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The worst thing Robert Bentley did

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

A few weeks ago, the Alabama House Judiciary Committee dropped a report detailing a bunch of awful things former Gov. Robert Bentley did.

There were tales of affairs, of intimidation, of misusing power, of misusing State resources, of acting above the law and of flaunting his overreach of power.

But that report didn’t include one thing: the worst thing Robert Bentley ever did.

Because the worst thing Bentley ever did had nothing to do with sex or campaign finance issues.

It was that time he tried to destroy a State university – Alabama State University.

It was announced on Tuesday that the long-running State investigation into alleged fraud at ASU had been closed. A Grand Jury had declined to return a single indictment in the nearly five-year investigation that cost taxpayers more than a million dollars.

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The investigation was, by any measure, a colossal failure and significant waste of State time and resources.

It was also politics at its absolute worst, race-baiting to an embarrassing degree and spiteful revenge that should have no place in our State government.

For those unfamiliar, allow me to give you a not-so-brief recap.

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In November 2012, then-ASU president Joseph Silver, on the job for about three months, began claiming that he was being railroaded out of town by longtime ASU powers because he had uncovered potential fraud. That fraud, Silver said cryptically, was in the form of contracts that the university wasn’t receiving a proper return on.

The situation blew up.

In rode Bentley and his legal team to get to the bottom of it.

Why?

According to a number of sources from both ASU and within the governor’s office, Bentley owed a debt to the AEA and Joe Reed, the longtime head of the AEA’s legal department. Reed had been a fixture at ASU until decades-old feuds saw him pushed out of power and the university altogether in the late 2000s. (Trustees even removed Reed’s name from the Acadome, the school’s basketball arena.)

Sources at ASU said that when Silver began having issues with trustees and longtime powers at ASU, he went to Reed for help. And when it became clear that Silver wouldn’t survive as president, those sources said it was Reed who facilitated the meeting between Silver and Bentley.

Silver would eventually make a deal and bow out. Bentley forced a forensic audit on ASU to supposedly get to the bottom of Silver’s allegations.

To do the forensic audit, Bentley contracted with a small Birmingham firm named Forensic Strategic Solutions (FSS). Within a very short period of time, FSS ran into a number of road blocks.

First of all, ASU officials decided they weren’t going to allow FSS to come in and start interrogating employees and tying up daily operations with multiple requests for documents. So, it contracted with former Federal Judge U.W. Clemon, who, to the chagrin of FSS and the governor’s office, established his own system for dispersing documents and handling employee interviews.

While that was troubling, FSS’ biggest issue was something no one saw coming: There was no obvious fraud.

Within just a few weeks, it was readily apparent that while ASU had its share of accounting snafus and goofy screw-ups – like all universities and large companies – there didn’t seem to be any real fraud. No mysteriously missing money. No ridiculous payouts to friends or family. No odd contracts.

But that didn’t cause the governor or his team to back away. Instead, Bentley fought for more control and inserted himself into the search for ASU’s next president.

Believing the process was rigged to allow State Sen. Quinton Ross to land the job, Bentley at one point demanded that the search process be stopped and restarted. When trustees refused, he tried to sabotage the search by revealing the identities of the candidates for the job.

At one of the oddest, most contentious university board meetings in history, several members of the Governor’s legal staff began passing out lists that identified candidates for the job. Several trustees, angered by the move, began throwing the papers at the Governor’s staff.

But the move pushed public perception that several within the university were controlling the search in the hopes of landing a candidate that would continue to cover up their misdeeds. And that public outcry helped give the job to inexperienced Gwendolyn Boyd, who didn’t stray from Bentley’s wishes.

But there was still a problem: the board.

It was controlled by a faction that was unfriendly to Bentley and Boyd. They were blocking a number of her changes and looking over her shoulder.

Bentley’s auditors began digging for anything on the two men who controlled the board: chairman Elton Dean, the Montgomery County Commission chairman, and vice-chairman Judge Marvin Wiggins.

The result, after more than 10 months of digging, was a “preliminary audit report” from FSS that might just be the most embarrassing “audit report” ever produced.

It contained, among other things, completely unsubstantiated claims that Dean had a girlfriend who received contract work and that ASU had more than $2.5 million in “questionable contracts.” The list of contracts was never provided. But we know now that they weren’t too terribly questionable.

The report also contained allegations that Wiggins had a conflict of interest because his wife and family operated a summer camp on the ASU campus. That the camp had operated for several years previously and that ASU didn’t really pay for it didn’t seem to matter.

