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Bill Britt

Opinion | Prison healthcare contract could be a fool’s errand

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Whether through ignorance, graft or just an unwillingness to look past the second ripple in the pond, the state’s current plan to address the prison healthcare crisis is a boondoggle.

That’s where the Alabama Department of Corrections is with its attempt to secure a new contractor to provide medical and mental health services for state inmates.

It’s time to scrap the current process and start over or risk embroiling Governor Kay Ivey’s administration in an unnecessary scandal in an election year.

The department’s actions, so far, have generated far more questions than answers. Chief among them: Why did the Department of Corrections decide to pursue a contract with Wexford Health Sources, despite its dubious and disturbing conduct in other states?

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Wexford has been sued by the Mississippi attorney general, who is asking the company to repay $294 million it allegedly gained as a participant in a bribery scandal that led to criminal charges against Mississippi’s former prison commissioner and a former consultant for Wexford.

And this is not the only thing that has gone awry.

The Department of Corrections says it plans to have the Wexford contract up and running by April 1. Is the date a cruel irony for tempting the fates of political destiny or just happenstance?

Just this past week, the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee refused to consider a $30 million supplemental appropriation, which the Department of Corrections says it needs to pay for Wexford’s services.

Also this last week, court proceedings continued before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson about the current quality of the state’s mental health care.

While it’s abundantly clear the state will be required to improve services, the extent of the court-ordered remedies is still up in the air. Why is the state rushing to lock in a new contract when it doesn’t yet fully understand what terms the court may impose with regard to inmates’ future care?

From the beginning, sources close to this process have told APR the fear has been that Wexford would submit a “lowball” bid to get Alabama’s business – and then try to bump up the price later to meet minimum standards for care.

That’s a valid concern, but there are many others about how well this company was vetted and how it was selected.

Did a lawyer named Jon Ozmint in South Carolina lobby for the Alabama contract, and if so, should he have registered here as a lobbyist?

Why did Alabama brush aside the serious questions raised about Wexford’s conduct in Mississippi? The attorney general’s lawsuit directly accuses the company of having a “backroom” relationship with the state’s former prison commissioner, funneling bribes and kickbacks to him through a consultant.

Why did the state ignore other red flags about Wexford’s performance in other states?

As APR has previously reported: Under Wexford’s management in the Indiana prison system, staffing levels fell short of requirements, services were backlogged and more than 8,000 doses of a frequently abused pain medication went missing, according to press reports.

In Illinois, Wexford’s work has been criticized, with a court monitor pointing to “grossly insufficient and extremely poor quality of psychiatric services.”

Since becoming Governor, Kay Ivey has, with considerable success, portrayed herself as a careful, steady administrator who makes good decisions and avoids political pitfalls.

Would it not be prudent for the governor to take a step back before her staff risks getting her embroiled in controversies like STARRS, CARES, eStart or the other ill-considered contracts of the past?

Facing an election is no time to champion another hasty project that ends up costing Alabama taxpayers millions of dollars with precious little to show for it.

Scrapping all bids for prison healthcare contracts for now while waiting for more guidance from the federal court would seem like the smart course of action. For a process-oriented governor like Ivey, doing nothing is perhaps the hardest thing to do. In an election season with unforeseen difficulties, Ivey’s staffers should be reluctant to hitch the bosses’ wagon to a troubled company like Wexford.

Suspect deals involving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are the very things that can drive a campaign dangerously off course. Even now, political operatives are hard at work to undermine her election. A contract with Wexford, given the company’s recent scandalous headlines, could be just the right fodder for negative campaign ads.

In policy matters, there are times when inaction is a necessary evil. Would it not be wise to wait rather than allowing a cabinet member or others in Gov. Ivey’s administration to push her into another prison debacle like the one that surrounded disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million scheme to build super-max prisons?

There is presently no reasonable explanation for pushing ahead with Wexford’s contract while the Mississippi case is still pending.

It’s becoming more and more evident that trying to push this contract to fruition by April 1 would be the ultimate April Fool’s joke – and the joke would be on Gov. Ivey and the taxpayers of Alabama.

It is simply a fool’s errand.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Three cheers for cheaters, conmen and crooks

Bill Britt

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Lobbyists and others representing special interests give millions to lawmakers in the form of campaign contributions, and it doesn’t even matter if they are legally or ethically right; they are a must.

Not only are these contributions acceptable and expected, in many cases, it is demanded with valued treats.

