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Billing records show Balch attorneys played substantial role in state superintendent search, alleged smear campaign

Josh Moon

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Billing records obtained by the Alabama Political Reporter show that attorneys from the law firm Balch & Bingham were heavily involved in the Alabama State Department’s flawed superintendent search that landed Michael Sentance and was paid thousands of dollars to counsel and coach department lawyers and a state school board member.

Those records, provided to APR by a source who agreed to share them on the condition of anonymity, show that three attorneys from Balch & Bingham — Dorman Walker, Lane Knight and John Naramore — charged ALSDE thousands to handle numerous tasks relating to the search, including establishing a search process and developing a “script” for ALSDE attorney Juliana Dean to use when she spoke to school board members about the search.

Balch & Bingham attorneys, the records show, also drove to Montgomery and to “coach” both Dean and school board member Mary Scott Hunter before they answered questions from a legislative committee that was investigating the superintendent search process.

Asked about the use of Balch & Bingham attorneys for tasks that appear to be either so mundane that the ALSDE counsel should handle them or that are of a personal nature and outside of the scope of their daily job duties, an ALSDE spokesman declined to answer the specific questions and instead focused on the fact that the information had become public.

“As I’m sure you know, although information related to a public entity’s attorney identity, rate/cost and time are public, details of the work performed by attorneys for their clients are not,” director of communications Michael Sibley wrote in an email response. “If you received an invoice detailing that work, that information is protected by attorney-client privilege. Because your questions encroach on that privilege, we will not be able to answer your specific questions, but in general, any work performed by Balch & Bingham for the State Board or its members or the State Department or its employees or officials would relate to their official duties.

APR asked Sibley why such billing information, when covered by taxpayer dollars, wouldn’t be considered public information, but that question did not receive a response.

ALSDE is still being hampered by the flawed search, even two years later.

Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey, who was considered the frontrunner for the job, has filed a lawsuit against Hunter and others at the state department for concocting and carrying out a scheme to prevent him from landing the job. A Montgomery judge last month dismissed all but Hunter and another ALSDE lawyer from the suit, including Dean.

Pouncey filed his lawsuit in Feb. 2016 and it was announced after that date that because of the legal action, ALSDE would be on the hook for private attorneys to represent Dean, Hunter and two other ALSDE attorneys, James Ward and Susan Crowther.

But the records obtained by APR show that Balch & Bingham attorneys had long been providing legal guidance to the four.

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The detailed bills from Balch & Bingham include charges for things such as reviewing a WSFA news story about Pouncey’s “planned lawsuit,” reviewing emails that were requested from Dean by state school board members and planning for ways to combat an effort from an education advocacy group led by Larry Lee to rescind the superintendent selection.

The bills also include several charges related to legal guidance for Hunter, which is, at best, a gray area. School board members clamored for months about hiring an attorney that would represent the board, and ultimately last year moved forward with hiring Lewis Gillis. Prior to that hire, however, it was the policy of the board that it was represented in all legal matters, unless the board took specific action otherwise, by Dean.

But on Nov. 1, 2016, the billing records show a $146.25 charge for a “talk” between Dorman Walker and Hunter about “her prospective testimony before the (legislative) committee.” There was another talk with Hunter on Nov. 8., and a conference on Nov. 9. The related charges totaled $1,170.

The records also show that Balch & Bingham attorneys coached Ward and Crowther prior to their appearances before the legislative committee and that the firm reviewed Open Records Act requests from media outlets and determined which documents should be turned over and redacted.

 

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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Crime

Governor announces $219,000 in grants for ALEA

A $168,975 grant will be used toward a federally mandated sexual offender registration and residency program, according to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced $219,764 in grants to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to bolster the state’s oversight of those convicted of sex offenses. 

A $168,975 grant will be used toward a federally mandated sexual offender registration and residency program, according to Ivey’s office. Sexual offenders must register and report where they live after being convicted, and the funds will aid law enforcement officers in verifying those placed on the registry are meeting those requirements. 

An additional $50,789 grant is to be used to transition to a more comprehensive crime reporting system by a federally mandated 2021 deadline, according to Ivey’s office.

The new system will provide more detail about crimes, including the type of weapons used and characteristics about the location of crime, such as if it occurred in a rural or urban area.

“Protecting communities from sexual predators and reporting accurate records of crime statistics are high priorities for all law enforcement in Alabama,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend ALEA for its commitment to making sure it stays in compliance with federal laws and working to close cases on known offenders.”

