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Billing records show Balch attorneys played substantial role in state superintendent search, alleged smear campaign

Josh Moon

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Billing records obtained by the Alabama Political Reporter show that attorneys from the law firm Balch & Bingham were heavily involved in the Alabama State Department’s flawed superintendent search that landed Michael Sentance and was paid thousands of dollars to counsel and coach department lawyers and a state school board member.

Those records, provided to APR by a source who agreed to share them on the condition of anonymity, show that three attorneys from Balch & Bingham — Dorman Walker, Lane Knight and John Naramore — charged ALSDE thousands to handle numerous tasks relating to the search, including establishing a search process and developing a “script” for ALSDE attorney Juliana Dean to use when she spoke to school board members about the search.

Balch & Bingham attorneys, the records show, also drove to Montgomery and to “coach” both Dean and school board member Mary Scott Hunter before they answered questions from a legislative committee that was investigating the superintendent search process.

Asked about the use of Balch & Bingham attorneys for tasks that appear to be either so mundane that the ALSDE counsel should handle them or that are of a personal nature and outside of the scope of their daily job duties, an ALSDE spokesman declined to answer the specific questions and instead focused on the fact that the information had become public.

“As I’m sure you know, although information related to a public entity’s attorney identity, rate/cost and time are public, details of the work performed by attorneys for their clients are not,” director of communications Michael Sibley wrote in an email response. “If you received an invoice detailing that work, that information is protected by attorney-client privilege. Because your questions encroach on that privilege, we will not be able to answer your specific questions, but in general, any work performed by Balch & Bingham for the State Board or its members or the State Department or its employees or officials would relate to their official duties.

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APR asked Sibley why such billing information, when covered by taxpayer dollars, wouldn’t be considered public information, but that question did not receive a response.

ALSDE is still being hampered by the flawed search, even two years later.

Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey, who was considered the frontrunner for the job, has filed a lawsuit against Hunter and others at the state department for concocting and carrying out a scheme to prevent him from landing the job. A Montgomery judge last month dismissed all but Hunter and another ALSDE lawyer from the suit, including Dean.

Pouncey filed his lawsuit in Feb. 2016 and it was announced after that date that because of the legal action, ALSDE would be on the hook for private attorneys to represent Dean, Hunter and two other ALSDE attorneys, James Ward and Susan Crowther.

But the records obtained by APR show that Balch & Bingham attorneys had long been providing legal guidance to the four.

The detailed bills from Balch & Bingham include charges for things such as reviewing a WSFA news story about Pouncey’s “planned lawsuit,” reviewing emails that were requested from Dean by state school board members and planning for ways to combat an effort from an education advocacy group led by Larry Lee to rescind the superintendent selection.

The bills also include several charges related to legal guidance for Hunter, which is, at best, a gray area. School board members clamored for months about hiring an attorney that would represent the board, and ultimately last year moved forward with hiring Lewis Gillis. Prior to that hire, however, it was the policy of the board that it was represented in all legal matters, unless the board took specific action otherwise, by Dean.

But on Nov. 1, 2016, the billing records show a $146.25 charge for a “talk” between Dorman Walker and Hunter about “her prospective testimony before the (legislative) committee.” There was another talk with Hunter on Nov. 8., and a conference on Nov. 9. The related charges totaled $1,170.

The records also show that Balch & Bingham attorneys coached Ward and Crowther prior to their appearances before the legislative committee and that the firm reviewed Open Records Act requests from media outlets and determined which documents should be turned over and redacted.

 

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Elections

Robert McKay sues to have Lipscomb removed from the ballot

Brandon Moseley

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On Thursday, Republican Primary House District 30 candidate Robert McKay filed suit in Etowah County asking the court to have his Republican primary runoff opponent, Brandon Craig Lipscomb removed from the November 6 general election ballot and that he be placed there instead.

Lipscomb beat McKay in the July Republican primary runoff election.

McKay is suing B. Craig Lipscomb, Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan, Secretary of State John Merrill (R), Alabama Ethics Commission Director Thomas Albritton and any other individuals or companies that had some involvement in the decision to allow Lipscomb to remain on the ballot.

The plaintiff is contending that as candidates are required to file a Statement of Economic Interests form with the Alabama Ethics Commission and Lipscomb did not file his 2017 statement by the April 30 deadline he should be removed from the ballot by the court and that Robert McKay instead be placed on the ballot as the Republican nominee in House District 30.

