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Doing our duty as free press

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

As is often the case, one country’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; and likewise, one person’s anonymous source is a patriot and someone else’s traitor.

Like much in politics, traitor versus patriot largely depends on who’s blowing the whistle and who’s caught up in the malaise. The press who reported weekly on the so-called scandal against Gov. Don Siegelman’s administration were heroes, and their confidential informants were simply whistleblowers doing their duty, according to state Republicans. But when APR spent four years chronicling the wrongdoings of then Speaker Mike Hubbard, we were liars and worse, and our sources, well, they were false and dishonest. Of course, during the Siegelman era, the same was said by the Democrats.

It is a shame that partisan loyalty allows for so much mischief waved aside, as if being faithful to the team is more important than doing what is right. Perhaps being faithful to the law, moral conscience and decency are better qualities than blind allegiance to a party.

Recently, ALGOP Chair Terry Lathan said, “Any party member that anonymously shares inside organizational bumps or espouses their opinion with a lack of information to the press should be ashamed of themselves.” Here, perhaps channeling the party’s standard-bearer, she adds, “Hiding behind anonymity is cowardly.”

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Lathan’s comments in context are not altogether misguided, as a party official should speak boldly about internal disputes. They also should talk to the press when their concerns are not taken seriously by leadership.

ALGOP Chair, Steering Committee reprimand Hooper

U.S. law holds that whistleblowers should come forward when they see wrongdoing, even if it is done anonymously. The first ever whistleblower protection law was enacted on July 30, 1778. Records from the Continental Congress show that the original resolution stated, “Resolved that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States … to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any persons in the services of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”

On the 236th anniversary of the first whistleblower law, a unanimous, bi-partisan resolution passed designating July 30 as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.

The measure was sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Grassley noted on the occasion, “Whistleblowers are pivotal pieces of the oversight puzzle. Their work ensures that our system of checks and balances operates effectively.” Wyden added, “Individuals with the courage to blow the whistle in the face of government wrongdoing, waste or abuse are an integral part of our democracy. Too often, whistleblowers risk retaliation and scorn for drawing attention to misdeeds, so it is only right for the Senate to recognize their vital contributions.”

When reporting on government abuse, waste or fraud, anonymous sources are vital and often are the only way to get to the root of corruption. “Anonymous sources,” is a misnomer because the individual, or individuals, are known to the journalist and are generally someone who is a trusted government figure. They remain anonymous to the public so they can perform the critical task of helping a reporter find facts. Most often, their tips allow a reporter to find corroborating documents to expose the truth.

In a state like Alabama, where the open records act is rarely adheres to, and any tinpot agency lawyer can claim bogus privilege background sources are the only guides to facts concerning fraud, waste and incompetence. Informants who aid the press are placing their jobs, and in some cases even their lives, in danger. Their confidentiality is utmost to them and a trust that a good journalist will never betray.

According to the Society of Professional Journalist Ethics Committee Position Papers, “Few ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources. Keep your promise not to identify a source of information, and it’s possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge, and a jail cell. On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source, and it’s just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.” In addition any reporter who exposes a anonymous sources under any circumstance is ruined.

President Trump thinks leakers should be jailed, but so far, unlike the Obama administration, he has not acted on those words. In 2013, it came to light that the Obama administration’s justice department, under U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, had named Fox News reporter, James Rosen, a “criminal co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act of 1917 to gain access to his emails and phone records. The Washington Post, in 2013, reported that the Justice Department had monitored reporter Rosen’s State Department visits through phone traces, the timing of calls and his emails. The state alleged Rosen received leaks of classified information in 2009 about North Korea.

During Obama’s tenure as president, seven Americans working for the U.S. Government, or government contractors with security clearances, faced criminal charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 because of alleged leaks to members of the press or online outlets. The administration said it didn’t target journalists, but Rosen proves that’s not the whole truth.

Hubbard targeted us, so did Gov. Bentley and others. We have been mocked for using anonymous sources and recently called fake news.

The real fake news almost always comes from corrupt politicians, not a journalist. In our state, the press, in general, serves as stenographers due to corporate pressure to sell advertisements, which many times means not offending anyone with power.