There were similar allegations against Dean, whose daughter’s company was awarded roughly $8,000 in contracts over three years for inflatables to be used outside of football games. Basically, they had contracts to supply bouncy houses.

Those absurd allegations of conflicts of interest and the school’s mounting financial issues were enough for ASU’s accrediting agency to place it on warning status, threatening its vital accreditation. Shortly thereafter, with public pressure mounting, Dean stepped down as trustee chairman and Wiggins was forced off the board by Bentley.

At that point, things should have stopped.

Bentley had the control he sought. The changes he wanted had been made. The investigations should have moved towards completion.

But that’s not what happened.

The man who pushed, at his mistress’ suggestion, to close driver’s license offices in majority-black counties couldn’t let go the defiance from the leaders of a black university. The insults stung. The attempts to undermine Bentley politically would not be forgiven.

And so, the Governor of Alabama allowed a State school to be ripped apart brick by brick.

When the credit downgrades rocked the university’s finances, there was no additional state funding to help offset the problems.

When SACS issued its warning, there were no calls from the Governor’s office to explain things had changed, that board leadership was different, that the financial situation would be handled. Not a peep.

In its 2014 operating budget, ASU trimmed nearly $26 million away. The next year, another $4 million vanished. The next, another $8 million.

The bad PR from the phony scandals cost ASU more than 1,500 students.

And all the while, ASU was “under investigation.” An investigation that didn’t seriously question a single witness in more than a year. An investigation of a university in which investigators haven’t set foot on the campus to investigate anything in more than two years and didn’t request a single document in more than three years.

ASU is, I guess, easy to ridicule for its myriad issues over the years. But on its worst day, the school serves as an educational lifeline to a community that’s underserved in this state. It has given more hope and prosperity to the poverty-stricken than you can imagine. And it has served as a shining beacon for civil rights for decades.

What Robert Bentley and many others have done to ASU through this five-year ordeal is unforgivable.

Hopefully, it’s survivable.

 

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Education

Opinion | Instead of fixing a school for military kids, how about just fixing the schools for all kids?

Josh Moon

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The education of police officers’ kids isn’t worth any extra effort. 

Same for the kids of nurses and firefighters. Ditto for the kids of preachers and social workers. 

No, in the eyes of the Republican-led Alabama Legislature, the children of this state get what they get and lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure any of them get a particularly good public education. 

Except, that is, for the kids of active duty military members stationed at bases in this state. 

They matter more. 

So much so that the Alabama Senate last week passed a bill that would create a special school to serve those kids — and only those kids. To provide those kids — and only those kids — with a quality education. 

An education better than the one available right now to the thousands of children who attend troubled school systems, such as the one in Montgomery. 

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The charter school bill pushed by Sen. Will Barfoot at the request of Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth carves out a narrow exception in the Alabama Charter School law, and it gives the right to start a charter school located at or near a military base — a school that will be populated almost exclusively (and in some cases, absolutely exclusively) by the kids of military members. 

The explanation for this bill from Barfoot was surprisingly straightforward. On Tuesday, Ainsworth’s office sent information packets around to House members to explain the necessity of the bill. 

In each case, the explanation was essentially this: the Maxwell Air Force Base folks don’t like the schools in Montgomery and it’s costing the state additional federal dollars because top-level personnel and programs don’t want to be in Montgomery. 

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And in what has to be the most Alabama response to a public education problem, the solution our lawmakers came up with was to suck millions of dollars out of the budget of the State Education Department budget and hundreds of thousands out of the budget of a struggling district and use it to build a special school that will provide a better level of education to a small group of kids simply because it might generate more federal tax dollars. 

And because having your name attached to a bill that supposedly aids the military looks good, so long as no one thinks about it too hard. 

But in the meantime, as this special school is being built, the hardworking, good people of Montgomery — some of them veterans and Reservists themselves — are left with a school district that is so recognizably bad that the Legislature is about to build a special school to accommodate these kids. 

Seriously, wrap your head around that. 

Look, this will come as a shock to many people, but I like Will Ainsworth. While we disagree on many, many things, I think he’s a genuine person who believes he’s helping people. 

The problem is that he is too often surrounded by conservatives who think every issue can be solved with a bumper sticker slogan and screaming “free market!” And who too often worry too much about the political optics and too little about the real life effects. 

And Montgomery Public Schools is as real life as it gets.