House District 30 is composed of parts of St. Clair and Etowah Counties. Incumbent Representative Mack Butler (R-Rainbow City) is not running for another term.

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Etowah County Republican Party Chairman Phil Williams told the Alabama Political Reporter, ““As the Chairman for the Etowah County Republican Party I take great interest in Robert McKay’s attempt to manipulate the outcome of the recent election. Craig Lipscomb is a good candidate who ran a solid race to earn the right to be the GOP nominee for House District 30. He has been certified by the Alabama Ethics Commission and the State Republican Party. It is unfortunate that Mr. McKay would pursue such a fruitless action here at the 11th hour. But in the end I believe that the Court will affirm Craig Lipscomb’s standing as our candidate.”

It has been recently reported that certain candidates did not file their 2017 statements by the deadline. Under Alabama law failure to file a Statement of Economic Interests means removal from the ballot. On Saturday, the Republican Party told the Alabama Republican Reporter that they will not be removing any candidates from the November 6 ballot.

“There has been a lot of confusion and misinformation disseminated on this topic,” Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan told APR in a statement. “The ALGOP has received compliance clearance for all of our candidates from the Alabama Ethics Commission. There will be nonec removed by our Party as they have met our qualifications.”

“If an official filed late, after April 30 while they had a form already on file with the Alabama Ethics Commission, it is not ballot removal,” Lathan added. “They may incur a small fine but that is a decision the Commission may or not make. There is also a grace period for filing.”

Brandon Craig Lipscomb is a Gadsden architect.

Robert McKay is the former Mayor of Ashville.

Secretary of State John Merrill told APR that Public Service Commissioner Jeremy Oden (R), State Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) and State Representative Dimitri Polizos (R-Montgomery) all also did not file their 2017 Statement of Economic Interests by the April 30th deadline and were given the opportunity to file late recently.

This lawsuit does not directly impact those candidates.

Lipscomb is being represented by former Assistant Alabama Attorney General and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Algert S. Agricola Jr. with the Montgomery based firm of Ryals, Donaldson, and Agricola, He has 40 years of legal experience.

Merrill said that the candidates could be subject to a fine of $5 a day at the Discretion of the Ethics Commission; but that missing the deadline did not rise to the level of removal as long as the candidate filed the current statement within ten days of receiving a notice that the filing needed to be made. Merrill said that all of the candidates were approved by the Alabama Ethics Commission.

In Gadsden’s City election three candidates (two council candidates and a mayoral candidate) were recently disqualified because they did not file their Statement of Economic Interests when they qualified.

The Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan said, “The certification date is Wednesday, August 22. There can be no ballot changes, edits or deletions after 5:00 pm CST.”

The general election will be on November 6.  The Republican nominee, whoever  that is, will face Jared Vaughn (D).

Editorial note: This article has been edited to changed the certification date.  An earlier version of this article erroneously had August 25th.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | What is possible…

Bill Britt

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From the Capitol to the State House, from the business community to the halls of education, there is an urgent need for Alabama leaders who will work together to turn back the prevailing tide of self-dealing and mediocracy. Alabama is far too often the home of status quo where leaders don’t dare aim for the far horizon because that requires facing unpleasant facts that demand hard choices. Over the last several months, Alabama Power Company’s CEO, Mark Crosswhite, and  leaders from Regions Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield, PowerSouth, Protective Life Corp., and others marquee businesses displayed extraordinary courage to salvage the burning ship that was the Business Council of Alabama.

As Crosswhite said in announcing BCA’s restructuring plan, “The wholesale governance and leadership changes made today show what is possible when businesses come together with a common goal.”

The fight to save BCA was not merely about what was best for business but how BCA, as an institution, could serve the higher interests of the state. Again, Crosswhite makes the point, “While the hard work of moving this organization forward remains, I am pleased with this progress and look forward to working with businesses across our state for a stronger BCA and a better Alabama.”

There is indeed hard work ahead because over the last several years, BCA’s culture has been shaped by the self-interests of a few unprincipled individuals.

What is BCA’s core mission?

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Its website says, “Making a sweet home for business.” That’s a slogan, not a purpose.

A mission statement in business is like an individual’s core beliefs; it is the guiding principle for every action and the place to run back to when things go wrong.

Going forward, the new executive committee will need to define what BCA is and what its character is.

Over the years, BCA has become synonymous with the Republican Party, but businesses, also like individuals, are more than a label. As billionaire industrialist Charles Koch said recently, “I don’t care what initials are in front or after somebody’s name.”

