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Final strange chapter: Fake cancer scam ends in jail time

Josh Moon



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.

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 | Greed is threatening the daycare bill again

Josh Moon



By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

It is happening again.

In the bowels of the Alabama State House, where the rancid sausage of state government is put together, the men are scheming again.

Scheming to kill, or severely weaken, the daycare licensing bill.


The same people are involved: Sen. Larry Stutts, the Alabama Eagle Forum and Sen. Shay Shelnutt.

For the last several days, Rep. Pebblin Warren and other advocates for the daycare bill have been meeting with that group of malcontents, listening to their insane demands and trying to come up with some way to placate this group who will apparently go to the mat to prevent churches from spending the money to properly care for and protect defenseless children.

The bill is expected to be on the Senate floor Thursday, but its fate is, at this point, unknown. Which is, quite honestly, astonishing.

Even for this group, the blatant bending to the almighty dollar in this instance is breathtaking.

In case you’ve forgotten what’s being proposed here, let me provide a quick refresher: Warren’s bill would force church-affiliated daycares to mostly follow the same rules and regulations as non-church daycares.

That’s it.

There’s nothing sneaky. No one wants to force the church daycares to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

There’s a specific provision within the bill that makes it clear that the guidelines being imposed relate entirely to the safety of the children and that the state will not get involved with curriculum.

But that’s not really a problem. And this small band of malcontents know it.

This is about money.

That’s what it’s always about in Alabama. Even when the people chasing that dollar routinely invoke the name of a man who warned repeatedly of the dangers of valuing money over people.

These daycares churn out a profit for the churches. And because they’re not beholden to the same guidelines as non-church daycares, they can often churn out a huge profit.

The math is pretty easy. If a church daycare and a non-church daycare each have 20 kids enrolled, but the non-church daycare is required to employ four, trained workers to watch those kids, while the church daycare employs just Bill, a guy who had a few hours to kill today, guess which one makes more money.

But you know, that’s not really a fair example. Because it makes Bill sound semi-competent. And in some cases, the employees, and the administrators, of these “church daycares” are anything but competent, respectable people.

You might recall that we had this debate last year. This same group of people managed to kill the daycare bill.

Less than two months after they did so, a 5-year-old child in Mobile was dead.

Because the “church daycare” he attended didn’t run a basic background check on the person driving the daycare van. Had it, it would have learned that its employee had a long criminal record.

Instead, the child was left to suffocate and die in scorching hot van and his small, lifeless body was dumped in some random front yard.

See, that’s the sort of thing that licensing prevents.

It also prevents the unintentional poisoning of children (yep, that happened), the burning of children by workers smoking cigarettes too close to them (happened), the near death of dozens of children from extreme food poisoning (happened) and the deaths of children in a fire-trap daycare (happened).

We all know what the right thing is here. And in moments when they’re not beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists, Alabama’s lawmakers let you know that they also know what’s right.

Gov. Kay Ivey did so last August, shortly after the death of the 5-year-old in Mobile. When asked if all church daycares should be regulated, Ivey said she “strongly believes” that all daycares should be licensed by the state.

But that was before campaign season. Before the church-backed lobbying groups and PACs got involved.

These days, Ivey is less forceful. Sources told APR that Ivey told a group of lawmakers that she would take no position on the bill.

When I asked her office directly what her position is, “strongly believes” all daycares should be state licensed morphed into … some other words.

Governor Ivey remains in favor of improved guidelines for day care facilities in Alabama,” the statement from her office read. “She believes more must be done to protect our children and that it is essential we have quality day care staff, rendering quality service.”

It is essential.

Unfortunately, with our weak state leadership — from the governor’s office on down — bending to the call of money, thousands of Alabama are unlikely to experience that essential service.

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Opinion | Active shooter on campus! Wasp spray may save us

Joey Kennedy



By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter

I spent 90 minutes Tuesday afternoon in UAB’s Heritage Hall learning how to respond to an active shooter on campus.

You know, some deranged individual out to cause as much mayhem has he can, shooting and killing and shooting. And killing.

Yeah, it’s sad. But it’s today’s reality.


I teach English at UAB. I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I love it.

My first semester of teaching was September 2001. Two weeks into the semester, terrorists flew passenger jets into the Trade Towers in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington, into the ground in Pennsylvania.

I truly had no idea what I was doing, in front of my class at UAB that first semester in 2001. And two weeks into it, I had 9/11.

I didn’t count absences on that Sept. 11. We coped. We endured. We hurt. We still hurt.

In the 18 years I’ve been a part-time English teacher at UAB, we’ve endured many horrible shootings, many terror attacks.

Columbine happened two years before I started teaching. But since then, there have been so many shootings. Too many shootings to list, too many shootings to name.

But not so many that some can’t be named. Like the 2007 massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech University, where a senior student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others.

Some of these shootings are too close to home, like the 2010 catastrophe at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where 44-year-old biology professor Amy Bishop killed the chairman of the biology department and others.

And more school shootings, many other school shootings, too many other school shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. Twenty 6- and 7-year-old children died that day, as well as six members of the school’s staff.

Since Sandy Hook, there are yet other shootings – not just school shootings, either, though there have been plenty of those. In Charleston at a church. In Orlando at a nightclub. In Las Vegas at a concert.

And, yet, Congress, dominated by NRA Republicans, refuses to act. Refuses to do what it can to make us more safe.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, in Parkland, Fla., a few weeks ago, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 17 students and adults were gunned down. Others were injured.