The U.S. Department of Justice grants will be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).

“ADECA joins Gov. Ivey in supporting ALEA’s efforts to protect our communities from sexual predators and to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to share vital information with each other,” the director of ADECA, Kenneth Boswell, said in a statement.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Clorox, anyone?

There is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the upcoming legislative session safely — not even a rudimentary one.

Bill Britt

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(STOCK PHOTO)

In less than 100 days, the state Legislature will return to Montgomery for the 2021 Legislative Session. As of now, there is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the session safely — not even a rudimentary one.

But perhaps there is a reason to keep the statehouse shuttered as the Legislature seems to have forgotten the governing principles that the nation was built upon, and (hint, hint) it was never a slogan.

One individual at the Statehouse said that there would be a vaccine by February, so why worry about holding Session as usual. Perhaps this individual also believes that a disinfectant cure or a UV light remedy is right around the corner. News flash, as of press time, intravenous Clorox and lightbulb suppositories are still in phase one trials.

Pandemic humor aside, the surprising thing would be if the Legislature actually had a plan at all.

There have been rumors of a plan, even mentions of one, too, but nothing that would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and the public to realistically gather to conduct the peoples’ business in a relatively COVID-free environment.

We all want a miracle, but miracles are outside legislative purview, and while prayer is needed at the Statehouse, so is commonsense and a plan.

One plan in consideration is to limit the number of people who can enter the building. That’s a bad idea because the public has a right to witness government action and advocate for causes.

At the end of the truncated 2020 session, the Legislature curtailed the number of people in the Statehouse, which violates the law and good government spirit.

Lawmakers come to Montgomery to do the peoples’ business — at least that’s what they say at campaign events and pancake breakfasts. Of course, they don’t really conduct the people’s business in Montgomery. That’s just a figure of speech.

Legislators represent the people when they are running for office or giving chats at Rotary, but when most — not all — enter the Statehouse, they work for special interests.

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Yes, some do care, and all are convinced they are doing a great job, but just like the plan to open the Statehouse safely on Feb. 3, it’s sadly an absurd pretense.

The majority of the Legislature consists of Republicans, who used to have a firm sense of what the party represented. While I hate to offend my many friends, the current party couldn’t find the most defining principles of traditional governance in our nation if you gave them a GPS and a flashlight.

Let me humbly run down a short list of things that should matter in no particular order.

For the list, I will turn to the 2006 book American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia: “Classical liberalism is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

Classical liberalism has nothing to do with modern liberalism and everything to do with our Republic’s founding. Classical liberalism underpins the Constitution’s foundation, Federalist Papers and the vast majority of the founding generation’s ideology, which created our nation’s governing structure.

Private property rights are fundamental to what Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness.

And guess what is an individual’s most precious piece of property? Their person. Yes, a person’s body and mind are an individual’s greatest possession. A person’s right to live freely with only a minimum amount of government intrusion is essential to happiness. The government’s job is not to tell us how to live, rather keep others from harming us, killing us or taking our stuff.

Every year Montgomery seems intent on an ever-expanding agenda to meddle in people’s private lives.

Real estate and other property is significant but can’t be thoroughly enjoyed if we are dead or in chains designed by the good intentions of the Legislature. Lawmakers are not to be the central planning committee for the soul.

The government should promote a relatively unhampered market economy. Tariffs anyone? Trade wars? No one wins a trade war. Everyone loses. Winning simply means the other side lost more or gives up. It’s like a bar fight. Nobody wins it because everyone gets beaten up — but one got it worse.

How about the rule of law? I hear it talked about a lot, but the law must be just for everyone. If the law is applied unequally, is it really the law?

We hear a lot about Second Amendment rights as if that’s the big one. But what about freedom of the press? Is that less important? As the nation’s second president John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

The press is not the enemy of the people. Is there bias? Sometimes. Is there poor reporting? On occasion. But the real enemy are the politicians who defame or attempt to delegitimize the media for not supporting their political agenda. An AR-15 can be coercive but have a free county without a free press in impossible.

Freedom of religion is also paramount to our nation’s principles as free people have a right to worship without government interference or mandate. But believe me, some religious leaders would see a government-imposed religion as long as it’s the one they like. I often wonder, does religion require a strong man or strong faith? Today it’s hard to tell. Like all rights, if you take away the freedom to worship or not, and the whole system of liberty fails.

