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Former Anniston Star reporters say paper’s former publisher and current chairman sexually assaulted them

Eddie Burkhalter

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By Eddie Burkhalter
Special to the Alabama Political Reporter

As news articles broke throughout 2017 of men and women coming forward, sometimes decades afterward, to say they’d been sexually assaulted and harassed, former Anniston Star reporters took notice.

Some of these former female Star reporters say H. Brandt Ayers, the paper’s former publisher and current chairman of the board of Consolidated Publishing, which owns The Star and five other newspapers, assaulted them decades ago.

Other staff members also recall the incidents. Most of them didn’t see them take place but were aware of them.

Veronica Pike Kennedy, one of those former Star reporters, said that in February 1975, she was forcefully spanked by Ayers in the newsroom.

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Ayers, in a reply Sunday afternoon to questions emailed to him Friday about the incidents, wrote, “I have no memory of the alleged incidents.”

Ayers, the son of The Star’s founder, Harry Ayers, took over as publisher of the company’s flagship daily newspaper in 1969, remaining in that position until 2016. Also, Consolidated Publishing has a relationship with the University of Alabama’s Graduate school of Journalism, which sends between five and seven young interns to The Star newsroom each summer to work alongside staff writers and editors.

Speaking of her own incident, Kennedy said it happened early on a Saturday, “so I was usually completely alone in the mornings.”

Kennedy said Ayers came into the newsroom, handed her a piece of writing and said, “I want you to read this. This is a fine piece of writing. I’ll come back in a little while, and you can tell me what you think.”

“When he came back, I said, ‘This is really very well written. Who did it?’” Kennedy said, adding that she knew Ayers had written it, and it was to be his Sunday editorial. “He said ‘Oh, you’re being a bad girl. I’m going to have to spank you,’” Kennedy recalled.

“I just thought he was kidding, but he started coming around the desk, and I grabbed onto the seat of my desk chair with both hands as tight as I could.”

Kennedy said Ayers picked up the chair with her in it, wrested it out from under her, bent her over the desk behind and spanked her hard 18 times with a metal pica pole, leaving marks. Prior to digital publishing, pica poles were used as rulers extensively by newspaper designers and editors.

“I was fighting him the whole time. Trying to kick him. Bite him. Scratch him. Whatever I could do,” Kennedy said.

Then, Kennedy said Ayers told her, “Well, that ought to teach you to not be a bad girl.”

While Kennedy was usually alone in the newsroom early on Saturday mornings, that was not the case that particular morning. Mike Stamler had just been hired as a Star reporter earlier that month and was in a corner of the newsroom when Stamler said Ayers walked in.

Stamler, a retired press office director for the U.S. Small Business Administration, said he didn’t think much of Ayers appearing in the newsroom until he saw Ayers begin to spank the young reporter.

“After that, I was kind of stunned. That’s not something you expect to see when you’re that age,” Stamler said.

Stamler said he didn’t discuss the incident immediately afterward, but when other reporters began talking about Ayers spanking reporters, he said he described what he saw and that “people would talk about other ones. It was pretty much common knowledge among the reporters.”

Kennedy recalls crying in the bathroom after the incident and trying to calm down.

“I was panicking. I didn’t know what to do. I just had to pull myself together because I could lose my job,” Kennedy said.

Another former female Star reporter, who declined to be named because of the public nature of her current job, described being spanked by Ayers while alone in his office not long after she started at the paper in the fall of 1975.

The woman said Ayers called her to his office during lunch, when the newsroom was largely empty, and told her he was upset that she’d missed a meeting that he said should have been covered.

“All along, I kind of just thought he was trying to scare me. I didn’t think this was real,” the woman said. She said Ayers spanked her and that “I just burst into tears. I was totally humiliated.”

“He said, ‘you need to go in my bathroom and clean up before you leave,’” she recalled.

A few moments after the incident, the woman said she called her then-boyfriend to tell him about what had happened. The boyfriend, now her husband, said he remembers getting that call.

“It was a traumatic experience for her, and we just didn’t know what to do or say,” her husband said.

When news accounts began appearing this year with stories of abuse that many had kept secret for decades, the husband said he and his wife thought of The Star.

“It was something that came back into our minds immediately,” he said. “We wondered whether or not this story would come to light, because we know that she was not the only victim.”

Kennedy and several other former reporters interviewed also said the woman told them what had occurred to her shortly after it happened.

Trisha O’Connor, who worked at The Star as a reporter and editor from 1973 to 1979, recalled an incident involving her friend and fellow reporter, Wendy Sigal.

Sigal, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, came to The Star in November 1973 from The Washington Post, where she had been a general assignment and crime reporter.

