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Final strange chapter: Fake cancer scam ends in jail time

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The strangest story I’ve ever covered is over.

A Shelby County Circuit Court judge on Thursday sentenced Jennifer Flynn Cataldo to serve two years for each of two counts of first-degree theft by deception after Cataldo admitted to soliciting tens of thousands of dollars from friends and family in a fake cancer scheme. The two-year terms will run concurrently.  

“Those who prey upon the charitable intentions of good Samaritans not only do a tremendous disservice to those truly in need but also betray the trust of the community,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall in a press release. “This sentence should send a strong signal to others who may harbor similar intentions of deceiving the public’s generosity that there will be a price to pay for breaking the law.”

In the release, Marshall’s office took time to thank a number of different people for their work in exposing the scam and bringing Cataldo to justice. He missed two people: Me and attorney Jamie Moncus.

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Believe me, that’s not my ego talking.

Honestly, Jamie and I wanted nothing to do with this story, and we both wish it had never happened. We were sucked in against our will.

Last spring, unsolicited, Cataldo’s father, Robert Flynn, sent me an email in which he alleged then-Gov. Robert Bentley and then Attorney General Luther Strange had conspired to bilk his daughter out of a $17 million medical malpractice verdict related to her terminal cancer. In follow-up phone calls and emails, Flynn provided more details, even had documents to support some of his claims, and claimed to have tape recordings of Strange and Bentley discussing the scheme.  

It was an unbelievable story told by a very believable man. And making it all the more believable was the promise of documents and evidence being held by the family attorney and family friend, Jamie Moncus.

Ten minutes into the first phone call with Moncus, we knew something wasn’t right. We started to compare notes. He had spoken to Cataldo a few times in recent weeks. I had spoken to her father. We gathered more info, attempting to decide who all was in on the scam.

It became obvious that Cataldo was most likely running the scam alone. It had been going on for years. She had taken in money from everyone she knew and strangers, utilizing GoFundMe, church prayer groups, Facebook, family friends, message boards and straight out begging friends for money. (You can read the original story here and a follow-up column here.)

She had also used her son, telling friends and family that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was in need of a bone marrow transplant. And she had bilked money out of people for “last chance” trips for her with her son — to Disney World and Chattanooga.

In mid-April, fearing what might happen if we confronted Cataldo about the scam, we turned over what we had to the AG’s office and the FBI.

By early May, Cataldo was arrested and her friends were in disbelief. Shortly thereafter, Cataldo admitted to her crimes, and in a number of correspondences with state and federal court judges, she has begged for forgiveness, promised to work to repay what she stole and vowed to pay for her crimes.

Thursday was the first step.

 

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 anti-American American president

Josh Moon

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The American president has refused to defend America.

That is, as far as I can tell, an unprecedented development in American history. Even when delusional conservatives were railing on and on about President Obama, they usually stopped short of seriously complaining that he had sold out the country in deference to a hostile foreign nation.

Because it’s an act so astonishing, so unprecedented that it’s hard to seriously fathom.

And yet, on Monday, there was Trump, standing alongside Vladimir Putin — a man whose 12 military officers were indicted by the American Department of Justice just 72 hours ago for hacking an American election — at a press conference. That brings the total number of Russian citizens indicted by Robert Mueller and his team to 25.

(Or, it did until no. 26 was indicted later on Monday — a woman with deep ties to top GOP brass and a prominent member of the NRA.)

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None of that stopped Trump from meeting with Putin. And it didn’t stop the two from presenting a cozy relationship.

And it didn’t stop the American president from proclaiming that the relationship with Russia — strained for the past four years, he said — got “a lot better about four hours ago.” And it didn’t stop the American president from saying during a press conference on foreign soil, standing side by side with a foreign adversary — a murderous thug who is responsible for the deaths of thousands of his own people — that he had as much faith in the adversary’s words as he does in the American intelligence agencies’ investigation and his own DOJ’s indictment.

It was an utterly deplorable scene.

And one that Republican voters appear too ignorant to understand.

Let me be clear: That is not an assessment of Republicans’ intelligence. It is an assessment of Republicans’ sources of information.

Those sources have left them ignorant of basic facts and completely lost when it comes to details that should be widely known and accepted facts by now.

How badly misled are GOP voters?

Consider this: On Monday — again, just 72 hours after the DOJ announced the hacking indictments — a candidate for Alabama Attorney General, Troy King, a former attorney general in the state, invited and advertised that Trump advisor Roger Stone would be in Alabama to endorse King.

Stone was in Alabama because King’s campaign has taken the temperature of the Alabama GOP voters and determined that such an endorsement would aid King.

