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Opinion | State media owes no apologies for Marshall suicide reporting

Josh Moon

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Reporting death is never easy.

There is no good way to do it. There is no right question to ask. There is inevitably the feeling that you, as an outsider, are intruding upon a situation that you cannot fully appreciate because you are not dealing with the loss and pain.

But make no mistake: Reporting on death is one of the responsibilities of a news reporter.

That is particularly true in the case of public officials and their families. And it is even truer when those deaths involve unusual circumstances.

That is why on Tuesday, media outlets, starting with al.com, began to report the details of the death of Bridgette Marshall, wife of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

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The details in those stories were not particularly graphic. The details were not sensationalized. All of the details were simply copied from the public police report prepared by the Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Police Department.

Oddly, the attorney general, a former county district attorney, doesn’t seem to understand this fairly common practice that occurs following thousands of deaths each year.

At least, he didn’t seem to understand it when he opened his press conference on Wednesday by vilifying al.com for its story on Bridgette Marshall’s death. A report was written more than two days following her death, and almost exclusively quoting from the police report.

“I watched my daughter read a reckless article last night that disclosed the circumstances of how Bridgette died,” Marshall said, after noting that he was being “forced” to hold the news conference to address rumors.

How the story was “reckless,” I’m not sure. I’m also not sure why Marshall’s daughter, a 22-year-old who he said was a month away from being married, did not know the very basic details contained in that story.

If we’re being fair here, the media has been more than respectful to the Marshall family during this awful situation. For 48 hours, despite solid information from solid sources, state media outlets didn’t press the official line from the AG’s office — that Bridgette Marshall died after a struggle with mental illness.

But we certainly could have.

There was not one single piece of information handed out by Marshall at Wednesday’s press conference — a press conference where he laid bare all of his late wife’s struggles with addiction, health and mental illness — that we didn’t know before lunch on Sunday. Right down to what was said during the phone call between them.

APR held all of that back out of respect for the family, waiting to see what would be contained in the forthcoming police report. And we allowed the police report to dictate just how much we reported.

Because those reports are public information and are routinely reported by news outlets. Each time you see the details of a homicide or a death investigation, that information, more likely than not, came from a police report or coroner’s report.

And those reports are made public for a few reasons — to assure accountability and in the interest of public health and safety. For example, if a person dies of a gunshot wound, the public has an interest in knowing if it was self-inflicted or possibly murder, and what reasons the police had for making their determinations.

Basically, we, as a society, decided a long time ago that the benefit to the public of providing the basic details of a person’s death outweighs whatever privacy concerns the reports might bring.

It’s inconceivable that Steve Marshall isn’t aware of this, so maybe Wednesday’s outrage was less about the reporting and more about his personal grief. Maybe that’s a bit more understandable.

But let’s be clear about two things: no one in the media wronged Marshall or his family by reporting the facts of wife’s death. And no one in the media took any joy about reporting those facts.

 

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Opinion | Giving thanks, but not so much, too

Joey Kennedy

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So here we are, on the eve of another Thanksgiving, my 63rd. This is the time of year we’re called on to express what we’re thankful for, and I’m thankful for so much. I’m thankful for a whole lot more than I can express in one column.

Here’s the dilemma, though. As we inventory our memories for all the stuff we’re thankful for, we can’t help but dredge up some of the things we’re not so thankful for. As a believer in full disclosure, I can’t help but note both sides of this beautiful Thanksgiving holiday.

I’m thankful for my family, which doesn’t simply include blood relatives — blood relatives who I have no choice in claiming. But I’m thankful for my even larger circle of family that I chose – and who chose me. They know who they are.

I’m thankful for Veronica, my wife of nearly 39 years, who has stood by me through everything life tosses around, as she vowed she would do on that cold, Groundhog’s Day in 1980 at a Baptist church in Anniston.

I am not thankful for blood family who reject their kin because he’s a “libtard,” a “socialist,” a “communist,” a “fascist,” an “enemy of the people,” a teller of truth they cannot — or will not — accept, an essayist of memoir who writes about a life they claim to have never lived. I’m not thankful for that.

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I’m thankful for our dogs, most of them pugs, most of them infirm, who would all be dead today if people had not stepped in to save them. They share their hearts and souls, and comfort us in ways no human can. Next Thanksgiving, a few or more will no longer be with us, and we know that, but I’m so grateful they are with us today, and show us what unconditional love truly is. I am not thankful that so many humans fail to understand the power of love to conquer our many differences.

I am thankful for so many people, some of whom even disagree with these columns, who tell me their own stories and viewpoints. I am not thankful for the trolls who only write to attack me or my family personally because they can’t argue against the ideas they reject out of hand.

