By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY— The final tally is still unclear, but Alabama taxpayers shelled out at least $97,000 for state officials and PR flacks to attend the Paris Air Show last month, and at least some of that money appears to have come from funds intended for public education and job training.
Over the last month, the Alabama Political Reporter requested information from the Department of Commerce about taxpayer costs for dozens of state officials and media advisers to travel to the famed Paris Air Show in June. We also sought information about state contracts with Big Communications, the Birmingham-based public relations firm whose executives accompanied officials to Paris.
After weeks of delay (and the insistence of Gov. Robert Bentley’s staff), Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield sat down with Alreporter.com. During the interview, Canfield shed some light on the state’s peculiar relationship with Big Communications and funding for the European travel.
Among other things, Canfield told the Alreporter.com:
* Paris Air Show travel costs state taxpayers between $88,000 and $97,000. County and local taxpayers paid thousands more to underwrite the costs of travel for dozens of others. Some state officials had their expenses paid by third-parties. For example, the customers of South East Alabama Gas District paid the way for House Speaker Mike Hubbard to go to Paris.
* Big Communications – the PR firm whose executives traveled to Paris on the state tab to send out press releases, photographs, Tweets and Facebook posts – was selected by Canfield to publicize the trip, but the company actually has no contract with the Department of Commerce. Instead, there is a no-bid contract is between Big Communications and AIDT, the workforce training agency spun-off from the two year college system last year and placed under the supervision of Commerce.
According to its website, AIDT was established in 1971 “… to provide quality workforce development for Alabama’s new and expanding businesses, and to expand the opportunities of its citizens through the jobs these businesses create.” The state legislature placed AIDT under Commerce during the 2013 legislative session – AIDT is funded from the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF). The Department of Commerce’s funding comes from the general fund.
Questions arose concerning the Birmingham-based PR firms involvement with commerce after the group began to send out press releases and photographs to media throughout the state from the Paris Air Show. Big’s “news reports” and photographs flooded local newspapers, television and the internet.
According to Canfield, Big Communications provides public relations to the Commerce Department under a $384,000 no-bid, “professional service” contract with the education office of AIDT. Canfield, said that when his office was planning a major PR campaign for the state, he met with Ed Castille, the head of AIDT, and “talked about his advertising/marketing budget…we just piggy-backed on top of [the AIDT Marketing budget]…we felt confident it would also assist him in his efforts,” said Canfield.
“Bottom line: No, we didn’t divert any money that would have gone to training,” Canfield said. “We used money that was already in their budget [for advertising].” According to Canfield only $100,000 from the AIDT budget, will be used for the Big contract, the rest would come from the Commerce Department.
So far this year, Big has been paid $232,000 for its work. AIDT has already paid Big, $100,00 and commerce has paid $132,000. Canfield said he was not sure that the remaining funds would be spent this year.
When asked why Big Communication was given a no-bid contract (page1, page2, page3, page4, page5, page6, page7) Canfield explained, “It was a ‘Professional services contract…,.’ You don’t put out to bid legal work…professional services because the law recognizes they are unique and require expertise and proof that the services can be provided.”
Big Communications has several state contracts, including $4.5 million to promote Alabama seafood.
The Governor’s office explained that the Alabama seafood promotion contract with Big is paid for by BP oil company, under an agreement with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and doesn’t require state funds.
A call from the Alabama Political Reporter to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner N. Gunter Guy was not returned.
The contract between Big and Conservation does show that it was put out for competitive bid.
Canfield said that a PR firm like Big became necessary because, “We need[ed] to rebrand in a way that’s unique…like we’ve never done before….scrapping our web presence and refacing and coming out with a brand new face…in today’s world we need to be smarter about how we project our image.” He said that after seeing the work Big had done for Conservation and others he decided to use them to promote the state.
Canfield said that part of the provisions with Big was that they would prepare promotional materials for the Paris Air Show. There is nothing in writing to document these provisions, and apparently nothing outlining what taxpayers would pay for the company executives’ European travel.
At least two executives from Big Communications were on hand in Paris. John Montgomery, founder and president, and Robin Oliver, Vice President of Big Communication. The pair can be seen in photographs published on the internet at events surrounding the Paris junket. Montgomery is pictured with the Eiffel Tower in the background and Oliver standing with Alabama’s First Lady, Diane Bentley.
According to Canfield, Montgomery was in Paris “at his own expense” even though pictures published on the state’s website, “Made in Alabama,” were credited to Montgomery. Canfield said that ADIT was to be billed approximately $7000 for Robin Oliver’s trip to the air show.
However, Canfield fails to factor in the hundreds of thousands paid to Big, for promotional material, booth-displays, press releases, and social media postings during the event.
