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Opinion | Birmingham superfund scam extends well beyond federal courtroom

Josh Moon

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A scam took place in Birmingham.

It involved an EPA superfund site. It involved political corruption. It involved poor, mostly black people getting the absolute shaft by the people who swore oaths to protect them.

No, this scam isn’t part of the ongoing Oliver Robinson federal corruption trial.

It is very specifically not part of that trial.

Because that’s the scam. That only Robinson and three others are being shamed for their abhorrent actions.

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It’s so absurd, it’s laughable.

I’ve followed along with this case since the beginning — pulling court filings, talking to those involved, talking to people on the fringes, discussing it with lawyers and former prosecutors. I’ve also followed the work of the reporters — mainly al.com’s Kyle Whitmire and John Archibald — who have been reporting this story on a daily basis.

If you’ve somehow missed what’s happening there, here’s the gist: The EPA discovered massive, people-killing pollution in the ground in north Birmingham, allegedly from decades of pollution from nearby coal plants. The EPA was starting a cleanup project, which it planned to force the coal companies to pay for, and was looking to designate the site a “superfund site.” Doing so would’ve expanded their testing and put coal companies on the hook for millions more in cleanup.

Drummond Coal, one of the biggest coal producers in the country, was particularly annoyed by this. So, working through its lawfirm, Balch & Bingham, Drummond (allegedly) bribed former state Rep. Oliver Robinson to fight the superfund designation both in the Legislature and in the affected neighborhoods.

At least, that’s the story if you believe what the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham is pushing.

In reality, as we know from the court evidence in this case, that’s far, far, far from all that was happening. And Robinson, Balch attorneys Joel Gilbert and Steve McKinney and Drummond vice president David Roberson — the three men alleged to have bribed Robinson — are far from the only people to have dirty hands in this.

Here’s what we know for certain: The Balch & Bingham law firm was producing documents on behalf of half the elected people in Alabama, and all of those documents were fighting the evil EPA, which had the gall to want to come into Alabama and stop poor black people from dying from pollution cancer.

I’m not exaggerating this.

We know these things to be true. We know it because most of our elected officials are idiots, and because Balch was producing so many pre-written letters it made mistakes, so there’s stone cold hard evidence that Balch wrote letters that then-AG Luther Strange sent to the EPA. And wrote a whole resolution that our entire state Legislature PASSED! And wrote more letters that Robinson and other elected officials coerced affected citizens to sign.

It didn’t stop there, either. Some of Drummond’s business partners and financial partners aided it and other coal companies in the area, contributing millions more to this scam.

But for right now, I want you to think about only the most egregious sellout.

Seriously. Take a moment and really think about the details of this:

There is an area of this state filled with people. That area, over the course of decades, has become polluted to the point that people — elderly people, children, preachers and sinners and Christians and good and decent folks — are dying early and falling sick more often.

A federal agency runs tests that conclusively prove this pollution is present. It believes the polluters are nearby multi-million dollar companies.

Instead of paying what would’ve amounted to a fraction of its annual profits to clean up the mess it made, Drummond Coal, one of the alleged polluters, gets its high-powered law firm to fight it. That firm draws up a resolution against the EPA.

A resolution against those poor, sick people in Birmingham. Against everything that is good and decent and holy.

And a powerful state senator, Jabo Waggoner, sponsors it. And both houses pass it. And the governor signs it.

Now, most of these lawmakers — as usual — had no idea what they were voting on. But that doesn’t matter. Because what they passed sent a message to the poor people of Birmingham. It made it easier to sell them out.

So, yeah, there was a scam in north Birmingham.

But don’t you for a second believe the perpetrators are limited to the people in that federal courtroom.

 

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Opinion | What in the world happened to Robert Bentley?

Josh Moon

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Being governor is hard.

It’s a tough, gruelling job that requires 24-hour attention and results in long, long days for the man or woman who holds the position. Such a job can wear on a person, grinding them down physically and mentally.

And if you doubt the negative effects that such a job can have on the mental stability of a person, consider former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.

Because somewhere between his first inauguration in 2011 and his stunning forced resignation in 2016, Bentley lost his mind.

