes.

Even after race was no longer such a hot-button issue, Democrats still won. The last Democrat elected governor, Don Siegelman, didn’t use race; he used the hot-button lottery.

That may have gotten him elected, but because Siegelman’s lottery proposal was so difficult to understand, and because Republicans and other conservatives used hot-button, non-sequitur religious arguments against it, the lottery was doomed.

“Go to church on Sunday, or the ‘lottery’ will get you!”

Well, something like that.

After Siegelman was defeated by Republican Bob Riley, Alabamians have elected nothing but Republicans to the state’s top office since, and most other statewide offices as well.

Democrats may have used hot-button racial and other issues to get elected, but Republicans perfected the hot-button campaign.

The evils of immigration and undocumented residents.

The traditional marriage “threats” posed by lesbian, gay, and transgender residents.

Democrats are corrupt. Democrats only want higher taxes and more spending. Democrats hate your mother, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

As it turns out, Republicans are the party of corruption in Alabama. Consider just the past few years, when the governor (Robert Bentley), speaker of the House (Mike Hubbard), and Chief Justice of the state (Roy Moore) were removed from their respective offices because of corruption (or, in Moore’s case, twice for not adhering to his oath of office, another form of corruption). Other Republican lawmakers and public officials have been caught up in corruption scandals. Some are in prison right now, though Hubbard, for some reason, remains free.

Too, Republicans figured out a way to keep the people who won’t vote for them from voting at all.

Alabama has some of the most restrictive ballot-access laws in the nation. Both Democrats and Republicans share the blame, but Republicans, with a supermajority in both the House and Senate, could have opened the ballot more.

They refused. The more candidates on the ballot, the more choices voters have. Can’t have voters having choices; can’t have different ideas floating around out there.

The more people out there who vote, the less chance Republicans have of winning. So they passed draconian voter ID laws. That locks out or scares away many voters who would likely vote for Democrats or a third party. Qualified voters who don’t have photo IDs are more likely to be poor and minority, generally voters who elect Democrats or who certainly don’t vote for Republicans.

Republicans gerrymandered the state to such an extent, their districts are usually considered safe. They even gerrymandered moderate, thinking Republicans out of their own districts so those reasonable officeholders couldn’t win against the far more conservative Republicans.

Republicans now have weakened the state’s ethics laws so much, their favorite kind of corruption – using their offices for public gain – is practically legal.

It’s a mess, to be sure.

That’s why this year is so important. With the December win of Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones over Republican Molester Roy Moore, Democrats and independents are charged up.

There actually are more Democrats running for office this year than Republicans. Many are women. Many are African-American women. The governor’s race this year not only features Republicans challenging the incumbent, but Democrats elbowing their way in.

True, many of the Republicans running for office are the incumbents. But Democrats and independents are fired up.

And with Millennials and post-Millennials becoming qualified to vote, and with a renewed interest in activism because of the #MeToo movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the #NeverAgain gun restriction movement, the #DACAnow immigration movement, and the radical shift in public opinion surrounding LGBTQ issues, it very well may be a new day.

Yes, even in Alabama.

Imagine our hot buttons turning out to be a real push for reasonable gun control. Or “Equality for All,” that would make the lives of immigrants and the gay community and women and, yes, sadly, still, African-Americans feel truly included.

Imagine hot buttons that truly matter.

Those are the hot buttons we can press with pride. If we will.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Indictments in superfund bribery case no win for Alabama citizens

by Josh Moon Read Time: 4 min
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