By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Perhaps it is no coincidence that Bob Riley’s two former chiefs of staff became the lobbyist for the two most powerful groups pushing charter schools in Alabama.
Riley said when he announced that he was becoming a lobbyist that he wanted to continue to work on education and economic development.
According to an August 10, 2011, story by David White on AL.com Riley said, “I want to … do everything we can do to continue to improve education, economic development, all the things that we’ve been doing for the last 14 years.” However, to date Riley has never represented any educational clients but his two former chiefs of staff have.
Riley’s first chief of staff, Toby Roth, represents K12, Inc.
K12 Inc., is a publicly traded company based in a Washington DC suburb, with reportedly more than $522 million in revenue almost exclusively from running online charter schools in 28 states and 36 countries. The company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars—taken from public education budgets—on lobbying state legislators, and hundreds of thousands more on political campaign contributions in states where they do business. According to the New York Times, “Much of the public money also goes toward lobbying state officials, an activity that Ronald J. Packard, chief executive of K12, has called a “core competency” of the company.” “…In Pennsylvania, where K12 Inc. collects about 10 percent of its revenues, the company has spent $681,000 on lobbying since 2007.” [New York Times, 12/12/11.]
The New York Times has also reported that K12 Inc.’s most prominent operations fail by “every educational measure.”
As a publicly traded corporation, teachers, administrators and the Virginia-based CEO of K12 ultimately answer to shareholders, not parents. Those shareholders include a maze of institutional investors, venture capitalists and other Wall Street players.
There is no evidence that K12, is involved in lobbying for the Student’s First bill also know as the Local School Flexibility Act of 2013.
Riley’s second chief of staff, J. Davis “Dave” Stewart III, is a lobbyist for the monolithic charter school lobbying group StudentsFirst, coincidentally the name of the bill before the Alabama State Senate.
StudentsFirst is headed by Michelle Rhee of Sacramento, California. Ms. Rhee became a registered lobbyist in Alabama at the start of the 2013 legislative session. Seldom do people from the left coast come to Alabama to lobby for education reform. According to the online news site The Daily Beast Rhee was “a lifelong Democrat,” and a “controversial education reformer.” However, she changed her stripes when she was hired to clean up Washington DC’s failing schools. Some time during her tenure in DC she became a convert to the gospel of for-profit education.
According to a report by the liberal Huffington Post Rhee’s, time in DC was marked by, “her oft-lauded teacher evaluation system, teacher firings and bureaucratic shakeup…”
The Post said, “Her critics point to allegations that her record in D.C. was inflated by cheating.”
Rhee’s StudentsFirst is backed by by one of President Obama’s wealthiest supporters, Texas billionaire John Arnold.
StudentsFirst is the “big name in the education reform lobby, angering unions and working with legislatures that have altered their teacher hiring laws to the group’s liking.” according to the Post.
That the founder of such a well backed organization has landed in Alabama has raised eyebrows in the halls of the StateHouse.
Dave Stewart, Riley’s second chief of staff, who serves as Rhee’s lieutenant is a much more familiar figure because of his Riley and Bradley Arant connection. He also is the lobbyist for Learning Through Sports. A company whose founding partner was Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. Learning Through Sports has taken millions of dollars from Alabama’s underfunded educational system.
According to state records, Learning Through Sports obtained more than $13 million from Department of Education via payments to the politically connected Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS) organization.
Convicted felon Jarrod Massey was Learning Through Sports’ sole lobbyist in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, Massey was caught up in the Bingo scandal and was later imprisoned. In 2012 and 2013 Stewart, along with former Riley political consultant Dax Swatek, and former GOP executive director under Mike Hubbard, John Ross, are register lobbyist for Learning Through Sports.
While the former governor has been content to make money working for Airbus and other big players, his faithful aids have become the power behind charter schools and specialty educational services in Alabama.
State education funds are seen as a very appetizing place to make money these days. For-profit charter schools are raiding school funds around the country, while organizations like StudentsFirst raise millions of dollars as lobbyist.