Last but not least, international peace based on free trade: If a nation is making money by trading with another country, it doesn’t have a good reason to bomb it. Likewise, the bounds of capital are generally stronger than political ideology. Money may not make the world go ’round, but a lack of it sure can unleash terrible conflict.

After this exercise in futility, I’ve decided I’m glad the Legislature doesn’t have a plan to open the 2021 session. Why bother? Because the very ideals that genuinely make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a reality are the ones at greatest risk of being trampled upon by the Legislature.

Clorox anyone?

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Crime

Opinion | A gruesome murder should point Montgomery in a new direction

The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either.

Josh Moon

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Montgomery's skyline (STOCK PHOTO)

The facts of 17-year-old Luna Pantaleon’s death are hard to stomach. The Montgomery teen was beaten with a metal pole and left to drown in a ditch. Her face was so badly beaten, with so many facial fractures, that the exact cause of her death couldn’t immediately be identified.

Her alleged killers are three 16-year-old girls. They reportedly went to McDonald’s after the murder and had smoothies. 

Those details were provided during a court hearing on Wednesday as reported by the Montgomery Advertiser. They are enough to cause you to pause while reading to take a deep breath. But these details are not the only ones that should get attention. 

The testimony of a Montgomery police detective who investigated the crime, and who interviewed the three girls who have essentially admitted to the crime, provided other disturbing details that paint a picture of the lives of Montgomery’s underprivileged youth — lives filled with violence and firearms, with late-night fights and “hits” put out on houses by 10th graders. 

This reality for many young people in Montgomery isn’t exactly a hidden secret. 

I can’t tell you the number of homeless teenagers I spoke with or tried to help while in Montgomery. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I had with middle schoolers who were in gangs, and who spoke openly about carrying handguns and other semi-automatic weapons. 

Don’t get me wrong. Montgomery is not the wild west, and every poor, Black person in the city isn’t part of a gang or spending their nights shooting at each other. 

But there is a level of violence and bad behavior that is growing and taking root in many communities. And it is happening because too many young people in those communities see no other viable alternatives. 

A never ending cycle of poverty and despair — a cycle that has lasted, in some cases, for multiple generations — has left them turning to other means of getting by, of finding love and acceptance, of finding guidance no matter how misguided that guidance might be. 

And every bit of it can be traced back to one problem: education. Or, in Montgomery’s case, the lack of it. 

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Segregation was common in all of Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s, but few cities in America clung to it as tightly as Montgomery did. When the Brown v. Board decision came down, private schools in Montgomery started to pop up — at one point a record number of them. And as the population grew, so too did the cities and the school systems surrounding Montgomery. 

In 2020, Montgomery’s private schools are more than 90 percent white. Montgomery’s public schools are more than 95 percent Black. Those numbers have not changed much over the years. 

But even more problematic is that Montgomery’s public schools are also serving a disproportionate amount of low-income students. That most of the poor people in Montgomery happen to be Black is a simple byproduct of the racism that saw Black citizens denied work, denied decent business loans, denied home loans for certain areas and denied acceptance into most state universities. 

And having a high number of low-income students means fewer resources, fewer involved parents and more students who struggle through no fault of their own, because working parents weren’t home to help with homework, or they don’t have internet service. It goes on and on and on.

Now, repeat those problems for a few generations. And, well, you get the idea. 

Exacerbating the problem for Montgomery, though, is a screwed up funding structure that has left its schools funded at the state’s lowest allowable levels. There will be an opportunity for Montgomery residents to fix that during Tuesday’s election by voting to increase property tax rates in the county. 

It is money that is desperately needed. But that money alone will not solve the issues. Because we’re way too far down the line at this point for a few dollars to fix what’s broken in Montgomery. 

It’s going to take the entire community putting aside their differences and their finger-pointing and their hate and actually working towards solving the problems, instead of just constantly pointing them out. It’s going to require a bunch of people to stop believing that skin color somehow makes a child less worthy of a quality education or more likely to be a criminal.

Mayor Steven Reed and several others have done a remarkable job to this point bringing together groups of people who have historically opposed any tax increases for the schools. He’s going to have to build on that goodwill going forward. 

Because while more money will certainly make a difference, it won’t put a parent in place. It won’t assure kids are getting quality medical care and mental health care. It won’t put food on the table at night or turn the broadband on. 

There will need to be more education options opened up for adults. There will need to be more comprehensive options available in some communities. This will take time and money, and it won’t be easy.