I am thankful we live in a country that allows us a real voice in our government, but not thankful that so many who have that voice exercise it without thought. I’m not thankful, either, that those thoughtless voters elect individuals like our state attorney general who tolerates public corruption or our secretary of state who wants to suppress their vote. I am not thankful for them, or the people who ignorantly put them in office.

I am thankful I am a teacher and that I meet so many smart young people who are just starting their lives. I am not thankful that I’m witness to some of them take the opportunities they have for granted while others struggle mightily to make their dream of a good education a reality.

I am thankful we have the have some of the best health care in the world, miracles that can be the cure for a brain tumor in a child. I am not thankful that kind of care is not available to every one of us who live in the richest of all nations.

I am thankful for the diversity of people I cross paths with every day. I’m thankful for how much I learn from them. I’m thankful for their energy and dedication and, yes, love. I am not thankful for so many of those in our lives who hate them because they’re black or brown or wear a hijab or are Jewish or gay or different. I am not thankful that some of those who hate have access to weapons that kill on a whim, and destroy families in a split-second of hateful spite.

I am certainly not thankful that the current president of the United States and so many in his hateful party enjoy fueling that venom and division, making our better angels cry tears of frustration. Jesus wept, too, you know.

I am thankful for the awareness life gives me, for the deep feelings, for the pain — for being able to shed tears at a good movie or start bawling at the end of the right book. I am thankful for the sadness at watching a homeless person struggle and for the joy when I hear she succeeds.

I am thankful for so much in my life that I have never asked for, or earned, or deserved, but, for some reason, have.

True, I’m not thankful for many things. But I am thankful for so much.

God is good, not vengeful, and I’m thankful for that, too.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Alabama vs. Auburn game

Steve Flowers

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The only sport that Alabamians enjoy more than Alabama politics is college football. We especially love the Alabama vs. Auburn football game.  Folks, this is Alabama/Auburn week in Alabama. The Alabama vs. Auburn annual event is one of the fiercest of college football rivalries. It is the game of the year. It is a state civil war that divides friends and even families. It is bragging rights for the entire year. The loser has to live with his boasting next door neighbor for 364 days. It seems that one must choose a side no matter if you despise college football and could care less who wins. Newcomers to our state are bewildered on this fall day each year. They cannot comprehend the madness that surrounds this epic war. It is truly that, a war. It is the game of the year.

Young boys all over Alabama grow up playing football in their front yards and dream of playing in this big game. It is said that when these two rivals meet one can throw out the record books. However, that is not necessarily true. In fact, in 90 percent of the games the favorite has won. A lot of SEC championships and bowl games have been decided in the game. It has made many Alabamians’ Thanksgiving holiday either joyous or sad. I liked the rivalry better when it was played at Legion Field, but I am an old-timer in heart and age.

The game was not played for 40-years between 1908 and 1948. Myth has it that the game was halted because of the intense rivalry. That is not the case. The true history of the ceasing and renewal is that after the 1907 games, the schools could not agree on the terms of the contract. The dispute involved meal money, lodging, officials and how many players each side could bring. Football was not the passion it is today so the two schools let the matter rest and the fans did not seem to care.

That began to change as college football grew to a major sport in the 1940s. When the series resumed, a popular myth was that the Alabama Legislature called a special meeting and forced the teams to play. This never happened, but the Alabama House of Representatives did pass a resolution in 1947 to encourage, not force, the schools to meet in football, and the officials at Alabama and Auburn agreed. The Presidents of Auburn and Alabama simply talked with each other and decided it would be in the best interest of the schools to start playing again on an annual basis.

The contract was drawn up, the papers signed and the rivals literally buried the hatchet. On the morning of December 4, 1948, the president of each school’s student bodies dug a hole at Birmingham’s Woodrow Wilson Park, tossed a hatchet in and buried it. The series began again in 1948 with a 55-0 Alabama victory and the teams have squared off every season since.

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Alabama leads the series 45-36-1. This record reveals that Alabama has not dominated the series, like it has against other SEC rivals and other national powerhouse programs.

In the political arena, the University of Alabama alumni have dominated the Alabama political scene. During the 60-year period from 1910 through the 1970s, almost every Alabama Governor, U. S. Senator, and Congressman was a graduate of the University of Alabama, either undergraduate, Law school, or both.

Currently, our state’s most prominent and powerful political figure, Richard Shelby, is a graduate as an undergraduate and the Law School at the University.

A couple of Auburn men broke through the ice to grab the brass ring of Alabama politics, the Governor’s office, Gordon Persons won in 1950 and Fob James, a former Auburn halfback won in 1978 as a Democrat and came back and won a second term as a Republican in 1994. In recent years, since 1982, Governors George Wallace, Don Siegelman, Bob Riley and Robert Bentley have all been Alabama Alumni.

