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Taxpayers continue to pay Bentley’s legal bills

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

Alabama taxpayers have forked out more than $100,000 over the last 15 months to pay for attorneys defending former Gov. Robert Bentley, one of his former cabinet members and a state employee in a single lawsuit, billing records obtained by APR show.

Much of the money was spent after Bentley and former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency director Stan Stabler were no longer employed by the state.

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“According to state law, all state employees and officials are entitled to legal representation paid for by the state’s self-insurance fund (the General Liability Trust Fund, or “GLTF”) whenever they are sued in their individual capacity for damages arising out of their acts or omissions committed while in the performance of their official duties,” a spokesman for Gov. Kay Ivey said. “Coverage from the fund continues even after the employee/official is separated from service as long as it relates to conduct that occurred during state service.”

Bentley, Stabler and ALEA attorney Michael Robinson are being sued by former ALEA director Spencer Collier, who is alleging the three men, along with Rebekah Mason, conspired to force Collier out of his job and then worked to ruin him professionally and financially. Mason’s attorney’s fee are apparently not being paid by the state, since she was not working as a state employee at the time of Collier’s dismissal.

If Collier is successful in his lawsuit — and a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge is set to rule on a motion to dismiss Friday morning — monetary damages, or a settlement, up to $1 million would be paid out of the GLTF as well.

Ivey’s office noted that she has no control over the payouts, except to ensure attorneys bill at no more than the state’s maximum rate of $195 per hour.

According to the bills, attorneys John Neiman and Richard Trewhella stuck to the $195 rate.

Neiman, who works for the law firm Maynard, Cooper & Gayle, in Birmingham, charged the state $43,097 in 15 months — June 2016 through August 2017 — to represent both Bentley and Stabler.

APR only received bills from Neiman, but at a hearing in the case on Monday, Bentley and Stabler were represented by three attorneys from Maynard, Cooper & Gayle. It’s unclear if the $43,097 is the total for all three attorneys or only the billing from one of the three.

Trewhella, working for the Atlanta firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete and representing Robinson, billed the state $66,814 for work between February and August this year.

Bentley resigned from office in early April. Stabler was pushed out by Ivey just a few days later. Since then, their attorneys have cost taxpayers at least $17,500, not counting the three most recent months.

 

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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APR’s League of Influentials offer predictions in the upcoming Republican primary

Bill Britt

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During the first two weeks of May, the Alabama Political Reporter asked its League of Influentials to weigh in on upcoming Republican statewide elections. The Influentials are a roster of lawmakers from both parties, political analysts, members of the media, lobbyists and consultants that span the political spectrum.

The survey finds Gov. Ivey with a narrowing lead, a surprise in the attorney general’s race and Billy Canary of the Business Council of Alabama leaving sometime before hell freezes over and other prognostications.

Results in the June 5 primary for the Republican governor’s race, APR‘s Influentials project Gov. Kay Ivey will lead the field with 52 percent, followed by Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle at 24 percent, rounding out the field are Evangelist Scott Dawson pulling 16 percent and State Senator Bill Hightower with eight percent.

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What will the vote percentages be for each of the GOP gubernatorial candidates on Election Day?

Tommy Battle: 24 percent

Scott Dawson: 16 percent

Bill Hightower: 8 percent

Kay Ivey: 52 percent

In the Republican lieutenant governor primary, Public Service Commission President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh tops the pack with 52 percent, according to APR‘s Influentials forecast. State Rep. Will Ainsworth garners 34 percent, and State Senator Rusty Glover trails at 15 percent.

What will the vote percentages be for each of the GOP Lieutenant Governor candidates on Election Day?

Will Ainsworth: 34 percent

Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh: 52 percent

Rusty Glover: 15 percent

In the Attorney General’s challenge, former Attorney General Troy King and current appointee, Steve Marshall, are within strike distance of each other with King holds a 4 point lead at 35 percent to Marshall’s 31 percent. Former U.S. Attorney and AG Chief Deputy Alice Martin pulled 22 percent, with Chess Bedsole coming in at 12 points.

What will the vote percentages be for each of the GOP Attorney General candidates on Election Day?

Ches Bedsole: 12 percent

Troy King: 35 percent

Steve Marshall: 31 percent

Alice Martin: 22 percent

As for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tom Parker walks away with 71.88 percent to appointed Chief Justice Lyn Stuart’s 28.13 percent.

Who wins the GOP Primary for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

Tom Parker: 71.88 percent

Lyn Stuart: 28.13 percent

APR also asked its Influentials about any surprises in the Republican primary and, overwhelmingly, they saw the opportunity for an upset in the attorney general’s race with 46.88 percent seeing a stunning finish to the hotly contested election.

