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Debate over ethics is being watched nationally in the economic development community

Brandon Moseley

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On Wednesday, proponents of House Bill 317 argued before the Senate about passing the legislation that would exempt economic developers from Alabama’s landmark 2010 ethics bill.

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield said that the bill is necessary so that economic developers can do their jobs and continue to bring jobs and investment to Alabama.

That same week, the director of the state Ethics Commission, Tom Albritton, said that the bill could open up a potentially wide loophole in state ethics law carving out an exemption for people doing economic development work.

“I think it’s a bad bill that weakens the ethics law considerably,” Albritton said.

The bill exempted economic developers from the definition of lobbyist under the state ethics law.

The bill says that an economic development professional–defined as a person who does full-time economic development work or works part-time and is “precertified” by the Ethics Commission–shall not be considered a lobbyist.

“It exempts people from the definition of lobbying when I think most people would agree that what they are doing is in fact lobbying,” Albritton said. “You are also declaring that the other portions of the ethics act related to a lobbyist’s transaction with public officials no longer apply to them. That’s where the problem lies in my view.”

Canfield said that the press has “mischaracterized the process that we have been engaged in to make sure that we have a workable ethics bill.”

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Canfield was a state senator in 2010 when the ethics bill was passed.

“We didn’t intend for economic development professionals to be under the ethics law,” Canfield said.

This became an issue in December 2015 when Detroit based economic developer and attorney Gregory C. Burkart wrote a column in IPT insider titled “The Accidental Lobbyist” in which Burkart, gave the opinion that economic developers are not exempted from the Alabama Ethics Law.

Perhaps coincidentally, Alabama is locked in a bitter battle with Michigan over the siting of automobile manufacturers and their suppliers. Michigan being the longtime number one auto manufacturing state and Alabama the rapidly rising number two auto manufacturing state.

Since this opinion piece was being used against Alabama in some circles, in 2017 Canfield and his team went to the Alabama Ethics Commission for a formal opinion, expecting that the Commission would rule in their favor. Instead Albritton and his staff presented the commission with an opinion agreeing with Burkart and suggesting that economic developers should register as lobbyists, including reporting what companies they are representing.

The Ethics Commission held off actually making a ruling until after the 2018 legislative session. Canfield and the governor requested that state Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, introduce HB317, the Alabama Job Enhancement Act.

Jay Garner, with the Site Selector Guild wrote in a letter to Canfield, “There is growing concern among site selectors, regarding ambiguity in Alabama’s statutes that can be interpreted as requiring site selectors and other economic development professionals to register as lobbyist to legally negotiate for project incentives. That requirement would be burdensome on-site selectors.”

The Alabama Political Reporter talked with two certified economic developers about what they do and about the bill.

John Boyd is a Princeton, New Jersey, based site selection consultant who provides independent location counsel to leading U.S. and overseas corporations, including Boeing, Chevron, JP Morgan Chase, Pratt & Whitney, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, JP Morgan Chase, PepsiCo, and other fortune 500 companies. Boyd said that his firm has been very active in Alabama over the past five decades.

Boyd told APR that, “We term incentives as a necessary evil. Our clients expect them. Companies demand incentives.”

Boyd said that registering as a lobbyist would be, “An additional obstacle in the site selection process.”

Boyd said that one thing that has changed in the industry is that more projects are done in house. Major companies have their own site selectors on staff. Multiple firms, including real estate companies, engineering companies, and construction companies, are involved in a major site selection.

Conceivably all of these would have to register as lobbyists under the Burkart/Albritton interpretation of Alabama’s ethics law.

Huntsville-area economic development consultant and commercial real estate broker Nicole Jones agreed.

“Last year I did a project where we had to move a creek,” Jones said. “I couldn’t have handled that without the engineers. There are so many experts and consultants involved in selecting a major site now that identifying exactly who is a site selector or economic developer would be so difficult.”

Boyd said that the fate of HB317 in the Alabama legislature is “big news in the site selection industry.”

Boyd said that Alabama is well positioned to land many projects because of the state’s low cost profile, leadership, and right to work status.

APR asked Boyd if a possible resolution to this would be for the state to license economic developers.

You have to get a license to be a cosmetologist, insurance agent, or security guard in the state of Alabama, why not create a state licensing board for economic developers that could set education requirements, set codes of conduct, and impose fines and penalties on economic developers who acted inappropriately?

Boyd said that is not necessary. Less than five states require a license.

