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Bill Britt

Doing our duty as free press

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

As is often the case, one country’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; and likewise, one person’s anonymous source is a patriot and someone else’s traitor.

Like much in politics, traitor versus patriot largely depends on who’s blowing the whistle and who’s caught up in the malaise. The press who reported weekly on the so-called scandal against Gov. Don Siegelman’s administration were heroes, and their confidential informants were simply whistleblowers doing their duty, according to state Republicans. But when APR spent four years chronicling the wrongdoings of then Speaker Mike Hubbard, we were liars and worse, and our sources, well, they were false and dishonest. Of course, during the Siegelman era, the same was said by the Democrats.

It is a shame that partisan loyalty allows for so much mischief waved aside, as if being faithful to the team is more important than doing what is right. Perhaps being faithful to the law, moral conscience and decency are better qualities than blind allegiance to a party.

Recently, ALGOP Chair Terry Lathan said, “Any party member that anonymously shares inside organizational bumps or espouses their opinion with a lack of information to the press should be ashamed of themselves.” Here, perhaps channeling the party’s standard-bearer, she adds, “Hiding behind anonymity is cowardly.”

Lathan’s comments in context are not altogether misguided, as a party official should speak boldly about internal disputes. They also should talk to the press when their concerns are not taken seriously by leadership.

ALGOP Chair, Steering Committee reprimand Hooper

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U.S. law holds that whistleblowers should come forward when they see wrongdoing, even if it is done anonymously. The first ever whistleblower protection law was enacted on July 30, 1778. Records from the Continental Congress show that the original resolution stated, “Resolved that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States … to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any persons in the services of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”

On the 236th anniversary of the first whistleblower law, a unanimous, bi-partisan resolution passed designating July 30 as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.

The measure was sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Grassley noted on the occasion, “Whistleblowers are pivotal pieces of the oversight puzzle. Their work ensures that our system of checks and balances operates effectively.” Wyden added, “Individuals with the courage to blow the whistle in the face of government wrongdoing, waste or abuse are an integral part of our democracy. Too often, whistleblowers risk retaliation and scorn for drawing attention to misdeeds, so it is only right for the Senate to recognize their vital contributions.”

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When reporting on government abuse, waste or fraud, anonymous sources are vital and often are the only way to get to the root of corruption. “Anonymous sources,” is a misnomer because the individual, or individuals, are known to the journalist and are generally someone who is a trusted government figure. They remain anonymous to the public so they can perform the critical task of helping a reporter find facts. Most often, their tips allow a reporter to find corroborating documents to expose the truth.

In a state like Alabama, where the open records act is rarely adheres to, and any tinpot agency lawyer can claim bogus privilege background sources are the only guides to facts concerning fraud, waste and incompetence. Informants who aid the press are placing their jobs, and in some cases even their lives, in danger. Their confidentiality is utmost to them and a trust that a good journalist will never betray.

According to the Society of Professional Journalist Ethics Committee Position Papers, “Few ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources. Keep your promise not to identify a source of information, and it’s possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge, and a jail cell. On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source, and it’s just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.” In addition any reporter who exposes a anonymous sources under any circumstance is ruined.

President Trump thinks leakers should be jailed, but so far, unlike the Obama administration, he has not acted on those words. In 2013, it came to light that the Obama administration’s justice department, under U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, had named Fox News reporter, James Rosen, a “criminal co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act of 1917 to gain access to his emails and phone records. The Washington Post, in 2013, reported that the Justice Department had monitored reporter Rosen’s State Department visits through phone traces, the timing of calls and his emails. The state alleged Rosen received leaks of classified information in 2009 about North Korea.

During Obama’s tenure as president, seven Americans working for the U.S. Government, or government contractors with security clearances, faced criminal charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 because of alleged leaks to members of the press or online outlets. The administration said it didn’t target journalists, but Rosen proves that’s not the whole truth.

Hubbard targeted us, so did Gov. Bentley and others. We have been mocked for using anonymous sources and recently called fake news.

The real fake news almost always comes from corrupt politicians, not a journalist. In our state, the press, in general, serves as stenographers due to corporate pressure to sell advertisements, which many times means not offending anyone with power.

More often, it is the state that is the enemy of the people through corruption and greed. The free press, as envisioned by the founding generation, were the watchers who protected the people from government misdeeds and overreach. So, the next time someone uses the term “fake news” because a journalist uses an anonymous source, remind them what the Continental Congress declared 235 years ago. It is the duty of all persons to report misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any persons in the services of these states.

That means the press, too.

