By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Of the over $16 million the State has spent on advertising and professional services so far this fiscal year, it has paid almost $3 Million to the Birmingham based public relations firm, Big Communications.
Last year, Big Communications received around $7 million for various projects it managed for the State, and business is looking good.
According to its website, Big Communications is “…a hungry team of creative communicators who dream up, create, research, plan and execute ideas that inspire people, challenge perceptions and actively change hearts and minds for the brands we serve.”
The State brands they serve are the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, Alabama Construction Institute, AIDTI and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The funds that come from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are technically money provided by oil giant BP, however, the rest is taxpayer dollars and fee-based State funds.
The Department of Commerce also uses Big Communications for various projects including its yearly air show junkets. So far this year, the department has paid the PR group almost $400,000 in State taxpayer dollars.
So intricate are the relations between Big and Commerce, that if a reporter calls the office of Commerce’s Secretary Greg Canfield to inquire about a public matter, they are referred to Big Communication. According to Canfield’s office, all requests for State documents held by the Department of Commerce must be vetted by the staff of Big Communications.
This is a same PR firm that represents the Big Payday and Title Lenders in the State.
Last year, this publication reported on the nexus of the Paris Air Show, big money, State contracts, and predatory lending.
Another State client is the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute, (ACRI), a quasi-private-government partnership has spent $765,377.11, with Big Communication so far this year, and over a million in past years.
According to ACRI Executive Director Jason Phelps, the agency has two goals, “One is recruiting people with messaging that gets them to consider a career in construction and then there’s also Image Enhancement via those commercials.”
The website for ACRI, look much like a glamorized version of the construction worker with youthful, pretty women and masculine men. Phelps says some models were used, but that there are also real construction employees featured on the site. “We try to portray our trade’s workers in this State as heroes, community builders,” said Phelps, “Then we also want to let folks know about the great wages they could have and all the opportunities available in the commercial construction industry.”
Phelps says that the mass media campaign is the only one of its kind in the country. “We’re the only state in the Nation that has really tackled this issue by going the mass media route….be flashy, be up-to-date and be where people are watching TV,” Phelps, explained.
ACRI was established in 2009, by an Act sponsored by Senator Wendell Mitchell and Senator Del Marsh. It is funded through a fee levied on employers based on wages paid to skilled construction workers on commercial and industrial jobs across the State. Then Gov. Bob Riley, incorporated ACRI as a non-profit according to the Secretary of State. Most notably, Big Communications created the “Go Build Alabama” advertising campaign for ACRI, featuring Dirty Jobs star, Mike Rowe.
The annual revenue raised for ACRI is around $1.5 million according to Phelps. The agency has a total of three employees.
The Alabama Industrial Development Training Institute, (AIDTI), is also a client of Bis spenting $85,576.00 with the firm to date. AIDTI since its founding was a part of the two-year college system, but in 2013 the Legislature placed it under the Department of Commerce.
AIDTI pays out millions of taxpayer dollars under so-called business incentive programs, under the guise of “employee training,” has a separate financial reporting system than other agencies. This year alone AIDTI has given $5 million to Austal for “employee training.” Austal USA is the American branch of the Australian Shipbuilders, which has a shipyard in Mobile.
The Department of Transportation is another State agency that relies upon Big for its communication projects.
According to Tony Harris, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, Big Communications has worked with the department since around 2010. In this fiscal year, the DOT has paid over $130,000 to the firm for a public information campaign associated with the replacement of bridges on the I-20/I-459,exchange, in Birmingham.
According to Harris, “The project and all the public information needs associated with it, has defeated our ability to handle it internally.” Harris says that the DOT has a fully developed website—that has not yet been launched— and a full array of informational support and material that has been developed by Big. However, the construction project has crawled along, slowing the project almost to a halt.
“We’re all dressed up and have nowhere to go… just waiting now for the construction to catch up with it,” said Harris.
As the State approaches the end of this fiscal year, it would be hard to imagine that the “hungry team” at Big Communications is not really full. But, when tax payer dollars are being used, for many, a ravenous appetite.
Today is Thanksgiving
Today is a national and state holiday. Schools, banks, government offices and many private businesses are closed.
Four hundred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1620, after 66 days at sea, a group of English settlers landed near what is today Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Onboard the Mayflower were 102 men, women, and children, including one baby born during the Atlantic crossing, who made up the Pilgrims.
The Mayflower, captained by Christopher Jones, had been bound for the mouth of the Hudson River. The ship took a northerly course to avoid pirates, but the decision to avoid the then widely traveled sea lanes to the New World took the ship into bad weather, which had blown the Mayflower miles off course and left the ship damaged. Off Cape Cod, the adult males in the group made the fateful decision to build an entire colony where none had existed prior. They wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.
“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.”
After a few weeks off Cape Cod, they sailed up the coast until they reached Plymouth. There they found a Wampanoag Indian village that had been abandoned due to some sort of plague. During the Winter of 1620-1621 they lived aboard the Mayflower and would row to shore each day to build houses. Finally, they had built enough houses to actually move to the colony, but the cold, damp conditions aboard the ship had been costly.
Some 28 men, 13 women (one of them in child birth), and 8 children died in that winter. Governor John Carver would die in April. His widow, Kathrine White Carver, would follow a few weeks later. There is some recent archaeological evidence suggesting that some of the dead were butchered and eaten by the survivors.
The Mayflower and her crew left for England on April 5, 1621, never to return.
