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Opinion | Notes on a theme: Nonsense

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Mammoth prison spending contract headed to contract review

The State of Alabama is entering into a contract to pay Wexford Health Sources Inc., nearly $400 million over the next two years to provide, “comprehensive healthcare including medical and mental health care and management services to state inmates,” according to figures supplied to Legislative Contract Review.

To be exact, $360,481,062.00 of state taxpayers’ money will need to be approved at Thursday’s Contract Review to pay for prison services.

Alabama Department of Corrections has thrown in with Wexford despite a lawsuit pending against the company in Mississippi. 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.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration has ignored Wexford’s troubled past and at the urging of ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn is moving forward with the Wexford contract.

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While Contract Review is sometimes seen as a toothless tiger, it does have the power to hold the contract for 45 days, perhaps giving time for closer consideration of what’s at stake and what’s at risk.

No one has yet to explain the rush to sign Wexford or why Dunn is so keen on the company.

What seems apparent is that while the Ivey administration is scandal adverse, it appears that Dunn — an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley — is not.

Republicans on contract review who have primary opponents certainly want to see their Wexford vote in a campaign ad. “Millions spent on prisoners while working families struggle. Drain the Montgomery Swamp,” sounds like a cool commercial.

A mini ethics drama: Pants on fire

Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton voiced his frustration to al.com after Republican attorney general candidate, Alice Martin, a former state chief deputy attorney general and a former U.S. attorney, called him on a piece of legislation that would greatly enlarge his power as director of the ethics commission. As reported by Lee Roop of the Alabama Media Group, Martin said, of Senate Bill 267 if it was to become law, [It] “would grant massive new authority to a politically appointed commission that has often strayed from the law and had to be checked and challenged repeatedly by the Attorney General’s Office when I served as chief deputy AG.”

Anyone with even a remedial understanding of the state’s ethics law understands that Martin is right about SB267. She is also right that the ethics commission, if left unchecked, would make laws, create exceptions for their cronies and always bow to powerful lawmakers and lobbyists.

Where the real issues arose is when Albritton said that the bill was written by the Attorney General’s office, even indicating that Special Prosecution Divison Chief Matt Hart had drafted the bill. This is only accurate in so much as Albritton and the Ethics Commission did a cut and paste job on a bill which was written by the team that crafted SB343, which is the large ethics reform bill that now sits in the Senate.

SB267 is sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward who says that the bill as written was only partially developed by the AG’s office – the rest was crafted by Albritton and his staff.

Albritton replied to Martin’s comments are telling, “I am disappointed by the fact that she has now taken a piece of legislation about which there was uniform agreement not only from her own office, but also from our office as well as the Office of Prosecution Services (the DAs) and is distorting it for what can only be political gain.”

In fact, there was never a vote taken by the Office of Prosecution Services on SB267, according to the group’s chief, Barry Matson. Matson says OPS members have not voiced any opposition to Albritton’s bill, but it has not received an up or down vote like SB343. Albritton’s statement has caused concern among several district attorneys and other justice officials.

Homeless-helper Steve to the rescue

Yellowhammer News and Todd Stacy’s blog this week reported on how Attorney General Steve Marshall came to rescue a homeless woman after the Republican Winter Dinner at the Renaissance in downtown Montgomery last weekend.

In a staff report — which generally means a report with information supplied by an outside source and published without attributing the actual writer — claims that, when “Marshall and a group of colleagues were walking back from the Alabama Republican Party’s dinner last Friday night in Montgomery, an apparently homeless woman asked the group for money.” Marshall came to the woman’s rescue by not giving her money as she had asked but, “[S]poke with the woman and then walked with her several blocks to a nearby homeless shelter.”

The nearest shelter being some 12 blocks away, Marshall and the unidentified woman must have enjoyed a pleasant stroll.

Also according to the report, “A bystander snapped a smartphone picture of the incident and sent it to Yellowhammer News.”

How handy that an unknown bystander just happened to document Marshall’s good Samaritan moment.

It’s a good thing the homeless woman wasn’t sexually assaulted by someone from Marshall’s office, or she might have ended up in a basement calling for help on a walkie-talkie.

After woman’s “horrific” sexual assault, what did Steve Marshall do?

The report by Yellowhammer also included a reference to Matthew 25:35, which reads, “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you invited me in.”

