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Opinion | Crusaders against payday lenders sink to new low

Bill Britt

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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.

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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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Bill Britt

A move to reunify BCA is underway

Bill Britt

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Reconciliation efforts are underway to salvage the Business Council of Alabama after a very public split with some of its most influential members.

Those close to the negotiations speaking on background say recent talks have been productive, but there are still many details that must be agreed upon before a reunification occurs.

The forced exit of President and CEO Billy Canary earlier this month was the first step toward restoring BCA’s reputation and mending fences.

Individuals who are negotiating rapprochement are looking to restructure BCA’s governance to ensure that any future leader will not exercise the unchecked authority wielded by Canary. They also want to make BCA more equitable, fair and balanced in its representation of its members.

Beyond the mechanics of structure is the need for a strong leader who can restore not only confidence in the once powerful organization but also one who can navigate the state’s political landscape while enduring the inevitable discord that comes with change.

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There is a level of hope that an improved structure and new leadership might be in place by BCA’s summer conference, which begins August 10 at Point Clear. But even those involved in the process know it’s a tall order to fill given the short window of opportunity.

Perhaps the most significant challenge is identifying an individual who can articulate a vision for BCA, inspire confidence in its members and ensure elected officials that they are dealing with an honest broker.

There is much at stake in the upcoming legislative session, not only because it is the first year of the quadrennium, when hard tasks are generally achieved, but the 2019 session will also welcome many new legislators not necessarily in step with BCA due to a bruising primary season.

People may forgive, but they often do not forget, and there are many bridges to build.

Lawmakers will be wise to remember the warning of President Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.”

For a revitalizing transition to occur, a clean sweep of BCA’s leadership team is imperative, as those who served the old guard must be replaced or else it’s a false start doomed to fail.

BCA would be wise to move away from the partisan approach taken over the last eight years and look to establish relationships that favor business-friendly legislation without bright lines of division.

In business as in life, sharp breaks are sometimes required and often are inevitable, but this doesn’t have to be one of those times.

Now is an hour for wise deliberation, difficult choices and bold resolve to strengthen the entire business community and not merely to fortify the narrow interests of a few.

Over the last year, good and honest leaders called for BCA to do what was right. That fight hopefully can be put aside to now do what is best.

 

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Bill Britt

The fix was in

Bill Britt

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Montgomery Circuit Judge James Anderson’s ruling to allow out-of-state political action committees to donate to in-state campaigns without disclosing its donors through PAC-to-PAC transfers may be the legal fulcrum Democrats need to target key Republican officeholders in the state.

On Wednesday, attorney general candidate Troy King filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court seeking a restraining order to prevent his opponent, appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall, and his campaign from using donations it received from the Republican Attorney Generals Association (RAGA) which doesn’t disclose some of its mega-donors by using PAC-to-PAC transfers.

Judge Anderson ruled against King and dismissed the lawsuit in Marshall’s favor.

Marshall, unlike an ordinary plaintiff, wasn’t present at the hearing before Judge Anderson, which should have alerted the public that the fix was already in.

The State’s Ethics Commission will likely weigh-in on King’s question soon— finding that RAGA’s actions were unlawful—but Thursday’s judgment holds for now, with no consequences for Marshall, win or lose.

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In 2010, the state’s newly minted Republican supermajority outlawed PAC-to-PAC transfers as part of its effort to show voters that there was a new day in Montgomery politics.

Since 2010, both Republicans and Democrats have found ways to circumvent FPCA restrictions, but until Thursday, there wasn’t a court ruling that opened a flooded-gate to renew PAC-to-PAC campaigns using outside interest groups.

Republican conservatives who believe that undisclosed donors shouldn’t control the state’s election process through hidden contributions should worry.

Is it now legal for pro-abortion groups to finance judicial races with stealth campaign donations to defeat pro-life candidates like Supreme Court Justices like Tom Parker?

What about Gov. Kay Ivey? Is it now legal for The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) to upend her campaign with hidden contributions to her rival, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox?

Ethic Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton has all but definitively stated that RAGA’s contributions are illegal, but it’s too little too late for this election.

Perhaps none of this matters because it seems that many of the Republicans who passed these bans in 2010, don’t seem to honestly believe in them or any of the ethics reforms that they once championed.

So once again, it’s winning, not the law, that matters, or as a prominent Montgomery attorney said, “When you have a Democrat judge, a Democrat lawyer and a Democrat attorney general what else did you expect?”

More, I guess.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | BCA takes out the trash, finally

Bill Britt

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In a last-ditch effort to save the Business Council of Alabama from the dung heap of political obscurity, President and CEO Billy Canary was pushed out of the business association late last Friday after he waged an ugly and protracted battle to remain in power.

Canary’s fight to keep his job has left the once powerful business interests a hollow and factored alliance with an uncertain future. He didn’t care if he destroyed BCA; it was all about his ambitions.

For years, Canary, along with now-convicted felon former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and former Gov. Bob Riley, reigned over an unparalleled orgy of greed and corruption.

Canary, Hubbard and Riley’s perverse domination of the state’s political landscape was supreme, and even now, the tentacles of their profiteering are evident from the Capitol to the State House and beyond.

Even during this election cycle, Canary has used BCA’s political arm, Progress PAC, to back disreputable candidates who seek to overturn the state ethics laws that convicted Hubbard, advocate for so-called education reform that profits Riley’s business interests and to stall efforts to create a statewide lottery in favor of gambling concessions for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

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During Hubbard’s last years in office, PCI Vice Chair Robbie McGhee joined forces with Hubbard, in hopes of exercising more sway over Republican legislators. Over the previous year, he coupled the tribe to Canary with the same end in mind. McGhee, who faces a reelection challenge in August, casts himself as a Hubbard-Canary protege. Even now, he tells candidates who come calling for campaign contributions, “We are BCA,” meaning the tribe, under Canary, is controlling many decisions being made at the business association.

McGee, like Hubbard and Canary, is viewed by many as a pariah in the state capital where he still hopes to further the Tribe’s gambling operations by lavishing money and entertainment on Republican lawmakers. Twice now, McGhee has chosen poorly and tarnished the Tribe’s reputation in the bargain. With McGhee’s backing, Canary gave at least $250,000.00 to appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall so that he will continue Riley’s bingo wars.

Hubbard stands convicted on 12 felony counts of using his office for personal gain and other criminal violations of the state’s Ethics Act, yet he remains free because of the corrupting influence of Canary and others of his ilk.

During Hubbard’s trial, Canary said, “I love Mike Hubbard like a brother.” He even waxed poetic, saying his friendship with Hubbard, “Blossomed like any blessing in life.”

So infectious are the remnants of their power that even after two years Hubbard remains free because Court of Criminal Appeals Justices Samuel Henry Welch, J. Elizabeth Kellum, Liles C. Burke and J. Michael Joiner will not rule on his conviction.

Canary, in a face-saving announcement, says he is taking a position as a, “senior fellow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” which is a nothing job.

Canary, like Hubbard and Riley, pimped the state like a cheap whore, and now he’s busted for the user he is. He left BCA in shambles, and don’t think for a minute that the coalition that left BCA isn’t coming back just because the executive committee finally took out the trash.

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Opinion | Crusaders against payday lenders sink to new low

by Bill Britt Read Time: 4 min
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