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Bill Britt

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

Bill Britt



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?

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 | AG, commerce secretary hide real problem with economic development bill

Bill Britt



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During a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the controversial economic development bill, HB317, not a soul present addressed the critical problem with the bill — the gaping loophole created by allowing individuals to work as part-time economic development professionals.

Of course, the bill doesn’t use the words part-time. Instead, it calls this individual a “less than full-time,” economic development professional – there is a difference without a distinction.

The bill, currently stalled in committee, is slated to re-appear next week after Republican Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh met with Gov. Kay Ivey, who expressed her desire to see the legislation move forward, according to those with knowledge of the meeting. Ivey’s office acknowledged that the governor and the Senate president pro tem were joined by two unidentified staffers, but little else was publicly known about the conversation.

Keen observers of the ethics laws, like the Alabama Political Reporter’s own analysis, believe HB317 could be passed without controversy by simply removing the “less than full-time” provision and tweaking the bill to not allow lawmakers and public officials to avoid the revolving-door statute because of HB317’s vagueness on the issue.


But removing the less than full-time language is problematic since Attorney General Steve Marshall, Gov. Kay Ivey’s commerce secretary, Greg Canfield, and others have refused even to acknowledge there is a classification of part-time economic development professionals.

During the House debate last week, Republican lawmakers were assured the part-time provision was stripped from the bill, but it was not. Canfield and Marshall, with the aid of high-powered attorneys/lobbyists from Bradley Arrant, devised the ambiguous language “less than full-time,” to trick wary House Republicans into passing the bill, which they did.

Bentley appointees trick lawmakers into passing dangerous ethics, economic development bill

Several legislators expressed their anger after learning about the deception by reading about it in APR.

None of these warnings from APR and other press outlets discouraged Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, from holding what he called a chairman’s hearing on Wednesday.

Originally announced as a public hearing, Williams, chair of the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee, changed the meeting to what he called a chairman’s hearing, which is an unknown committee meeting with dubious origins.

Senators present expressed dismay at Williams holding a hearing at which only individuals and groups favorable to the bill were permitted to speak.

Marsh to meet with Gov. Ivey to decide fate of economic developer bill

And speak they did, without ever addressing the less than full-time designation.

Katherine Robertson spoke on Marshall’s behalf and not only expressed her boss’s support for the legislation but the urgent need to pass the bill this session. Robertson, like her boss, failed to mention the part-time exception.

Last week, Marshall said HB317’s amendments were written by a “top official from my corruptions division.”

However, neither Matt Hart or Mike Duffy, the senior members of the public corruption unit, have spoken publicly or privately. In fact, lawmakers who have talked to Hart and Duffy say neither would comment on HB317 or any ethics legislation.

It’s no secret that Marshall, an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, is working to dismantle the public corruption unit led by Hart. Marshall’s election campaign is being funded by many of those who protected former Speaker Mike Hubbard and a host of out of state individuals with no apparent ties to Alabama.

Perhaps most spectacular was the appearance of state ethics chair Jerry Fielding, who praised the legislation, ostensibly giving it the Ethics Commission’s stamp of approval despite the fact that the commission’s executive director, Tom Albritton, publicly voiced his opposition to HB317. Albritton, Hart and Duffy are perhaps being muzzled because to speak would expose their bosses’ big lie.

Privately before Wednesday’s chairman’s meeting, Fielding assured Decatur Republican Sen. Arthur Orr that four of the five sitting ethics commissioners were supportive of the bill. He further expressed his promise that the commission wanted to work in conjunction with the legislature.

As envisioned by those who established the ethics commission, Fielding’s assurance of working hand-in-glove with lawmakers would be considered inappropriate at best.

Fielding, during his presentation, never mentioned the less than full-time rule.

Why is the less than full-time exception so crucial to all these so-called public servants?

If we knew who was paying Bradley Arrant, the full answer might be identified. On the surface, it doesn’t take much imagination to see individuals like former Gov. Bob Riley exiting his lobbying business to become a less than full-time economic development professional. Or wealthy business investor, Will Brooke, who like Riley, was entangled in Hubbard’s conviction on public corruption charges.

Under HB317’s less than full-time exception, Brooke, Riley and others could give lavishly to lawmakers like Hubbard without fear of being ensnared by the ethics laws. But that’s just a quick look at why Marshall, Canfield and others pretend that the less than measure exists.

Perhaps Marshall could remove all doubt by letting someone who actually knows the law speak on the subject or Gov. Ivey could demand Canfield come clean. Neither is likely to happen.