And it’s still gone today.

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In a recent deposition in a wrongful termination civil suit filed by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier, Bentley provided some of the weirdest, most perplexing answers.

Like, for example, on the topic of his wife of 50 years, Dianne, discovering his relationship with his staffer, Rebekah Mason, Bentley was asked if Dianne found the relationship inappropriate.

“I’m sure that she did,” he responded.

“Do you consider the relationship inappropriate?” Bentley was asked by Collier’s attorney, Kenny Mendelsohn.

“No,” the former governor said flatly.

Um, say what?

That also seemed to be the general reaction in the deposition room to this answer. Because Mendelsohn immediately followed up with questions about Bentley’s multiple press conferences in 2016, during which he spoke of his “inappropriate relationship” with Mason.

I know this to be true because I attended all of those press conferences. I heard him say these things, express remorse for his actions, apologize to his family.

As a matter of fact, that he ONLY had an inappropriate relationship — and not a sexual relationship — with Mason was his entire defense at those press conferences.  

By the way, he’s held on to that “we didn’t have sexual intercourse” claim, too. Doubled and tripled down on it during this deposition, claiming there was a lot of touching and kissing but no sex.

No intercourse. No oral sex.

But really, I’m just not sure how much faith we can put in the former governor’s statements about his relationship with Mason. And I say that because of one specific exchange between Bentley and Mendelsohn. One exchange that is so unbelievable, so off-the-wall bonkers that you have to wonder if Bentley has wandered into space cadet territory.

That exchange comes after his astounding assertion that the relationship with Mason — who now works for him, making $5,000 per month at his dermatology practice — wasn’t inappropriate.

Mendelsohn asks Bentley why — if the relationship with Mason wasn’t inappropriate — did Bentley hold multiple press conferences to apologize.

Bentley says he doesn’t know.

No. Not that he doesn’t recall why he did it. But he literally doesn’t know why he was apologizing.

“At that time, I didn’t know what I was apologizing for, because I didn’t even know what I was talking about,” Bentley insists. “You know, I apologized for inappropriate things that I may have said, but at that time I didn’t know what those things were. If I had to do over again, I probably wouldn’t have had a press conference that day.”

Bentley insists repeatedly that when he apologized during a press conference — a press conference specifically called to refute claims made by Collier, who had held his own press conference a few hours earlier — he had no idea why he was talking. He had never heard the tapes, Bentley says, of him describing how he loves to walk up behind Mason and put his hands on her breasts.

According Bentley, he didn’t watch Collier’s press conference. No one told him what was said.

He just grabbed a prepared statement and started talking.

Ohhhhh, and if you think that’s some insanity, try this on: Bentley claims he wasn’t sure it was Mason who was on the other end of those calls Diane Bentley secretly recorded.

“I’m not denying it was her, I’m just saying there’s no concrete evidence that it was her,” Bentley said. “But most likely it was.”

Mendelsohn, obviously flabbergasted by this, asks the obvious: “As we sit here today, I’m asking you, was it her?”

Bentley: “I don’t remember doing that. I don’t remember the tapes.”

Mendelsohn: “Is there anybody else that you would have been talking to about holding their breasts and pulling them up close to you, like what’s in the tapes?”

Bentley: “I don’t remember the tapes. I don’t remember doing what it says on the tapes.”

Honestly, I don’t even know what to say about that.

But I can say this. When he was the upset winner in 2010 and became governor, Robert Bentley had a lot of people who believed in him, a lot of people who thought he was a good and decent guy who would try to do a good job.

Those same people have no idea what happened to that man.

And judging by this deposition, he’s still lost.

 

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Opinion | Alabama voters: You just don’t care

Joey Kennedy

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Secretary of State John Merrill expected turnout in Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican Party primary runoffs to be “extraordinarily low.”

Merrill said he thought, on average, 15 percent to 18 percent of the state’s registered voters would go to the polls.

Even that was wishful thinking.

Alabama voters: You don’t care. With as much going on in Alabama and American politics at this moment in history, you just don’t give a damn.