About 40 of the Pilgrims were religious Separatists, members of a Puritan sect that had split from the Church of England, in defiance of English law. In 1609, they immigrated to Holland to practice their religion but ran into problems there too. Others in the group had remained part of the Church of England but were sympathetic to their Separatist friends. They did not call themselves Pilgrims, that term was adopted at the bicentennial for the Mayflower voyage. The members of core Separatist sect referred to themselves as “Saints” and people not in their sect as “Strangers.”
In March 1621, an English speaking Native American, named Samoset, visited the Plymouth colony and asked for beer. He spent the night talking with the settlers and later introduced them to Squanto, who spoke even better English. Squanto introduced them to the chief of the Wampanoag, Massasoit.
Squanto moved in with the Pilgrims, serving as their advisor and translator. The friendly Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and grow crops. The two groups began trading furs with each other.
William Bradford, a Separatist who helped draft the Mayflower Compact, became the longtime Plymouth Governor. He was also the writer of the first history of the Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Bradford’s more notable descendants include author, dictionary writer and scholar Noah Webster; TV chef Julia Child; and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
In the fall of 1621, 399 years ago, the Pilgrims invited their Wampanoag Indian friends to a feast celebrating their first harvest and a year in the New World with a three-day festival. This has become known as the first Thanksgiving.
Today is a national and state holiday. Schools, banks, government offices and many private businesses are closed.
Alabama hospitals nearing COVID-19 summer surge levels
Wednesday was the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19.
Alabama hospitals reported caring for 1,483 people infected with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number of patients since Aug. 11, when the state was enduring its summer surge. Wednesday was also the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19.
The seven-day average of hospitalizations was 1,370 on Wednesday, the 36th straight day of that average rising. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,453 new cases Wednesday. The 14-day average of new cases was — for the eighth day in a row — at a record high of 2,192.
Across the country, more than 80,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a record high and the 15th straight day of record hospitalizations nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus tracking website.
The CDC this week recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“The only way for us to successfully get through this pandemic is if we work together,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a message Tuesday. “There’s no one subset of the community that’s going to be able to carry the weight of this pandemic and so we all have to take part in wearing our masks, keeping our distance, making sure that we’re washing our hands.”
Kennedy said the best way she can describe the current situation is “Russian Roulette.”
“Not only in the form of, maybe you get it and you don’t get sick or maybe you get it and you end up in the ICU,” Kennedy said, “but if you do end up sick, are you going to get to the hospital at a time when we’ve got capacity, and we’ve got enough people to take care of you? And that is a scary thought.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 60 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. Deaths take time to confirm and the date a death is reported does not necessarily reflect the date on which the individual died. At least 23 of those deaths occurred in November, and 30 occurred in other months. Seven were undated. Data for the last two to three weeks are incomplete.
As of Wednesday, at least 3,532 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. During November, at least 195 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19. But ADPH is sure to add more to the month’s tally in the weeks to come as data becomes more complete.
ADPH on Wednesday announced a change that nearly doubled the department’s estimate of people who have recovered from COVID-19, bringing that figure up to 161,946. That change also alters APR’s estimates of how many cases are considered active.
ADPH’s Infectious Disease and Outbreak team “updated some parameters” in the department’s Alabama NEDSS Base Surveillance System, which resulted in the increase, the department said.
Judge reduces former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence
The trial court judge ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.
Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker on Wednesday reduced former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence from four years to just more than two.
Walker in his order filed Wednesday noted that Hubbard was sentenced to fours years on Aug. 9, 2016, after being convicted of 12 felony ethics charges for misusing his office for personal gain, but that on Aug. 27, 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed convictions on one counts. The Alabama Supreme Court later struck down another five counts.
Hubbard’s attorneys on Sept. 18 filed a motion to revise his sentence, to which the state objected, according to court records, arguing that “Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency.”
Walker in his order cited state code and wrote that the power of the courts to grant probation “is a matter of grace and lies entirely within the sound discretion of the trial court.”
“Furthermore, the Court must consider the nature of the Defendant’s crimes. Acts of public corruption harm not just those directly involved, but harm society as a whole,” Walker wrote.
Walker ruled that because six of Hubbard’s original felony counts were later reversed, his sentence should be changed to reflect that, and ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Wednesday said Walker’s decision to reduce Hubbard’s sentence was the wrong message to send.
“Mr. Hubbard was convicted of the intentional violation of Alabama’s ethics laws, the same laws he championed in the legislature only later to brazenly disregard for his personal enrichment,” Marshall said in a statement. “Even as he sits in state prison as a six-time felon, Mike Hubbard continues to deny any guilt or offer any remorse for his actions in violation of the law. Reducing his original four-year sentence sends precisely the wrong message to would-be violators of Alabama’s ethics laws.”
Nick Saban tests positive for COVID-19, has “mild symptoms”
It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn.
University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban has tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Iron Bowl and has mild symptoms, according to a statement from the university on Wednesday.
“This morning we received notification that Coach Saban tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr. Jimmy Robinson and Jeff Allan, associate athletic director, in the statement. “He has very mild symptoms, so this test will not be categorized as a false positive. He will follow all appropriate guidelines and isolate at home.”
Saban had previously tested positive before Alabama’s game against Georgia but was asymptomatic and subsequently tested negative three times, a sign that the positive test could have been a false positive. He returned to coach that game.
It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for quarantining after testing positive and with symptoms. Neither Saban nor the university had spoken about that possibility as of Wednesday morning.