O’Connor, now a Journalist/Media Executive-in-Residence at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, and a retired editor of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, SC., said she can’t recall precisely when the incident occurred, but thinks it was about a year after Sigal started at The Star. Sigal’s last two stories in The Star were published July 7, 1974, according to newspaper archives.

“She was in her apartment and hadn’t been coming to work,” O’Connor said of Sigal. “I got a call from her saying that Brandy had just been there. She was hysterical, so I immediately went over to see about her.” O’Connor referred to Ayers by his nickname, Brandy.

O’Connor said that when she arrived at Sigal’s Anniston apartment, her friend said Ayers had come to her apartment and told Sigal, “You’ve been bad,” and spanked her.

O’Connor said shortly after the incident, she and former Star editor, John Childs, learned that Sigal’s family members had come to Anniston, and both O’Connor and Childs went to meet them at the Downtowner motel and restaurant in Anniston. O’Connor said that when she and Childs arrived, Ayers and his wife, Josephine, were with Sigal’s family member.

O’Connor said she and Childs attempted to explain to the Sigals that Wendy Sigal was not fabricating the incident at her apartment, but that doing so in the presence of the Ayerses made that task difficult, she said.

Soon after, Sigal left Anniston, O’Connor said. She believes her family took her away, but is uncertain where. O’Connor and others have since searched for Sigal, but haven’t been able to locate her. This reporter’s efforts to find Sigal and contact her family members were also unsuccessful.

O’Connor, Kennedy, and the other female reporter in this article said female reporters discussed these matters frequently among themselves at the time, all three said in separate interviews. Kennedy said one other female Star employee told Kennedy that she, too, was spanked by Ayers.

Attempts to contact some of the other women were unsuccessful. Attempts to locate contact information for still others were unsuccessful.

In an email Friday to Ayers, and to The Star managing editor, Ben Cunningham, and editor and publisher, Bob Davis, Ayers was asked to confirm whether the separate incidents in this article involving the women were true. He was also asked whether he plans to remain chairman of the Consolidated Publishing Board, among other questions.

“Though the writer has not done me the courtesy of calling me with a direct question, I will say that I have no memory of the alleged incidents,” Ayers replied in an email Sunday afternoon. “Of course I intend to remain as Chairman of this company which has been the central mission of my family for three generations.”

In a 2006 civil lawsuit, unrelated to the incident cited in this article, filed by a former Star advertising employee against Consolidated Publishing, the topic of Ayers and spanking came up twice.

In that lawsuit, the employee, Sharon Rutherford, charged sexual misconduct on the part of a supervisor, not Ayers.

In a deposition in the suit, Rutherford recalled Ayers attending a birthday party celebration for a female Star employee, held at the paper, and that “he wanted to give her a little spanking. He wanted to give her a little birthday spanking,” according to court records.

Rutherford testified that the woman didn’t appreciate Ayers attempt to spank her, and that she ran away to another man in the room “to help her.”

James Ayer’s Jr., an attorney representing Consolidated Publishing in the suit, asked Rutherford if she knew of any other sexual affairs that took place at the company, other than the one connected to the suit. Rutherford replied that Ayers “loved to spank the little young girls. That was his thing.”

Rutherford went on to testify that she’d heard from a Star editor that Ayers spanked “Wendy Seigel,” apparently misspelling Sigal’s name, and then Rutherford referenced the name of the same former reporter quoted in this article, who described being attacked by Ayers in his office for missing a meeting.

Rutherford said former Star editor John Childs told her Ayers wanted to commit Sigal to a mental institution, but that Childs intervened and called Sigal’s brother, asking him to help.

Ayers, in a deposition, was asked about Sigal and how she came to the Star. Ayers replied that The Washington Post sent her down to Anniston “to see if we couldn’t develop her skills as a reporter.”

Asked by the plaintiff’s attorney, Candis McGowan, whether there was ever a matter involving a reporter and her parents threatening to sue The Star over some inappropriate touching, Ayers replied, “That didn’t come to me.”

Asked later during the deposition if an employee had ever complained that Ayers had inappropriately touched them or made an inappropriate sexual comment, Ayers said “not formally, no.”

“Informally?” McGowan asked Ayers.

“Possibly,” Ayers said. “Back in the dim ages.”

Attempts to contact John Childs were unsuccessful.

Dennis Love was a reporter and columnist at The Star from 1977 to 1978 and again from 1981 to 1984. Love is the author of “My City Was Gone: One American Town’s Toxic Secret, Its Angry Band of Locals, and a $700 Million Day in Court,” which chronicles Anniston’s struggles with toxic PCB contamination.

Love said that he never saw Ayers spank a woman, but that three female reporters told him they’d been spanked by Ayers. He declined to name two of them without their permissions but said that Kennedy was among them.