 

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Deception, subtlety and the wholesale destruction of current ethics laws mark proposed rewrite

Bill Britt

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Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would radically alter the existing State Ethics Act rendering it useless as an effective tool to regulate the behavior of public officials, much less prosecute a rouge lawmaker.

Testifying at a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in April 2015, Ball said the ethics laws needed amending to avoid prosecutions like Hubbard’s in the future.

If HB179 becomes law, Ball will have fulfilled the words he spoke at the Lee County Court House, where Hubbard was tried and convicted.

As House Ethics Committee Chair, Ball has sought to change the State’s Act since Hubbard was indicted.

Ball’s bill is subtly written from an enforcement and trial perspective to neuter the law.

Words are added, deleted, and meanings changed in ways that might look harmless but actually open the door for the kind of corruption Republicans vowed to change in 2010, when they passed the toughness in the nation’s ethics laws.

Beyond changes that would allow for general corruption to go unpunished, Ball’s legislation would strip the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute anyone who violates the ethics laws without first securing approval from the State Ethics Commission.

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All prosecution of any public official would first have to be approved by the Ethics Commission, a group that has repeatedly shown that it bends its decisions according to the prevailing political winds.

HB179 reads in part, “This bill would prohibit the Attorney General or a district attorney from presenting a suspected ethics violation by an individual subject to the code of ethics, other than a member or employee of the commission, to a grand jury without a referral by the commission.”

In other words, Ball would have a politically-appointed commission decide if law-enforcement agencies can seek indictments against wrongdoers.

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Neither the Attorney General or a county district attorney can even impanel a grand jury in an ethics probe without the commission first finding probable cause.

Some of Ball’s alterations come in the form of removing whole sections of the law under the guise of redefining words, like “a thing of value” or “widely attended event.”

An example of how Ball’s legislation plays with the law is under the section of code, which defines a family member of a public official. Currently, a family member is “[t]he spouse, a dependent, an adult child and his or her spouse, a parent, a spouse’s parents, a sibling and his or her spouse, of the public official.” Ball changes it so it only includes a spouse and a dependent. That means that a public official may act to enrich his adult children, a parent, an in-law a brother, or a sister. These small but destructive alterations to the law are at the heart of Ball’s legislation.

Some loopholes are so extensive that a sitting legislator could be paid by a city or county governmental economic development entity and still seat in the Legislature voting on bills that might directly affect his consulting client.

Out-of-state junkets make a comeback as do several other goodies lawmakers have been desiring.

It seems Republicans want to cash in on the rewards of office like Democrats did once upon a time.

One thing is clear, Ball didn’t write the bill, but whoever did knew precisely what they were doing and were probably paid handsomely for their efforts.

There are so many cunningly deceptive changes to the ethics laws in Ball’s bill as to make it impossible to catch them all without days of intense study—and perhaps a team of lawyers.

Ball, one of Hubbard’s most an ardent defenders has said Hubbard’s indictment and conviction was a political witch hunt. He has said he wants to rewrite the ethics laws to save future Hubbards; it now looks as if he has.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | PCI’s billion dollar plan raises questions

Bill Britt

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Over the last few months, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has flooded the state with an advertising campaign touting a billion-dollar package labeled “Winning for Alabama.”

How the plan benefits Alabama is a fuzzy moving target, but there are many advantages for the tribe.

Beyond giving PCI a monopoly over Las Vegas-style gaming, it also cements PCI’s tribal status.

Since 2009, PCI and other tribes federally recognized after 1934, have lobbied Congress for a “Carcieri fix,” to guarantee they are safe from losing federal recognition and with it the right to operate tribal gaming.

In Carcieri v. Salazar, 555 U.S. 379 (2009), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the phrase of tribes “now under Federal jurisdiction” in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, referred only to those tribes that were federally recognized when the act was passed. PCI wasn’t recognized until 1984.

A compact with the state would end the threat  that hangs over PCI and its billion-dollar casino empire in Alabama.

Over the past several years, U.S. Congressman Bradley Byrne—who is now running for Senate—has pushed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to protect the tribe from any challenges under the Carcieri ruling. Byrne’s efforts have been unsuccessful due to resistance from Alabama’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby.

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Poarch Band of Creek Indians face uncertainty

Byrne saw his 2018 legislation falter when Shelby made it known the bill would not get a hearing in the Senate.

At the time, APR contacted Shelby’s office for comment, “Senator Shelby does not support the bill and has no plans to do so in the future,” wrote Shelby’s communications director, Blair Taylor. Likewise, APR reached out to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office where then-spokesperson, Daniel Sparkman, told APR, “Governor Ivey has no plans to write such a letter,” encouraging Senator Shelby to support a Land Reaffirmation Act.