However, our current Governor, Kay Ivey, is an Auburn girl through and through. She and her best friend, Jimmy Rane, became political allies at Auburn. They both have turned out fairly well.

Newly elected State Representative, Wes Allen of Pike County, was a walk-on wideout on one of Alabama’s National Championship teams. He was coached by Gene Stallings and Dabo Swinney. Wes’s father is State Senator Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa. This is a first in Alabama political history, a father and a son tandem serving in the Alabama Legislature together.

See you next week.

Steve is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Marshall axes Hart to please political donors

Bill Britt

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Despite nearly two dozen criminal investigations in progress, three empaneled grand juries and a major power grab underway at the State Ethics Commission, Attorney General Steve Marshall ambushed Special Prosecution Division Chief Matt Hart before he could enter his office at 501 Washington Avenue in Montgomery on Monday.

Marshall did not terminate Hart because he was an ineffective leader or an unsuccessful prosecutor, but because Hart is both those things and more.

Marshall is evil, but he’s also weak, which makes him a dangerous man.

With Hart’s forced resignation, Marshall kept his private campaign promises to his big donors that Hart would be gone after the general election. So, just 13 days after his election as attorney general and four years until the next election, Marshall moved on Hart like a coward who shoots a lawman in the back in a Hollywood Western movie.

Marshall is a spineless little man who withers in the presence of a man like Hart. It’s not just his lack of character and willingness to cut deals to achieve power, but his utter disregard for the justice system he oversees.

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Marshall is treacherous and is now unfettered from the constraints of an honest prosecutor.

While Marshall may have silenced Hart’s voice in the grand jury and at criminal trials, it is doubtful that Hart as a private citizen will remain quiet.

Hart knows what Marshall is up to, as well as the intrigue of the elites who paid for his office.

When disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Marshall, he intended for the men to clash. It was part of the plan. Bentley did not select Marshall because he was the best candidate to take on the attorney general’s position, but because he had a history of compromised investigations and virtually no record of prosecuting public corruption as a district attorney. But, it was Marshall’s willingness to investigate Hart and Van Davis, who successfully prosecuted former Speaker and convicted felon Mike Hubbard, that caused Bentley and his paramour, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, to green-light his appointment.

When Hart confronted Marshall over his compromise with Bentley, there was little hope that a working relationship would be in the making between the two men.

Marshall is afraid of Hart, but he is also jealous of him. After only a few weeks at the attorney general’s office, staffers noticed how jealous he was of Hart’s success, not only as a winning prosecutor but because of the admiration he enjoyed in the press. Staffers laughed at Marshall’s man-crush on Hart behind his back, saying he should grow a beard and maybe the press would like him, too.

It was Marshall’s jealously and unwillingness to ruffle feathers that separated the men; one wanting to be admired and the other wants to fight crime.

Over the last year, the relationship continued to strain as Hart set his sights on some of Marshall’s influential donors or those close to them.

APR repeatedly warned during the 2018 election cycle that if Marshall was elected, he would immediately turn on Hart. But that didn’t matter to the voting public because despite his corruption, Marshall had an R by his name. As for the power-elites, they are happy to see Hart go.

With Hart out of the picture, the so-called Ethics Reform Commission has free reign to gut current ethics laws without so much as a peep from the attorney general.

This is just one of the reasons Hart’s departure will result in the further erosion of good government in the state.

Currently, there are serious investigations underway, but there is little belief they will continue with any degree of success with Hart gone. Marshall has no interest in pursuing public corruption or white-collar crime because prosecutors make enemies and Marshall wants nothing more than to be liked.

Other unresolved issues that are of concern, not least among them, is the recent ruling by the State Ethics Commission, which gives the Commission power to reduce violations of the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act by a mere vote of the commission. After being pressured by Hart in October, Marshall wrote the Ethics Commission asking them to withdraw and reconsider Advisory Opinion No. 2018-11, which granted the commission broad powers never envisioned by legislators who wrote the law. Hart’s ouster put in doubt whether Marshall will even pursue the issue, leaving the Ethics Commission with expanded powers.

According to sources within the Ethics Commission, there is a general feeling that Marshall will not challenge the commission because he is facing campaign finance charges for accepting $735,000 in alleged illegal contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). Marshall has voices worrying that the commission has him over a barrel, leading him to tiptoe around any confrontation with the commission. As one insider said, “They got Marshall where they want him and he’s a pu**y who wouldn’t confront a granny in a wheelchair without his Chief Deputy.”