Jones thought that would be too much regulation. I am already licensed as a commercial real estate broker and many other economic developers also carry other licenses.

APR asked since you are asking for economic developers to receive a carve out from the state ethics law could you agree to make it illegal for an economic developer to be banned from giving any campaign contributions to any political candidates or elected officials.

Boyd said that it is a compromise he could agree with.

Jones said that she likes to make contributions to candidates that are doing things for the state that she supports; but if she was forced to choose between politics and her job she would choose her job.

APR asked if they could support including elected officials and state officials in the state’s revolving door ban so that a commerce department employee for example or a member of the legislature could not leave office or government service and then use those contacts to immediately go to work as economic developers.

Boyd said, “I don’t think those restrictions should be on the books. There is enormous competition between firms not only for clients but for the best people out there.”

Jones said, “I would hire Greg Canfield in a second,” but that she could support that as part of a compromise to get the bill passed.

Jones said that she is strongly opposed to “double dipping” that is where someone has one job and works as an economic developer as a part time position.

The most notorious case of this was when the Southeast Alabama Gas District (SEAGD), including the cities of Dothan and Enterprise, hired then Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, as an economic developer while he was speaker.  The then director of the Alabama Ethics Commission gave Hubbard “pre-clearance” for accepting this part-time job, a state grand jury still indicted Hubbard for this despite the director’s letter.  The trial judge and the Alabama Supreme Court both ruled that the indictment had legal merit; but ultimately the jury found Hubbard innocent on this count but guilty on 12 other felony ethics counts not related to SEAGD.

Jones said that she would like to know what the members of SEAGD were thinking offering this. Hubbard was unqualified to be an economic developer and there was a conflict of interest.

Both warned that there could be repercussion if Alabama does not fix the “accidental lobbyist” situation.

Boyd said that Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile are all poised for significant projects.

Jones said that Alabama would be “shooting itself in the foot” by not passing HB317.

Boyd said that it is absolutely essential for site selectors to be able to operate without disclosing whose projects they are working on.

Jones agreed. Companies demand that we sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee will consider HB317 this week and the bill, which has already passed the house could be on the floor of the Senate as early as Thursday. It is being carried on the Senate floor by Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

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Hundreds show for Mountain Brook protest over police brutality, death of George Floyd

Eddie Burkhalter

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Allison Coleman asked for a reporter’s pen and wrote a cell number on a bit of paper as she stood among the several hundred people gathered in Mountain Brook to protest police brutality and the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. 

The Birmingham resident said she needed the number to call a friend if she was arrested, and that she’s kept up with other recent protests in Alabama, including one in Huntsville on Wednesday where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful protestors. 

She’s protested before, over the reproductive rights of women, but these latest protests over the killing of George Floyd gave her pause. 

Two journalists with AL.com were taken into custody by police while working outside the Birmingham City Hall Wednesday night, and police arrested a few people in Linn Park for violating curfew. 

Police in Huntsville Wednesday evening fired gas canisters and rubber bullets into peaceful protestors at the courthouse square more than an hour after that city’s curfew ended, injuring some, including a small child. Some protestors moved on to Big Spring Park near Huntsville’s Von Braun Center where tear gas was again shot into the crowd. 

But there was no tear gas or rubber bullets fired on protestors at Thursday’s demonstration, held in a field at Crestline Elementary School in the wealthy Birmingham suburb. 

Mountain Brook Police officers dotted the perimeter around the school but stayed largely out of sight as members of the group Alabama Rally Against Injustice led the many hundreds in song and demonstrations meant to convey the scope of the problem.

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Max Michael, 74, was among them. Wearing a mask — almost everyone was — the Birmingham resident stood, sign in hand, with a small group. 

“It just seemed like the perfect opportunity to come and show support. Solidarity,” Michael said. 

He said he’s also kept up with recent protests, including the violent end of the protest in Huntsville, and said the use of tear gas was inappropriate. 

“As everybody is saying, it’s a Constitutional right. It’s the founding principal of this country to be able to express civil disobedience, and not get shot at,” Michael said. 

Michael said he feels it’s a tough balance of being able to express oneself safely knowing there are people out there who want to create havoc. 

“I think the mayor, as well as other people, are acting on caution,” Michael said, referring to Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s decision to enact a citywide curfew and limit permitted demonstrations to a single city park. 

Woodfin amended his proclamation of a state of emergency on Tuesday that enacted a city-wide curfew and banned demonstrations and marches on city roads and property while the proclamation remains in effect. 