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A compact with the state would likely end any further concerns over a Carcieri fix.

While PCI is courting voters and lawmakers, ultimately, it is Gov. Ivey, who has the authority to negotiate a compact with the tribe. At this juncture, Ivey’s thinking isn’t known, but given her history, she will look hard and long at any gaming plan that requires her signature to enter into a compact with PCI.

PCI’s proposal raises several questions, not the least of which are “can the state give the tribe a monopoly over table gaming, and how much money will the state actually receive from PCI’s plan?”

The proposal is vague in specifics and the math is hazy  at best, but according to PCI’s website and promotional materials, the plan includes: “$725 Million in combined license and compact fees from existing properties and two new locations, PLUS $350 Million in projected tax revenue and revenue share from gaming, including sportsbook and table games, PLUS.”

For the one-time payment and projected future tax revenue, PCI wants the state to enter into a compact with the tribe and also give them exclusive rights over table gaming throughout the state. That is giving a lot for little return when in fact a state lottery with all the bells and whistles could produce around $400 million in tax revenue for the state without giving anyone a monopoly.

Opinion | There’s a better gambling deal to be made

All tribal gaming falls under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which lists the different categories of gambling permitted by tribal entities.

Currently, PCI operates class II gaming in Alabama.

Class II gaming, according to IGRA, are:

“Bingo, pull-tabs and other similar games, including non-banking card games not prohibited by state law.”

IGRA states that PCI can only offer games that are “not prohibited by state law.”

The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that electronic bingo machines are illegal. However, PCI offers electronic bingo at its facilities in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka.

IGRA also states, “Expressly excluded from Class II gaming are banking card games, such as blackjack or slot machines of any kind.”

To offer blackjack, roulette, or other table games, PCI would need a compact with the state, which must be negotiated by the state’s governor, which presently is Ivey.

Class III games are according to IGRA: “All forms of gaming that are not included under Class I or Class II, such as blackjack and slot machines.”

Other provisions of Class III conclude that “the games are located in a state that permits gaming for any purpose by any person.”

This section of IGRA would seem to prevent the state from granting PCI exclusivity over Class III Las Vegas-style gaming, but this is a question that will be answered by attorneys.

PCI has done very well since it became a de facto gaming monopoly in the state as a result of then-Gov. Bob Riley’s bingo wars.

Year after year, PCI and its Republican allies in the state Legislature have killed any lottery or gaming plans that threatened the tribe’s monopoly.

The billion-dollar plan is seen as tempting to some lawmakers, but its success or failure rests with Gov. Ivey, who is responsible if a compact with the tribe is to be negotiated.

Many unanswered questions must be considered before the state should entertain PCI’s billion-dollar plan; perhaps most importantly, how does Carcieri v. Salazar affect the tribe’s federal standing and what are the benefits for the state?

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Bill Britt

Opinion | PCI supported President Trump’s rivals but want state Republican to do their bidding

Bill Britt

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In 2016, Alabamians overwhelmingly supported Donald J. Trump for president. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, however, put the majority of their money behind his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

PCI gave Clinton $150,000 in 2016, but only $25,000 to Trump. Likewise, in 2012, PCI contributed $135,000 to Barack Obama. In both elections, the Poarch Creeks sided with Trump’s nemeses.

Even after Clinton’s loss, PCI donated $203,400 to the DNC Services Corp./Dem. National Committee.

In fact, of the 13 most substantial contributions made by the tribe in federal elections over the last several years, eleven donations went to Democrat candidates or organizations while only two went to Republican causes.

If money is the mother’s milk of politics, then PCI’s top donations are nourishing Democrats nationally and starving Republicans.

In a pro-Trump state, the Poarch Creeks —who backed Hillary for president—are asking Republican lawmakers to give them a state-sanctioned monopoly over gaming.

Principled Republicans might see a problem with giving so much power to a group whose money goes to candidates with values so diametrically opposed to their own.

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Currently, PCI gives generously to Alabama Republicans, but once those conservative lawmakers turn over gambling in the state to the tribe, is it not possible that they will then switch back to their political roots and support Clinton-type Democrats for state offices?

PCI stokes Alabama Republicans for now, but what happens when they no longer need them to do their bidding?

Just last year, PCI contributed to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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Money from PCI to the DSCC will go to giving Chuck Schumer control over the U.S. Senate while their support for DCCC will increase Democrats in the House.

