By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
A portion of this story is based on conversation we had with employees at the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel in Atmore, Alabama. We stayed at the hotel and casino complex for two days without reveiling that we were reporters or doing a story on the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI). On the last two days we disclosed who we were and why we were there to a few people. The people we interviewed before reveiling that we were reporters are quoted in this story but their names are changed or omitted because they did not know that they were speaking to reporters. As guests we asked employees four questions in the course of casual conversation, they were, how do you like your job, are you a part of the PCI tribe, what would you do if you did not have a job at the hotel and what do you think of Bryan Taylor and the Escambia County Commission questioning PCI’s rights as a sovereign nation?
ATMORE–Wind Creek Casino and Hotel is a monolith that raises out of nowhere, a architectural anomaly on a barren horizon.
But once inside Wind Creek you could be in any luxury hotel in Europe.
The only giveaway is the Southern accents.
But hidden beneath the beautiful ambiance of the hotel and the smiling employes is worry and fear.
On Friday, April 13, The Escambia County Commission accompanied by their newly hired attorney Bryan Taylor announced their intention to question the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ (PCI) sovereignty.
According to Taylor and four members of the commission, the PCI should pay taxes to the county because they allege that they are not legally a sovereign nation inside the United States. A fifth county commissioner, Brandon Smith does not agree with his fellow commissioners.
If this assertion made by the commission were true the tribe would lose its rights to self-governance and self-determination. The PCI would also forfeit their right to operate gaming within the state of Alabama.
Many see greed and racial prejudice as the driving force behind the actions of Taylor and the county commission. Some add to the mix politics and ambition because Taylor a sitting State Senator is seen as a rising star of the Republican party.
Former Tribal Council Member Larry Flurnoy said, “This is pure racism and greed. The commission and their hired man want money they don’t have any right to but underneath it all is race.”
A young man who is an employee at the hotel said, “Israel sits in the middle of a hostile Arab world. Muslims continue to try to drive the Jews off their ancestral land. Most Americans are outraged by the terrorist attack on Jews. Where is the outrage over our situation?”
PCI officials say they are confident with the tribes standing before the Federal Government and they believe that Taylor and the commission’s claims are not legally sound and that there is nothing to be concerned about.
Robert Thrower, cultural director, sees this as an attack on the tribes sovereignty. “This is about sovereignty,” said Thrower, “We are a nation within a nation and our sovereignty is clear and legal.”
According to Taylor the only thing the PCI needs to do make the commission back off their threat of a lawsuit is to pay taxes on the tribes casino operations.
“As far as the Escambia County Commission is concerned, a judicial or administrative ruling regarding the trust status of PCI lands would be totally unnecessary if PCI were paying its fair share of taxes,” said Taylor. “From the County Commission’s perspective, there would be no dispute, nothing for a court to resolve.”
“This is extortion,” says Flurnoy. “It is blackmail.”
In fact since 2008 the PCI has donated over $400,000 directly to the County Commission, another $360,000 to the Escambia County Drug Task force, and $1.3 million that was contributed last year to education for all students.
Taylor says his clients see this as a tax issue.
“As PCI knows, there is absolutely no legal reason why they couldn’t increase their payments to reflect the actual amount of taxes that would be owed, without putting the casino or its employees’ jobs at any additional risk,” said Taylor. “After Carcieri, there is also no legally justifiable basis for the County to look the other way while the PCI escape paying the same taxes every other taxpayer in Escambia County has to pay. It’s a tax fairness issue for other taxpayers, and as County Commission Chairman David Stokes said, “This issue can be resolved.”
Flurnoy’s 13 year old son, Colby, sees extortion everyday at his school. A school system that his father points out has received over a million dollars from the PCI government.
“Kids come up to me all the time and say, you’re rich, give me a dollar,” said Colby. “I don’t even carry a dollar to school anymore because someone always wants it from me.”
The bullying has become so constant they Colby has come to hate going to a school he once loved.
Colby’s 19 year old sister Megan Flurnoy says that people are envious of the Indian’s new found prosperity. “Their are people who are jealous of our birthday checks.” Megan is talking about the money that PCI kids receive after they turn 18, graduate high school and complete a financial management class.
Colby who was born with a cleft lip and palate says he wants to study hard and become a doctor so he can treat the people in his hometown who like him needed a physician to make them whole.