Early numbers indicated fewer than 12 percent of Alabama’s registered voters bothered to take a few minutes to be heard in Tuesday’s runoffs.

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True, in some areas, Democrats didn’t really have runoffs. But Republicans had runoffs in key statewide races, including lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the courts.

And even where Democrats had runoffs – Jefferson County is an example – voting numbers were low.

Alabama voters, you just don’t care.
Of course a lot of this is on Merrill and Republicans in control of the House, Senate, and governor’s mansion, where the goal, truly, is a low voter turnout. Republicans don’t want voters to go to the polls because they’ll have more trouble staying in control if they do.

Strict photo voter ID, a prohibition against crossover voting in taxpayer-funded primaries, purges of voter rolls, keeping former inmates from re-registering to vote, partisan gerrymandering, the lack of early voting or multiple-day voting – all of this is part of the GOP’s efforts to suppress voter turnout.

That hideous, mean-spirited strategy is wildly successful, too.

Consider also that the turnout of “registered” voters does not mean “eligible” voters. Many voters are eligible, but for whatever reason, don’t register to vote. So Tuesday’s turnout of eligible voters was likely quite a bit below 10 percent.

In that vote, Republicans nominated their candidates for lieutenant governor (the second highest position in Alabama government) and attorney general (the state’s top law enforcement officer).

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, a disaster and embarrassment for Alabama in Congress for awhile now, was re-nominated for her fifth term and will likely defeat her Democratic Party opponent in November.

Another career politician, Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, was defeated in her primary for lieutenant governor, but this was a free election for political opportunist Cavanaugh. She’ll simply return to her post as president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, having lost little, and where she’ll continue to do little. But Cavanaugh will be well-rested for whatever political opportunity she tries to grab in 2020.

Important runoffs in Jefferson County for the five-member County Commission saw two of the most contentious Birmingham City Council members unseat more reasonable incumbents. At least these two are off the City Council now, but they’ll no doubt take their professional dysfunction to the Jefferson County Commission.

Because voter turnout was so low, the results don’t truly reflect what might have happened had voters turned out in the numbers they should have.

But c’mon, Alabama voters: You don’t really care, do you? Oh, you’ll gripe at the results, sure. You’ll moan and roll your eyes when the candidates you didn’t vote for embarrass your county or state. But you really don’t give a damn.

Maybe that’ll change some if the Southern Poverty Law Center’s and Campaign Legal Center’s Alabama Voting Rights Project is successful.

Secretary of State Merrill won’t like it, but that’s really more of a recommendation for the project than not.

The SPLC and CLC want to make it clear to tens of thousands of Alabamians that a felony conviction doesn’t permanently take away a person’s right to vote. Once an individual has fully paid for his crime, he can get his voting rights reinstated.

According to the SPLC’s July 12 announcement, “Workers will organize and train local leaders in communities across the state, participate in community events and forums, and go door to door to work with formerly incarcerated people who may be eligible to vote under Alabama law. They will also make use of an online tool, www.alabamavotingrights.com, that will guide formerly incarcerated Alabamians through the process of registering or re-establishing their voting status.”

Many of these “criminals” were convicted of nonviolent drug or other nonviolent offenses. They’ve paid their debt. Being eligible to vote again is an important part of their successful return to society.

“So many people fought and died to ensure that all citizens have a voice in our society through the right to vote, yet many men and women – disproportionately people of color and poor people – have been denied the right to vote even after serving their time and completing their sentences,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the SPLC, in the announcement. “The Alabama Voting Rights Project is dedicated to ensuring that every person who is eligible to vote in Alabama is registered and that each one of them can access the franchise. A healthy democracy depends on full participation by all members of society.”

And that’s what bothers Merrill and his Republican Party minions. “People of color and poor people” are disproportionally going to vote against Republicans. That’s probably why Merrill hasn’t done his duty to make sure these folks know they can regain their voting rights. The SPLC and CLC believe “(t)ens of thousands of additional Alabamians may be eligible to restore their right to vote through a simple application for a state Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote.”

So yeah, the dastardly plan worked Tuesday – and it has in many previous elections where our state leaders are happy if even 30 percent of registered voters show up.