In a post-event summary, Big Communication said that their efforts at the Paris Air show generated, “News coverage with an ad[vertising] equivalency value of more than $75,000.” (Post Event Report: page 1, page 2)
In fact, news organizations around the state printed much of Big’s PR releases verbatim, giving readers the exact impression of the Paris trip that Big Communications’ PR campaign had crafted.
Canfield did not project what type of return on investment might come to the state as a result of the PR campaign but expressed confidence that it would repeat rewards for the taxpayers of Alabama.
The Commerce Secretary has said that he estimates the cost to Alabama taxpayers for the Paris trip will be between $88,000 and $97,000.”
This does not figure in the approximately 100 other Alabamians that joined the governor’s party at the Air Show, but as Canfield points out their trips were not paid for by the state. However, Mark Heinrich, Chancellor of Alabama’s Community Collage System, was on hand at the event in Paris.
Canfield said the genius of the state’s presence at the event was that it gave “the appearance of being huge because it includes the participation of individuals from Alabama who chose to support the event at their own cost…the one thing Alabama does well because we all have limited budgets. We leverage our relationships…so we had a huge Alabama presence…local communities, industrial development boards, various chambers of commerce chose to be there at their own expense.”
Canfield did concede that local and county taxpayer did bear some of the burden for travel to the posh air show.
He also stated emphatically that past and present legislators including former Gov. Bob Riley and current Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard did not receive any state money for their trips to Paris.
“Bob Riley was there but not in any official capacity for the State of Alabama or the Dept. of Commerce…he was there as a private citizen engaged in his own business activity.” Riley’s daughter Minda was also seen at the state’s Made in Alabama booth. Canfield said that he was unaware of her working at the booth, but said she was not on the official schedule.
Bob Riley, is a registered lobbyist for EADS, the parent company of Airbus, Minda is a part of Riley and Associates lobbying firm.
Canfield said that Hubbard was there representing the Southeastern Alabama Gas District, (SEAGD).
State employee Rachel Adams, communications director for Hubbard, said that the Speaker was in Paris representing the economic development group SEAGD. However, when Canfield was asked if he would characterized the gas cooperative as a “economic development group,” he said, “I’ll let them characterize themselves….”
He did say that they were partners in helping to bring industry to the state.
Hubbard has a consulting contract with SEAGD paying him $12,000 a month for “business development,” according to published statements by SEAGD.
AIDT was taken out of the two-year college system and placed under Canfield at Commerce. We asked how much AIDT received from the Education Trust Fund, Canfield said he did not know. Canfield said he would supply us that information. A follow-up email was sent to Ms. Miller the day after our meeting, she said she would speak with Canfield. After 5 days, Canfield’s office still has not sent us the the budget.
According to SB137, AIDT is budgeted, $51 million for FY 2014.
Doug Jones applauds signing of veterans mental health and suicide prevention bill
The legislation is aimed at bolstering the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans.
President Donald Trump over the weekend signed into law legislation cosponsored by Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, that aims to bolster mental healthcare for veterans and address veteran suicides.
“Too many veterans – in Alabama and across the country – lack access to affordable, compassionate and effective mental health care. Through increased access to local and innovative treatment options, this new law will help veterans get the life-saving mental health services they may need,” Jones, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.
U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, introduced the landmark Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which would bolster the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans.
The law also increases telehealth access for rural veterans, implements a pilot program to give veterans access to complementary care and establishes a grant program requiring the VA to better partner with agencies helping veterans to identify earlier those who are at risk of suicide.
The law also strengthens how the VA will be held accountable for addressing veteran suicide, and it will allow the studying of the impact of living in high altitudes on veteran suicide risks and diagnostic biomarker research to identify depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and other conditions.
More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, and of those, 14 have received no treatment or care from VA.
“The social isolation and increased anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of the issues our veterans face,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate leadership before it was approved and signed into law by the president. “Our nation’s veterans and their families are waiting on Congress to take action to deliver these desperately needed resources. We must act now to provide this vital assistance to Americans who have sacrificed so much for our country and who deserve the best our nation has to offer. As such, we are seeking immediate passage of S. 785 when the U.S. House of Representatives reconvenes in September.”
The law is named in honor of Commander John Scott Hannon, a member of the Navy SEALs who served in the U.S. Navy for 23 years. Hannon was helping other veterans even while he was receiving mental health treatment himself. He died by suicide on Feb. 25, 2018.
Veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and then press 1, or text to 838255.
Congressional candidate James Averhart endorsed by list of U.S. dignitaries, retired military leaders
The 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday.
James Averhart, the Democratic candidate in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District and a retired U.S. Marine, has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday.
“James Averhart is an integral leader — a man of principles and a patriot. He is the best choice to represent District One on The Hill,” said Ambassador Theodore Britton, a World War II Veteran who was nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. General Walter E. Gaskin, who served as commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said Averhart is experienced in matters of government and policy and understands the lay of the land in Washington D.C.