Too bad Marshall didn’t heed that verse when dealing with sexual assault in his office.

Let’s just be thankful that on this occasion, Marshall had no political agenda as with a woman who he ignored and humiliated when she was sexually assaulted by another man while working in Marshall’s office. The homeless woman was truly fortunate – some are not so lucky.

Opinion | This is why women don’t come forward

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Public corruption unpunished, public left in the dark

Bill Britt

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Two former state public officials appear to be receiving extraordinary leniency, and the public should demand to know why.

In one case, former Sumter County Sheriff Tyrone Clark pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges including ethics violations and drug charges. However, District Attorney Greg Griggers who oversaw the investigation announced after Clark’s plea that he didn’t want to see the former sheriff go to prison. “It was never my goal to send Tyrone Clark to prison,” said Griggers.

Grant Culliver, a former top official at the Alabama Department of Corrections, is being allowed to retire after an investigation into allegations of misconduct. The Alabama Ethics Commission, the Department of Corrections and the Attorney General’s Office refuses to acknowledge publicly what the inquiry uncovered.

In both instances, the public is being denied a full accounting of why these high-ranking government employees are being shown preferential treatment. It is also becoming evident that there is no appetite to punish office holders or hold them publicly accountable for misconduct.

These two cases are just a small sampling of how public officials are being given a pass under Attorney General Steve Marshall.

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Marshall has no real interest in prosecuting public corruption which is evident by his firing of Chief Prosecutor Matt Hart.

It is estimated that nearly two dozen public corruption investigations are languishing after Hart’s firing. Perhaps more egregiously, Marshall, according to several well-placed sources still inside the AG’s office, has denied subpoenas, withheld vital documents and generally hampered investigations that involve state lawmakers and business leaders.

More troubling, Marshall is not only compromised by his debt to his political donors but also by those in his office that have critical knowledge about his personal conduct.

As one source close to Marshall explained, “Steve is a dark character with a lot to hide.”

Under former attorneys general, Clark and Culliver would have been treated like any other individual accused of misconduct, but Marshall is side-stepping both cases.

It is entirely within the attorney general’s authority to take control of Clark’s case, as well as revealing Culliver investigations, but Marshall is doing neither.

Culliver, who served as associate commissioner for operations at the Department of Corrections, is being allowed to quietly retire without the public ever knowing what the investigation uncovered.

Clark confessed to numerous crimes including two counts of unlawful employment of county inmates, three counts of ethics violations for using his office for personal gain, one first-degree count of promoting prison contraband, another second-degree count of promoting prison contraband and a count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.

The county DA wants him to walk free.

Former Sumter County sheriff pleads guilty to criminal ethics, drug charges

Marshall, with his appointment by disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley and his subsequent election, has ushered in an era where public officials are free to do as they please without fear of prosecution as long as it is in Marshall or his handler’s interest.

Marshall also serves as co-chair of the Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission which is rewriting the State’s Ethics Act to ensure that convicted felon former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard is the last high-ranking political figure ever to be punished by the once championed “toughest in the nations” ethics laws.

Both Clark and Culliver were paid with state tax-dollars and should be accountable to the citizens of our state. Clark’s crimes are clear and he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law because, not only did he break the law, he violated public trust.

Culliver, it appears, did something to warrant a forced retirement. He, too, was paid by tax-payers who have a right to know what he did.

The public should demand more, Gov. Kay Ivey should intervene, but for now, there is little hope for equal justice under the law as dispensed by the likes of Marshall.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | In the arena

Bill Britt

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Alabama Political Reporter does one thing: it covers politics, more specifically state politics. Along with our news coverage, we publish opinions about issues facing the state. We do include the state’s congressional delegation in D.C., but that is limited in scope.

As for APR’s opinion columns, we err on the side of free speech. As our nations first president, George Washington, said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

APR has two categories of opinions, feature opinions, which are ones we solicit, and guest views, which are those provided to us by individuals with political credentials or expertise that warrant giving their ideas space in our publication.

At APR, every opinion column has the name of the author and their contact information.

We don’t feel it necessary to affix a disclaimer to every opinion piece saying this material is solely the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of APR. We think our readers are smart enough to know that already. However, due to the rapid response of the internet, people sometimes do confuse what is an individual’s opinion and APR’s willingness to support free speech.