Another source of unfinished business is a recent ham-handed attempt by Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton involving a case against Scott Phillips and Trey Glenn. Last week, Albritton issued a press statement saying Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help in indicting the two men. But, it was the Ethics Commission who approached Anderton, sources within his office have confirmed. Albritton also faces criticism and possible legal troubles because he disclosed the indictments before Phillips and Glenn were arrested, which may be a severe breach of state law. If Albritton is involved in wrongdoing, it would have fallen to Hart to prosecute.

November 18 is a dark day in Alabama history because corrupt politicians and those that want to corrupt now have a champion in Marshall.

Marshall can now say to those who put him in power, “Promises made, promises kept.”

But Marshall will do well to remember that actions have consequences, and there is a cost to corrupt acts, even if they are legal. More than one unscrupulous politico has met his fate at the end of a keyboard.

Marshall is saying he will take a hit from the media for firing Hart, but not a single elected official will say a word against him, according to those in the attorney general’s office.

Marshall believes that four years is long enough for people to forget he axed one of the state’s most successful prosecutors in the middle of multiple investigations to benefit his political donors.

But not everyone forgets, and there is a lot more to know about Marshall and what he has to hide.

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Opinion | RIP, ethics

Josh Moon

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The hope for ethics in Alabama’s state government died on Monday.

To be fair, it had been on life support for quite some time, having taken on several near-fatal blows over the last few years. But on Monday, after months of trying, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall finally took ethics out back, like Ol’ Yeller, and shot it dead.

Marshall’s firing of prosecutor Matt Hart, head of the AG’s special prosecution unit, was the death knell. The final straw. The five-finger death punch that snuffed out any small, lingering flame of hope.

That’s basically all Matt Hart was at this point — one small ray of hope in an otherwise hopelessly corrupt state.

Hart was one guy hellbent on making Democrats and Republicans alike respect the rule of law and stop profiting from their public positions.

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That’s all he wanted. And if he believed you had skirted the laws or accepted shady cash in order to benefit yourself, God bless you.

Larry Langford tried him. Robert Bentley tried him. Mike Hubbard threw everything and the prison sink at him.

Matt Hart beat ‘em all. And laughed at ‘em later.

God, they hated him, these people who want to use government as their own little tools for personal financial growth. Because Hart knew their games. He knew how they set up innocent-looking schemes that enriched only a handful of their friends or their friends’ businesses. He knew how they masked their sins with words like “business friendly” and “economic development.”

Matt Hart just kept beating them at their own games. So, they had to get rid of him.

Enter: Steve Marshall.

For more than a year now, APR has written story after story, column after column detailing the many, many ways in which Marshall has proven to be completely devoid of basic ethics and willing to do anything to get and keep the job of AG.

Consider this: In a state filled with crooked, spit-on-their-own-mothers-to-get-ahead politicians, Marshall was the only person willing to accept a quid pro quo deal to get the AG gig. Bentley, as APR reported, shopped the deal around, offering the AG’s job to anyone who would agree to investigate Hart and his team.

Marshall was the only one to take it.

And that was just Marshall’s start. Once the campaign for AG heated up, and real challengers entered the race, the panic in Marshall knew no bounds.

The guy took campaign contributions from Hubbard’s lawyers and a guy who bribed Hubbard. While a grand jury in Lee County was still considering charges against the briber. And while a state appeals court was considering Hubbard’s appeal.

Take a moment and think about that.

But Marshall wasn’t nearly done.

When the going got tough in the Republican primary, Marshall accepted more than $700,000 in campaign donations from the Republican Attorneys General Association. He knew the money was illegal, because RAGA allowed its funds to be transferred PAC-to-PAC — a method used to obscure the original source of the funds.

Such transfers are illegal in Alabama, as Marshall knew well. Just before accepting the donations, he had submitted a brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that challenged Alabama’s PAC-to-PAC ban. Marshall argued that the ban was a protection for the people and the only thing preventing a quid pro quo government.

He was right.

But it didn’t matter. Giving back the contributions, as Luther Strange had done a few years earlier, wasn’t an option. Marshall had to win. And he was willing to do anything.

And so, here we are.

This is what it looks like when your AG has been compromised. When he owes his political life to specialized interests of top donors.

Sometimes, those donors want you to turn a blind eye to corruption. Sometimes, they want you to lay back as another entity usurps your power. Sometimes, they want you to change the ethics laws so the dadgum things aren’t so tough. Sometimes, they want you to intervene in a major public corruption investigation. 

And sometimes, they want you to fire that pesky prosecutor who keeps treating the written law like the damn words have meanings.

 

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Opinion | State media owes no apologies for Marshall suicide reporting

by Josh Moon Read Time: 3 min
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