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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.

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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.

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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Brooks: Scalise fielding the ball was highlight of Congressional Baseball Game

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Steve Scalise speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Gage Skidmore/Flikr)

On Thursday that Congressional Baseball Game for Charity was held on June 14, 2018, the one anniversary of the shooting that took place at the Republican practice last year.

U.S. Representative Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) started the game at first base and was on the practice field a year earlier when the attempted assassin opened fire on House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana).  Brooks name was on the short list of Republican congress members that the assassin intended to kill.

When asked to share his experience on this year’s game, Brooks said, ” On the one hand, it is truly an honor to be in Congress and play baseball in the Washington Nationals major league stadium in front of 16,000 people while raising close to a million dollars for children’s charities. On the other hand, our Republican team was outplayed fielding, batting, pitching, base running and every other phase of the game. We are going to have to get a lot better if we are to overcome the Democrat’s ace pitcher, Cedric Richmond, a former college pitcher who still has very good stuff. The highlight of the game was the first play, a grounder to a still-recovering Steve Scalise at second base, who somehow fielded it and threw the batter out to me at first base. That one play, a year after his near death shooting injuries, was inspirational and made it all worthwhile.”

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Team Democrat successfully defended their title against Team GOP at Nationals Park. All proceeds from this bipartisan event go to the Congressional Sports for Charity, a 501(c) nonprofit that produces bipartisan sporting events to raise funds for local charities that benefit children and families. The 2018 Congressional Baseball Game for Charity has dozens of sponsors.

The first Congressional Baseball Game was played in 1909. There have been a few interruptions, but the event has grown into a significant charity event. Senate and House members of each party team up to settle scores and solidify friendships off the floor and on the field. Over the last century the Congressional Baseball Game has evolved into a major fundraiser for local charities that benefit children and families.
Huntsville area economic developer Nicole Jones attended the game with her children.

“It was a joy to witness the camaraderie and sportsmanship on the field and in the stands of Nationals Park,” Nicole Jones said. “Heartwarming moments of the evening included when Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA-01) took the field accompanied by David Bailey and Crystal Griner, two Capitol Police Special Agents who were also victims of the shooting last year.”

Griner and Bailey were assigned to Scalise as a security detail because he was a member of the House leadership team. The two officers returned fire on the assassin who was armed with a rifle. Both were wounded in the extensive firefight, which ended with the gunman’s death. Brooks who was pinned down in the dugout with the rest of the team performed first aid on a badly wounded Scalise before paramedics could arrive. Scalise nearly died from complications from his wounds.

“My family and I are proud of our friend and Congressman Mo Brooks (R-AL-05) for assisting a fallen comrade last year and for taking the field again this year,” Nicole Jones added. “The entire field ran and hugged Steve Scalise, second baseman, after he threw the ball to Mo Brooks on first base, which resulted in an out after the first pitch thrown by Special Agent David Bailey. I am thankful to have had my daughter with me tonight to witness a historic game and see how folks join together to help others.”

Congressman Mo Brooks represents Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District.

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Alabama voters’ priorities: Education, healthcare and government ethics

Chip Brownlee

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A new report shows there is broad agreement among Alabama voters about what issues are important to them as the state nears a statewide election in November.

The report, published by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, is the result of a survey the group 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.

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First among them: Pre-K-12 education, health care and government ethics and corruption.

Seventy percent of Alabama voters indicated that they are “very concerned” about the state and direction of the state’s public education system. Education was ranked first among voters’ concerns. And the concern was spread across the political spectrum with 60 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of independents and 80 percent of Democrats listing education as a concern.

PARCA then asked a follow-up question to determine what exactly voters’ were concerned about when it comes to education.

“When asked to identify their top priority regarding K–12 education, a plurality (44%) selected funding,” the report reads. “Nearly a quarter selected teacher preparedness as their top priority with lesser percentages selecting student achievement and class size. Pluralities of every partisan stripe prioritize funding.”

Just behind education was healthcare, with 65 percent of respondents listing health care as something they are “very concerned” about.

“Majorities of every demographic and political party say they are very concerned about healthcare,” the report reads. “Those with less than full-time employment and the self- employed are even more likely to say they are very concerned.”

More than half of those who responded to the survey said the cost of insurance was their top priority, and about 20 percent said expanding Medicaid, improving rural access to care and prescription drug costs were their top concerns.