A few weeks ago. The students there aren’t staying quiet. They’ve started the #NeverAgain movement, and on March 24 in Birmingham, there will be a rally at Railroad Park and a march through Birmingham to encourage – implore – our political leaders to do something.


So here I am, an English instructor at UAB, for 18 years now, sitting in a classroom to receive instruction on how to respond to an active shooter on campus. There’s even a pamphlet: “UAB Police Active Shooter Guide.”

A pamphlet.

It’s where we are, as a nation, where we are today. I praise UAB officials and campus police for offering the class. When I received the message from the dean that the classes were available, I wanted to cry. Hell, I did cry.

How did we get here? Where, instead of teaching the Rhetorical Triangle, I’m worrying about barricading a door or making sure my students evacuate the building before being gunned down by a nut.

What stunned me before my active shooter class even started was that, since 2014, UAB Police officials have conducted nearly 200 such active shooter response classes.

This was my first.

And I learned that wasp spray might be my best weapon. We were told that even trained officers, police officers who go to shooting ranges, work under stressful conditions, patrol and police in the real world, miss 70 percent to 80 percent of the time they fire their weapons.

So, we’re told, that distracting the shooter may be our best option, if we can’t high-tail-it out of our building to a safer place.

Barricade the doors with chairs and desks and filing cabinets. But if the shooter gets in, distract him by throwing stuff at him. Swarm him. Maybe, I decided, I would carry the wasp spray and have it handy if the shooter looked my way. Hornet poison certainly will hurt, if you aim it right.

And an AR-15 will kill, even if you aim it wrong.

Yet, I mainly want to teach my students how to negotiate a college essay or convince them that Ernest Hemingway, the bastard that he was, is the best short story writer of the 20th century.

I want to encourage my students to read and enjoy words. I want them to appreciate Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” especially when Edna takes off her clothes and swims deep into the Gulf of Mexico to claim her independence.

I want my students to celebrate a good semester, to rejoice and appreciate their A or B or C.

I don’t want to keep wasp spray in my book bag. But I guess I will.

Because this is now. And, frankly, now sucks.

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

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Opinion | Montgomery reappoints disgraced judge, needs new leadership

Josh Moon



By Josh Moon

Alabama Political Reporter

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard shouldn’t go to prison.

Nope. His sentence should be commuted and he should be returned to his lofty position atop the Alabama House, because the things he did, while illegal, were not things that he invented and he wasn’t alone in doing those things.


Lots of lawmakers before him were using their offices for personal gain. Lots of lawmakers were involved in the schemes, or schemes very similar, for which Hubbard was convicted of 12 felonies.

So, set the man free and let him reign over the Legislature once again.

That’s stupid, right?

No one believes that the above argument — that others were doing it, so what’s the big deal? — is an argument that holds any real weight with adults, right? It’s an elementary schooler’s argument, right?

Well, apparently y’all haven’t met the Montgomery City Council and Mayor Todd Strange.

Because if their friends were jumping off bridges, they would be right with them.

On Tuesday, despite vocal disagreement from numerous citizens — and not a single citizen speaking in favor of it — the council accepted the mayor’s reappointment of Judge Lester Hayes to the Montgomery Municipal Court.

If you’re unfamiliar with Hayes, you should be aware that he’s quite unique in Alabama, a state that goes to great lengths to never, ever punish or even investigate most judges. Hayes was not only investigated, he was removed from the bench in 2016.

That decision by the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) followed a number of complaints filed against him over his continued jailing of indigent defendants, and also because of his use of a private probation company contracted with the City of Montgomery to extract pennies from the penniless.

The JIC called the findings against Hayes — that he violated TEN! different canons of judicial ethics — “very troubling” and “serious.”

And they were.

Because in addition to violating those canons, Hayes also blatantly violated Alabama law when he locked up poor people without offering them a chance to explain their situation or present evidence of indigency.

And he continued to do this, over and over, despite complaints from attorneys in town, despite threats of lawsuits from the Southern Poverty Law Center, despite the pleas of poor people and despite his responsibility to know and uphold the laws of this state.

And Hayes stopped this practice, not out of some deep concern for the people of Montgomery or out of a crisis of conscience, but because he and the city courts were sued on three separate occasions in federal court.

And to prove there was zero remorse on his part, Hayes illegally took a legal job with the City of Montgomery and was later forced by the JIC to repay the city his salary.  

But on Tuesday, none of that mattered to the mayor and seven of the Montgomery City Council members who voted to reappoint Hayes to the bench. (Only councilman Tracy Larkin voted against Hayes.)

Their childlike reasoning: Hayes wasn’t the only judge to lock up poor people, and he didn’t start the practice.

For normal adults, such a statement would be the start of a process to remove all of the judges who violated the laws so blatantly. Because while the council spoke at great length of how such practices were common in Alabama and in other cities, it is more common that such practices are uncommon.

Thousands of American cities have managed to conduct business without operating debtors’ prisons. They either never had them, recognizing their cruelty and uselessness, or they voluntarily stopped them without court intervention.

But Montgomery is apparently led by a different group of people.

That group was unconcerned that Hayes had admitted in legal filings to treating the citizens that the council are supposed to represent unfairly and cruelly. That group of city leaders apparently believe it’s OK if judges get caught up in an illegal conspiracy to improperly jail citizens. That leadership group accepted a juvenile excuse and ignored their constituents.

So maybe Les Hayes isn’t the real problem here.

Maybe Montgomery needs new leadership.

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Final strange chapter: Fake cancer scam ends in jail time

by Josh Moon Read Time: 3 min