“He will be ready to hit the ground running to get things done for the district, and moreover, be that bridge to unite the parties in Congress as well as the nation,” Gaskin said in a statement.
“James Averhart is a strong dynamic leader who will get the job done. He is meticulous and a consummate professional that will advocate and work for all citizens of our district and Alabama,” said Ambassador J. Gary Cooper, a retired Marine Corps major general who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as assistant secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.
“At a time when it seems that the Republican leadership is in lockstep with a president, who considers those in service to our great nation to be ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’ is antithetical to what this country needs. We have over 30,000 citizens hospitalized and over 211,000 deaths due to coronavirus, which could have been prevented with sound, methodical leadership. We have been disappointed by this President and the Republican leadership standing with him. It is time for substantive change in our Nation’s Capital,” Averhart said.
“The American citizenry deserves and expects more of its leadership. We should no longer settle for those who continue to promulgate untruths and spew divisive rhetoric. We deserve leadership who will extol the truth and hold in high regard a united nation,” Averhart said.
Avergart’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election is Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl.
The following are a list of Averhart’s endorsements, according to his campaign:
Ambassador Theodore Britton
- Nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada
- Served as the U.S. Special Representative to West Indian island nations of Antigua, Dominica, St. Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia
Ambassador J. Gary Cooper
- Vietnam Veteran and Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General
- Nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.
- Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as Asst Secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
Lieutenant General Ronald L. Bailey
- First African American to command the 1st • U.S. Marine Division
- Served as Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, U.S. Marine Corps.
- Retired in 2017 following 41 years of service.
Lieutenant General Walter E. Gaskin
- Served as Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC Served as Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Quantico, Virginia
- Served as Chief of Staff, Naval Striking and Support Forces-Southern Europe
- Served as Deputy Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces-Europe in Naples, Italy
Major General Cornell A. Wilson, Jr.
- Served as Director, Reserve Affairs Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs – Headquarters, U.S. MArine Corps, Quantico, Virginia.
- Appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, NC, to the position of Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Lieutenant General Willie J. Williams
- Served as Director of the Marine Corp Staff
- Retired in 2013 after serving 39 years in the U.S. Marine Corp.
Brigadier General John R. Thomas
- Served as Director for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, U.S. Marine Corps.
- Served as Director and Chief Information Officer, U.S. Marine Corp.
AARP’s COVID-19 dashboard shows Alabama nursing home lagging behind national averages
In each of five parameters Alabama fared worse than the national average.
A recently-released dashboard shows that Alabama’s nursing homes, residents and staff alike, are suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s concern over what may happen in the coming days and weeks.
“We know we’re moving into a very dangerous time right now, with flu season, and weather getting colder and people moving indoors,” said AARP Alabama spokeswoman Jamie Harding, speaking to APR on Monday.
AARP partnered with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio in the creation of the dashboard, which in this first set uses data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to look at five parameters for the four-week period ended Sept. 20.
In each of the five parameters — nursing home resident deaths per 100 residents, resident cases per 100 residents, staff cases per 100 residents, supply of personal protective equipment and staffing shortages — Alabama fared worse than the national average.
In the last month, there were 1.03 COVID-19 deaths among Alabama nursing home residents per 100 residents, tying with Mississippi as the second highest death rate in the nation, coming just behind South Carolina, which had the most, at 1.2 deaths per 100 residents, according to the AARP reports.
As of Oct. 14, 45 percent of Alabama’s total COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic were among nursing home residents, totaling 1,088 resident deaths at the time, according to the dashboard. For the four weeks ending Sept. 20, nursing home residents made up 48 percent of the state’s deaths.
Harding also noted that by the time CMS publishes the nursing home data “it’s about two to three weeks old” so the public isn’t getting up-to-date information on what’s happening in nursing homes, but she said at least the AARP’s dashboard will show trends in the data over time.
“We want the state, we want our leadership to take this data seriously, to see that we are not performing well on these five metrics, which are very critical metrics, and we want to know how this is going to be addressed,” Harding said.
The Alabama Department of Public Health has declined to release county-level or facility-level details on coronavirus in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, citing privacy concerns.
“So that’s the problem, and Alabama has stubbornly refused to release daily reports, and remains one of just a handful of states still refusing to release the daily report, and we really have no good answer,” Harding said.
Harding also discussed a COVID-19 outbreak at the Attalla Health and Rehab, first reported by AL.com, in which the facility had to be evacuated due to a huge spike in cases there, peaking on July 10. Some residents were taken to a local hospital, while others were taken to Gadsden Health and Rehab and Trussville Health and Rehab, sparking an outbreak of COVID-19 at Trussville Health and Rehab.