More often, it is the state that is the enemy of the people through corruption and greed. The free press, as envisioned by the founding generation, were the watchers who protected the people from government misdeeds and overreach. So, the next time someone uses the term “fake news” because a journalist uses an anonymous source, remind them what the Continental Congress declared 235 years ago. It is the duty of all persons to report misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any persons in the services of these states.

That means the press, too.

 

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Can Alabama’s one-party system deliver for all the people?

Bill Britt

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Alabama is a one-party state.

For 136 years, the Democratic Party was the sole governing body which ruled the state under a one-party system. Voters switched sides in 2010, and now there is one-party control by Republicans.

Of the many problems created by a one-party system are the elimination of checks and balances, disregard for the minority population, a tendency for tolerating corruption within the controlling ranks and ignoring best practices because they may be ideas that come from the opposition.

Alabama is in dire need of men and women in positions of political power and influence who can see beyond the second ripple in the pond and who will do what is right, not based on party, but a deep abiding loyalty to our state.

Far too often policy items are ill-conceived, half-baked-by-products of some other state’s solutions or a national narrative that isn’t in the best interest of the people of our state.

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Best policy is written using fact-based information tailored to the needs of the state.

As lawmakers gear up for the 2019 Legislative Session, it might be fair to ask, “What do in-coming Republican lawmakers stand for today?”

One freshman legislator recently said that he is coming to Montgomery to help President Trump build the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Far be it from me to question the gentleman’s motivation or IQ, but if I’m correct, the state Legislature does not have any say over a border wall, unless he thinks we need one in Mobile.

We have some excellent women and men at the State House, but there are a few who have no business deciding what’s for lunch, much less what is best for the people.

The state has many challenges which include weak income growth which is only improving because the national economy is rolling along, prisons that are a disgrace and under federal lawsuits, an infrastructure which is crumbling and self-dealing that is on the rise.

Republicans, like the Democrats before them, have not adequately addressed these systemic problems because with one-party rule, no one is pushing them to do better.

Perhaps the lack of real change is understandable given that for six of the last eight years, the Republican-led government was controlled by a delusional governor and a crooked Speaker of the House.

Former Speaker Mike Hubbard is going to prison, Gov. Robert Bentley is out of office and still out of his mind, so going forward, the state will know if Republicans can actually lead.

Republicans have a chance to lead; will they?

Without a strong opposition party, Republicans, like Democrats of the past, have no reason to compromise or build a coalition between the two parties. Therefore, in many instances, what is best for the state is hampered by groupthink or a slavish devotion to a national party orthodoxy that offers scant solutions to Alabama’s most pressing problems.

The state’s voting population is arguably at 60/40, with Republicans holding a commanding majority over Democrats as evident by the state’s last general election.

In his essay “Party dominance ‘theory’: Of what value?” Raymond Suttner notes, “The notion of a dominant party, usually described by those who deploy the concept, as a theory or a system, refers to a category of parties/political organizations that have successively won election victories and whose future defeat cannot be envisaged or is unlikely for the foreseeable future.”

Republicans occupy all 29 statewide offices and control more than two-thirds of both the House and the Senate; Alabama is a one-party state.

If the state succeeds, Republicans can take credit. If it continues near the bottom in every meaningful measure of success, then they should be held accountable.

One-party government is fraught with problems, not the less of which is a failure to deliver good government for all the people because they don’t have to worry about reelection.

Alabama should expect more, but do we?

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Public corruption unpunished, public left in the dark

Bill Britt

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Two former state public officials appear to be receiving extraordinary leniency, and the public should demand to know why.

In one case, former Sumter County Sheriff Tyrone Clark pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges including ethics violations and drug charges. However, District Attorney Greg Griggers who oversaw the investigation announced after Clark’s plea that he didn’t want to see the former sheriff go to prison. “It was never my goal to send Tyrone Clark to prison,” said Griggers.

Grant Culliver, a former top official at the Alabama Department of Corrections, is being allowed to retire after an investigation into allegations of misconduct. The Alabama Ethics Commission, the Department of Corrections and the Attorney General’s Office refuses to acknowledge publicly what the inquiry uncovered.

In both instances, the public is being denied a full accounting of why these high-ranking government employees are being shown preferential treatment. It is also becoming evident that there is no appetite to punish office holders or hold them publicly accountable for misconduct.