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On occasion, our contributors and columnists wander off into national politics. As editor-in-chief, I cringe on those days when opinion columnist focus on President Trump, Sharia Law, Supreme Court nominations or other national hysteria. Not because it is unimportant but because it is not our core mission, and it enflames passions that have little to do with good state government.

When we first envisioned APR, it was with an understanding that there was little we could do to change Washington or national politics. What we saw was an opportunity to do good by reporting on matters facing the state. If it holds that all politics is local, then dogged coverage of state issues might result in better local policies and governance.

When APR remains focused on Legislative accountability, fiscal responsibility, public corruption and those things that directly affect the lives of our state’s citizens, we are most relevant. However, when we stray into national hot-button issues already beaten to death on cable news, we enter fights that are unwinnable and distract from the primary mission.

In an era when even cold facts make people angry or are greeted by alternative ones, it should come as no great surprise that opinions often irritate and cause consternation.

APR doesn’t print opinion columns merely to make anyone mad but to perhaps cause us all to think.

As President John F. Kennedy said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Thinking is a tough business, especially in today’s political climate where much of the civic conversation is based on entrenched political identity and not necessarily on sound reasoning. On the right and left, there is an established dogma that labels competing ideas as wrong and even evil. But these national party convictions do not always translate to sound state government policy.

As a news organization, APR does not take particular positions on issues. The closest we come to an official stance on any given subject is when I, as editor-in-chief, offer an opinion, but even then it is not ex cathedra.

APR’s mission is simple, to inform, educate and alert the public on issues facing our state. When we stay true to that edict, we succeed. When we do not, we fall short of our purpose. There are times when we as a news organization must call to action those who care about good government – that is the job of our opinion page. Sometimes, we do so nobly, other times not so much.

As President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

APR and its writers and opinion columnists are women and men who have chosen to enter the arena. We are a small band of committed individuals working hard to bring you news and opinions that will promote good government here in Alabama. That is our job.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Get Hart

Bill Britt

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Years of political pressure from shady defense attorneys and crooked lawmakers culminated last week in the firing of Special Prosecution Division Chief Matt Hart.

Gov. Robert Bentley’s appointed attorney general, Steve Marshall, delivered the blow just 13 days after being elected attorney general, but the move against Hart was orchestrated by some of the state’s most powerful political figures.

Make no mistake, Hart’s firing was no less than a political coup de grâce by those who operate most efficaciously in the dark corners of politics.

Hart’s removal serves as punishment not only for prosecuting some of the state’s most influential men, it is also part of a broad scheme to allow those who are currently under investigation to walk free.

There should be an immediate and thorough federal investigation into Hart’s termination as well as a joint legislative committee created to conduct an inquiry with public hearings. A former senator, such as Dick Brewbaker or Gerald Dial, should be appointed to oversee the joint committee to eliminate political chicanery. Perhaps, more importantly, Gov. Kay Ivey should name a special prosecutor working under Montgomery District Attorney Darryl Bailey to investigate the matter.

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For nearly two decades, Hart served as a widely respected career prosecutor who was once a hero of state Republicans when he successfully convicted dozens of high-profile Democrats, but that changed when he turned his sights onto corrupt Republicans after their victory in 2010.

When Hart began investigating Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in 2011, he immediately went from a conservative champion to a political pariah who must be stopped by any means.

Under oath during a July deposition, Bentley testified that lawmakers, attorneys and a major Republican donor, on several occasions, asked him to intervene in the Hubbard case by appointing a special prosecutor to replace Hart.

The goal was to appoint a special prosecutor who would remove Hart and launch an investigation to discredit him personally and the underlying case against Hubbard.

Deposition: Bentley was pressured by lawmakers, attorneys, major donors to upend Hubbard trial

After Hubbard’s conviction, Bentley and his alleged girlfriend, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, increasingly paranoid, believed Hart was coming after them which led to Bentley appointing Marshall to attorney general with the expressed agreement that he would investigate Hart.

Marshall has publicly denied this allegation, but those with direct knowledge of the quid pro quo may soon go on the record.

While under questioning in the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier, Bentley testified that Great Southern Wood owner and Republican super-donor, Jimmy Rane, approached him on three different occasions about appointing a special prosecutor.

