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Questions About Ethics Law Raises When Mayors Return Gifts

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter 

Over the last year, the new Alabama ethics law has caused some real and imagined confusion for educators. Over the same period, there had seemed to be little ambiguity for lawmakers and public officials such as legislators, mayors and related public officials.

However, recent information uncovered by the ‘Alabama Political Reporter’ cast some doubt as to if everyone is following the rules of “de minimis,” gift giving. Under the new law, public officials and state employees may only receive an item of de minimis value (that is, one that has no resale value or value to others).

In days just before the holiday season, the Montgomery-based investment banking firm The Frazer Lanier Company may have stepped over the line created by the new ethics law. According to the firm’s website, Frazer Lanier “is dedicated primarily to corporate and municipal finance. Since 1976, our company has served as an investment banker to thousands of corporations, cities, counties, states, local boards, and agencies throughout the United States”

One of the prime businesses of Frazer Lanier is to help municipalities structure and offer bonds to finance various local government projects.

In December 2010, Frazer Lanier sent tote-bag/briefcases to various government officials in the state. The individual cases have been estimated to be worth in the $75 dollar range.

(Pictures of the case can be seen at the beginning of this story.)

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The case, embossed with the Frazer Lanier logo, was sent to a number of public officials, one was Greenville, Alabama, Mayor Dexter Mclendon.

Mayor Mclendon said he receive a package from Frazer Lanier in the weeks before Christmas. He said upon opening the box he was surprised to see a gift such as the embossed case from Frazer Lanier. “Frankly, I was shocked when I opened it,” said Mclendon. “I remember thinking, ‘What are they doing?’” Mclendon said that he has a lot of respect for Frazer Lanier but he did not understand their gift in light of the new ethics law.

“I think the ethics law needs to be clarified,” said Mclendon. “There are just a lot of questions.” He said that he immediately determined to send the case back but also called the city attorney and spoke with him about the situation.

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Mclendon has been in public service for almost three decades and said, “No one is going to buy my vote with a lunch or a gift.” But it is those reservations that prompted the newly-elected GOP majority to pass sweeping ethic reform in the 2010 Special Session.

Mclendon said after receiving the gift he called Frazer Lanier’s office, “I called Bob Young,” said Mclendon. “I said, ‘Bob, did y’all check this thing out?’”

“Bob” is Robert H. Young, Jr., president of Frazer Lanier. According to the company’s website, Young has been an investment banker since 1972. Young has served as a member of the Auburn University Business School Advisory Committee, and as a Committeeman and Vice-Chairman on the District V Business Conduct Committee of the National Association of Securities Dealers.

Mclendon also stated that Frazer Lanier had been the lead in setting up bond issuance for the city of Greenville in the past.

Frazer Lanier’s client base has very large representation in state and local government.

It is not clear how many government officials were sent the tote bags but Mayor Gary Fuller of Opelika received a case as well.

Opelika city attorney Guy Gunter of Melton Gunter & Melton confirmed that Opelika Mayor Fuller received the gift in the weeks before Christmas. Gunter said the mayor called him with concerns about the case and he advised the mayor to return the gift promptly. He said that he and the mayor were cautious about the new ethics law and wanted to make sure that the mayor was in strict compliance.

While there remains some questions about the law, several legislators that were contacted for this story, but did not want to comment on the record, expressed the gift offered by Frazer Lanier appeared to break the law or at least compromised the spirit and intent.

In an opinion written by the Ethics Commission the following was stated concerning gifts.

“The prior Ethics Law had specific exceptions relating to not only promotional items, but seasonal gifts as well. The current exceptions limit that to items for presentation, promotional items, or items of de minimis value. The law does not define what de minimis is and the Ethics Commission will not arbitrarily establish an amount.

The test is whether or not the item being given has any resale value or value to others.

“Items such as plaques, certificates and other presentation items have no value to anyone other than the recipient of the award. Promotional items, such as coffee cups, ball caps, etc., have little or no monetary value and exist for the purpose of advertising, public relations, goodwill, etc. On the other hand, gifts such as turkeys and hams given as seasonal gifts, do have a monetary value. Due to the fact that the exception for seasonal gifts was removed from the Ethics Law during the Special Session, it is the Commission’s opinion that the practice of giving turkeys, hams, etc. to public officials during the holiday season is no longer permissible.

