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Funding for the Attorney General’s Office Rife with Conspiracy and Contention

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Every year the State’s budget process turns into a sort of jousting match to enhance a department’s revenue. In some cases it’s a battle for survival and in others, it’s a contest of wills. In the case of the Office of the State’s Attorney General, it has even become a source of conspiracy theory.

For Fiscal Year 2015, the AG’s Office has requested funding at $23,700,000, but the line item on the Governor’s budget spreadsheet was zero.

But what are the actual facts behind the request by the Attorney General’s Office and the funding offered by the Governor and the House and Senate General Fund Budgets?

When looking at the State’s Education Trust Fund Budget or the General Fund Budget, the story is not to be found so much in the spreadsheet, but in the accompanying text.

Once again this year, the Governor’s Office submitted a General Fund Budget that had a zero in the line for appropriations for the Office of the Attorney General. In certain circles this has caused wild imaginings of a war between the Governor and the AG. Some have even gone so far as to spread a rumor that Governor Bentley was sending a political message that he wanted the Special Grand Jury investigation of Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) ended.

This is little more than fictitious court intrigue of the highest order. All public and back channel information says that the Governor is truly committed to seeing justice, not political brinksmanship, prevail, in the investigation into suspected wrong doings by Hubbard.

According to Bill Newton, Acting Director of the Alabama Department of Finance, the general public thinks of only the State’s Education Trust Fund Budget or the General Fund Budget when they are talking about funds. Newton points out that there are, “…more than 200 funds,” to be considered.

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“In State government you can think of a fund like a checking account. Each department has more than one fund (more than one checking account). When you talk about the General Fund appropriation, it is not all of the money that agency has to operate. It is just one of the sources.”

This is the case with the funds available to the Attorney General’s Office.

Newton points out that the AG has a large pool of money available from the National Mortgage Settlement. This settlement is the largest consumer financial protection settlement in United States history.

According to the National Mortgage Settlement site:

“The agreement settles state and federal investigations finding that the country’s five largest mortgage servicers routinely signed foreclosure related documents outside the presence of a notary public and without really knowing whether the facts they contained were correct.  Both of these practices violate the law. The settlement provides benefits to borrowers in the signing states whose loans are owned by the settling banks as well as to many of the borrowers whose loans they service.”

Each of the 49 State’s Attorney’s General were permitted to write his or her own terms for allocations for the funds from the settlement received by the state. The award and distribution of funds for the State of Alabama is as follows:

EXHIBIT B2 ALABAMA

The Court awards the State of Alabama a judgment in the amount of $25,305,692, which shall be paid by electronic transfer to the Office of the Attorney General.

Of this amount, the Court awards $2,530,569 dollars in civil penalties (or 10% of the total) as defined by and in accordance with Code of Alabama, 1975, §8-19-11 for misconduct relating to the bank’s robo-signing in violation of Alabama’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

The remaining amount shall be used by the Attorney General, at his sole discretion, for costs of investigation and litigation, for law enforcement efforts to prevent and prosecute financial fraud, and/or for public protection purposes, such as to defray the operating cost of any function of the Attorney General’s Office that protects citizens, whether through investigation, representation, regulation, mediation, prosecution, victims’ assistance, or consumer education concerning consumer-related financial or other crimes, or, at the sole discretion of the Attorney General, to be used for housing programs, housing counseling, legal assistance, foreclosure prevention hotlines, foreclosure mediation and investigation of financial fraud or other wrongdoing overseen by any division of the Attorney General’s Office.

In addition, the Attorney General may distribute any amount from the funds, at his sole discretion, to other governmental entities or charitable organizations whose eleemosynary purposes benefit those affected by the aforementioned misconduct.

The Office of the Alabama Attorney General has held the position that the $25,305,692 from the settlement, cannot be used for general operational expenses. It is believed that the AG has over $17,000,000 of the settlement monies on hand in a separate banking account.

The Alabama Political Reporter has tried continually to receive direct information from the Office of AG Luther Strange, but the office has limited its communications to just a copy of the terms of the agreement.

The use of the $17 million from the National Mortgage Settlement has become quite a contentious issue.

According to the General Fund Budget passed by the House, “…there is hereby conditionally appropriated up to $8,000,000 from the State General Fund. These funds are conditioned upon the Office of the Attorney General depositing all available revenue into the State Treasury.”

The $8 million in appropriations plus the $17 million being held by the Attorney General, would meet the request from the AG’s office.

Rep. Steve Clouse the House Chairman of the General Fund Budget seems to be sending a message to the AG.