As the state’s top election official, Merrill should be working to guarantee all eligible citizens are registered to vote, to make it convenient for them to vote, to get the highest voter turnout possible.

That’s not the strategy, though, and mainly because: 1) Voters don’t care enough to go vote. And, 2) because those in charge simply don’t want them to vote.

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

 

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Opinion | Alabama: The confused state

Josh Moon

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Alabama is a confusing state.

A state that prides itself on its hardworking, blue-collar image but somehow turned out overwhelmingly to vote for the (alleged) billionaire, reality TV star for president was just as bi-polar during Tuesday’s primary runoff election.

On one hand, voters seemed to want to rid themselves of long-serving, stagnant politicians, rejecting Democrats Alvin Holmes, John Knight and Johnny Ford and Republicans Twinkle Cavanaugh and Gerald Dial. They seemed to be saying that they wanted ethics and term limits and candidates that were more responsive and energetic.

But on the other hand, still standing at the end of the night were Steve Marshall, Martha Roby and Larry Stutts. So, voters were also saying they were cool with a complete lack of ethics, a complete disregard for constituents and a completely awful human.

Maybe this is why pre-election polling in Alabama is always so screwed up. How can a pollster figure out what you people want when even you don’t know?

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So, let’s try to dissect this a bit and come up with a few answers. 

Let’s start with the Democrats, because they’re easier to understand.

Holmes and Knight, with a combined 70 years of experience serving in the Alabama House, lost to two dudes who have combined to serve for exactly zero years in any state office. David Burkette, who beat Knight for what seemed like the 50th time in the past year, has served as a city councilman in Montgomery, but that’s the extent of their political experience. Kirk Hatcher, who I couldn’t pick out of a lineup with The Beatles, has zero political experience.

All of this fits with a recent trend in the Democratic Party to push for candidates who relate better to real, everyday people. They believe the old-school guys, particularly the multi-term lawmakers, are out of touch with the real people they serve and are selling them out.

And those voters are right.

For example, while I’ll happily vote for Chuck Schumer over pretty much any dollar-seeking, Bible-thumping Republican, I’d sure like to have an option that isn’t sitting right in the middle of the big banks’ pockets.

And so, the Dems have decided to clean house wherever it’s possible.

It was possible in Montgomery.

Republicans, however, are a different story, which is usually the case. Because while certain factions of the GOP love to play up this alleged independent streak they claim to have, at the end of the day, it’s hard for them to turn their backs on the guy they came in with.

They get trapped by the lights and sparkle of the incumbent’s deep pockets.

Or at least they used to.

Before Twinkle turned dull and Dial time ran out.

In those races, Republicans voted against the lifelong politicians, putting Will Ainsworth and Rick Pate, respectively, into office.

Ainsworth’s win was particularly satisfying, yet also so confusing. He’s a pro-ethics, pro-term limits guy who once stood up to Mike Hubbard and told him he needed to go.

How do you vote for a guy like Ainsworth and then also vote for Steve Marshall? Or Larry Stutts?

Marshall, in particular, has governed pretty much the opposite of Ainsworth and former AG candidate Alice Martin, who picked up nearly a third of the votes in the primary. Marshall’s not chasing crime and corruption. His major accomplishments have been weakening the state’s ethics laws  — a move the business community rewarded him for — and pushing back against the law that outlaws political action committee (PAC)-to-PAC transfers.

Marshall is OK with such transfers now that he’s raking in millions from PACs doing exactly what is outlawed.

Speaking of outlaws, I’m not sure how Stutts is even on the ballot, much less still winning GOP elections. He has been nothing but an embarrassment, selling out women and children and selling out everyone else fairly routinely.

And yet, he won.

I just don’t get it. At the end of these elections, there’s supposed to be a pattern. We’re supposed to be able to look at who won and who lost and tell people what it all means. That voters were tired of this, or happy about that, or that they want a certain type of candidate.

Not in Alabama.

We apparently do things a bit different here.

 

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Opinion | Birmingham superfund scam extends well beyond federal courtroom

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