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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 | Men are pigs; yes, they are

Joey Kennedy

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So it’s happening again.

A woman accuses a man of sexually assaulting her many years ago, this time while she and the man were in high school, and the voices, mostly those of men (but a few women, too) declare openly that she should have come forward earlier.

Why wait years, even decades, before making such damaging accusations? If it’s true, she should have come forward right after the assault took place. Right?

Federal judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominated to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is being accused by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of sexually assaulting her while they were at a party in high school. As usual when a woman comes forward with such accounts, the men – in this case, Kavanaugh and those supporting him – lash out at the accuser and deny anything ever occurred.

We’ve seen this many times before: Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, CBS boss Les Moonves, former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, television journalist Charlie Rose, comedian Louis C.K., even our notorious president Donald Trump and many others, including Anniston Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers.

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The Ayers case is especially close to me, because Ayers assaulted my wife, Veronica, by striking her 18 times on her butt with a metal ruler in the Star newsroom more than four decades ago, even as she fought and yelled at him to stop. In Veronica’s case, another Star reporter witnessed the assault.

Veronica only went public earlier this year, but I knew about the assault before we were engaged to be married more than 40 years ago. Throughout our marriage, I’ve seen first-hand how that abuse altered her outlook and left scars on her confidence. After Veronica went public, other women who had been assaulted by Ayers came forward.

Veronica had many good reasons not to go public at the time, not the least of which was that Ayers controlled her newly burgeoning journalism career.

At first — like just about every other man accused of similar disgusting behavior — Ayers denied anything happened. “I have no memory of the alleged incidents,” Ayers said when first contacted by journalist Eddie Burkhalter, who resigned from the Star because the newspaper would not pursue the story.  Ayers then said he regretted some things that occurred when he was younger (he was in his 40s). Finally, Ayers admitted to spanking one woman and, about Veronica’s assault, said: “Let the accusation stand.” Ayers then resigned as chairman of the company that publishes the Star.

The #MeToo movement gave Veronica the final bit of courage she needed to go public, and let me tell you, Veronica already was a brave, strong, independent woman.

Amazing Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporting by The Washington Post exposed Roy Moore for the stalker and assaulter he is. Other stories in many different publications, from The New York Times to New Yorker magazine, exposed so many other cads.

So I understand why Christine Blasey Ford kept quiet for so long. She told her husband and her therapist a number of years ago, but only went public after the allegation was revealed as the Senate considers Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

Dr. Ford has nothing to gain by making a false allegation, and from my reading of news sources, her allegation comes off as credible, like so many others we’ve heard.

The Senate, controlled by Republicans, has tried to ram Kavanaugh’s nomination through without proper vetting. The vast majority of documents the Senate needs to understand what kind of candidate Kavanaugh truly is was withheld from the Senate. Even this latest allegation was deemed confidential by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But it’s out now, and it’s possible, if Republicans go forward with a vote on Kavanaugh, we could have two known sexual assaulters on the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas, remember, was credibly accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill after he was nominated to the court in 1991.

A lot of men, mostly old white men, just don’t see anything wrong with such misbehavior. These are the same men who want to tell women what they can do with their bodies. But because Dr. Ford went public, she and her family have been forced to leave their home, her email has been hacked, and she has received death threats.

When Burkhalter and I wrote about Veronica’s assault by Ayers, comments from some readers were typically misogynous. The women stalked and assaulted by Roy Moore have experienced threats of violence and worse. Men don’t like to be called out for their sexual misdeeds. And when they are, their accusers, no matter how credible, have to pay a high price.

Just the fact that Dr. Ford stepped forward publicly and stands by her account shows there’s more here than Kavanaugh cares to “remember.”

To go forward with Kavanaugh’s nomination would be a travesty. But, sadly, we live in a time of travesties.

Folks, this is not just “boys being boys,” but rather, men being pigs – and a whole lot worse.

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

 

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Opinion | Maddox is right: The state shouldn’t pay for Bentley’s attorneys

Josh Moon

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Should the state be footing the bill for attorneys to defend former Gov. Robert Bentley in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency head Spencer Collier?

Gov. Kay Ivey says it should, that the state has an obligation to do so under the law.

Her challenger for the seat she currently holds, Walt Maddox, says no, and that Ivey is wrong about the state’s requirement to do so.

The war of words about the lawsuit started last week, when the Maddox camp questioned why the state was still footing the bill — a bill that’s surpassed $300,000 so far — to defend Bentley. Ivey responded to questions about the payments to Bentley’s attorneys over the weekend, saying it was appropriate to pay the bill, because the law requires it.

On Tuesday, the Maddox campaign issued a press release saying Ivey is mistaken about the law.

