By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, Dom Gentile, a Republican candidate for US Senate in Alabama’s Special Election, asked in a letter for the Alabama Ethics Commission to investigate campaign contributions made to current Sen. Luther Strange by Drummond Coal.
Strange, who was appointed to the Senate in February by former Gov. Robert Bentley, has come under fire of late for his involvement while attorney general in Alabama with an EPA superfund site in north Birmingham.
Last week, another Senate candidate, Randy Brinson, the former head of Alabama’s Christian Coalition, told reporters that an Alabama House member, Democrat John Rogers, told Brinson that he had been offered a bribe related to the EPA site and that Strange had been involved in the conversation when the bribe was offered.
Rogers confirmed similar allegations to APR, and told numerous other people, before recanting those allegations the next day.
However, in his letter to Tom Albritton, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, Gentile doesn’t mention the Rogers allegations and instead focuses on several questionable campaign contributions flowing from Drummond Coal to Strange at the same time Strange inserted himself and his office into the superfund ordeal.
According to a number of sources who are familiar with the Federal and State investigations surrounding the 35th Ave. Superfund Site, as it’s officially known, investigators are most interested in that money – and what, if any, influence it purchased with Strange.
So, let’s break this down.
The 35th Ave. Superfund Site comprises a large area in north Birmingham, in the general area where the city’s famous steel mills have operated for decades. And for decades, those mills have belched pollutants into the air, water and ground surrounding them – even if they did so while ignorant of the damage they were doing.
In 2011, after years of complaints from residents of health issues and other pollution-related problems in the area, the EPA finally landed on the scene after tests from one of the plants – Walter Coke – turned up unusually high levels of pollutants in the soil.
EPA testing confirmed those results and more. The area was deemed a superfund site – a designation used by the EPA to notate a large area of pollution related to one or a few sources. Over the course of the next several months, the EPA set about determining potentially responsible parties (PTPs) – the companies that caused the contamination and that would be responsible for its cleanup.
In this case, they found five: KMAC, Walter Coke, Drummond Coal, Alagasco and US Pipe.
Those companies, or their current owners, would be responsible for an estimated $20 million cleanup. While no small amount, split five ways, it’s $4 million spread out over several years. A drop in the bucket for a company like Drummond, which had $2.2 billion in sales in 2015 alone.
Instead of participating in the cleanup, at least one of the companies allegedly went a different direction.
Late last month, Federal prosecutors announced that former House member Oliver Robinson had agreed to a plea deal and was singing like a bird, telling the entire, pathetic story about the scheme to block the EPA’s cleanup of hundreds of properties in the north Birmingham area.
Robinson was allegedly provided thousands of dollars in contributions and payments – mostly through his company – in exchange for him speaking against the superfund site, and specifically speaking against the site being added to the National Priority List. That designation would have made the 35th Ave. site a focus for the EPA and would have sped up the process for determining PRPs, and provided the EPA more flexibility and power in forcing remediation payments from those PRPs.
In June 2014, the EPA notified the Alabama Department of Environmental Management that it planned to place the site on the NPL. And that’s when things got … well, Strange.
To fully appreciate the extent of Luther Strange’s involvement in the 35th Ave. site – and how odd it was – a series of letters between the EPA, then-Gov. Bentley, ADEM and Strange tell the tale.
On April 2, 2014, the EPA sent a letter to ADEM and Bentley notifying the state officially that it was considering placing the 35th Ave. site on the NPL, but first the EPA wanted the state’s input.
On May 30, 2014, Bentley responds, telling the EPA that he is delegating state authority for the site to ADEM. That agency, Bentley said, would be providing comments “to EPA on behalf of the State.”
On June 11, 2014, ADEM responds to EPA. In its letter, ADEM offers no objection to the listing, telling the EPA: “ADEM does not object to EPA’s proposal to list the site on the NPL provided EPA is able to reach an agreement with the (PRPs) to provide adequate funding for the cleanup.”
ADEM’s letter further states that should the PRPs be unable to provide the funding, the state paying its share (10 percent) would be “contingent on having funds available,” and that currently “no such funding exists.”
So, to sum up: The EPA wants to list the site on the NPL. ADEM, which is delegated to speak for the State, says it doesn’t object so long as the state doesn’t owe money.
But then, in September 2014, after the EPA publicly announces its plans to move forward with listing the 35th Ave. site on the NPL, ADEM officials, for some inexplicable reason, freak out. Director Lance LeFleur fires off an email proclaiming the actions to be an “egregious breach of protocol” and claiming that ADEM “DID NOT CONCUR” with the proposal.
And then, Strange gets involved.
On Oct. 23, 2014, after LeFleur and EPA officials had exchanged several emails and phone calls on the matter, Strange fires off a letter of his own. In it, he proclaims that ADEM’s June 11 letter made it clear that the “State of Alabama does not concur” with listing the site on the NPL. Except, that letter literally stated the opposite.
In addition, Strange says the State will not expend any money to help with cleanup at the site.
On Jan. 20, 2015, Strange sent another letter to the EPA, again noting his office’s objections to the listing and citing several reasons for those objections, most of which were copied from LeFleur’s earlier letter.
The letters from Strange raise several questions. The biggest, obviously, is why would he be involved at all?