But here’s the one thing I know: the overwhelming majority of people in this world, and in Montgomery, want to succeed. They want to take care of themselves and their children. They want their kids to receive a decent education. They want a good job and to pay their bills and sleep easy at night. 

If you show them a pathway to such a life, they will take it. 

The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either. But passing this tax increase, and the community-wide dedication to this cause that it represents, is a damn fine start.

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Elections

Sen. Doug Jones addresses Auburn students

Republican Tommy Tuberville was also invited to participate, but declined.

Brandon Moseley

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Sen. Doug Jones at a forum at Auburn University.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, addressed Auburn University students at a forum on the university’s campus on Wednesday.

“I am a Democratic candidate, but I am an Alabama senator, and that is what I have tried to be since I have been here,” Jones said. “I promised I would work across the aisle.”

Jones said that he has sponsored 22 bipartisan bills that have been signed by President Donald Trump.

Jones and his Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, were both invited to address the Auburn College Democrats and the Auburn College Republicans in what the two college groups hoped would have been a debate between the two Senate candidates, but Tuberville declined to participate.

“I really appreciate the Auburn College Democrats and especially the Auburn College Republicans for inviting me,” Jones said. “I am disappointed that Tommy Tuberville is not here. I think it is important that people see two candidates side by side answering the same questions.”

“What you are seeing in the ads that are attacking me are simply not true,” Jones said.

Jones said that he does not support defunding the police, taking guns from Americans who like to hunt, and he does not favor abortion all the way to the point of birth.

“I have been a strong advocate for our military,” Jones said. “I have been a strong advocate for farmers. Even though I do not serve on the Agriculture Committee, I have done more for Alabama farmers than any senator has done since Howell Heflin, who was on the Agriculture Committee.”

The students asked Jones what he thought his greatest accomplishment in the Senate was.

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“That would be ending the Military Widow’s Tax,” Jones said.

Jones explained that the Military Widows tax only affects about 2,000 people In Alabama, but it is a big deal for those military families. When a serviceman is killed, the Pentagon pays a stipend to the surviving spouse. Many soldiers also purchased insurance for the possibility that they would not survive their service.

Instead of paying both the survivor’s benefit and the insurance benefit, the VA previously subtracted the insurance benefit from the VA death stipend. The widows were only getting about 55 cents on the dollar of what they had expected. Every year, the Gold Star wives came to Washington and asked for that change in the law, and every year, Senators would pat them on the back and then choose finances over repealing the tax and doing what was right, Jones said.

For 27 years, the Gold Star widows had made this a priority and nothing got done. Jones did not know about this until he got to the Senate, but when he found out, he reached across the aisle and sponsored a bill with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to end the tax.

Eventually the bill had 82 co-sponsors, and it got passed.

“It is not the voting rights act, it is not the civil rights act, but for those widows, it meant $1,200 a month,” Jones said.

The students also asked Jones what his greatest mistake was.

“Voting for Bill Barr,” Jones said on confirming William Barr as Trump’s attorney general. “I was so disappointed. I feel sorry for Jeff Sessions. I disagree with him on a number of policy issues, but I don’t think that he deserved the hits he was taking. I knew Bill Barr from his previous service. I thought he would be an independent voice, and he hasn’t.”

“I voted on the best information I had, and I was wrong on Barr,” Jones said. “I can defend every vote that I made. What I do in the United Senate is not about politics it is about service.”

Jones was asked if he favored ending the filibuster when Democrats win control of the Senate.

“No, I have too much respect for the Senate,” Jones said. “I don’t think Joe Biden will do that — at least he won’t start that way. He has too much respect for the history of the Senate as an institution. I want to try to get the Senate back to the way it was.”

The students asked if he favored the Democrats using their new power to adjust the number of judges on the Supreme Court.

“Nope,” Jones replied. “This goes back to the filibuster. We can’t start tearing down institutions because we don’t like some decision they make.”

Jones said that many Americans wanted to do the same thing when the court seemed to liberal with the Warren Court in the 1960s.

“Right now packing the court is not something I would be in favor of,” Jones added. “At the end of the day, you never know what is going to happen.”

“We always talk about I just want the courts to call balls and strikes, but it is not a baseball game,” Jones said. “Intelligent people disagree about the law and the rule of law.”

“The goal is to find common ground,” Jones said. “Frankly, Tommy Tuberville cannot do that. A football coach is trained to beat the other side — not work with them. On the radio, he calls them communists and socialists. I have two and a half years of working with them. He can’t do it. It is not about good and evil, and we need to stop thinking in those terms.”