“And I certainly believed them. It was certainly real,” Love said.

Love described The Star at that time as a place that attracted quality reporters who practiced good journalism and that people respected Ayers and his vision for the paper.

“This was at a time when the paper was at a high-water mark. We were doing a lot of great work,” Love said. “Time magazine named the paper one of the best small dailies in the country.”

When asked how these incidents stayed largely a secret for so long, Love said it could be because the act itself “is just such an embarrassing and humiliating and traumatic thing for a victim to go through, and I can certainly understand why there would be reluctance to come forward or to try to carry that into battle.”

And Love said he thinks that there was just never a moment when people felt safe enough to come forward, but Love said that when news reports of victims doing so years afterward continued to break, he immediately thought of The Star.

Love said that at the time, for him and others, “It was like one of shock, and I think unfortunately most of us were cowards. I think I certainly was.”

“This was some time ago, and it would be easy to say, ‘It was in a different time and place,’ but that’s not right,” Love said.

In his own words, Ayers views on spanking appeared in his own writing, in his editorials and in his autobiography.

“It infuriated me,” Kennedy said of reading passages in Ayers’ 2013 memoir, titled In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Liberal Southerner.

In the two passages, Ayers wrote that in the 1940s, spanking “was as American and Southern as fried chicken on Sundays,” and that the first time he met his wife-to-be, he’d angrily made a comment “not calculated to endear me, ‘If I knew you better, I’d spank you.”

Recalling his childhood and a young neighbor girl named Lyda, Ayers wrote, “Anniston for me was still an idyll of remembered Saturday afternoons, the deadness of the mummy at Carnegie Library, the fumbled kiss I gave Lyda by the fig tree and the time Lloyd and I chased and spanked her in the backyard.”

In a May 15, 1975, editorial, Ayers railed against a column by journalist Ellen Goodman in which she criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed teachers to spank students. Ayers wrote of a study that showed a majority of southern parents approved of spanking, and that many of them “probably would say that Ms. Goodman’s perspective on life would have been improved if she’s had a few good spankings when she was a child. Note the approving modifier, Good.”

“A child quickly forgets a smarting bottom but will be scarred for life by the cold, empty, pitiless abuse of neglect,” Ayers wrote.

The former reporter who described herself being attacked by Ayers in his office said that she decided to speak up now “because I think there are a lot of young girls out there that are in positions that I was in who need a voice, and that it’s not okay.”

“When that ‘Me too’ campaign came up I really wanted to put ‘me too’ but I didn’t,” she said. “My children are grown up, and I had never told them.”

But she did finally tell her adult children, just before agreeing to speak to this reporter about her story. Her daughter, who is 25 and just a little older than she was when she said Ayers spanked her, burst into tears, “Even knowing that was something that happened to me 40 years ago.”

She described what happened to her as “humiliating” and that she didn’t know how to react and cope.

“I didn’t have the strength at that time to say, ‘what do you think you’re doing?’” she said. “But I think today, sometimes secrets are meant to be exposed and people have to be accountable.”

For Kennedy as well, it was those many news accounts that prompted her to open up, although she had wanted to for years but never managed to do so. She and her husband, Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial writer, Joey Kennedy, talked about her attack, and she agreed that he should write about it.

Joey Kennedy’s first column on the matter appeared on the Alabama Political Reporter website on Nov. 16. The column didn’t identify Ayers by name but described his wife’s attack. He wrote about it again on Dec. 28 and did name Ayers as the publisher who assaulted his wife.

Kennedy himself was a reporter at The Star in the 1970s and wrote in the later column, “Thank God for #metoo in 2017. Now, women can speak out, and not be afraid their remembrances will simply be discarded.”

“It has stayed with me to this day,” Kennedy said of that day.

The Star was, and is, a fine newspaper, Kennedy said, but there’s also a hidden thread of evil there, and that speaking out now “is about finally getting some justice.”

Burkhalter resigned as an Anniston Star staff writer on Nov. 21, 2017.

 

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House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.

The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”

Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.

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The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.

Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.

Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.

The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.

Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.

The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.

Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.

The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.

SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.

Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”

State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”

The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.

The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.

The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.

The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.

Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.

SB185 passed 101-0.

Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.

Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1  for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.

SB215 passed the House 87-0.

The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.

State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.

SB231 passed 87-2.

The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.

The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.

The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.

Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.

Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.

Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.

 

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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.

Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.

Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.

The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.

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Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.

Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.

Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.

Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.

Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.

Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.

The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.

Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.

It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.

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In Case You Missed It

Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.

Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.

Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.

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Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.

Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.

Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.

The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.

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Former Anniston Star reporters say paper’s former publisher and current chairman sexually assaulted them

by Eddie Burkhalter Read Time: 14 min
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