Right now, there are nearly 30,000 kids in that system. And they need some real, actual help — not the window dressing, money pit BS they’ve been handed so far through LEAD Academy and the other destined-for-doom charters. And they sure as hell don’t need a special charter for military kids to remind them that the school system they attend isn’t good enough for the out-of-towners. 

Stop with the facade and fix the school system. 

You people literally have the power and the money to do this. Given the rollbacks of tenure laws and the passage of charter school laws and the Accountability Act, there is nothing that can’t be done. 

Listen to your colleagues on the other side, who took tours recently of charter schools in other states — charters that work with underprivileged students and that have remarkable success rates. Hell, visit those charters yourself. Or, even better, visit some states that have high performing public schools in high poverty areas, and steal their ideas. 

But the one thing you cannot do is leave children behind. Whatever your solution, it cannot exclude some segment of the population. It cannot sacrifice this many to save that many. 

That sort of illogical thinking is what landed Montgomery — and many other areas of the state — in their current predicaments. Carving out narrow pathways for a handful of students has never, ever worked. 

Let’s stop trying it.

 

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Featured Columnists

Opinion | Alabama close to allowing hot dogs to be rescued

Joey Kennedy

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Most readers know that we’ve had a grumble of pugs for years. We lost four in the grumble last year. All of our dogs are rescues, and most of them have some disability: unable to walk well, blindness, incontinence, a perpetually crooked head.

And most of the pugs are elderly, so we expect to lose a few this year. Our youngest is Nellie Bly, at about 2 years old. We have a group of older pugs that are around 10-11 years old. Several came from puppy mills. One was surrendered to a vet tech when his owners took him to be put down because the owner’s granddaughter wanted a different dog (I know!). The veterinarian naturally was not going to euthanize a healthy animal, and about a week later, Peerey came to us.

Pugs are bred to do one thing: Sit with their humans, mostly on their laps or next to them on the bed. All of ours are bed pugs. They snore; we adore.

I say all of this to underscore that Veronica and I know not ever to leave one of our dogs in a locked car, especially during the summer. But every year, we hear stories of the careless owners who leave their dog (or dogs) in the backseat of a vehicle while they run an errand. The errand takes longer than the owner thought, and heat builds in the car. Too often, that kills the pet, just like it does children, and that happens all too often as well.

As of 2019, 31 states had laws that either prohibit leaving an animal confined in a vehicle under dangerous conditions or provide civil immunity (protection from being sued) for a person who rescues a distressed animal from a vehicle.

Alabama – finally – is on the cusp of joining that group.

A bill (SB67) sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, will allow good Samaritans to rescue pets left in a car if they are clearly in danger from either the heat or cold. The bill provides criminal immunity to civilians and grants civil and criminal immunity to law enforcement officers who rescue an animal.

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Important, too, is that bill prevents owners from leaving their animals in a vehicle in a manner that creates an unreasonable risk of harm. If they do, they can be charged with second-degree animal abuse.

It doesn’t take long for the situation in a vehicle to deteriorate, either. 

Even on a mild day, the heat inside a car can go off the rails. According to reports, if the outside temperature is 70 degrees (f), the interior of a vehicle can heat up to 89 degrees in 10 minutes. After a half-hour, the interior temp can be 104 degrees. Of course, it’s much worse on hotter days.

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At 80 degrees, a vehicles inside temperature is at 99 degrees; after a half-hour, the animal is trying to survive in a 114-degree oven. And at 95 degrees, not an unusual June, July, or August temperature in Alabama, the inside temp of a vehicle is about 130 degrees.

Humans can’t even survive long at those temperatures.

There are conditions before a good Samaritan can step up, but they’re not unusual in states that already have similar laws: Among them:

The person has a good faith belief that the confined domestic animal is in imminent danger of suffering physical injury or death unless the domestic animal is removed from the motor vehicle;
The person determines that the motor vehicle is locked or there is no reasonable manner in which the person can remove the domestic animal from the vehicle;
Before entering the motor vehicle, the person notifies a peace officer, emergency medical service provider or first responder or an animal control enforcement agency or deputy of the confined domestic animal;
The person does not use more force than is necessary under the circumstances to enter the motor vehicle and remove the domestic animal from the vehicle.
Remains with the animal in a safe location in reasonable proximity to the motor vehicle until law enforcement or other first responders arrive.
Maintains control of the animal at all times to prevent harm to the animal or others.