The students asked if farmers should be given some relief from new regulations on the environment.

“I have been a huge proponent of agriculture,” Jones said. “The current USDA has been helping the biggest farmers and not Alabama farmers. The tariff wars hurt the Alabama farmer.”

“It is going to be a challenge to work it out,” Jones said. “It is in their best interests that we do something about the climate. I believe the science and so do farmers.”

Jones urged everyone to have faith in scientists.

“Trust them please,” Jones said. “One of the most frustrating things I see these days — and we see it in climate and I see it in the pandemic — is that we have got to trust our scientists.”

Jones said that is true of both the climate and the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have consistently said don’t believe what politicians say about this pandemic not unless they are repeating what the scientists say,” Jones said. “This next six months could very well be worse than the past six months.”

“We have got to trust them,” Jones said of the scientists. “If the doctors at the FDA approve the vaccine, I will trust the vaccine. We need to listen to the scientists at the FDA, the CDC, the NIH, at UAB, and what the companies say about the vaccine.”

Jones was asked what could be done to prevent Russia, China and Iran from interfering in our elections.

“We have the technology to do it, we have the will to do it, but we need an administration who will do it, and If you think I am knocking the Trump Administration, I am,” Jones said.

Jones was asked how we can move beyond partisanship.

“It is a lot more partisan outside of D.C. than in D.C.” Jones said. “People vote for partisanship. It is your vote that will change it. Your generation can change it. You need to tell your leaders that we want to hear issues, we want to hear politics.”

Jones said that he favored delisting marijuana from the banned drug list and making it legal for people with legal marijuana to cross state lines without going to jail for it. Jones was asked what we can do to fight the opioid crisis.

“We can’t prosecute your way out of it, though there is a role there with the prosecution of doctors for running pill mills,” Jones said. The civil lawsuits against drug manufacturers is a start, he said, and leaders need to be doing a better job of educating people. Mental healths should also be a priority, he said.

“There is a reason that people have to stand up and say ‘Black lives matter,’” Jones said, saying that too many Black people, particularly Black men, are killed by police.

On trade, Jones said that he is not an isolationist. “We (Alabama) need those foreign markets. We are an exporting state. We are the third largest exporter of automobiles in the country.”

Students asked Jones if he favored repealing the Patriot Act.

“I don’t think that is going to come up,” Jones said. “When it comes up for renewal, we will tweak it. I have had concerns about it, but at the end of the day that is something that we have to constantly monitor. We will not repeal it.”

Jones predicted that debate on health care will “dominate the next Congress.”

“I am very concerned about what we are going to do about health care if the ACA is declared unconstitutional,” Jones said, also reiterating his support for expanding Medicaid in Alabama. “The state made a huge mistake when it did not expand Medicaid,” he said. “I am not for Medicare for All, but I do think that there should be a public option.”

Jones was asked about the governor’s plan to lease and build three new so-called “mega-prisons.”

“The Trump administration really issued a scathing report on the state’s prisons, that really surprised me,” Jones said. “I don’t like privatizing the prisons or the post office. We had convict labor in this country for a long time, and it was horrible.”

Jones said solving the state’s prison problems requires money, and nobody wants to raise taxes. “Everybody wants to lock them up, but it costs money.”

The next president, whether it is Trump for a second term or his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is getting a $27.2 trillion debt plus a coronavirus stimulus package at the end of this month that may make it close to $30 trillion by inauguration. APR asked if there is going to be a plan put in place to prevent the national debt from surpassing $40 trillion by the end of this decade.

“We have got to get out of this crisis first,” Jones said. “George W. Bush spent trillions fighting wars without paying for them while cutting taxes, and this president has done the same thing, and now those tax cuts are coming home to roost.”

“I am not going to start looking at this until after the coronavirus crisis is over,” Jones said. “Part of the reason that revenues are down is because people are not working and paying taxes. If we don’t get this solved, we could end up owing $50 trillion.”

Due to coronavirus concerns and maintaining the proper social distancing, Wednesday’s event was limited to just five news reporters. Jones told reporters that he is running neck-in-neck with Tuberville approaching Tuesday’s election.

“I am not going to guarantee a win, and I am not going to guarantee that we are not going to win,” Jones said.

Polls open on Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. CST. You must have a valid photo ID in order to participate.

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