These two cases are just a small sampling of how public officials are being given a pass under Attorney General Steve Marshall.

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Marshall has no real interest in prosecuting public corruption which is evident by his firing of Chief Prosecutor Matt Hart.

It is estimated that nearly two dozen public corruption investigations are languishing after Hart’s firing. Perhaps more egregiously, Marshall, according to several well-placed sources still inside the AG’s office, has denied subpoenas, withheld vital documents and generally hampered investigations that involve state lawmakers and business leaders.

More troubling, Marshall is not only compromised by his debt to his political donors but also by those in his office that have critical knowledge about his personal conduct.

As one source close to Marshall explained, “Steve is a dark character with a lot to hide.”

Under former attorneys general, Clark and Culliver would have been treated like any other individual accused of misconduct, but Marshall is side-stepping both cases.

It is entirely within the attorney general’s authority to take control of Clark’s case, as well as revealing Culliver investigations, but Marshall is doing neither.

Culliver, who served as associate commissioner for operations at the Department of Corrections, is being allowed to quietly retire without the public ever knowing what the investigation uncovered.

Clark confessed to numerous crimes including two counts of unlawful employment of county inmates, three counts of ethics violations for using his office for personal gain, one first-degree count of promoting prison contraband, another second-degree count of promoting prison contraband and a count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.

The county DA wants him to walk free.

Former Sumter County sheriff pleads guilty to criminal ethics, drug charges

Marshall, with his appointment by disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley and his subsequent election, has ushered in an era where public officials are free to do as they please without fear of prosecution as long as it is in Marshall or his handler’s interest.

Marshall also serves as co-chair of the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission which is rewriting the State’s Ethics Act to ensure that convicted felon former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard is the last high-ranking political figure ever to be punished by the once championed “toughest in the nations” ethics laws.

Both Clark and Culliver were paid with state tax-dollars and should be accountable to the citizens of our state. Clark’s crimes are clear and he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law because, not only did he break the law, he violated public trust.

Culliver, it appears, did something to warrant a forced retirement. He, too, was paid by tax-payers who have a right to know what he did.

The public should demand more, Gov. Kay Ivey should intervene, but for now, there is little hope for equal justice under the law as dispensed by the likes of Marshall.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | In the arena

Bill Britt

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Alabama Political Reporter does one thing: it covers politics, more specifically state politics. Along with our news coverage, we publish opinions about issues facing the state. We do include the state’s congressional delegation in D.C., but that is limited in scope.

As for APR’s opinion columns, we err on the side of free speech. As our nations first president, George Washington, said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

APR has two categories of opinions, feature opinions, which are ones we solicit, and guest views, which are those provided to us by individuals with political credentials or expertise that warrant giving their ideas space in our publication.

At APR, every opinion column has the name of the author and their contact information.

We don’t feel it necessary to affix a disclaimer to every opinion piece saying this material is solely the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of APR. We think our readers are smart enough to know that already. However, due to the rapid response of the internet, people sometimes do confuse what is an individual’s opinion and APR’s willingness to support free speech.

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On occasion, our contributors and columnists wander off into national politics. As editor-in-chief, I cringe on those days when opinion columnist focus on President Trump, Sharia Law, Supreme Court nominations or other national hysteria. Not because it is unimportant but because it is not our core mission, and it enflames passions that have little to do with good state government.

When we first envisioned APR, it was with an understanding that there was little we could do to change Washington or national politics. What we saw was an opportunity to do good by reporting on matters facing the state. If it holds that all politics is local, then dogged coverage of state issues might result in better local policies and governance.

When APR remains focused on Legislative accountability, fiscal responsibility, public corruption and those things that directly affect the lives of our state’s citizens, we are most relevant. However, when we stray into national hot-button issues already beaten to death on cable news, we enter fights that are unwinnable and distract from the primary mission.

In an era when even cold facts make people angry or are greeted by alternative ones, it should come as no great surprise that opinions often irritate and cause consternation.

APR doesn’t print opinion columns merely to make anyone mad but to perhaps cause us all to think.