Additionally, Rob Riley, son of former Gov. Bob Riley and a Hubbard attorney, also contacted Bentley about opening an investigation into Hart and acting Attorney General Van Davis. Hubbard’s other attorneys, Augusta Dowd and Lance Bell, also met with Bentley about replacing Hart as Bentley swore under oath. Bentley conveniently could not recall the sitting legislators who pushed him to upend the Hubbard prosecution but did admit that all these individuals shared a common goal to get Hart.

Up until his firing last Monday, Hart was overseeing dozens of investigations believed to be targeting business elites, lawmakers and other public officials, but a swift ax ended those probes.

If there is a shred of justice left in the state of Alabama, a full hearing into Hart’s firing will be conducted immediately.

Those who care about the rule of law must now demand that Gov. Kay Ivey, the Legislature and law enforcement act decisively to ensure that those who perpetrated this coup are held accountable. If Gov. Ivey, the Legislature and law enforcement fail to act, then all hope for law and order is lost here in Alabama because those who got Hart can now get anyone.

 

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Opinion | What nobody (and everybody) is talking about

Bill Britt

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When a politician doesn’t want to address an essential but thorny policy issue, they say, “Nobody’s talking about that.”

Expanding health coverage to low-wage earners and passing a meaningful lottery are just a few of the things nobody’s talking about but are at the forefront of needful things that should be addressed by the State Legislature.

Recent estimates show that between 235,000 to 300,000 people in Alabama would gain access to Medicaid if the state were to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

In 2018, the federal government pays 94 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion. That funding will drop to 90 percent by 2020, but will remain at that level going forward.

Just two years after the future of Obamacare seemed to be in jeopardy, it became a winning issue for Democrats in midterm elections.

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While the Alabama Republican Party sought to use the repeal of the health care law as a wage issue, certain aspects of the statute, like coverage of preexisting conditions, resonate well, even in deep-red states.

Early exit polling from the midterms found that healthcare was the most important issue on voters’ minds. This same statistic was borne out in a PARCA survey conducted earlier this year that saw a plurality of Alabamians citing healthcare their number one voting priority.

While Republicans in Alabama won every statewide office and held its supermajority in the Legislature, ignoring ACA will become increasingly difficult as rural hospitals continue to close and doctors flee the state for surrounding areas with better medical reimbursement plans.

Since inception, Republicans have fought ACA, but again in the recent Midterms, more red-states are adopting the plan.

Three deep-red states: Idaho, Nebraska and Utah joined the 32 expansion states with ballot initiatives on Election Day, as reported by Business Insider. “Solid majorities in each state voted for expansion, which will help roughly 325,000 people gain access to Medicaid.”

While some in Republican leadership still resist the idea of a gaming lottery, a substantial majority of both Republicans and Democrats support gaming expansion.

Some detractors want to keep the state free from the ills of gambling, yet those troubles already exist from casinos owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. PCI pays no taxes on its billion-dollar gaming operations, but they do contribute hundreds of thousands to political candidates who do their bidding.

A study conducted by the Institute for Accountability and Government Efficiency at Auburn University of Montgomery (AUM), found that a lottery proposal presented in 2015 would generate $400 million in new state revenue and provide more than 11,000 people with new jobs.

Business leaders of all stripes also backed the proposal submitted by Republican Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh. However, Marsh’s plan was killed by then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard to protect the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ gaming monopoly.

At the time, Marsh said, “Hundreds of millions of Alabama dollars are going to Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia to play in their lotteries, their casinos. Hundreds of millions of Alabama dollars give their children pre-K, their children scholarships, and their seniors’ benefits. And it gives their state governments funding for essential state services. They receive those benefits while creating new jobs for their people, new investments for their towns and cities, new hotels, restaurants, entertainment facilities, new tourism dollars. All for them and none for us. With our money. Folks that makes no sense.”

Even in Alabama, many portions of the current healthcare law is favored by a vast majority of the state’s voters, that is also true of allowing a vote to create a lottery.

The state faces many challenges. Chief among them are the physical health of its citizens and fiscal well-being of the state budget.

In March, the State Legislature will begin the first session of the quadrennium facing many of the same problems it did four years ago. It’s time for lawmakers to make wise, forward-thinking choices.

Nobody may be talking about expanding healthcare coverage or allowing an open vote on a lottery, but it is on the minds of everybody who is thinking seriously about the state’s future.

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Opinion | Notes on a theme: Nonsense

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