“DCCC is the only political committee in the country whose principal mission is to support Democratic House candidates every step of the way,” according to the group’s website.

Do Alabama Republicans not realize that PCI is supporting the very group that elected candidates they claim to despise like AOC and the squad?

In 2018, DCCC’s campaign contributions flipped the U.S. House of Representatives, giving control of the chamber to Nancy Pelosi. In return, Pelosi led House Democrats to impeach President Trump.

Isn’t it hypocritical to loathe Democrats on the one hand while accepting donations from their patrons with the other?

Of PCI’s largest contributions, only two went to Republicans, one was in 2014, to the Congressional Leadership Fund and the other was to John Boehner for Speaker in 2015.

State Republicans howl against Anti-Trump and Pro Socialist Democrats but line-up to support PCI which has given maximum donations to Nancy Pelosi.

Perhaps PCI gave Trump chump change because, as a businessman casino owner, he dared point out the unfair advantages tribal gaming has over private operators. But maybe they are afraid the Trump administration will enforce the law which says PCI can’t operate any games that are illegal in the state.

Obama didn’t enforce the law and Clinton surely would not have. Maybe Trump will.

PCI, for now, is cozy with state Republicans, but their national support for Democrats should serve as a warning that things can change.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | MLK Day: A time for change

Bill Britt

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Today, as the nation celebrates MLK Day, Alabama still tacks Robert E. Lee onto its observances. But it’s time to end that practice as a new generation deserves to see a better Alabama.

Alabama Code, Title 1. General Provisions § 1-3-8 enumerates the state’s legal public holidays, which lists the third Monday in January as an observance for Martin Luther King Jr., and also Robert E. Lee.

How long will our state’s leaders cling to the past? Isn’t it time to put away the false equivalency between King and Lee?

Both men were flawed, but while Lee’s reputation has diminished with time, King’s has grown.

Lee may have once represented a proud South, but today he is seen as a symbol of bloody slavery.

Over time, King’s legacy has flourished and now stands as a beacon of hope to millions, not just in the United States, but around the world.

In her 2019 Inaugural Address, Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledged, “Thankfully, the Alabama we live in today – the Alabama we love – has changed with the times and, in most instances, this change has been for the better.

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But we would be less than honest with each other if we did not acknowledge that change has not always come easily. Standing here on Dexter Avenue, we are reminded of two different chapters in Alabama history: a time when the Civil War raged and 90 years later when the Civil Rights movement was inspired.

It is important for all of us to acknowledge our past; after all, it was at a pulpit just down the street that Doctor Martin Luther King Junior so powerfully taught us how to confront struggles with honesty, courage, and love.

Having learned from the past, let’s now turn our focus to the future, which is filled with so much hope and opportunity.”

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Sadly, some in our state can’t admit Alabama’s  past, much less let go of the legacies that still haunt the state.

That Lee shares the day with King is a relic from our not so honorable history.

Almost immediately after King’s assassination in 1968, there were calls for a holiday commemorating his January 15 birthday, a struggle that would be fraught with conflict for 15 years.

President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making MLK Day a national holiday on November 2, 1983, but even he wasn’t convinced that it was best for the nation as he said a King holiday was “based on an image, not reality,” according to a letter he wrote to former Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. of New Hampshire.

After Reagan’s remarks were made public, he called King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to apologize for any misunderstanding about his comment, according to a 1983 report by the New York Times.

Up until the passage of MLK Day legislation, North Carolina U.S. Senator Jesse Helms railed against the measure, accusing King of being a Communist sympathizer. Helms threatened to filibuster, tried to open King’s sealed FBI files and estimated that the cost of a new national holiday would be $12 billion in lost productivity.

Still, today, even in the halls of the Alabama State House, Helms’ argument is still being made.

Efforts to erect a monument to King on Dexter avenue are fought with the same rhetoric and passion that fueled Helms, except today, they are mostly in whispers-tones and code-speaks.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and a host of the founding generation’s notables were slave owners and men with questionable private lives. Still, nevertheless, they are celebrated for their accomplishments, not chased for their failings.

Turbulent water running under the bridge that divides our nation along racial lines is stirred by those who would convince us that they are deep, but they are not deep only muddy making us fear to cross.

King’s legacy is the embodiment of nonviolent activism for civil rights, which has been replicated on nearly every continent around the globe.

After the King Holiday Bill was signed, Coretta Scott King said, “This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday.”

It is time to change because MLK Day cannot be a people’s holiday in Alabama, as long as it’s a Lee holiday, too.

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