In an effort to come to a resolution on the matter Senator Author Orr (R-Decatur), Chairman of the Senate F&T General Fund Committee asked that Norris Green the Director of the Legislative Fiscal Office prepare a memorandum explaining the different sides of the argument.

In summary, it is believed that the Attorney General Office should use the funds it has on hand, until they are exhausted, at which time the AG can make a request for up to the $8,000,000 that would be held by the Alabama Department of Finance to fill out the rest of the needed funds.

It has been said “off the record” that the AG’s Office finds this method troubling, as it might make the AG subservient in someway to the Executive Branch.

This brings to mind the $7.9 million that Gov. Bob Riley transferred to in coming AG Luther Strange just days before leaving office. In a report in the Gadsden Times, Dana Beyerle wrote, “ Gov. Bob Riley on the Friday before he left office in January transferred $7.9 million to the attorney general’s office to help new Attorney General Luther Strange as he entered office. The money revenue received related to the BP oil spill clean-up. The rumors surrounding this transfer of funds has become legend around the Capitol.

Some say Riley cut a deal with Strange to go after gaming magnate, Milton McGregor. Other’s say it was a gift to keep the AG from ever looking into potential wrong doings by the Riley clan. But, like all rumors around the State House, they must be treated as mere gossip.

As for the funding for the Attorney’s Office: Acting Finance Director Newton says, “The Attorney General’s office has ‘other funds’ from which to operate in 2015. So, the Governor’s proposal did not zero out the Attorney General’s office, it zeroed the appropriation from the General Fund. It included a proposal for funding from these other funds, and they have quite a few over there.”

During the National Mortgage Settlement Agreement process, each of the 49 State’s Attorney’s General were allowed to write the conditions for allocations of their portion of the settlement.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,  Alabama used only $3,865,956 or about 15 percent of its settlement funds for mortgage or housing-related issues.

A Breakdown by USA Today showed that Texas put almost all of its entire $135 million into the State’s general fund budget and then spent it on non-housing issues. The State of Georgia set aside its entire $99 million for economic development and Nebraska placed its entire $8 million into its rainy day fund.

According to a synopsis by USA Today, “Connecticut, allotted $22 million of its $26 million on emergency mortgage assistance. While Colorado spent nearly half of its $50 million to help homeowners modify their loans, and the rest of the money on counseling and legal services. Also Pennsylvania set aside 90 percent of its $67 million for its housing finance agency.”

Strange’s Office has not made clear what it wants to do with what remains of the settlement it received. Again the AG’s office has refused request for information.

It appears that the Governor and the budget Chairs want to see Strange use the funds for operating his office.

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Feds resolve complaint over “discriminatory” Alabama emergency ventilator policy

Eddie Burkhalter

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The federal government on Wednesday said it had resolved an investigation into an Alabama’s policy regarding triage of pandemic patients and use of ventilators that a federal agency called “discriminatory” against those with intellectual disabilities and older people. 

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights in a statement Wednesday said the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) had agreed to remove all mention of the 2010 document from state websites and that the department would comply with all civil rights laws. 

There were 2,472 confirmed COVID-19 cases across Alabama as of Wednesday afternoon, 67 reported deaths and 314 hospitalizations form the virus.

Of the 144 COVID-19 patients in Alabama intensive care units as of Tuesday, 93 were hooked to the life-saving ventilators, according to ADPH. Ventilators are in short supply in Alabama and in most other states as each is vying to stockpile the machines.

The federal agency was acting on a complaint filed on March 24 by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and The Arc of the United States that said ADPH’s emergency operations plan violated disabled persons’ federal disability rights laws. 

According to the state’s plan, last updated in 2010, under a “last resort” condition hospitals are ordered to not offer mechanical ventilator support for patients, including children, with “severe or profound mental retardation,” “moderate to severe dementia,” and “severe traumatic brain injury.” 

An ADPH spokesman on March 26 told APR that the 2010 document had already been replaced and that the new document covers a much broader scope of topics than just ventilators, and was developed by a much larger group of people. 

The new document, dated Feb. 28, 2020, does not contain the same language about restricting use of ventilators for the intellectually disabled or older patients, but it also doesn’t clarify how, exactly, ventilators are to be used during an emergency triage situation. 

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OCR notes the lack of clarity on that in the statement Wednesday. 

“OCR is aware that on February 28, 2020, Alabama released new Crisis Standards of Care (CSC) Guidelines. The 2010 Criteria, however, were still available on some state webpages, and it was not clear whether any of their potentially problematic provisions could still be applied under the new Guidelines,” the U.S. Office of Civil Rights said in a statement. 

But OCR said in the statement that Alabama has agreed to comply with civil rights laws and that the old provisions won’t be used in the future. 