As for other potential surprises, the Influentials see small percentage in  the  GOP Supreme Court Chief Justice Primary at 18.75 percent, in the GOP Governor Primary 15.63 percent and a 9.38 percent in the GOP Lieutenant Governor Primary.

Which statewide race do you think will be the most surprising in the results on June 5?

GOP Governor Primary: 15.63 percent

GOP Lieutenant Governor Primary: 9.38 percent

GOP Attorney General Primary: 46.88 percent

GOP Supreme Court Chief Justice Primary: 18.75 percent

GOP Supreme Court Associate Justice Primary: 0.00 percent

APR‘s Influentials believe embattled Business Council of Alabama CEO Billy Canary will be replaced after the June 5 primary, with 18.75 percent thinking he will remain as the organization’s chief until after the November general election. The same number, 18.75 percent, project his departure when hell freezes over.

When does Billy Canary depart BCA?

After the Primary Election: 62.50 percent

After the General Election: 18.75 percent

After hell freezes over: 18.75 percent

A break down of Influentials who participate in this poll are as follows:

What best classifies you and your role?

Lobbyist/association: 25 percent

Legislator: 18.75 percent

Political Consultant: 37.50 percent

Other elected official: 6.25 percent

Media: 12.50 percent

All answers are received anonymously, and not even APR‘s staff can identify who participated in the survey.

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The revenge of the BCA

Josh Moon

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A terminated position, a transfer, a well-financed primary opponent and a ballot challenge.  

Over the last several weeks, some of the major players who exposed a scheme to smear a state superintendent candidate and hand the job to an outsider have fallen on hard times.

And the source of their problems isn’t much of a mystery among Montgomery insiders: The Business Council of Alabama.

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“This is (the BCA’s) MO now,” said one Republican lawmaker. “They crossed them and this is the payback.”

To understand what’s going on, we’ll need to backtrack a bit. Back to the Dumbest Scheme Ever.

That scheme was carried out during the 2016 search for a state schools superintendent that eventually landed Michael Sentance.

To make quick work of it, here’s what happened: Jefferson County superintendent Dr. Craig Pouncey was the frontrunner for the state job, but just before the official interviews of the finalists, a mysterious ethics complaint was filed against him. That complaint originated from State School Board Member Mary Scott Hunter, who said she received it anonymously, like every other board member, prior to a regular meeting.

The allegations in the complaint were way old and way outside the statute of limitations. But that didn’t stop Hunter from passing them along, the Ethics Commission from opening an initial investigation or the legal staff at the Alabama State Department of Education from opening its own investigation.

Ultimately, the allegations were found to be without merit. But when Pouncey lost to Sentance, a number of people wanted to know just what the hell happened.

State Sen. Gerald Dial opened a bipartisan legislative committee investigation into the matter and started calling witnesses. At ALSDE, another investigation was started — this one headed by department attorney Michael Meyer, at the direction of Sentance, to uncover whether department employees had conspired with Hunter to smear Pouncey.

Keeping tabs on the whole matter was blogger and now Montgomery school board candidate Larry Lee, whose popular “Education Matters” blog was a daily must-visit site for most education employees in the state during this ordeal.

The result of it all was an embarrassing chain of discoveries — that Hunter bragged about Pouncey’s “ethics problem” at a BCA event, that ALSDE attorneys called Pouncey’s alma mater to encourage it investigate him, that Ethics Commission violated at least three of its own rules to open an inquiry and that attorneys from a politically connected firm were mysteriously aiding the whole process.

It was a mess.

One that led to Hunter backing out of her bid to become lieutenant governor and played no small role in Sentance ultimately being forced out after just a year on the job.

“That wrecked a lot of plans, when he was pushed out of there,” said a source close to the situation.

But last month, things took a turn for the BCA, when its candidate of choice, Eric Mackey, was selected by the board as the new state superintendent. And ever since, some odd things have been occurring.

Dial, who headed up the legislative committee investigation, is retiring from the Senate and is running for state Agriculture Commissioner. And wouldn’t you know it, he has a well-financed opponent. (Although, apparently one who has a questionable past.)

Lee’s candidacy for the Montgomery County School Board was in serious jeopardy recently after a challenge was filed with the Alabama GOP executive committee. Lee found evidence of at least two hired attorneys working to dig up dirt on him, and BCA director Billy Canary personally donated to Lee’s opponent.

Meyer, who wrote the report on the Pouncey smear — the report that famously found evidence of five people colluding to smear Pouncey — was surprised a week ago with a transfer out of ALSDE and to the state Department of Human Resources. Three days later, Meyer’s wife, Tracey, a longtime legislative liaison who was well liked around the State House and ALSDE, had her position eliminated by Mackey without warning.