Colby’s father says everyone in the tribe is given $40,000 for education. “That money is given to everyone from the youngest to the oldest.” He says that the Tribal Council has placed a great emphasis on education.
He says children who want to go on to higher education like medical school are given additional college funds if they will agree to work within the community for a period of years.
“There was a time when Indians were denied the right to go to public school and those that did attend school could only attend up to the six grade.”
“The white man did not want us educated,” said Flurnoy. “Most blacks were allowed to go to school but not the Indian.”
A hotel employee of African American decent said he has worked in fine dinning for years and thinks that the facilities at Wind Creek are first class. He also said, “I have been treated well by everyone here at the hotel, these are fine people who know how to run a first class operation. They have been very good to me, treating me like family.”
Another employee at the hotel who is a female and not a tribe member said, “This is a small country town, the PCI has been good to this community. I don’t know what I would do without the job they have given me. I have children to feed and there is not even a Wal Mart here where I could get a job. After all the tribe has done for the people here I can’t believe they are now trying to take it all away. I don’t know what me and my kids would do without the tribe.”
A group of male employees were asked what their jobs options would be if the hotel/casino was not here. There reply was that the only other option was that there are two prisons in Atmore and that would be their only option unless they left the area.
Megan says, “At the hotel, people are upset with what the commission is doing, not just Native Americans but whites too.”
But Commission Chairman Stokes says he had no intentions of backing down until the Indians pay taxes on the casino.
“It is never enough for some people, especially those who see us as ‘Those Indians,’” said Flurnoy, “When I was growing up we didn’t have much but we worked together to help everyone get by. We stood together and that is why we are where we are today. Now that we have a little bit, they want that too.”
Jones says Senate race a choice between “substance and leadership, and nothing”
“One of the great disappointments in this campaign is that Alabama is not really getting choices between substance and substance,” Jones said.
Speaking outside the Calhoun County Democratic Party headquarters in Anniston on Friday, Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, told a group of supporters that Alabamians haven’t gotten a look at what his Republican opponent might do if he wins the Nov. 3 election.
“One of the great disappointments in this campaign is that Alabama is not really getting choices between substance and substance,” Jones said. “They’re getting a choice between substance and leadership, and nothing — nothing. We have not heard anything from Tommy Tuberville about what he really wants to do.”
While Jones has held numerous interviews with the media, and regular web briefings over the summer and in recent weeks, Tuberville’s campaign seems to prefer the safety of keeping Tuberville from making possible gaffs or damaging statements in interviews.
Tuberville hasn’t agreed to interviews with traditional media outlets, or to debate Jones, and instead has focused on conservative talk radio spots, speaking to smaller Republican groups and at private parties.
Tuberville’s campaign has ignored or denied our numerous attempts to interview Tuberville, including another request on Friday. He also declined to attend a student forum held at Auburn University on Wednesday, which Jones attended. The forum was sponsored by the Auburn College Republicans and College Democrats.
“If you ever hear something Tommy Tuberville says, it is just simply this: ‘Build a wall. No amnesty. Drain the swamp.’ That ain’t him. That’s Donald Trump,” Jones said. “He cannot think for himself. He doesn’t think for himself.”
Jones spoke of his record of working to help veterans through legislation. And he referred to Tuberville’s nonprofit for veterans and reporting that indicates, through tax records, that less than a third of the money raised for Tuberville’s charity went to help veterans.
“I don’t just create charities and send only pennies on the dollar. I do things for the veterans of this state and this country,” Jones said.
Jones also made a case for Alabamians to remember the contributions past Democrats made in the state. Jones said it was Democratic Sen. John Sparkman who helped build Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal.
“It was a Democrat, Lester Hill, who built the rural hospitals around here that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and Tommy Tuberville are trying to destroy,” Jones said. “It was Howell Heflin who built up agriculture in this state. Those are the Democrats. It was Franklin Rosevelt that put electricity in this state. We’re going to do the same thing for broadband. People forget those things. They forget those things because we’ve let other people define us with lies.”
Jones plans to visit Jefferson County on Saturday, then on to the Black Belt and Mobile on Sunday with another stop in Birmingham on Monday afternoon.
“The goal is to get everybody out. That’s the thing if we want to continue to ensure Alabama moves forward — moves forward and not backwards, to continue to have somebody, if I do say so myself, somebody that’s just not going to damn embarrass us,” Jones said.