“The state has agreed to remove all links to the 2010 Criteria from its websites and to comply with applicable civil rights law. It has further agreed to clarify publicly that the 2010 Criteria are not in effect; that it will not, in future CSC guidelines, include similar provisions singling out certain disabilities for unfavorable treatment or use categorical age cutoffs; and that it will also not interpret the current Guidelines in such a manner,” OCR said in the statement. 

OCR director Roger Severino in a statement Wednesday commended Alabama for “quickly disavowing problematic triage plans and coming into compliance with federal civil rights laws within days of being contacted by our office. 

“Alabama and other states are free to and encouraged to adopt clear triage policies, but they must do so within the guardrails of the law,” Severino said.

“We are pleased that the state of Alabama has rescinded this illegal policy and given notice to hospitals across the state that they may not rely on this policy and cannot discriminate against people with disabilities in accessing lifesaving care,”
said Shira Wakschlag, Legal Counsel for the Arc of the United States, in a statement Wednesday.

Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, in a statement said Wednesday’s actions are an important first step, and the organization “appreciates that Alabama acted quickly to withdraw its discriminatory policy.”

“We call on the Governor to work with ADAP and others in the disability community to develop transparent and clear guidance on how to implement these non- discrimination requirements in the event that rationing of ventilators becomes necessary,” Brownstein said.

“All people deserve compassion and equal respect, and with this in mind, the allocation of care cannot discriminate based on race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex, exercise of conscience or religion,” said Alabama state health officer Dr. SCott Harris said in OCR’s statement. “This includes the use of ventilators during medical emergencies in addressing the needs of at-risk populations in Alabama.”

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Jones asks for faster emergency loans to small businesses

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., and a ranking Republican colleague led other lawmakers in a request that the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration speed up loans to small businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jones and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and other legislators in a letter Wednesday to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administration Administrator Jovita Carranza asked that payroll processing companies be allowed to disburse CARES Act small business loans to speed up payments to those small businesses and to get workers paid quickly. 

“Payroll processors have the needed existing infrastructure that will enable businesses to quickly pay their workers and pending bills. Given they originate approximately 40 percent of all the payroll checks in the country and mostly cater to small businesses with 500 employees or less, involving these companies will ensure a deeper dissemination of funds nationwide to the businesses that need it most to keep their doors open,” the letter reads. 

 “It is critical that all tools be used to distribute federal funds effectively and expeditiously, including payroll processing companies used by many small businesses,” they continued. “Please consider permitting payroll processors to partner with small businesses and banks to help alleviate any potential complications for many small businesses during this tumultuous time, the letter continues. 

 Jones in a separate letter Tuesday to Mnuchin asked that the federal government expedite direct assistance payments to citizens amid the COVID-19 outbreak by allowing some to receive the money quicker through debit cards rather than paper checks. 

Senators Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Mark Warner, D-Va. and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. also signed the Wednesday letter.

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More than half of Alabama COVID-19 deaths are among black people

Chip Brownlee

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More than half of the deaths so far in Alabama from COVID-19 have been among black people, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Black Alabamians make up only 27 percent of the state’s population.

New data released Wednesday shows that the number of deaths among black people infected with COVID-19 in Alabama is higher than initially reported Tuesday, worsening an already disproportionate death rate.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is releasing new demographic data daily, and the numbers could shift again, but the early data show the virus is disproportionately killing black Alabamians.

Black people account for 52 percent of 48 verified deaths in Alabama, up from 44 percent of the verified deaths reported Tuesday. White people, who account for about 69 percent of the state’s population, make up 37.5 percent of the state’s deaths so far. At least 60 deaths have been reported, but not all of them have been investigated by the ADPH’s epidemiology staff.

Public health experts, including Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the dean of the UAB School of Medicine, have said that a lack of access to health care, higher uninsured rates and more underlying chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease are contributing to the higher number of deaths among black Alabamians.

Rep. Anthony Daniels, the minority leader in the Alabama House of Representatives and a member of Gov. Kay Ivey’s coronavirus task force, told APR Wednesday that the state cannot wait to issue an after-action report on the disparities. It must start collecting and reporting as much data as possible now — on testing, on hospitalizations, on deaths and on outcomes in general.

All Alabamians, not just black Alabamians, have higher rates of underlying disease and chronic illness, making the state particularly susceptible to severe health effects caused by the virus. Men of all races have also made up a disproportionate number of the early deaths in Alabama. At least 64 percent of those who have died so far have been men, though women have made up more of the early confirmed cases at about 56 percent. Men are also more likely to have cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions that make people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Alabama also has a higher rate of poverty, especially in black communities, which results in worse health outcomes. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the death rate for black people is higher than that of whites for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes and HIV/AIDS — not because of biology but because of socioeconomic inequalities.