With millions in contributions, lobbyists and other entities with business before the state are, in fact, buying favors from an elected official and in turn, many of these so-called public servants reciprocate with favorable legislation and other goods not readily available to those who don’t pony up.

What is obvious is there is a pervasive give-to-get mentality that infects much of Montgomery.

A recent email sent by political consultant Brent Buchanan on behalf of Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed makes it clear leadership is watching who plays ball and who doesn’t.

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Fundraiser or shakedown?

Buchanan is not only a paid operative for state Senate Republicans, but he is also Gov. Kay Ivey’s campaign manager; therefore, his words matter because of who he represents.

Those close to Marsh and Reed think it’s doubtful they approved Buchanan’s indiscreet warning – that money is expected from lobbyists and other interests. But this attitude has become so common under Republican rule over the last eight years that it passes for normal behavior.

Pay-to-play or be sidelined is understood.

It’s tiresome to recall how in 2010, Republicans championed ethics and campaign finance reform only to now have abandoned any pretense of upholding them.

Under the guise of reform, they intend to gut current ethics statutes like a feral hog during the upcoming legislative session. Even now, holding the Republican-appointed Ethics Commission to the strict letter of campaign finance laws has become such a joke that Secretary of State John Merrill is publicly calling out the commission for not doing its job.

Opinion | Alabamians need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws

Amazingly, the state’s Republican Party continues to support it’s attorney general nominee, who has clearly violated the state campaign finance laws by blatantly accepting  $735,000 in contributions that are prohibited under the law.

Current Attorney General Steve Marshall, an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, accepted unlawful contributions from an out-of-state special interest and no one says a word – not the state’s Ethics Commission’s executive director, not the governor or the Republican Party chair.

Add these to what amounts to legal extortion and bribery and a vivid picture emerges of a Republican majority that doesn’t care about the rule of law or civil propriety.

What is the message here?

Shakedowns are fine as long as it’s for our team.

Cheating is okay as long as it’s our team that wins.

Moral character, honesty of purpose and humility of service be damned,

Those who revere power over principle may prosper but never for long where there are individuals who value integrity over gain.

The Republican Party in Alabama used to stand for something, now it seems to cheer for cheaters, conmen and crooks, but perhaps someday it will come back to its senses.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Time for an ethics champion to step forward

Bill Britt

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A majority of Alabama voters are “very concerned” about government corruption and ethics, however, Republicans who once championed strong ethics laws have retrenched or given up the fight altogether.

Our state needs a champion who will lead the battle to keep the state’s ethics laws strong: a singular individual with the courage to do what others lack even the nerve to say.

When the Alabama Republican Party drafted its first ever statewide party platform in August, the state’s ethics laws were not listed among its priorities.

Likewise, Republican leadership in the state Legislature and the Attorney General’s Office have abandoned the ethics reforms established in 2010.

Most tellingly, on the day that the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s 12 felony convictions for violating the state’s ethics laws. Attorney General Steve Marshall was at the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission where he told gathered reporters that the court’s opinion made it clear why the commission’s work was so important.

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What the court actually did was perform a political magic trick that at once upholds 11 counts of Hubbard’s conviction while creating doubt on who is a principal and what constitutes a conflict of interest while making it legal for a lawmaker to vote on legislation while getting paid to do so by an outside interest.

The court satisfied the wishes of big Republican donors, just like Marshall, whose campaign is being heavily funded by those who want Hubbard to go free or at the very least be the last man in a suit to ever be charged under the 2010 ethics reform.

Another magic trick is naming a commission designed to water down the current ethics statutes a “Reform and Clarification Commission.” The commission’s sole purpose is to give political cover to those who wish to overturn rules that keep public officials from using their office for personal gain or receiving lavish perks from lobbyists.

A June report published by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows there is broad agreement among Alabama voters about what issues are important to them as the state nears a statewide election in November.

As first noted by APR’s Chip Brownlee, the report is the result of a survey PARCA conducted, polling Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and issues that are concerning to them. Based on the responses to the survey, PARCA identified and ranked voters’ top 10 critical issues – ethics and corruption rank the third top concern.

Alabama voters’ priorities: Education, healthcare and government ethics

Since Hubbard was indicted nearly four years ago for violating state’s ethics laws, his allies and those who wish to avoid his fate have deployed a variety of tactics to undermine the State’s Ethics Act.

Over the last several years, efforts to gut current laws have failed, but the efforts by the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission are  straight-out rewrites without a presence of righteousness.

The state’s ethics laws do not need to be reformed and clarified; they need to be clarified and strengthened – there is a critical difference.