Across the political spectrum, most respondents said the cost of insurance was their priority.



Over the course of a year in 2016 and 2017, the top three elected officials in the state of Alabama were removed after corruption or ethics scandals. Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted of ethics violations, former Chief Justice Roy Moore was effectively removed for violating judicial ethics and former Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after sex scandal with a top aide.

At least 65 percent of respondents said they are “very concerned” about government corruption and ethics.

“While majorities of nearly every demographic or political group are concerned, there are some differences among partisan identifiers: A majority of Republicans are very concerned, while two-thirds of independents and over 80% of Democrats are very concerned,” the report reads.

While there is an expectation of polarization among the political parties, PARCA’s survey indicates there is actually a high degree of agreement among political parties about what the priorities are.

“When we look at the Top 10 within each group of partisan identifiers, we see a good deal of overlap,” according to the report. “All include five common issues in their top seven: K–12 Education, Healthcare, Government Corruption and Ethics, Poverty and Homelessness, and Jobs and the Economy. Another six issues are shared by two partisan groups.”

Only three issues appeared among the priorities of those of a single political party: tax reform, prison and sentencing reform and environmental protection.

There was also a lot of agreement among different demographics including race, age, educational attainment, wealth and age groups.

“While there are some interesting differences across groups, many of the top issues overall are also represented in the subgroups,” the report reads.

Overall, the report shows that there is not polarization among traditional political, ideological, race or generational lines

“Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters,” the report reads. “This research suggests that elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.”

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Byrne says he is “profoundly disturbed” by information in the IG’s Report

Brandon Moseley

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Friday, Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Montrose) said that he is “profoundly disturbed” by the report by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz and that “The reports casts a cloud over the FBI. The Inspector General was highly critical of the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation prior to the 2016 presidential election.

“I am profoundly disturbed by the findings released in the report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, not only as a Member of Congress, but as an officer of the court and as an American,” Congressman Byrne said. “It is apparent that actions by the FBI during the 2016 presidential election deviated from longstanding policy, practices, and norms of the FBI. High ranking FBI officials showed a willingness to take official actions to hurt President Trump’s electoral chances. Others actively leaked sensitive materials to the press in exchange for sporting tickets, meals, and other personal favors. This and other egregious behavior noted in this report cannot be tolerated.”

“The report casts a cloud over the FBI and has caused near irreparable damage in the eyes of the American people to one of our nation’s most important institutions,” Byrne continued. “These findings warrant a full-scale investigation by the Department of Justice, including the possibility of criminal charges.”

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The IG’s report was highly critical of fired FBI Director James Comey.

“At the very least, this report confirms President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey,” Byrne said. “The report highlights Director Comey’s subjective, ad hoc decision-making throughout the investigation process, ultimately harming the reputation of the FBI as a fair administrator of justice. Director Comey’s behavior after he was fired from the FBI and during his book tour is in many ways even more alarming. It seems he has forgotten that his obligations did not end when he was removed from the FBI.”

“There are many fine people in the FBI and the Department of Justice who have felt the repercussions of this situation, but I refuse to let the egregious misbehavior of a few harm the reputation of these agencies and the rank-and-file people who work there,” Byrne added. “That said, the behavior of a few has tainted multiple investigations involving the 2016 presidential campaign. The report only adds weight to my call for Robert Mueller to either put forward a case or wrap up his investigation once and for all.”

President Donald J Trump (R) took to Twitter to respond to the report. “The IG Report is a total disaster for Comey, his minions and sadly, the FBI. Comey will now officially go down as the worst leader, by far, in the history of the FBI. I did a great service to the people in firing him. Good Instincts. Christopher Wray will bring it proudly back!”

The President added, “FBI Agent Peter Strzok, who headed the Clinton & Russia investigations, texted to his lover Lisa Page, in the IG Report, that “we’ll stop” candidate Trump from becoming President. Doesn’t get any lower than that!”

Former Director Comey also commented on Twitter, “I respect the DOJ IG office, which is why I urged them to do this review. The conclusions are reasonable, even though I disagree with some. People of good faith can see an unprecedented situation differently. I pray no Director faces it again. Thanks to IG’s people for hard work.?

While the IG was highly critical of Comey it did say there was no evidence of political bias on the part of Comey.

Congressman Bradley Byrne represents Alabama’s First Congressional District.

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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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