No doubt Alabama is ripe for such adventures and Bob Riley’s former chiefs of staff seem to be the big players in the game.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified New Jersey hedge fund man David Tepper as an Obama backer. It should have read Texas billionaire John Arnold.
Alabama Medicaid expansion advocates applaud Missouri voters
In Missouri on Tuesday, 53 percent of voters approved a plan to expand Medicaid to cover more than 23,000 low-income residents, according to the St. Louis-Post Dispatch.
A coalition of groups in Alabama urging the state to expand Medicaid applauded voters in Missouri for doing just that in their state on Tuesday.
“Last night, Missouri voters approved a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid. We’ve trounced Missouri on the football field, but they’ve beaten us at getting Medicaid expansion across the goal line,” said Jane Adams, campaign director of the Cover Alabama Coalition, a group of 90 separate entities calling for an expansion of the federal program in Alabama. “Alabama is now one of just 12 states that do not provide health care coverage for working-age adults with low incomes. We call on the Alabama Legislature and Governor Ivey to follow Missouri’s lead and expand Medicaid.”
In Missouri on Tuesday, 53 percent of voters approved a plan to expand Medicaid to cover more than 23,000 low-income residents, according to the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. The GOP-controlled state Legislature there had fought an expansion of the program, made possible by the Affordable Care ACt.
Approximately 64 percent of Alabamians polled said they support expanding Medicaid in Alabama, including 52 percent of Republicans asked, according to a recent Auburn University at Montgomery poll.
“But Alabama’s elected leaders are still leaving more than 300,000 Alabamians uninsured by refusing to expand health coverage,” Cover Alabama Coalition said in a press release. “Medicaid expansion would benefit working families, primarily adults between the ages of 19 and 64 whose income is at or below 138% of the federal poverty level. In 2020, that amounts to $17,608 for an individual and $36,156 for a household of four.”
“The COVID-19 crisis has created financial uncertainty for our economy, employers and workers,” said Jim Carnes, Alabama Arise policy director and a Cover Alabama steering committee member, in a statement. “Alabama needs economic stimulus, and Medicaid expansion would generate nearly $3 billion a year in new economic activity throughout the state.”
“Medicaid expansion would reduce health disparities and work toward racial equity in health outcomes for all Alabamians,” said Jada Shaffer, Alabama government relations director of the American Heart Association and a Cover Alabama steering committee member. “Communities of color experience higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy and higher rates of preventable and chronic conditions like heart disease. We urge lawmakers and Governor Ivey to include Medicaid expansion in their policy solutions to address racial and economic inequality.”
Missouri became the second state this month to decide to expand Medicaid. Voters in Oklahoma chose to do so on July 1, passing the measure by just more than 6,000 votes, according to NPR, which will provide coverage for approximately 200,000 more.
Alabama children’s advocates: Early end to Census count will hurt state’s most vulnerable
Stephen Woerner and the staff at his Montgomery nonprofit have spent more than two years preparing to ensure that marginalized people, especially children, get counted in the 2020 census, and all the planning and work blew up when the U.S. Census Bureau announced Monday that all counting efforts would end a month early.
Woerner, executive director of Voices for Alabama’s Children, an Alabama child-advocacy group, told APR on Wednesday that in the 2010 census, the largest undercounted population was birth to five-year-olds, and the second largest was six to 10-year-olds. The nonprofit received its first funding in July 2018, to work on ensuring a good count in this year’s census. The nonprofit puts out a detailed report on children in the state annually, called the Alabama Kids Count Data Book.
The COVID-19 pandemic had already interrupted the nonprofit’s plans, Woerner said, but added that the “real challenge of this announcement from D.C. is that they keep moving the finish line.”
The U.S. Census Bureau’s announcement Monday of a plan to stop counting a month earlier could cost Alabama one Congressional seat, and threatens to undercount population numbers which are used to determine the apportionment of federal funding. Minorities and immigrants are also among the most likely to be undercounted in any census. Advocates say the early end to the 2020 census will only further marginalize those communities.