But unless a champion steps forward, the people be damned. They may be “very concerned” about government corruption and ethics, but the Republican Party can’t be bothered to even mention it, lawmakers want to overturn the laws, and the attorney general – he’s just happy corrupt former Gov. Robert Bentley gave him a job and big monied donors like having an AG for a lapdog.

Justice awaits a champion.

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Bill Britt

Labor Day’s forgotten meaning still hotly debated

Bill Britt

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Labor Day is intended to be a tribute to the labor movement and, “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

Today, in Republican-dominated states, labor unions are seen as an enemy to free enterprise.

David Macaray writing for CounterPunch suggests it’s not the Republican Party that’s labor’s most dangerous adversary, but “Labor’s arch-enemy—and a truly dangerous enemy it is—happens to be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

Under partisan-Republican control the Business Council of Alabama has worked to marginalize organized labor’s influence in the State House and Governor’s Office.

Not long ago, Gov. Kay Ivey, while speaking at a labor conference, touted the state’s commitment as a staunch right-to-work state, a fact not welcomed by most of individuals present.

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Alabama became a right-to-work state by statute on Friday, Aug. 28, 1953. Nearly 65 years later, the state’s Republican lawmakers successfully pushed a ballot measure adding a right-to-work provision to the state constitution. Why after 65 years the state needed to pass a constitutional amendment to bolster a law already on the books was politics, not policy. However, the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment.

According to the National Right to Work Committee, the justification for right-to-work legislation is that, “No worker should be forced to join or pay dues to a labor union in order to get or keep a job.”

As one might imagine, labor organizations see right-to-work policies as something much different than their counterparts.

“’Right to work’ is the name for a policy designed to take away rights from working people,” according to the AFL-CIO. “The real purpose of right to work laws is to tilt the balance toward big corporations and further rig the system at the expense of working families. These laws make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

“A lot of the good things we enjoy in this country today were hard won at the bargaining table where labors leaders stood for worker’s rights,” said Bren Riley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, which through it’s 37 International Affiliates represents about 60,000 working Alabamians.

Labor organizations in the state represent approximately 138,000 members or roughly 7.4 percent of the workforce.

While Alabama has recently experienced a rise in employment, like many states and the nation as a whole, wage-growth is stagnant.

“The federal minimum wage has languished at $7.25 for almost a decade now,” according to Think Progress. “Even as local governments are trying to pass $15 minimum wage bills, the Republican party continually opposes such measures, in some cases using state-house majorities to impede legislation.”

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an article by Emily Q. Hazzard, “It doesn’t matter if unemployment’s at 3.9 percent if their wages are low. They don’t have health care, and they can’t afford to send their kids to school.”

The City of Birmingham voted to increase its minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 in Feb. 2016. The state Legislature immediately took action to block the wage increase by passing a law that prevented, “local governmental entities from requiring minimum leave, wages, or other benefits for employees.” The statute further established that only the state had the authority to “establish uniform employment policies and regulations.”

Court allows Birmingham minimum wage lawsuit to move forward

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in June that a lawsuit that challenges the state’s actions to nullify the City of Birmingham minimum wage ordinance may go forward. If successful, Birmingham might upend the balance of power that has long favored the state Legislature and its White majority said those who favoring the wage increase.

During her first year in office, Gov. Ivey has doggedly focused on job growth in the state, and according to labor statistics, her efforts are paying dividends.

Like many other holidays, Labor Day now has mixed meanings. For many Alabamians, it’s the end of summer, the beginning of political nonsense, but most importantly, the start of football season – something we can all enjoy.

But for a moment, some will remember the good brought about by the once honored labor movement; others still curse its existence.

 

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Bill Britt

OPINION | “Criminal” Court of Appeals does the Devil’s bidding

Bill Britt

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Astonishingly, the Court of Criminal Appeals was able to uphold 11 counts of former Speaker Mike Hubbard’s 12 count conviction while opening a door for the state’s ethics act to be gutted by the Legislature to make sure Hubbard is the last public official held criminally liable under existing laws.

That is the hard truth of what is found in the opinion handed down by the Court of Criminal Appeals nearly two years after Hubbard’s conviction and four years after his indictment.

Justice Samuel Welch wrote the opinion and confirmed by Judges J. Elizabeth Kellum, Liles C. Burke and J. Michael Joiner is a politically-motivated legal slight-of-hand that at once upholds 11 counts of Hubbard’s conviction while creating doubt on who is a principal, what constitutes a conflict of interest while making it legal for a lawmaker to vote on legislation while getting paid to do so by an outside interest.