Bentley had clearly delegated state authority for the site to ADEM, which had worked with the EPA on several other projects, and it wasn’t as if working with the EPA was a standard task for the AG’s office.
A search though the AG’s archives and the document storage locations on the webpages for other superfund sites in Alabama, including the Montgomery plume site, turns up zero instances of the AG’s office or Strange involved in any other proposed NPL listings or other EPA actions at pollution sites.
Additionally, according to a story in The Montgomery Advertiser, LeFleur said ADEM never asked for Strange to get involved.
“They on their own determined that they would like to engage EPA on this issue,” LeFleur told the Advertiser. “We were already engaged with EPA.”
So, why was Strange involved at all?
That answer could lie in Gentile’s request to the Ethics Commission.
On Oct. 17, 2014, less than a week before Strange fired off his first letter to the EPA about the 35th Ave. site, Drummond Coal dumped $25,000 into Strange’s campaign account.
On Feb. 20, 2015, some three months after Strange was elected for a second and final term as AG and a month after his second EPA letter, Strange got another $25,000 from Drummond.
That final $25,000, while well after the election, was allowed by campaign finance laws because Strange was settling campaign debt. Still, in just over 18 months, Strange hauled in at least $75,000 from Drummond.
Strange’s camp will certainly dismiss any allegations that a quid-pro-quo exists between the Drummond contributions and his actions against the EPA. And it will be easy – at least on the surface – for him to make those claims, given that he has a seemingly long history of fighting “Obama’s EPA” or the “activist EPA” or the “job-killing policies of the EPA,” as he’s touted for years.
And while those tactics could sway voters who were already inclined to vote for Strange or those who hate the EPA, they likely won’t do much to sway federal investigators.
Because Strange’s actions in regards to the 35th Ave. site are much different, much more focused.
It’s one thing to join the state in a multi-state action fighting against an EPA rule. It’s another to issue letters to the EPA fighting a specific, local superfund action, particularly when those letters include language promising that the State will not cooperate with the listing on the NPL and that it will not devote State funds.
Because without the state joining the EPA in the cleanup process at the 35th Ave. site, it’s almost guaranteed that the NPL listing can’t occur and the targeted superfund cleanup can’t happen. As Strange himself notes in his letter, the EPA can’t move forward with a listing without the State’s guarantee that it will cover its potential costs.
The inaction by the State also ensures that the EPA will have myriad issues in forcing identified PRPs to cover the costs of the cleanup – a result that directly benefits the company dumping thousands of dollars into Strange’s campaign account.
An earlier version of this report identifies the 35th Ave. Superfund Site as being polluted by ABC Coke a Drummond owned facility. It was in fact a Walter Coke site located on 35th Ave.
Tuberville calls for term limits, balanced budget and lobbying reform
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville’s campaign began emphasizing key structural reforms that the Republican nominee hopes to advance if elected to the U.S. Senate including congressional term limits, withholding lawmakers’ paychecks unless a balanced budget is passed and a ban on former officials becoming lobbyists.
“Only an outsider like me can help President Trump drain the Swamp, and any of the proposals outlined in this ad will begin the process of pulling the plug,” Tuberville said in a statement. “Doug Jones has had his chance, and he failed our state, so now it’s time to elect a senator who will work to fundamentally change the way that Washington operates.”
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
“You know Washington politicians could learn a lot from the folks in small town Alabama, but Doug Jones … he’s too liberal to teach them,” Tuberville added.
Polls consistently show that term limits are popular with people across both political parties, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing term limits would be adding a qualification to be a member of Congress and that can only be done by constitutional amendment.
It is an unspoken truth that when Americans send someone to Congress they never come back. They either keep getting re-elected like Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby, who is in his sixth term in the Senate after four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other hand, they may become lobbyists getting paid to influence their colleagues on behalf of corporations, foreign governments or some well funded non-government organization.
Tuberville said he would ban that practice.
A balanced budget amendment almost passed in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.
Since that failure, Congress has increasingly passed bigger and bigger budget deficits. The U.S. government borrowed more money during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s presidency than the government had borrowed in the first 224 years of the country combined.
President Barack Obama followed and the TARP program propped up the post-Great Recession economy. Rather than cutting the deficit, President Donald Trump invested billions in the military and a tax cut without cutting domestic spending. The 2020 coronavirus crisis has further grown the budget.
The government has borrowed trillions to prop up the economy and provide stimulus while investing billions into medical research and treating the virus victims. Congress is currently debating a fifth stimulus package that would add more to the deficit.
Both a balanced budget amendment and a term limits amendment would have to be ratified by the states if passed by Congress. Tuberville is challenging incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.
House passes General Fund Budget
By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.
The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.
Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”
Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.
The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.
Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.
Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.
The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.
Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.
The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.
Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.
The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.
In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.
SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.
Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”
State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”
The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.
The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.
The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.
The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.
Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.
SB185 passed 101-0.
Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.
Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1 for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.
SB215 passed the House 87-0.
The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.
State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.
SB231 passed 87-2.
The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.
The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.
The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.
Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.
Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.
Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.
Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday
By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter
The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.
Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.
Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.
The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.
Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.
Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.
Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.
Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.
Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.
Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.
The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.
Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.
It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.
Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor
By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter
Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.
The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.
Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.
Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.
Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.
- Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)
Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.
Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.
The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.
Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.