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham in a statement late Monday said that the bureau was to hire more staff and offer monetary incentives “to accelerate the completion of data collection and apportionment counts by our statutory deadline of December 31, 2020, as required by law and directed by the Secretary of Commerce.”
The 2020 census was delayed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restarted in June and workers are set to stop all attempts to count on Sept. 30, a month ahead of the previous end date.
President Donald Trump in July issued an executive order to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 census count, a move that is likely unconstitutional and unable to be carried out, opponents of the order have said. The decision this week to end the count early would likely lead to more of an undercount of minorities, which would favor Republicans in future elections and impact those communities’ access to critical federal funding, Democrats have said.
Woerner said he and staff recalculated after the coronavirus crisis hit, and began planning to shift their outreach efforts online, and then the announcement came Monday that they’d have a month less time to do so.
“I just got funding from Facebook doing another $20,000 worth of ad buys from August, September and October,” Woerner said. “And so now I’m having to cut a month out of that. It is incredibly problematic for everybody in Alabama, because it keeps moving the finish line.”
Woerner said the ambiguity and the fog makes trying to reach those historically-undercounted communities “so incredibly difficult. These are already communities that are really hard to get to.”
Woerner said whether it’s Hispanic or Black communities that may not trust the federal government, or parents of young children who don’t think their voice matters, those are communities that are hard to reach in a normal year.
The Montgomery nonprofit has worked closely with the Census Bureau for the last two years, and the news Monday was also a blow to the Bureau workers and their ability to accomplish their own goals, Woerner said.
“It just means that with the ambiguity and the fog, we’re gonna have a worst count. We’re gonna have a less accurate count,” Woerner said. “That’s going to impact Alabama because we’re going to lose a Congressional seat. We’re also gonna lose out in the dollars that we’re dependent on for so many issues.”
Gov. Kay Ivey in a statement to APR on Wednesday again urged everyone in Alabama to fill out the census form.
“Alabama, if you still need to fill out your 2020 Census, do not put it off any longer. The absolute last day to be counted has been moved up to the end of September, but despite what our national deadline is, today is the day to complete your 2020 Census in Alabama,” Ivey said in the statement. “I filled out my own census on my2020census.gov and would encourage you to do the same. You can also easily do it by phone by dialing 844-330-2020. Let’s not wait any longer Alabama. The stakes are high for us, and we have much more work to be done.”
For more information, visit census.alabama.gov.
Attorneys ask court to intervene over numerous Alabama inmate suicides
Charles Braggs died by suicide in an Alabama prison after being kept in solitary confinement for more than two years. His suicide and a rash of others in Alabama prisons prompted attorneys for the plaintiffs in a case against the Alabama Department of Corrections to ask the court Wednesday to intervene.
Braggs, 28, died at St. Clair Correctional Facility on July 17 after having been housed in segregation for 796 days, according to the court filing by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and attorneys with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.
“Mr. Braggs was the seventh person — and the sixth Black person — to die by suicide in ADOC custody since this Court issued its Remedial Opinion and Judgment on Immediate Relief for Suicide Prevention (the ‘Suicide Prevention Opinion’) in May 2019, in which the Court found ‘substantial and pervasive deficiencies’ in ADOC’s suicide prevention program,” attorneys wrote to the court.
Bragg’s suicide was the fifth in Alabama prisons in the last four months, the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in the fling, in which they call for “swift implementation and robust monitoring of the Parties’ various remedial agreements” and for the state to address the use of segregation and “segregation-like” cells, which disproportionately hold Black people.
Alabama prisons kept 1,001 people locked alone in segregation on July 28, according to the court filing.
