By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
An interview with family members after an unexpected death is probably the toughest assignment in all of journalism.
No one wants to be part of that interview – on either side. There are no good questions and no relief that you can provide to anyone grieving. This is particularly true when the interview subjects are the parents of a dead child.
With that in mind, the trip last January to interview Tim and Chris Lewis, the parents of Andrew Lewis, was not something that I particularly looked forward to doing. I wanted to know the story – to get some understanding of what led to Andrew Lewis’ death and why it was still, a week later, being deemed a “death investigation,” instead of a murder, by MPD – but I wasn’t thrilled about having to ask a bunch of questions to grieving parents and ask them to relive it all again.
One thing that made it a bit easier on all of us — reporter Andrew Yawn accompanied me for the interview – was that the Lewis family was unhappy with the handling of the case by MPD. They wanted answers that they weren’t receiving and they viewed talking to the media as a means to get the story out and possibly spark enough public pressure to get some movement.
So, they wanted to tell this story and answer what they could. During an hour-long interview with Tim, Chris and Andrew’s sister, Laura, they held nothing back, took us step by step through that awful Sunday. What they told us was both incredibly sad and incredibly infuriating.
That Sunday morning at around 6 a.m., Andrew Lewis had been shot. Tim Lewis was away at a church retreat. Laura and Chris spent the morning and early afternoon doing normal Sunday things.
At around 2 p.m., nearly eight hours after Andrew Lewis was killed and MPD officers arrived on the scene, a pair of detectives knocked on the front door of the Lewis home.
Eight hours is a remarkable amount of time for one reason: MPD detectives and high-ranking officers knew the identity of the victim at the shooting scene almost immediately. Not only that, they knew how to contact the Lewis family and could have easily done so within minutes.
This is not speculation on my part.
When police arrived at the scene of Andrew Lewis’ shooting, they found at least one other person – the man who has admitted to shooting and killing Andrew Lewis, Eli Miller. Sources familiar with the investigation within MPD also said Lewis’ former girlfriend Mary Jehle was at the scene for a period of time, but it wasn’t immediately clear if she left after police arrived or left before their arrival and then returned later.
Regardless, the people at the scene could identify Lewis.
In addition, high-ranking officers within MPD were made aware of the circumstances from the start. Two sources with knowledge of the investigation said Mayor Todd Strange alerted police chief Earnest Finley to the “sensitive nature” of the shooting before 8 a.m.
Sources familiar with the investigation said Strange was notified of the situation by an attorney working for Jehle’s father, who is an executive at Dixie Electric. Strange then informed Finley that the case “involved some very important people” and that it should be handled “by the book.”
Playing it by the book apparently meant initiating an investigation and working it for several hours, forming a theory and then talking to the family of the shooting victim. All while conversing with both the shooter and a witness for most of that time, but we’ll get to that later.
When detectives entered the Lewis home that Sunday, they didn’t tell Chris and Laura that Andrew was dead. Instead, they started asking questions about the relationship Andrew had with his ex-girlfriend, Mary Jehle. They wanted to know of past problems, of which there were many. They wanted details about some of those problems, what happened from their perspective.
To be sure, as the Lewises would tell us during the interview, the on-and-off relationship between Andrew and Mary Jehle had its share – and then some – of drama. There were numerous instances in which police were called and a couple of arrests for Andrew, although no acts of violence or even threats of violence between Andrew and Jehle. There was also a nasty incident between Andrew and some of Jehle’s friends, in which Andrew ended up being hogtied. And plenty of other public spats.
Yes, Laura and Chris told the detectives, there’s a sordid history there. And so, what is it this time? What was the fight about now? Was Andrew being arrested?
At that point, after 30 minutes of questions, the detectives told Laura and Chris that Andrew was dead. The victim of a shooting.
But that’s all they would say. They wouldn’t tell them who pulled the trigger, despite the fact that the shooter had apparently all but confessed to the shooting. (Miller’s attorney wouldn’t say what Miller told police at the scene, if anything, but did say Miller made it clear that he was acting in self-defense.)
Strangely, one of the detectives asked Laura and Chris to guess who shot Andrew, and caught up in a state of shock and bewilderment while trying to make some sense of what was happening or what had happened, they began tossing out names. Each time, the detective would shake his head or say he couldn’t tell them. Chris described the odd scene as a morbid gameshow.
“It was not handled very professionally,” Laura said.
During the interview, the Lewises expressed anger and frustration with MPD’s handling of the case. Much of that was based on the fact that it was still, 10 days later, labeled a “death investigation” and not a homicide. But those feelings also stemmed from the lack of information provided to them from police.
The Lewises had learned very little about the incident. In fact, Yawn shared some details with them during the interview that police had failed to disclose.
In another odd twist, Chris Lewis said at the initial interview that Sunday, one of the detectives told her information about what led to the shooting – that Andrew had rammed Mary Jehle’s car with his car. When she called back 10 days later to ask about that, to try to get a better understanding of what happened, she said the detective denied telling her that piece of information. So, she asked Laura to be sure that she heard him correctly, and Laura confirmed she had.
Add that to the lack of communication – an issue that MPD and city officials would later admit to – and it was too much for the Lewis family to take without objection. A family friend who serves as a district attorney in another county in Alabama was so angered by what Tim Lewis told him about the case that he made personal inquiries bordering on threats in an effort to get some information for the Lewis family.
It did little good.
Instead, the Lewis family was left with only bits of information that they could squeeze out of detectives during phone calls and brief visits. And much of that, they believed, was provided only because the detectives needed information from them.
But even with the limited info, slowly, a picture began to take shape.
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.