AL.com’s reporting noted that while at least 10 states have special strike teams ready to send staff and supplies to nursing homes experiencing an outbreak, Alabama does not.
The new outlet quoted Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health as saying that the department doesn’t have the staffing to form such teams.
“That is an indication that this was a problem they were never prepared for, and they should have been,” Harding said. “They are the Department of Public Health. This is their work. This is their job.”
Harding also said that as of at least the end of September, the Alabama Nursing Home Association hadn’t yet begun spending the $50 million in CARES Act funds, which Gov. Kay Ivey announced on Aug. 7 would be made available to reimburse state nursing homes via the hospital association’s Education Foundation for the cost of fighting against COVID-19.
John Matson, ANHA’s spokesman, told ABC 33/40 reported on Sept. 28 that the funds were in a holding account and the first claims should be paid in early October. Matson said an accounting firm had been hired to help handle the administration of the funds.
Harding expressed concern that the federal aid wasn’t being spent to help protect state nursing homes quickly enough, and said that the Attalla nursing home outbreak was made worse by a staffing shortage as workers either became sick themselves or quit to protect themselves and their loved ones. Alabama nursing homes weren’t overstaffed before the pandemic, she said.
“We would like to see some of that $50 million dollars spent to address staffing emergencies,” Harding said.
Matson, in a response to APR on Monday, said that since mid-March, Alabama’s nursing homes have been in the center of a fight to defend the most vulnerable citizens of our state from the most insidious and infectious virus attack in the last century.
“Every resource has been pushed to the extreme,” Matson said. “While critics have the luxury of creating dashboards generated from government databases, the caregivers of Alabama’s nursing homes have relentlessly fought day-by-day, risking their own health, to care for the residents who depend on us. Our people are heroes and our nursing homes have met an unprecedented challenge.”
Matson said every dollar of the $50 million spent must be justified by documentation, every claim is to be audited by an independent auditing firm before reimbursements are approved and ANHA filed regular reports to the Alabama Department of Finance which are publicly viewable.
ANHA’s report for September, filed Oct. 15, states that many facilities were just then become eligible to apply for some of those $50 million due to requirements that the facilities deduct from amounts claimed any other coronavirus aid the facility may have received from other sources, such as the “Medicaid COVID add-on of $20 per day per Medicaid patient, DHHS Provider Relief Funds; and SBA payroll Protection payment loans attributable to payroll, if any.”
“Therefore, due to the application of these mitigants, many facilities are just now becoming eligible to apply for and receive funds,” the report reads.
The September report also states that to guard against funds not being available “in the event of a second or later COVID-19 wave, the Foundation is holding back 25% of approved claims.”
The report also says that 12 facilities as of Sept. 30 were approved for $6.5 million in claims, with $1.6 to be held back for possible future COVID-19 waves. As of Oct. 13, there were $10.4 million in pending claims filed by 65 facilities, according to the report, and there were $16.9 million on total claims paid or pending.
Birmingham refinances $179 million in debt
“When I became mayor in November 2017, it became apparent the city was not on sound financial footing,” said Mayor Randall Woodfin.
Birmingham has refinanced $179 million in general obligation debt, securing the lowest interest cost for the city in decades and accruing $44 million in present value savings from bond refunding. *Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Birmingham filed one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in U.S. history. Birmingham has never filed for bankruptcy. However, Jefferson County was involved in one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in U.S. history. The headline also said Birmingham paid off the debt. It has refinanced the debt.
“When I became mayor in November 2017, it became apparent the city was not on sound financial footing,” said Mayor Randall Woodfin. “A key reason was the city was not paying into its pension at the level that was needed. Today, we have dramatically increased our payment to the pension. I want to thank the council for their support in this effort. We have reduced the cost of borrowing money and have strengthened our financial position.”
Bond refunding reduces the payments for debt service in the general fund by upward of $5 million per year for the next five years, allowing $13 million in real cash savings for commercial development use in the future.
Stifel served as senior bookrunning manager for the issue and led the structuring of the financing, as well as the sales and underwriting.
Based on number of issues sold, Stifel is the leading underwriter in the country and has a major presence in the State of Alabama.
Birmingham has now nearly doubled its contribution to its pension fund since the 2017 fiscal year.
The city’s commitment to increasing its pension funds, coupled with a focus on maintaining services and infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic has generated confidence in the city’s finances among rating agencies.
Four credit rating agencies — S&P, Moody’s, Fitch and KBRA — reaffirmed the city’s current ratings. A downgrade could have cost the city millions of dollars during the recent bond refunding and created bigger challenges for the operating budget.
Birmingham’s Porter White & Company and Atlanta’s Terminus Municipal Advisors LLC served as municipal advisors for the city during the refunding phase.