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Indictments in superfund bribery case no win for Alabama citizens

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

If you believed the bribery scandal that emerged from a scheme to undermine the cleanup of an EPA superfund site in North Birmingham would turn into a massive scandal that brought down the state’s biggest political operatives and deal a blow to political corruption in Alabama, well, you probably haven’t lived here long enough to know better.

Because it’s not.

The new U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Jay Town, made that clear at a press conference on Thursday in Birmingham.

This massive scandal involving one of the country’s largest coal companies, one of the largest and most influential law firms in Alabama and elected officials was carried out by … just four guys.

And only those four.

Joel Gilbert and Steven G. McKinney from Balch and Bingham, David Roberson from Drummond Coal and former state Rep. Oliver Robinson.

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Nobody else!

Are you sure there wasn’t someone else, the media gathered in Birmingham repeatedly asked Town.

Not that we’re aware of, came the reply over and over.

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Which, of course, seems farfetched. Like, plot of The Fast and the Furious-level unbelievable.

Let me explain why.

So, this superfund, as Town pointed out Thursday, came about when testing in northern Birmingham areas found high levels of chemicals associated with coal processing. The EPA designates an area of pollution, determines the responsible party(ies), starts cleanup and then begins working on forcing those responsible to pay for it.

Drummond, and its ABC Coke plant, was on the hook for millions almost immediately. And had the EPA continued to expand its testing area, which it was planning to do, the company would’ve been on the hook for even more.

So, Drummond and its attorneys from Balch set about doing everything possible to stop this superfund, entering a “consulting” contract with Robinson. In exchange for $360,000 over two years, Robinson used his public office and connections around Birmingham and the state to attempt to squash the EPA’s planned expansion.

Balch kept this contract with Robinson a secret – such a secret in fact that the Balch accounting office would remove any mention of Robinson’s foundation when noting payments.

And that’s Part One of why there’s no way anyone should believe that only two Balch attorneys were involved.

You’re telling me that $360,000 went out of that place over two years to an unnamed entity and NO ONE else knew?

Stop it.

Also, that $360,000 didn’t materialize out of thin air. It came from somewhere, and it sure didn’t come from Balch attorneys’ pockets.

So, this one Drummond executive, Roberson, can send out $360,000 extra – on top of the astronomical attorneys’ fees already being paid out – and no one stops by the office to make sure ol’ Roberson doesn’t have a coke habit?

Again, stop it.

Big companies don’t get to be big companies without at least semi-competent accounting and money management.

But there’s also a Part Two to why you shouldn’t believe this fairytale.

We KNOW other public officials were involved in this. We know Luther Strange was up to his eyeballs in it.

Strange mysteriously inserted himself and his office into this mess, writing two letters to the EPA and assuring the agency that the state of Alabama would not be cooperating. The head of Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management said flatly when asked that it never asked Strange to get involved, and ADEM was undeniably tasked by Gov. Robert Bentley to handle this issue.

So why did Strange get involved?

As always, the answer seems to be money.

Within days of each letter landing in the EPA’s mailbox, $25,000 in donations from Drummond found its way into Strange’s campaign accounts.

It stinks. And we all know it stinks.

And that’s why what happened on Thursday is no win for good people over corruption. While four guys could be going to jail, a large company will benefit by the millions for its crooked acts and a lawfirm will have raked in thousands for helping facilitate this scheme, all while poor people and children suffer on toxic ground.

That’s not a win. It’s just more of what we’ve come to expect around here.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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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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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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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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