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“There are underlying health conditions in poor communities period, whether you’re black or white,” Daniels said. “I don’t know that there is enough data out there to definitely say that underlying health conditions are the sole indicator.”

Black people in Alabama, and across the United States, suffer worse health outcomes in a variety of areas — not just from this virus. Black women in Alabama have much higher rates of maternal mortality than white women, and studies have shown that people of color have more limited access to health care and higher uninsured rates than white people.

“We’ve known that the maternal mortality rate is an example of where we are,” Daniels said of health care disparities for people of color. “We’ve got to look at this. Is this quality or standard or care? There are so many underlying things that we have to think about.”

Daniels also said he worries that the number of cases and deaths in vulnerable communities is being undercounted because these people, especially early on in the outbreak, may not have been able to get a test or get to a hospital.

He called on the state to provide emergency funding to the Department of Public Health to gather more data and expand the response to the virus.

“We’ve got to look at the data more broadly,” Daniels said. “We cannot wait on an after-action report to determine what we could have or should have done. Alabama has so many smart people.”

The cause does not seem to be a lack of seriousness among people of color. Black people, at 46 percent, and Latinos, at 39 percent, are nearly twice likely to view the coronavirus as a major threat to their health, compared to about 21 percent among white people, according to Pew Research.

Demographics as of April 7.

The disproportionate number of deaths could also be stemming in part from geography. The virus has ravaged areas of the country with larger black populations, in part because cities tend to have a higher number of black residents. The virus is affecting several cities in the state with large black populations. At least 480 cases and 13 deaths have been confirmed in Jefferson County, where the largest city, Birmingham, has a majority black population.

The area of Alabama with the least access to health care, the Black Belt region, is also the area of the state with the largest black population. Many of the counties in this region of the state have no hospital. Expanded testing in this region has identified growing rates of infection.

“You could also worry that they just don’t get access,” Vickers said Saturday. “They don’t get to the hospital as early, and so it’s probably multiple reasons.”

Black people are also being disproportionately infected with the virus, according to the Department of Public Health. Though black people make up about 27 percent of the state’s population, about 37 percent of those with a confirmed case of the virus are black; 49.4 percent are white. The race of about 10 percent of the cases is unknown.

The data in Alabama mirror data in other states like Louisiana and Illinois, where black people have made up a disproportionate number of deaths caused by COVID-19.

“These communities, structurally, they’re breeding grounds for the transmission of the disease,” Sharrelle Barber, an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University, told The New York Times. “It’s not biological. It’s really these existing structural inequalities that are going to shape the racial inequalities in this pandemic.”

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AlabamaWorks releases business survey to identify COVID-19 impact

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AlabamaWorks has announced a new tool for all businesses, large and small, related to the COVID-19 impact and future focus of the workforce in the state.

The Alabama COVID-19 Workforce Response Survey is designed to help the state fully understand the impact of this pandemic on the state’s workforce as well as provide a clear path forward for businesses, industry and state government.

“I am grateful to the Alabama Workforce Council for developing and deploying this much needed and user-friendly survey,” said Governor Kay Ivey. “As we work together to combat COVID-19’s impact, this tool will allow us to identify the needs of business and industry, resources that can help them and how we can best support Alabama’s businesses owners and hardworking Alabamians and their families.”

The official survey, which is critical for helping individual industry sectors recover from COVID-19, is available here: http://sm.aidt.edu/alabamaworks-survey.

“While these are challenging times, we fully understand that now, more than ever, business and industry leaders must continue to work together with Governor Ivey’s administration and various state agencies to move us all forward together,” noted Alabama Workforce Council Chairman Tim McCartney. “Rest assured there is an unwavering commitment to do everything we can to minimize the negative impact COVID-19 has on our businesses, our economy, the state and all of its citizens. Using the results from this survey, I know we can all make a difference in combating the challenges from this pandemic facing so many throughout Alabama.”

Responses to the survey will be accepted through Tuesday, April 21 at 5 p.m. All businesses are highly encouraged to participate as the responses will help to protect Alabama’s workforce, manage the impact of COVID-19 and guide the allocation of various resources.

Additionally, another tool was released earlier this week for hard-working Alabamians from Governor Ivey’s office to help connect people to resources and resources to people. ALtogetherAlabama.org is a one-stop-shop for all Alabamians meant to connect businesses, nonprofits, and people that need help with the available resources during this time.

For more information and resources on Alabama’s COVID-19 workforce recovery efforts please visit alabamaworks.com/coronavirus/.

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