There are other conditions that make less sense, however. The bill as passed 33-0 by the state Senate requires the ambient temperature in the vehicle be 99 degrees or higher before a citizen or first-responder can intervene.

I can tell you that a half-hour in a car at 95 degrees will kill a pug; a Lab or Golden might survive that temperature for awhile, but remember, every minute the car’s interior is getting hotter. Pugs are brachycephalic – short nosed – and have trouble breathing outside at 80 or 85 degrees.

Other short-nosed breeds like English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers, have the same issue. It’s one reason why they snort and snore, even in the winter.

Generally, we can tell when a dog locked in a car is distressed, and few good Samaritans are going to be carrying a temperature gauge with them.

Still, the House needs to pass this bill as soon as possible. Spring and summer aren’t that far off, and, no doubt, there will be animals to rescue.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter.

Email: [email protected]

 

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Featured Columnists

Opinion | Open Seat for the 2nd Congressional District will be decided in March

Steve Flowers

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Over the course of history, the second congressional district has been referred to and considered a Montgomery congressional district because the Capital City has comprised the bulk of the population.  In recent years a good many Montgomerians have migrated to the suburban counties of Autauga and Elmore.  Therefore, the district has been refigured to reflect this trend.  Today there are more Republican votes cast in this congressional district in these two counties than from Montgomery.  

Nevertheless the bulk of the population is in what is now referred to as the River Region.  This Montgomery region is coupled with Southeast Alabama and the Wiregrass, which makes it a very conservative Congressional district.  It is a Republican seat and has been since Bill Dickinson won it in the southern Republican Goldwater landslide of 1964.

Bill Dickinson beat longtime sitting Congressman George Grantin 1964, and became the first Republican to be elected since Reconstruction.  Congressman Dickinson stayed in the seat for 28 years.  He rose to be the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.  Through his influence, not only were the vital military bases Maxwell/Gunter in Montgomery and Ft. Rucker in the Wiregrass – enhanced, he was also instrumental in bringing Lockheed and Sikorsky plants to the district.  Over the past 100 years, Dickinson has had the most profound effect for the district.

Businessman Terry Everett won the seat in 1992 upon Dickinson’s retirement.  He was the first and only Wiregrass person to hold that seat.  Everett served with distinction for 16 years, through 2008.  He was a stalwart Republican and very conservative.

The current Congressional person is Martha Roby, a Republican from Montgomery.  After 10 years in Congress, she said she had enough and chose to not run for reelection this year which leaves the open seat up for grabs.  It is a Republican seat, therefore, the winner of the March 3rd primary and probable March 31 GOP runoff, will go to Washington for at least two years.  

The probable winner of that congressional seat will be Dothan businessman, Jeff Coleman.  He is 53 and has not only been successful running his family’s worldwide moving business, hehas been active civically in the Wiregrass. He is at the right time in life to serve in Washington.  His profile is the prototypical scenario for being elected to a Republican Congressional or Senate seat.  Congressional campaign fundraising limits coupled with the fact that Washington PACs do not get involved in primaries but wait until the General Election to place their bets, favors a wealthy candidate.  

Coleman has his own money and dedicated $2 million to the race.  He has followed through on his promise to spend that amount.  Amazingly, he has raised another $1 million.  When all is said and done, he will probably have spent close to $3 million to win this seat in Congress.  Just outspending his challengers by a 10 to 1 amount would be sufficient to win.  However, he has not only spent more than all the others combined, he has outworked them.  He is affable and confident in an unassuming way.  People seem to like him.  He will win.

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If Coleman had not entered the race, former Attorney General Troy King would have been favored to win.  Having run several times and being a native of the Wiregrass, King had some inherent name identification.  He has been hampered in this race by lack of fundraising.  However, if there is a runoff, King will more than likely be Coleman’s opponent in the March 31 GOP runoff.

Former Enterprise State Representative Barry Moore ran a gallant race against Martha Roby a couple of years ago and got a good vote, most of which came out of Coffee County. He may not do as well in the Wiregrass this time.

There is a dashing young candidate named Jessica Taylor, who is running a good campaign focused on getting free publicity on Fox News as a youthful female candidate.

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Whichever candidate wins the seat, there is no question as towhich congressional committees they should aspireAgriculture and Armed Services because this district is highly dependent on military spending and farming.

Sadly, the winner will probably not have a long tenure in Congress.  Alabama is probably going to lose a Congressional seat after this year’s census count.  The logical seat to be altered and probably merged with the current third and first district is the second district.