“We’ve had too much of that in Alabama,” Jones said, “and I bet you it won’t be a year that Tommy Tuberville would be an embarrassment to this state because he doesn’t know the issues. He doesn’t know what to do, and he’s dang sure not going to know what to do when Donald Trump is not president of the United States.”
Jones encouraged supporters to be skeptical of recent polling. One such recent poll, by Auburn University at Montgomery, puts Tuberville ahead of Jones by 12 percentage points, 54 to 42.1. An internal poll by Tuberville’s campaign puts Tuberville ahead by 15 percentage points, while an internal poll from the Jones camp put Jones ahead by one percentage point.
“Don’t listen to these polling folks that come in, and they don’t know Alabama, and they don’t know what they’re doing. We’re tracking this race, and I can tell you, everything has been moving in our direction the last two months,” Jones said.
People standing along roadsides holding his signs and showing support, Jones said, is “the energy we’ve got out there. That’s what you can’t poll.”
Ellen Bass of Anniston, standing outside the Calhoun County Democratic Party headquarters just after Jones spoke, told APR that she has numerous Republican friends who are voting for Jones.
“My hat’s off to them because they’re coming out,” Bass said. “They recognize that he is a better candidate.”
Ciara Smith, 21, newly elected to the Anniston City Council, told APR outside the headquarters building that Jones is the better candidate.
“I think that he’s educated. I think that he speaks with passion and heart,” Smith said. “And he knows what he’s talking about, which is important, and which is more than we can say about the other candidate.”
Speaking to APR after his speech to supporters, Jones said that he feels very good about the state of his campaign.
“Everything we’re seeing is moving in our direction,” Jones said. “And the more he stays hidden, the better it is for us.”
Inmate assault injures two St. Clair prison correctional officers
The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries.
Two correctional officers at St. Clair Correctional Facility were injured in an inmate-on-officer assault on Monday, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed to APR.
Among the two officers who sustained non-life-threatening injuries was a basic correctional officer (BCO), a position created in May 2019, who are not Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOST) certified and who cannot transport inmates, work perimeter fencing or in towers.
The other officer injured was a full correctional officer, Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose told APR in a message Friday. The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries and subsequently released, according to Rose.
“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the actions taken by the inmate against ADOC staff are being thoroughly investigated,” Rose said. “As the investigation into this incident is ongoing, we cannot provide additional detail at this time. More information will be available upon the conclusion of our investigation.”
The ADOC created the new basic correctional officer position to bolster the state’s woefully understaffed prisons. The creation of the position was also at the suggestion of experts ordered by a federal court to study the department’s staffing problems, ADOC attorneys wrote to the court in a filing in 2019.
The ongoing lawsuit is over the state’s handling of mental health in prisons.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program filed the 2014 suit arguing the state was indifferent to the health of inmates dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in June argued that ADOC was far behind on the court-ordered hiring new additional officers. It has been more than two years since U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in a previous opinion wrote that prison understaffing “has been a persistent, systemic problem that leaves many ADOC facilities incredibly dangerous and out of control.”
“Taken together, ADOC’s low correctional-staffing level, in the context of its severely overcrowded prisons, creates a substantial risk of serious harm to mentally ill prisoners, including continued pain and suffering, decompensation, self-injury, and suicide,” Thompson’s previous opinion continued.
The SPLC in court filings late last year expressed concern over the use of basic correctional officers in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons. ADOC attorneys have argued to the court, however, that BCO’s are adequately trained to do their jobs and are needed for the department to hire the necessary number of officers per the court’s timeline.
In a court filing on Thursday, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked the court not to again delay site visits to Alabama prisons by two experts who are tasked by the court to determine which positions should be filled by correctional officers and which by BCO’s and which by another new position, called cubical correctional officers, who are to have no direct interaction with inmates.
Those visits were to begin in May, but both parties in the suit agree to wait due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat it posed to the experts, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease due to “age and other factors,” according to court records.
Both parties again agreed to postpone those visits in June for those same reasons, those records show. ADOC seeks a third extension but attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the experts can visit the prisons while keeping themselves, prison staff and inmates safe from harm of COVID-19 and that thousands of employees and contractors enter Alabama prisons daily.
The plaintiff’s attorneys argue in the court filing that the expert guidance is needed because ADOC wishes to use BCO’s and cubical correctional officers to comply with the court-ordered hiring of additional staff by Feb. 20, 2022.
“Ensuring adequate staffing is of upmost importance to address the constitutional violations underlying mental health care within ADOC,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote to the court Thursday.