Now it is clear why it took Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner nearly two years to render a verdict in Hubbard’s appeal; they needed time to get past the primary election season to make sure there would be no political blow-back on Republican elites and officeholders.

Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner show just how far they were willing to go to do the Devil’s bidding in their torturous augment to reverse count 5.

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In count 5, the Lee County Jury found that Hubbard voted for legislation with a conflict of interest because it benefited his paying client, American Pharmacy Cooperative Inc.

IN-DEPTH | Court of Appeals affirms all but one of Hubbard’s convictions

During the 2013 legislative session, Hubbard had language inserted in the Medicaid portion of the General Fund Budget that would have effectively given APCI a monopoly over the State’s Medicaid prescription contracts. APCI paid Hubbard $5,000.00 a month for “consulting,” while serving as Speaker of the House.

Hubbard voted for the General Fund Budget that contained the monopoly for APCI with full knowledge he was doing something wrong.

In their reversal, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner mysteriously found that the ethics statute failed to define an employee clearly.

The judges found that since Hubbard derived less than 50 percent of his income from APCI, he must not be an employee.

Of course, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner also failed to realize most of Hubbard’s income was from contracting work the jury found illegal.

The Lee County jurors understood the law, so did trial Judge Jacob Walker III when he instructed the jury before deliberations, and the Judge and jury understood the law after they found Hubbard guilty on count 5. That is why he was sentenced to 10 years – for violating that portion of the ethics code.

Hubbard’s cronies understand he was breaking the law just minutes before he cast the vote in 2013, and warned him not to do it.

Hubbard’s chief of staff, Josh Blades, lobbyists John Ross and Dax Swatek all testified they cautioned Hubbard not to vote for the bill. Blades swore under oath that Hubbard was aware at the time of the problems he faced but voted on the bill anyway, later saying he never thought it would pass.

As a result of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ actions, a lawmaker may now be paid by an outside interest to vote on legislation that benefits that group and not be in violation of the ethics act.

Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner should be ashamed.

Burke is in line for a federal judgeship. Hopefully, Alabama’s senior Senator Richard Shelby will show his good character by having Burke withdraw his name from nomination. The Trump Administration is reshaping the federal courts by placing conservatives at every level of the federal judiciary. There is no place on a conservative court for a man who would sign on to the opinion issued on Monday.

Another thing these jurists did was give the legislature cover to do away with existing ethics laws and replace it with the kind of weak statues being prepared by the Alabama Code of Ethics Clarification and Reform Commission.

Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner joined forces with other elites to abolish the state’s ethics laws and replace it with one that allows for lobbyists and gain-seekers to shower food, drinks and other perks on public officials without fear of consequence.

Since Hubbard’s indictment, lawyers have been busy trying to redefine who is a principal because some of the state’s most prominent executives were caught giving Hubbard things of value, which is not permitted under current law.

Here again, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner come to the rescue. According to court’s opinion, “It could present a serious constitutional issue should a situation arise in which a public official is convicted for soliciting or receiving a thing of value from a person within an organization but outside its immediate leadership hierarchy, where it is not so clear that that individual is a principal.”

The jury in Lee County didn’t have a problem identifying a principal. Neither did Judge Walker. But Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner – they see a serious constitutional issue.

All this means is that no big-shot businessperson will ever appear in another courtroom because he bribed a public official.

But in reality, the entire purpose of the Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling was to ensure that no powerful elected official or business mogul would ever be charged under the ethics act.

Even at their loftiest moments, Welch, Kellum, Burke and Joiner make clear that they are on board with doing away with the current ethics statues.

“[T]he Government violates [due process] by taking away someone’s life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement,” they wrote. “For these reasons, we strongly encourage the legislature to consider amending the law to better circumscribe the class of persons defined as principals and to more clearly explain several of the other definitions embodied in § 36-25-1, Ala. Code 1975 that could present similar constitutional issues. The language of Alabama’s ethics law should be clear as to which persons, businesses, and acts fall within its reach.”

To simply restate their intention, “We had to find Hubbard guilty. We didn’t want to because he’s an elite like us. But we had no choice. But hey, you now have a green-light to gut these stupid ethics laws (Thank God). I mean, really, what were we thinking? Oh, and you guys that were about to be indicted for getting paid to pass legislation, you’re welcome.”

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Opinion | Prison healthcare contract could be a fool’s errand

by Bill Britt Read Time: 4 min
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