Several state school board members have privately expressed shock and anger at the moves. But for several state lawmakers, who spoke to APR on condition of anonymity, the revenge tactics by the BCA and Canary aren’t a surprise. And they’re a major reason so many of them have soured on working with the BCA.

“I don’t get what they’re trying to do,” said one longtime Republican lawmaker. “This is not the way it was done in the past, when that group had a lot of power. We had disagreements, but there was understanding of why and we still worked together. There was none of this vindictive revenge junk or whatever it is — punishment, I guess. A lot of people are tired of it, and I think that shows in how unsuccessful BCA has been lately.”

Two sessions back, BCA-backed legislation was shut out. Last session, the only meaningful bill it pushed through was a revisement of ethics laws — a bill that was so unpopular by the time it passed that it could cost lawmakers their seats in upcoming elections.

Now, with a potential gas tax and an infrastructure overhaul bill poised for consideration, the BCA is facing a critical time. If these pushes fail in the upcoming session — and passing a tax hike is never easy in this state — it would be a major blow to many of the businesses that contribute the most BCA money.

But instead of building bridges to ensure it all passed, the BCA leadership appears to be setting them on fire.

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Lawsuit against Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Office dismissed by federal judge in Rondini matter

Bill Britt

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Last week, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy held a press conference during which he announced a federal judge’s dismissal of a wrongful death suit brought by the family of former University of Alabama student, Megan Rondini, against his office. The family alleged that the Sheriff’s Office had failed to adequately investigate and prosecute an alleged rape that they claim led to their daughter taking her life.

In July 2015, Megan Rondini, a college student, claimed she was raped after a night of partying by a local man in his 30s. Her family later said her suicide —nearly a year later—was a result of Tuscaloosa authorities failing to prosecute her case, despite a grand jury finding no evidence for an indictment.

The Rondini family’s lawsuit claims the defendants involved “negligently, recklessly, wantonly, and/or wrongfully acted or failed to act in response to Megan’s reported sexual assault.”

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Parents of UA student who committed suicide file wrongful death suit

Tthe state’s attorney general’s office and a federal judge found no such evidence.

“After several months of unjust accusations against my office and other Tuscaloosa law enforcement agencies, the truth has indeed finally prevailed,” said Abernathy in his prepared statements. “A lawsuit filed against two investigators and me regarding the Megan Rondini suicide has been dismissed. It was dismissed because it was unfounded from the beginning.”

Abernathy also strongly condemned social media posts by internet trolls and some in the media who he says falsely reported events surrounding the Sheriff’s investigation into Rondini’s allegation of rape and subsequent lawsuits brought by her family.

“We hope this incident will serve as a lesson to all that social media cannot, and should not, be the venue in which any case is tried, and that social media sites should not be trusted as a reliable source of substantiated information regarding important matters,” Abernathy said. “False allegations made by internet bloggers and certain out of state journalists, and perpetuated by local political hacks have done damage to our community in that some victims have been reluctant to come forward to report cases, fearing that their information will be made known on social media.”

A media frenzy following the events of July 2015, cast a long shadow over the City of Tuscaloosa, law-enforcement, the University, local medical practitioners and Tuscaloosa-native T.J. Bunn, who Rondini alleged had forced her to engage in sexual relations against her will.

The 30 something-year Bunn is the last defendant in the wrongful death suit brought by Rondini’s parents.

Bunn continues to maintain his innocence saying that he and Rondini engaged in consensual sexual relations at his Cottondale home in July 2015.

A timeline of events from that night constructed using text and snapchat messages from Rondini’s cellphone contradict rumors and innuendo spread by internet trolls and some press outlets. Also, many of the case files along with videos released under the Open Records Act shows Sheriff’s investigators rigorously pursuing Rondini’s allegation contrary to some reports.

Allegations of rape, details of a tragic night

During his press appearance last Wednesday, Abernathy condemned those who spread false accusations saying, “[T]hose who have facilitated these injustices on Facebook and other sites, civil litigation should be expected, if for no other reason than to prevent this from occurring in the future.”

Abernathy ended his press event by saying, “Those who perpetuate the false allegations for their own political gain should be held accountable. Their lack of integrity and self-serving disregard for the truth resulted in an unjustified attack on our community and many of its most respected institutions.” He then issued a final warning, “Our message must be strong and clear, that libelous behavior will not be tolerated.”

The press conference can be viewed at Tuscaloosa News.

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Taxpayers continue to pay Bentley’s legal bills

by Josh Moon Read Time: 2 min
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