“Again, the only quantifier the Commission will put on what is and what is not de minimis is whether or not the item has any resale or monetary value.”

The legality of a gift according to the commission seems to rest on the term de mininis with regards to an item’s value.

At least two city mayors and their attorney’s had doubts about the gifts given by Frazer Lanier. The law’s shadowy definition may leave more wiggle room than the legislators has intended.

Robert Young, Jr. president of Frazer Lanier was contacted for this article and did not return the call as of its publication.

The following is a partial list of Frazer Lanier’s clients who may have received the same gifts as mayors Mclendon and Fuller, others may have also received them and returned them. It is not known at this time.

City of Tallassee

Baldwin County

Lee County and Lee County School System

City of Opelika

City of Enterprise

City of Foley Utility Board

City of Auburn

City of Saraland

City of Tuscaloosa

City of Troy

City of Phoenix City

City of Opp

City Georgiana

City of Cullman and Utility Board

City of Ozark

City of Demopolis

City of Tuscumbia

Sumter County

Conecuh County

Gadsden Water Works

City of Roanoke

Marengo County

A more exhaustive list may be found at http://frazerlanier.com

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Elections

Trump Truck and boat parades this weekend

Brandon Moseley

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Trump boat parade

As Election Day draws near, Alabama Republicans are excited about promoting the re-election of Donald J. Trump as President and the election of Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate. This weekend two pro-President Trump events are happening in the state. There will be a truck parade from Ashland to Phenix City on Saturday sponsored by the Clay County Republican Party, while there will also be a boat parade on Wilson Lake in the Shoals sponsored by the Colbert County Republican Party on Sunday.

The pickup trucks will assemble at the Ashland Industrial Park in Clay County, 8240 Hwy 9, Ashland. There is a pre-departure rally at 10:00 a.m. central standard time. The trucks will depart at 11:00 a.m. and then proceed on a parade route that will take them into the bitterly contested swing state of Georgia. The Trump Pickup Parade will wind through east Alabama and West Georgia traveling through LaGrange and Columbus before concluding near the Alabama/Georgia line in Phenix City, 332 Woodland Drive, Phenix City at approximately 2:00 p.m. central time. Speakers will begin at 3:00. Trump flags will be on sale at the event.

The Phenix Motorsports Park will be hosting what sponsor hope could possibly the world’s largest Pickup Tuck parade in U.S. history that is routing over 50 mile through Georgia in effort to “pickup” President Trump’s numbers in GA.

A number dignitaries have been invited to address the Phenix City rally, including Coach Tuberville. Former State Sen. Shadrack McGill, Trump Victory Finance Committee member former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., and Paul Wellborn, the President and CEO of the largest Family owned Kitchen Cabinet manufacture in the USA are among the featured speakers who have committed to speak at the event.

Entertainment will be provided by: Charity Bowden, an up and coming country music singer who was the runner up on “The Voice”. Charity will sing ‘I am Proud to be an American’ as well as songs from her Voice performances. The McGill Girls will also perform. The three beautiful and talented sisters will be singing patriotic songs in three part harmony. Geoff Carlisle, a professional DJ will be keeping the crowd pumped with music and entertainment.

Following the speakers and the entertainment there will Trump truck-vs- Joe Bidden truck races down the drag strip for the finale.

The Northwest Alabama boat parade will be on Sunday. The boats will gather at 2:00 p.m. near Turtle Point and then the flotilla will parade around the open waters of Wilson Lake til 3_00 p.m.. There will be a contest for best decorated Trump boats.

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Trump supporters have held a number of large boat parades across the state to show their support for the re-election of Pres. Trump.

Boat parade sponsors say that this parade will be: pro-American, pro-law enforcement, pro-military.

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Health

COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise

Eddie Burkhalter

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COVID-19 Corona Influenza Virus Molecules Image Stock Photo

The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9. 

UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.

“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said. 

Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.

Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.

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Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.

The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.

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Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”

Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”

Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.

“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”

Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.

“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.

Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.

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News

Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology

Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

John H. Glenn

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.

Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”

The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.

Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.

“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”

Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.

“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.

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Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”

Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.

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The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”

Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.

“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”

District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.

“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”

District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” 
Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”

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Elections

Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies

Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

Josh Moon

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Alabama Sen. Doug Jones speaks during the Democratic National Convention.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C. 

Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.  

But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump. 

“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”

Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”

Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home. 

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“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat. 

“I rest my case.”

You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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