This is the same Roger Stone who exchanged messages with one of the most prominent Russian hackers in an attempt to obtain the hacked information. While he wasn’t named in Friday’s indictment, he was all-but-named in Friday’s indictment, as a person “in regular contact with the Trump campaign.”

It is widely believed that charges against Stone are forthcoming. Stone’s finances have already been investigated by Mueller’s team and Stone is on record saying he expects to be indicted.

But somehow, Alabama GOP voters see the guy as a trustworthy source of political advice.

There’s only one possibility for how that can be: Those voters are ignorant of Stone’s transgressions and of the seriousness of the Russian interference in our elections.

Republicans have encapsulated themselves in a bubble. And the only thing that is allowed into that bubble are sources that confirm their already held beliefs. Anything that deviates from those beliefs even slightly — no matter how grounded in reality that information might be — is dismissed as “lib’rul fake news.”

Except … it’s not.

What happened on Monday between Trump and Putin wasn’t fake. The astonishing sellout of this country by its president wasn’t just another of ol’ Trump being Trump.

It was dangerously close to treason — close enough that all of us should be concerned about just why the American president seems to be so beholden to a dictator.

And it’s close enough that a whole bunch of flag-waving, America-first GOP voters should start to wonder why they’re constantly being duped by their chosen leaders.

Seriously, doesn’t ever get old, being embarrassed time and again?

Like, when it turned out that Obama wasn’t behind Benghazi, didn’t you regret the outrage and idiotic Facebook posts. Or when you learned that Hillary Clinton didn’t really sell uranium to Russia, weren’t you red-faced over the way you behaved at Thanksgiving dinner?

All along, us sane people have tried to convey to you that your continued shunning of legitimate news sources could become detrimental to the country.

And now, here we are.

An American president is actively “paling around” with dictators, selling out American law enforcement and lifelong patriots and undermining the American government for personal gain, and you’re making excuses. You’re parroting the orange buffoon and calling it all one grand witch hunt.

You’re helping the witches.

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Opinion | Our duty to refugees

Joey Kennedy

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Anybody who pays attention knows that the world has a refugee crisis.

What they may not realize is that the United States has a refugee crisis, too. Not a crisis of people fleeing the United States because of persecution or threats of ethnic violence, or an unstable government out of control, or one ruled by a dictator in brutal control — though certainly another column could address the dangers of us becoming one of those nations.

No, the refugee crisis we face is one we’re helping create but refusing to help solve. During President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the U.S. government set a goal of accepting at least 100,000 refugees from around the world. After Trump got settled in, fewer than half that number of refugees were allowed here.

Now, those “goals” are referred to as “caps,” and in the current year the United States has set a “cap” of just 45,000 refugees. It’s doubtful even that modest number will be met. One reason the refugee crisis is so bad is that we intentionally don’t do our part.

As a free and wealthy nation, we have an obligation to take in refugees from other countries that are at war with themselves: Syria, Iraq (we broke it), Afghanistan (we can’t fix it), and many of the unstable African nations always seemingly at war.

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Other First World nations are doing what they can; we should be doing even more. We’re the largest of the free, democratic nations in the world. With great power comes great responsibility.

These refugees are not “illegal” immigrants, as xenophobes like to refer to undocumented migrants who come into our country looking for a better life. These are people – good men and women, girls and boys and, yes, babies — who are the targets of ethnic violence or victims of war – many of them the victims of wars we brought brutally to their land.

Deyana Al-Mashhadani is one of these refugees. I met Deyana, now 19, on Thursday during a civil rights tour by refugees under the auspices of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) organization based in New Haven, Conn.

IRIS provides services for hundreds of refugee families. Deyana and 11 other young women visited important civil rights sites in Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama over the past week.

Their pilgrimage was funded completely through private donations. Two Southerners who work for IRIS, Ashley Makar of Birmingham and Laurel McCormack of Georgia, helped put the week-long trip together.

Thursday, I joined the group as it visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the just-opened lynching memorial) and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. The sites are projects of the Equal Justice Initiative. While the National Memorial for Peace and Justice focuses on lynchings across the South of more than 4,000 African-American men, women, and children between 1877 and 1950, the Legacy Museum deals more with enslavement and unfair incarceration of African-Americans throughout our state’s ugly history.

Both visits were emotional experiences for me; I can’t imagine how the dozen young women refugees were feeling as they observed the exhibits and learned the tumultuous history of our region. What memories will their tour dig up? They’ll write about their experience.

But consider Deyana’s history: Born in Iraq, she and her family fled after the 2003 war started – the one started by us. Her family’s Bagdad home was caught in a crossfire between two rival groups. They huddled in their basement as bullets ripped through their home. After that, the Al-Mashhadanis knew if they stayed: “You die,” said Deyana.