As President John F. Kennedy said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Thinking is a tough business, especially in today’s political climate where much of the civic conversation is based on entrenched political identity and not necessarily on sound reasoning. On the right and left, there is an established dogma that labels competing ideas as wrong and even evil. But these national party convictions do not always translate to sound state government policy.

As a news organization, APR does not take particular positions on issues. The closest we come to an official stance on any given subject is when I, as editor-in-chief, offer an opinion, but even then it is not ex cathedra.

APR’s mission is simple, to inform, educate and alert the public on issues facing our state. When we stay true to that edict, we succeed. When we do not, we fall short of our purpose. There are times when we as a news organization must call to action those who care about good government – that is the job of our opinion page. Sometimes, we do so nobly, other times not so much.

As President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

APR and its writers and opinion columnists are women and men who have chosen to enter the arena. We are a small band of committed individuals working hard to bring you news and opinions that will promote good government here in Alabama. That is our job.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Get Hart

Bill Britt

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Years of political pressure from shady defense attorneys and crooked lawmakers culminated last week in the firing of Special Prosecution Division Chief Matt Hart.

Gov. Robert Bentley’s appointed attorney general, Steve Marshall, delivered the blow just 13 days after being elected attorney general, but the move against Hart was orchestrated by some of the state’s most powerful political figures.

Make no mistake, Hart’s firing was no less than a political coup de grâce by those who operate most efficaciously in the dark corners of politics.

Hart’s removal serves as punishment not only for prosecuting some of the state’s most influential men, it is also part of a broad scheme to allow those who are currently under investigation to walk free.

There should be an immediate and thorough federal investigation into Hart’s termination as well as a joint legislative committee created to conduct an inquiry with public hearings. A former senator, such as Dick Brewbaker or Gerald Dial, should be appointed to oversee the joint committee to eliminate political chicanery. Perhaps, more importantly, Gov. Kay Ivey should name a special prosecutor working under Montgomery District Attorney Darryl Bailey to investigate the matter.

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For nearly two decades, Hart served as a widely respected career prosecutor who was once a hero of state Republicans when he successfully convicted dozens of high-profile Democrats, but that changed when he turned his sights onto corrupt Republicans after their victory in 2010.

When Hart began investigating Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in 2011, he immediately went from a conservative champion to a political pariah who must be stopped by any means.

Under oath during a July deposition, Bentley testified that lawmakers, attorneys and a major Republican donor, on several occasions, asked him to intervene in the Hubbard case by appointing a special prosecutor to replace Hart.

The goal was to appoint a special prosecutor who would remove Hart and launch an investigation to discredit him personally and the underlying case against Hubbard.

Deposition: Bentley was pressured by lawmakers, attorneys, major donors to upend Hubbard trial

After Hubbard’s conviction, Bentley and his alleged girlfriend, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, increasingly paranoid, believed Hart was coming after them which led to Bentley appointing Marshall to attorney general with the expressed agreement that he would investigate Hart.

Marshall has publicly denied this allegation, but those with direct knowledge of the quid pro quo may soon go on the record.

While under questioning in the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier, Bentley testified that Great Southern Wood owner and Republican super-donor, Jimmy Rane, approached him on three different occasions about appointing a special prosecutor.

Additionally, Rob Riley, son of former Gov. Bob Riley and a Hubbard attorney, also contacted Bentley about opening an investigation into Hart and acting Attorney General Van Davis. Hubbard’s other attorneys, Augusta Dowd and Lance Bell, also met with Bentley about replacing Hart as Bentley swore under oath. Bentley conveniently could not recall the sitting legislators who pushed him to upend the Hubbard prosecution but did admit that all these individuals shared a common goal to get Hart.

Up until his firing last Monday, Hart was overseeing dozens of investigations believed to be targeting business elites, lawmakers and other public officials, but a swift ax ended those probes.

If there is a shred of justice left in the state of Alabama, a full hearing into Hart’s firing will be conducted immediately.

Those who care about the rule of law must now demand that Gov. Kay Ivey, the Legislature and law enforcement act decisively to ensure that those who perpetrated this coup are held accountable. If Gov. Ivey, the Legislature and law enforcement fail to act, then all hope for law and order is lost here in Alabama because those who got Hart can now get anyone.

 

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Doing our duty as free press

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