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And so, here we are.

First things first, let’s back up and explain just what’s going on.

Near the end of his tenure as governor, Bentley had a falling out with Collier over a request the Alabama Attorney General’s office was making of Collier. Basically, the AG’s office wanted Collier to file an affidavit about an investigation that was sort of related to the Mike Hubbard prosecution.

Bentley ordered Collier not to provide an affidavit and to instead tell the AG’s office that the investigation was ongoing.

Collier was concerned that lying to the AG’s investigator would violate the law. (It definitely does.) So, instead, he worked with Bentley’s legal advisor and issued a watered-down affidavit. When Bentley discovered what had been done, he fired Collier.

Collier, in his court filings, claims Bentley then set out to destroy him professionally through an investigation into misappropriated funds in ALEA and a smear campaign that, among other things, alleged that Collier was a drug addict.

So, Collier filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Ordinarily, such lawsuits would be kicked quickly by judges because state employees, such as the governor, enjoy immunity from lawsuits that arise from official acts. And in this case, Judge Greg Griffin agreed and dismissed most of the counts in Collier’s lawsuit.

But he also found that some of Bentley’s actions — specifically, the parts in which he retaliated against Collier — fell outside of his official duties. And so, he allowed the lawsuit to move forward. 

You should also know just why we, the taxpayers, are paying for Bentley’s defense in the first place.

The State of Alabama has an insurance program known as the General Liability Trust Fund that is used to pay for the legal defense of state employees who are sued as a result of incidents that occur while these employees are doing their state jobs. It also is used to cover any settlements stemming from lawsuits against state employees.

The official wording from the Code of Alabama says the GLTF will be used to cover “acts or omissions committed by the covered employee while in the performance of their official duties in the line and scope of their employment.”

And that brings us back to the argument between Ivey and Maddox.

Ivey claims that the law says Bentley should be covered. The Maddox camp says that was true up until the point the judge in the case found that Bentley’s actions fell outside the scope of his official duties.

After speaking to a few attorneys, it seems that the Maddox camp is right.

Griffin’s decision to allow the case to move forward, and specifically rejecting the defense’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that Bentley was immune from prosecution, recast Bentley’s position. His actions had to fall outside of the scope of his official duties in order for the lawsuit to proceed, which means the state has no responsibility to cover him.

Of course, there’s one other option here: Ivey could simply settle the lawsuit.

Collier was clearly wronged, and the state has all but admitted as much. The guy nearly went broke because our former governor lost his mind. To continue on with this lawsuit and the defense of Bentley is not just a monumental waste of money, it’s an embarrassment.

And it’s one more example of the political elite in this state operating a system that ensures they’re protected no matter the crimes they commit or the egregious nature of their behavior.

Collier didn’t deserve what happened to him and the rest of us don’t deserve to watch our hard-earned dollars be squandered on Bentley’s high-priced attorneys.

 

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Opinion | 1986 Governor’s race

Steve Flowers

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Since this is a gubernatorial election year, allow me to share an epic Governor’s Race with you.

The 1986 Governor’s race will be remembered as one of Alabama’s most amazing political stories. In 1978 Fob James sent the Three B’s, Brewer, Beasley and Baxley packing. Brewer and Beasley had been permanently exiled to Buck’s Pocket, the mythical destination for defeated Alabama gubernatorial candidates. However, Bill Baxley resurrected his political career by bouncing back to be elected lieutenant governor in 1982, while George Wallace was winning his fifth and final term as governor. Another player arrived on the state political scene. Charlie Graddick was elected as a fiery tough lock ‘em up and throw away the key attorney general. Graddick had previously been a tough prosecuting district attorney in Mobile.

When Wallace bowed out from seeking reelection in 1986, it appeared the race was between Bill Baxley, the lieutenant governor, and Charlie Graddick, the attorney general. It also appeared there was a clear ideological divide. The moderates and liberals in Alabama were for Baxley and the archconservatives were for Graddick. Baxley had the solid support of black voters, labor, and progressives. Graddick had the hard-core conservatives, including most of the Republican voters in Alabama.

The Republicans had gone to a primary by 1986 but very few Alabamians, even Republicans, participated. It was still assumed that the Democratic Primary was tantamount to election. The Democratic Primary would draw 800,000 Alabama voters while the GOP Primary might draw 40,000, so most Republican leaning voters felt that in order for their vote to count they had to vote in the Democratic Primary.