In any event, Deyana said, you see “people die in front of you.”

They relocated as refugees to Syria where they lived for eight years until the civil war exploded there. They moved to Turkey, where after three years, they finally were allowed to come to the United States as refugees.

Deyana and her family are among the lucky few. For the most part, Deyana said, she and her family are treated well. Despite all the forced relocations her family endured, Deyana is well educated. She speaks three languages fluently – Arabic, Turkish, and English – and has started college. She is studying biochemistry and hopes for a medical career.

Yet, so many refugees aren’t as fortunate as Deyana and the other young women on the bus to Montgomery Thursday. The women on the trip this week are from Iraq, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo Brazzaville. They are finishing high school or entering college. Another Iraqi, Fatima Al Rashed, 18, is headed to the University of Pennsylvania this fall on a full academic scholarship.

These women will make America a better nation.

They do remember, however, where they come from. And they know, as well, that they probably can never go back.

“If I was in Iraq, I could never continue my education,” Deyana said, emotion teasing her voice. “My life is here.”

Our nation does have great power. Yes, it does. Nobody will deny that.

But do we understand our great responsibility?

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: Primary runoffs next week

Steve Flowers

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Well folks, if you vote in the Republican primary you may want to go back to the polls next week and finish selecting the GOP nominees for several important state offices. If you are a Democrat the only reason you will need to vote on Tuesday is if you have a runoff in a local race and there are very few of those around.

We are still a very red Republican state. There are 29 elected statewide officials in Alabama. All 29 are held by Republicans.  When all the votes are counted in November, that 29 out of 29 figures will more than likely be the same in the Heart of Dixie. The Blue wave has not reached here. There were twice as many Republican voters, 590,000 to 283,000, as Democratic voters on June 5.

In addition to having all 29 state offices held by Republicans, six out of seven of our members of Congress are members of the GOP. That will also remain the same when the dust settles in the fall.

The only contested Congressional race is for the Second District, which encompasses most of the Montgomery River Region, including Elmore and Autauga Counties, coupled with the Wiregrass. It is a very conservative district.  Therefore, it is a Republican seat. The winner of the GOP runoff between Martha Roby and Bobby Bright will be the Congressman. Whichever one is elected will vote consistently conservative with the GOP leadership in Congress.

Roby is on the ropes because she vowed openly, two years ago, that she would not vote for Donald Trump for President.  That unnecessary display of disloyalty has made her very unpopular in the district. Trump has a 90 percent approval rating among Republican primary voters in southeast Alabama. She would have lost two years ago if the primary had been held after her statement. There was an unprecedented number of write in votes against her.  She has been considered very vulnerable since that time.

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National special interests stuck to their script and stayed loyal to the incumbent and loaded her up with Washington money.  She was able to outspend her four male opponents by an over 2 to 1 margin. However, she fell short in the primary garnering about 38 percent. Bobby Bright received 27 percent and is well known and liked in the district. However, President Trump’s endorsement of Roby three weeks ago may have wiped the slate clean for Roby and given her a clear path to reelection.

Winning the Republican nomination for Attorney General and Lt. Governor in Alabama is still pretty much tantamount to election in Alabama, although the Democrats have a viable candidate for Attorney General in young Joseph Siegelman in November. Don Siegelman’s son Joseph along with youthful Tuscaloosa mayor, Walt Maddox, have viable chances of winning as a Democrat in November.

The GOP race for Attorney General has been the best contest in the primary season. Troy King began the race as the favorite and will probably prevail next Tuesday.  There were four formidable horses in this race. King has previously served as Attorney General and therefore was perceived as the incumbent. Bentley appointee Steve Marshall had been a Democratic DA for a while. This one will boil down to who votes.

In a GOP runoff, only the hardcore Republican base will vote. Those voters will not be excited about Steve Marshall who was appointed by Robert Bentley and as late as a few years ago was expediently a Democrat who was appointed by Don Siegelman. In fact, he voted for and contributed to Barack Obama. My guess is that folks will vote for Troy King, a lifelong Republican.

The race for Lt. Governor will be close between Twinkle Cavanaugh and Will Ainsworth. This contest has attracted more attention and money than ever. The odds say that there is a 50-50 chance that whoever wins this contest next Tuesday will ascend to Governor over the next few years. Our current governor moved from Lt. Governor to Governor without being elected. It has happened more than once over the past few decades.

If you vote on Tuesday, you will be in a pool of about 10 to 12 percent of voters. Therefore, if you show up, your vote will be enhanced exponentially.

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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Final strange chapter: Fake cancer scam ends in jail time

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