ADOC in May was employing 494 BCO’s, a 57 percent increase in the number of BCO’s employed in Oct. 2019, according to ADOC’s staffing numbers. The number of correctional officers working in Alabama prisons fell by two percent during that time, dropping from 1,319 to 1,287.
Slow absentee voting in Tuscaloosa sparks outrage, possible legal action
Among the issues were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours.
Long lines and slow absentee ballot processing in Tuscaloosa County have left voters outraged and incumbent Sen. Doug Jones’s campaign threatening legal action.
On Wednesday, Jones’s campaign attorney, Adam Plant, sent a letter to Tuscaloosa County Circuit Clerk Magaria Bobo, outlining a number of issues with ongoing absentee voting and promising to take legal action if Bobo doesn’t improve the process on the final day, Friday. Among the issues documented by Plant were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours.
Additionally, Plant noted that Bobo has hired her family members to help process absentee ballots and at least one family member had made disparaging remarks on social media about voters.
“You and those acting on your behalf are suppressing the vote of qualified Alabama voters,” Plant wrote in the letter. “If you are unable or unwilling to execute your duties competently, and allow Tuscaloosa voters to exercise their voting rights without undue burdens, we will take further action.”
In an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser on Wednesday, Bobo noted that her office had received more than 13,000 requests for absentee ballots — a remarkable uptick from the 3,000 or so her office usually receives — and there had been problems in managing that number of ballots while also adhering to social distancing guidelines within the office.
However, as Plant’s letter notes, the massive increase in absentee ballots for this election shouldn’t have been a surprise. Also, Secretary of State John Merrill had made additional funds available to absentee managers to facilitate hiring extra staff, purchasing additional computers and staying open for longer hours to accommodate the anticipated increase.
In a press release on Wednesday, the Alabama Democratic Party criticized Bobo and her family members, and the release included screenshots of Facebook posts from Bobo’s daughter lashing out at voters who complained about the long wait times.
“No voter should have to wait in line for hours to exercise their rights,” said ADP executive director Wade Perry. “We should leverage every tool we have to make voting easier, not harder. Also, it should go without saying that election workers should not insult the very people they are employed to serve. If Ms. Bobo is incapable of processing voters quickly, someone else needs to do the job.”
Jones campaign calls Tuberville a “coward” after no-show at Auburn forum
“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” Jones’s campaign said.
There are only four days left before election day, and incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’s re-election campaign is slamming Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville, accusing him of “hiding” and calling him a “coward.”
On Wednesday, Jones addressed an Auburn University forum. Tuberville did not attend.
“Tonight, the College Democrats and College Republicans at Auburn University co-hosted a debate between Doug Jones and Tommy Tuberville, offering students a chance to ask the candidates about the issues that matter most to Alabama,” the Jones campaign said in an email to supporters. “But Tuberville never showed up – he’s too scared to face Doug… even on his own home turf. Tuberville has repeatedly refused to debate Doug Jones. He’s consistently refused to be interviewed by the press. He’s refused to tell Alabama the truth about who and what they’re voting for – and it’s clear why.”
“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” the campaign continued. “If he won’t tell the truth, we will. Tuberville expects to win this race off of his blind allegiance to the President and his party affiliation. But Alabamians know better.”
“People deserve to know who they’re really voting for if they vote for Tuberville: someone who … won’t protect our health care, doesn’t believe in science, has no idea what the Voting Rights Act is, and doesn’t care about the lives and livelihoods of Alabamians,” the Jones campaign concluded. “Alabama will never elect a coward. Pitch in now and help us spread the truth about the man hiding behind the ballot.”
“I am disappointed that Tommy Tuberville is not here,” Jones said. “I think it is important that people see two candidates side by side answering the same questions.”
Tuberville meanwhile is canvassing the state, speaking to rallies and Republican groups to turn out the Republican vote for himself and President Donald Trump. Tuberville spoke at Freedom Fest in Madison County on Thursday and at the Trump Truck Parade rally in Phenix City.
“It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who represents our conservative beliefs and traditional values,” Tuberville said in Phenix City. “It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who supports the Second Amendment, the right to life, and putting God back in the classroom.”
Polling consistently shows Tuberville with a commanding lead over Jones. Real Clear Politics lists the race on their current board as a likely Republican win. FiveThirtyEight’s election model gives Tuberville a 79 percent chance of defeating Jones.