Baxley and Graddick went after each other with a vengeance in the primary. The race was close. Graddick came out on top by an eyelash. He encouraged Republicans to come vote for him in the Democratic Primary. They did and that is why he won. This was not something that had not been happening for decades. Brewer would have never led Wallace in 1970 without Republicans. Fob would have never won the Democratic Primary and thus become governor in 1978 without Republican voters. Basically, Alabama had been a no party state. We still have no party registration law. So how do you police people weaving in and out of primaries without a mechanism in place for saying you are a Democrat, Republican, or Independent?

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After Graddick defeated Baxley by less than 25,000 votes in the runoff primary, the Democratic Party did the unthinkable. They convened the hierarchy of the party, who clearly favored Baxley, and declared Baxley the Democratic nominee because they guessed Graddick had won the primary with Republican crossover voters. They paraded experts in front of their committee to testify that Baxley should have won if just Democrats had voted. They boldly and brazenly chose Baxley as the nominee in spite of the fact that Graddick had clearly gotten the most votes.

This move went against the grain of the vast majority of Alabama voters. They felt that Graddick, even if they had not voted for him, got the most votes and should be the nominee. The Democratic Party leadership sloughed it off. They assumed that the Democratic nominee would win regardless. After all, there had not been a Republican Governor of Alabama in 100 years. In addition, the Republicans had chosen an unknown former Cullman County Probate Judge named Guy Hunt. Hunt had no money and no name identification.

The Democratic leaders guessed wrong. The backlash was enormous. The bold handpicking of a nominee who had not received the most votes was a wrong that needed to be righted. Baxley did not help his case any by ignoring Hunt and dismissing him as a simpleton. He mocked Hunt saying he was unqualified because he only had a high school education. Baxley, as politically astute as he was, should have realized that he was insulting the majority of Alabama voters who themselves only possessed high school educations. This created a backlash of its own.

When the votes were counted in the November general election, Guy Hunt was elected Governor of Alabama. This 1986 result gave new meaning and proof to the old George Wallace theory that more Alabama voters vote against someone than for someone. Alabama had its first Republican governor in 100 years. The 1986 Governor’s race will go down in history as a red-letter year in Governor’s races. It was truly historic and memorable.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers 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 | Three cheers for cheaters, conmen and crooks

Bill Britt

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Lobbyists and others representing special interests give millions to lawmakers in the form of campaign contributions, and it doesn’t even matter if they are legally or ethically right; they are a must.

Not only are these contributions acceptable and expected, in many cases, it is demanded with valued treats.

With millions in contributions, lobbyists and other entities with business before the state are, in fact, buying favors from an elected official and in turn, many of these so-called public servants reciprocate with favorable legislation and other goods not readily available to those who don’t pony up.

What is obvious is there is a pervasive give-to-get mentality that infects much of Montgomery.

A recent email sent by political consultant Brent Buchanan on behalf of Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed makes it clear leadership is watching who plays ball and who doesn’t.

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Fundraiser or shakedown?

Buchanan is not only a paid operative for state Senate Republicans, but he is also Gov. Kay Ivey’s campaign manager; therefore, his words matter because of who he represents.

Those close to Marsh and Reed think it’s doubtful they approved Buchanan’s indiscreet warning – that money is expected from lobbyists and other interests. But this attitude has become so common under Republican rule over the last eight years that it passes for normal behavior.

Pay-to-play or be sidelined is understood.

It’s tiresome to recall how in 2010, Republicans championed ethics and campaign finance reform only to now have abandoned any pretense of upholding them.

Under the guise of reform, they intend to gut current ethics statutes like a feral hog during the upcoming legislative session. Even now, holding the Republican-appointed Ethics Commission to the strict letter of campaign finance laws has become such a joke that Secretary of State John Merrill is publicly calling out the commission for not doing its job.

Opinion | Alabamians need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws

Amazingly, the state’s Republican Party continues to support it’s attorney general nominee, who has clearly violated the state campaign finance laws by blatantly accepting  $735,000 in contributions that are prohibited under the law.

Current Attorney General Steve Marshall, an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, accepted unlawful contributions from an out-of-state special interest and no one says a word – not the state’s Ethics Commission’s executive director, not the governor or the Republican Party chair.

Add these to what amounts to legal extortion and bribery and a vivid picture emerges of a Republican majority that doesn’t care about the rule of law or civil propriety.

What is the message here?

Shakedowns are fine as long as it’s for our team.

Cheating is okay as long as it’s our team that wins.

Moral character, honesty of purpose and humility of service be damned,

Those who revere power over principle may prosper but never for long where there are individuals who value integrity over gain.

The Republican Party in Alabama used to stand for something, now it seems to cheer for cheaters, conmen and crooks, but perhaps someday it will come back to its senses.

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Opinion | Birmingham superfund scam extends well beyond federal courtroom

by Josh Moon Read Time: 4 min
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