A fix for the worrisome parts of HB317 is at hand, but for now, there seems no one willing to admit a problem exists.


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Bill Britt

Opinion | Piecemeal approach to ethics reform continues, and it’s questionable

Bill Britt



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Two bills designed to dramatically alter current ethics laws were approved by the House Ethics Committee last week. As introduced in the House, HB387, sponsored by Republican lawmaker Rep. Rich Wingo, would among other things allow public officials to hide potentially illegal acts under a new notifications rule. Wingo’s bill is companion legislation to SB221, sponsored by Republican Sen. Trip Pittman.

Another stab at rewriting current ethics laws is found in HB432, sponsored by Republican Rep. Alan Baker, which will greatly expand the powers and purview of the executive director of the Ethics Commission.

Earlier this month in a press conference, Republican lawmakers Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Mike Jones seemed to signal a halt to any new ethics legislation during the current legislative session.

In announcing a newly formed commission to study and make recommendations as proposed by SB343, these powerful Republican legislators said the issue of ethics reform was better left until the 2019 legislative session.


Ethics reform bill to sit on hold until next session as lawmakers begin discussions

However, last week, without the simplest acknowledgment of irony, HB387 and HB432 were championed by House Ethics Committee Chair Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. Ball, an intemperate critic of the laws that convicted his friend, former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, hustled the bills out of his committee despite leadership’s suggestion just days earlier.

Ball not only defended Hubbard after his conviction on felony offenses, he has also repeatedly accused the state prosecution team members of criminal acts during Hubbard’s trial. Despite Ball’s unfounded claims and outspoken desire to kill ethics laws that convicted Hubbard, he remains head of the House Ethics Committee.

HB387 and HB432: Potential for Mischief

A detailed analysis of the two bills’ potential damage to state ethics laws is perhaps too exhaustive to enumerate without it becoming a somnolent potion, however, even a top-level reading of the bills casts light on just how dangerous these laws could be in the wrong hands.

Pittman-Wingo deals a blow to transparency

On its face, the Pittman-Wingo bills do little more than create a meaningless “notification” requirement. But a deeper dive shows that under this new notification provision, a lawmaker may take a job or a consulting contract with a principal – forbidden under current law, or any business without seeking an ethics advisory opinion.

Under this statute, the Ethics Commission is neither authorized or required to do anything at all with the notification, and while the lawmaker’s employment would be public record, someone would need to know about the filing to ever know to look for it.

These bills, as written, make no distinction between consulting contracts from principals or other businesses that do not hire lobbyists.

As APR has pointed out on numerous occasions, all revisions, additions or alterations to the present Ethics Act must be viewed in light of the Hubbard prosecution and conviction.

Under the Pittman-Wingo scheme, with a simple notification to the ethics commission, legislators may enter into a consulting contract or job without needing a review.

Imagine the fun Hubbard’s lawyer would have had with this statute.

“Thank God, for these notifications. Poor Mike filed his paperwork with the commission, and now the attorney general from Timbuktu is trying to throw this good-Christian-family-man in prison for just working to put food on his family.”

These are just a few examples of latent possibilities for misconduct under the Pittman-Wingo scheme.

Expanding powers of the executive director

HB432, carried in the House by Rep. Baker, with its companion legislation, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward – both Republicans – would significantly expand the sphere of influence of the Ethics Commission’s executive director.

Any examination of laws governing the state ethics commission should begin with questioning the effectiveness of the commission as it presently functions.

Comprised of political appointees who, at times, appear to rule with the caprice of a Marseilles madame, the commission on occasion has created laws while stretching the existing ones beyond any reasonable facsimile of their intended meanings.

The commission’s executive director is hired by the commission and is likewise subject to its whims or will be fired.

A summary of the bill’s intentions, as APR discussed with Ward and Ethics Director Tom Albritton, would permit more flexibility for minor ethics violations and allow the director to “self-generate[d]” a complaint. It would also empower the director and his staff to go beyond the “four corners” of a complaint. If passed in its current form, these companion bills would authorize the director to bypass the state’s attorney general or district attorneys in favor of the U.S. attorney in public corruption cases.

Some of these provisions run counter to current law and give unelected bureaucrats more power and influence than they already command.

While granting the executive director more flexibility on minor offenses, it would seem wholly imprudent to undermine the attorney general’s role as a constitutional officer and top law enforcement official in the state. With this in mind, should the law allow political appointees to usurp power granted to the attorney general?