Folks, the primary election is less than two weeks away.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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Elections

Opinion | It’s time for Alabama Democrats to learn from Alabama Republicans

Josh Moon

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Democrats never seem to learn from Republicans. 

All around the country, and all around the state of Alabama, Democrats are still playing by the rules. Still listening to the cries and outrage from the other side. Still entertaining the idea that compromise and diplomacy are important to Republicans on some level. 

Still watching Lucy jerk that football away at the last moment. 

It’s time that stopped. 

It is time — actually, well past time — for Democrats to adopt the attitudes of their GOP colleagues, and just do whatever the hell you want to do. 

Whatever goal you set, go achieve it. Whatever policy is important, implement it. Whatever action you believe is right, take it. 

This is how Republicans have governed now for years. It is how they have wrestled control of the U.S. Supreme Court — just don’t hold a hearing for a duly appointed candidate — and how they have stolen elections — keep blocking attempts to secure elections. It is how they control half of Congress — thanks, gerrymandering! — despite representing nearly 20 million fewer people and how they have managed to offset a growing minority vote — put up every roadblock short of a poll tax. 

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In Alabama, it has how they adopted the AAA act to funnel tax money to private schools — just completely rewrite the bill in the dead of night — and how they passed the most restrictive abortion ban — just ignore promises and public opinion. It is how they have stopped attempts to pass gambling legislation — by straight up lying about the law — and how they have steadily cut into ethics laws — pretend that no one can understand the laws they wrote themselves — and how a House Speaker convicted on 12 felonies still isn’t in prison three years later — just don’t send him. 

They don’t care. 

About rules. About the law. About public perception. About basic decency. 

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And it’s time for Democrats, especially in Alabama, to adopt the same attitudes. 

Because if Republicans can behave this way to implement racist bills and roll back ethics laws and protect the income of the elites, then Democrats shouldn’t think twice about doing it to protect rural hospitals or new mothers’ health or workers’ rights or decent public schools. 

Now, this will be a big change for Democrats, so let me explain how this would look in practice, using the ongoing saga of Confederate monuments. 

Republicans shoved through an absurd bill last year that protects the state’s monuments to those who fought to enslave other human beings, and they’re shocked — shocked and outraged — that African Americans in Alabama might find it offensive to honor the men who enslaved their ancestors. 

The bill they passed last year was a dumb bill, right down to the portion which levied a fine on cities if those cities removed or damaged a monument. The bill completely screwed up the fines portion, failing to penalize cities for moving or damaging monuments over 40 years old and failing to place a per-day fine on those cities. Instead, the Alabama Supreme Court said the cities would be subject to one $25,000 fine. 

Birmingham has a monument that it desperately wants to move. It has already boarded up the monument in Linn Park, and the ALSC, in the same ruling, ordered the boards to come down. 

And this is the first opportunity for Mayor Randall Woodfin to approach this with a new attitude. 

Tear it down. 

Write out one of those big “Price is Right” checks for $25,000, hold a press conference and award that money to Steve Marshall like he just won at Plinko. 

At the same time, workers should be taking that monument apart piece by piece and moving it to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where it can be viewed for its historical significance instead of serving to honor traitors and racists. 

No apologies. No shame. Don’t even entertain their complaints. 

A similar approach should be taken by the city of Montgomery in regards to its occupational tax, which Republicans are attempting to stop through legislative action. 

Montgomery is going broke, and it can’t put enough cops on the streets. Part of that is because every day about 70,000 people flood into the city to go to work, and then they leave each afternoon and spend their money in — and give their tax dollars to — surrounding cities and counties. 

Montgomery has to do something to offset the costs, so an occupational tax has been proposed. But just as quickly as it was, the ALGOP — the kings of handouts to people who don’t need them — passed a bill to block it. 

So, some creativity is required.

Instead of an occupational tax, pass a public safety tax. 

If you work within the city limits of Montgomery, but live outside of those city limits, your paycheck will now be taxed an extra 1 percent to offset the cost of the police and fire services that you might use while in the city every day. 

No apologies. No shame. Don’t listen to GOP complaints. 

It’s a shame that things have to be like this, but they do. Democrats have tried for decades to force rational debate and to promote the value of compromise. Those pleas have fallen on deaf ears, which have been attached to toddler-like brains that have justified atrociously selfish behaviors and awful governance. 

At this point, it has gone on so long and been so successful for Republicans, the only thing that might break through is a taste of their own medicine. 

Give it to them.

 

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