Perhaps Heather Brothers New, chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama, said it best, “We are fortunate in Alabama to have a business community that understands the importance of providing strong leadership on matters that affect our state’s economic success,” New said. “Individuals, families, and communities can’t thrive if our state doesn’t provide an environment where businesses can thrive. Everyone in Alabama benefits from this effort to ensure a unified and effective BCA.”

With governance and leadership changes at BCA, there is an opportunity to start anew to create a better BCA to serve its members and the state. As Bobby Vaughan, a representative from the Alabama Self-Insured Worker’s Compensation Fund said, “At the end of the day, our members are our customers. Our job is to serve the interests of our members, and the new structure will enable us to do that more effectively.”

Crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. Crosswhite and his fellow corporate leaders have shown what is possible. Now, the hard work begins.

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National

Shelby announces rural development investments in Alabama

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is granting $694,000 in federal funding for various energy-efficiency projects in rural Alabama. The grants are provided through the USDA Rural Energy for America program.

“It is vital that we continue investing in Alabama’s rural areas to promote economic development and growth,” said Senator Shelby. “These grants will allow farmers, ranchers, and small businesses to save on production costs while improving efficiency. I am proud that the USDA has awarded this funding to our state, and I look forward to continuing to help Alabama’s farmers and rural communities.”

The USDA’s Rural Energy for America program assists farmers, ranchers, and rural small businesses in developing renewable energy systems and in making energy-efficient improvements to their operations.

The rural development grants range in value from $105,554 to $32,500,

The grants will be used for improvements in Baldwin, Calhoun, Conecuh, Cullman, Elmore, Escambia, and Marshall counties.

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Senator Shelby is the Chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations. The Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill in May.

The legislation was approved by the full Senate in early August as part of a four-bill appropriations package, H.R. 6147.

Senator Richard Shelby was first elected to the Senate in 1986. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Alabama State Senate prior to his Senate service.

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National

Peter Joffrion challenges Mo Brooks to debates

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, Democratic Congressional candidate Peter Joffrion is challenging incumbent Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) to a series of debates across Alabama’s 5thCongressional District.

This is the second time that Joffrion has offered to discuss the terms of a debate with Brooks, to include location, ticketing, and security. Joffrion has proposed holding that first debate the week of September 10.

“Avoiding his constituents and only engaging like-minded voters in safe spaces has worked for my opponent in the past, but the threats to his incumbency are gaining traction,” Joffrion said. “This will be Brooks’ first run against an opponent who enjoys the support of many in the district who have new-found interest in politics since the 2016 elections. These constituents have used their newly engaged state to unleash massive activism for candidates they feel are listening to them.”
Joffrion’s campaign said that “Brooks’ weak showing in the June Republican primary illustrated that his own North Alabama voters are dissatisfied with their current representation and the manner in which Mr. Brooks conducts himself.”

The Joffrion campaign has proposed that debates be held in each of the counties that make up the Fifth Congressional District: Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Morgan and most of Jackson.

Peter Joffrion grew up in North Alabama. After graduating from law school at the University of Alabama, Joffrion went to work in the City Attorney’s office. He worked there for 22 years.

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His wife Kerry is an ordained minister and the founder and CEO of Turning Point Group, a company committed to the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of U.S. military veterans. Joffrion is retired from the city. Joffrion is active in his Church

Since retiring from his post as Huntsville’s City Attorney, Peter has been active in his church and has served for 11 years as a tutor and mentor at the Boys and Girls Club.

Mo Brooks is also an attorney. He was a prosecutor, a state legislator, and a county commissioner before running for Congress. In 2008, voters elected Parker Griffith (D) to Congress. Brooks announced that he was running as a Republican against Griffith in 2010. Before the election, Griffith switched to the Republican Party. Undeterred, Brooks ran for the office anyway, unseating Griffith in the 2010 GOP Primary. Brooks beat Griffith again in the 2012 Republican Primary. Griffith switched parties again and was the Democratic party nominee for governor in 2014.

Brooks defeated Republican primary opponent, Clayton Hinchman, 61.26 percent to 38.74.

Brooks is a member of the House Freedom Caucus and one of the most vocal supporters of the space program in the Congress.

The general election will be November 6.

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Billing records show Balch attorneys played substantial role in state superintendent search, alleged smear campaign

by Josh Moon Read Time: 4 min
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