If enacted, these bills would massively expand the investigative authority of the commission. Current Director Albritton has argued publicly that the commission already has power to self-generate a complaint, and that is true, but only by degrees. There is a process whereby the commission can initiate an investigation without receiving a formal complaint from outside sources. A procedural process is currently in place that somewhat safeguards against an unscrupulous use of an ethics investigation. Director Albritton may never abuse his power, but that doesn’t mean the next director will not.

There are other questions unanswered by these bills that should be thoroughly vetted before passage.

President Pro Tem Marsh said of sweeping ethics reforms, “It deserves all the questions to be asked to make sure we are covering everything.”

A piecemeal approach has been rejected by most in Republican leadership. Perhaps it’s time for Ball and others to follow suit.


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Bill Britt

Opinion | Crusaders against payday lenders sink to new low

Bill Britt



By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

When well-intentioned organizations host speakers whose goal is to tar a particular individual or business, it dirties the good works mission of the group and cast doubts over the program’s real purpose. So it was when Leadership Birmingham invited Dr. Neal Berte.

e, retired head of Birmingham Southern College to speak about payday lending at a recent gathering of the 2018 class of Birmingham-based leadership program.

According to two individuals who attended the gathering of Birmingham’s rising stars it wasn’t about small lending but a virulent attack on an individual who happens to run a very successful alternative consumer lending company.


Instead of the pros and cons of payday lending the presentation centered on the life of Ted Saunders, who serves as Chairman & CEO of Community Choice Financial Inc., a company which among its many businesses offers payday lending.

Why would Dr. Berte once a member of the board of directors for a banking institution—whose catastrophic failure caused millions in wealth to vanish— think it was right to cast aspersions on Saunders’ character and prosperity?

“It was wholly inappropriate,” said a witness to the attacks on Saunders. “Dr. Berte embarrassed himself.”

Both attendees who spoke to the Alabama Political Reporter on background described the presentation as nothing more than character assassination.

Berte according to individuals who attended the presentation say the presentation  showed pictures of Saunders’, home, listed his income and more to disparage his success.

As one attendee said, “I felt like I was watching a primer on character assassination.” Another individual said “I felt the presentation was over the top and I was seriously concerned that Leadership Birmingham was pushing an agenda rather than offering an educational program.”

In response to APR‘s request for information about the event Ann Florie, Executive Director of Leadership Birmingham, said all events and there content is protected by a confidentiality agreement.

As a successful businessman, Saunders has helped other Birmingham-centric entrepreneurs to also achieve enormous success.

As an early investor in Shipt a leading online same-day delivery platform, Saunders’ belief in the Birmingham company was essential to its much-lauded success. Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT) purchased Shipt in December 2017 for $500 million in cash. According to those present at the leadership presentation, Berte and Farley failed to mention Saunders contributions to making the Magic City a center for business opportunities.

Liberal groups, especially during the Obama Administration era, marked businesses like Community Choice simply because they found objectionable.

Taking its lead from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau— birthed by Democrat U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren— several progressive groups have taken tough stands on alternative lending.

As if it were a holy mission to protect working Alabamians from short term high-risk  lenders many have gone from a push for reasonable regulation to outright wars on those who offer short-term loans to people who have nowhere else to turn for ready cash in cases of an emergency or unforeseen financial needs.

In recent years some of these groups have stooped to misleading legislators about the intentions of a bill they are promoting. On several occasions, certain organizations have cherrypicked news article to claim Republican support for bills falsely.

Surprisingly, it has been Republican lawmakers like Decatur State Senator Arthur Orr who have championed these liberal groups agenda. Even with liberal leanings, Orr has remained the chair of the state’s education budget a position that offers him enormous power despite the amazement of many conservatives in the Senate.

While those who hope to stamp out payday lending have in the past used questionable methods until now, they resisted character assassination.

In an odd piece of news found when researching old archives for this report APR found where Dr. Berte was a part of an elite group that courted Saudi princes to invest in Birmingham in 1978.

According to the book “The American House of Saud, The Secret Petrodollar Connection,” Berte was part of a group of 25 Birmingham heavy hitters who were “going to be the best damn friends the Saudis ever had,” back in late 1970’s and 80’s. The story gets a lot more interesting as it dives into how Saudi princes and an ex-CIA operative turn Birmingham business and educations leaders into rogue agents for their oil-kingdom.

Perhaps the next time Dr. Berte is asked to speak, he will share the facts of his involvement with The American House of Saud instead of meddling in a business owners life.


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

by Bill Britt Read Time: 4 min