“Of those 1,001, ADOC’s public database lists 705 people as Black and 273 white—that is, approximately 70 percent of the people in segregation are Black,” the filing states, going on to note that Black people make up approximately 52 percent of Alabama’s inmate population and about 27 percent of the population of the state.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in his May 4, 2019 opinion wrote that ADOC argues the department cannot prevent all suicides in prisons.
“It is true that, as in the free world, not all suicides can be prevented. But this reality in no way excuses ADOC’s substantial and pervasive suicide-prevention inadequacies. Unless and until ADOC lives up to its Eighth Amendment obligations, avoidable tragedies will continue,” the judge wrote.
That 2019 opinion came after the plaintiffs’ attorneys asked the court for immediate suicide-prevention relief following 15 inmate suicides over 15 months. Thompson agreed in his opinion to make permanent most of the provisions of a previous agreement between the plaintiffs and ADOC.
Thompson’s separate judgment, filed the same day as his opinion, establishes minimum guidelines for how the state assesses and treats incarcerated people who may be at risk of suicide.
Among the prison suicides noted in the court filing was Marco Tolbert, 32, who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and prescribed anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication, but on June 20, 2019, three months before his death, his mental health code — used by ADOC to determine care — was reduced, some of his medication was discontinued and he was moved out of Donaldson prison’s residential treatment unit and into the general population and “was not provided any follow-up mental health care,” according to the filing.
He died by suicide on Sept. 26, 2019, according to court records.
Marquell Underwood, 22, was placed into segregation at Easterling Correctional Facility on Feb. 23 and died by suicide that same day, according to court records.
“Mr. Underwood previously reported a history of Bipolar Disorder, was referred to mental health nine times in relation to segregation placements, self-referred once to mental health, and was placed on acute suicide watch twice during the six months before his death,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote to the court. “Despite all of this, he was never placed on the mental health caseload, never received a psychiatric evaluation, and never received any mental health treatment.”
Laramie Avery, 32, died by suicide in his segregation cell at Bullock prison on April 14 and was placed in segregation for “disciplinary” reasons after being stabbed at least eight times in the head and chest, according to the filing.
“Mr. Avery was referred for a mental health evaluation three days before his suicide, but there is no evidence that the evaluation ever occurred. He was not on the mental health caseload,” the court filing states.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys also note the death of Darnell McMillian on June 22 at Donaldson prison. McMillian died while on suicide watch and after having been placed into a cell with another inmate also on suicide watch.
“After an altercation between Mr. McMillian and his cellmate, correctional officers allegedly deployed pepper spray, which caused Mr. McMillian to become unconscious and may have led to his death. It is unclear what policies ADOC has instituted, if any, to ensure the safety of those on suicide watch who are double-celled,” attorneys wrote to the court.
An ADOC worker told APR in July that correctional officers used an excessive amount of pepper spray in the cell where McMillian and another inmate were housed. The cause of his death is pending an autopsy.
Jones campaign director blasts Tuberville for saying $600 “too much” for out-of-work Alabamians
The communications director for U.S. Sen. Doug Jones’s re-election campaign on Wednesday called out Tommy Tuberville for saying that $600 in emergency unemployment aid was too much for Alabamians.
“Tommy Tuberville once again proves he’s out of touch with Alabama. When he ‘resigned’ from his job as a football coach he took a $5.1 million payout for himself. To this day, he receives $800 a week in State Retirement funds for a coaching job he ‘quit’ in 2008,” said Owen Kilmer, communications Director for Jones’s Senate campaign, in a statement Wednesday.
“But he says $600 in emergency benefits is ‘way too much’ for people in Alabama who lost their jobs in this crisis through no fault of their own. Tuberville says $600 is ‘way too much’ to help people put food on the table and pay utilities,” Kilmer continued. “No wonder, when asked about how to handle this crisis, he said ‘I wouldn’t have a clue.’ It’s true. He doesn’t.”
Tuberville, the Republican Senate nominee, is trying to unseat Jones in the November general election. Jones has called the former Auburn football coach and first-time political candidate an “unprepared hyper-partisan.”