Woodfin’s change banned demonstrations 24 hours a day until the end of the state of emergency, but on Wednesday he announced the city has selected  W.C. Patton Park for properly permitted demonstrations. 

“Our communities of color have been inundated with injustices, health disparities, lack of access to food and secure neighborhoods,” said organizer Celida Soto speaking to the crowd over a megaphone. 

George Floyd’s death is a catalyst, but the problem is much bigger, she said. 

Perhaps it will take watching black and white protestors standing alongside one another and being shot with rubber bullets and tear-gassed to make a lasting change this time, Coleman said after the protest. 

Perhaps this time young white women like herself will see the problem for what it is, and help drive the change the country needs. Perhaps the fear of being shot and gassed while peacefully protesting will be what the country needs. 

“I’m grateful for the fear,” she said.

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Perspective | Huntsville doctor recounts protest dispersed by police tear gas

Dr. Pippa Abston

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Dr. Pippa Abston is a Huntsville area physician. The following is her first-hand account of the protest in Huntsville, Alabama, on Wednesday, where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators after an Alabama NAACP rally.

I arrived at Big Springs Park at about 4:30 before the start of the protest at 5 p.m. I am pleased to say that multiple medical people and first aid volunteers came. We had at least one EMT. People brought armloads of supplies and water. We had a medical area set up towards the back, and some of us walked through the crowd. I carried a medic sign on a pole.

After the speakers — which I don’t think I can do justice to describing, other than to say extremely inspiring — we were led up the stairs on the side of the park to march. There was chanting. It seemed to me that there were a whole lot more people than on Monday night. The line of marchers really couldn’t move much. We chanted.

Instead of a big march around the square, mainly people seemed to settle in the area in front of the courthouse. Everything I saw appeared peaceful in that area. Again, there were large numbers of police on the courthouse steps. This time they were holding large numbers of wrist ties, indicating to us that they planned to do a lot of arrests, I suppose. We could see people posted on top of the courthouse, and I was told they were snipers, but I couldn’t get a close enough look to verify that.

Suddenly — and again for no discernible reason — police dressed in riot gear lined up along the intersection where Fountain Circle turns into Southside Square. We heard a siren and then once again, unintelligible talking over some kind of sound system. I was roughly opposite the courthouse steps, and none of us could hear them.

It turned into that game “operator” that kids play. People were passing along information that they had heard, but it wasn’t the same information. Some said we were supposed to leave in 4 minutes, others said everybody just had to get off the street and onto the sidewalks.

Toward Clinton, which was blocked also on Monday, there was no riot line of police, but there were some police cars, and it wasn’t clear to anyone standing there if that was an exit route. I asked several people if anyone had provided an exit route, as is required, and they said no.

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Around that time, some people started coming up to us and reporting that first aid volunteers were being detained and ordered to remove their red cross signs made with tape, on the grounds that they were impersonating doctors. Because of this, the many medical volunteers we had were not identifiable to the crowd.

Several people came to me over the course of the night, because I still had the sign and a red cross on my shirt and backpack. I had put my medical license in with my ID, and I said “let them just try that.” But no one did.

We were also told that police on the courthouse roof were targeting medics — that they were pointing out our position. We were warned by several people to watch out because of that.

A few minutes later, people started passing down the word that they were about to start shooting rubber bullets. So the medical team I was with once again went down the stairs towards Big Spring Park, thinking likely that would be the way folks would flee again.

There was an initial rush of folks running down the stairs again, with some screaming, but this was brief and then people went back up again. We were unsure what to do but decided to stay in the park to be ready for their return. We heard chanting.

After some amount of time, which I did not note, because I intentionally left my watch at home, a large crowd of people came screaming, running down those same stairs again into Big Spring Park, being chased by police and we heard shooting of rubber bullets. We ran also. We heard several large explosions that sounded like bombs. We were told it was tear gas. Even though it wasn’t really too close to where we were, my eyes did burn.

People passing us said that police had told them we had to leave Big Spring Park, a city park, because it was private property, and that we would be fine if we went across Church Street as long as we didn’t get near businesses.

So a lot of us — maybe 100 or so — walked over there. As we were heading there, we saw a large line of patrol cars with lights and sirens on, coming down Church Street, and we wondered if it was ok after all to go there, but they passed by. We were told they were circling the courthouse.

People milled around on the sidewalk area across near Church Street, which is definitely public property, talking, wondering what was next. Again, we stayed in case we needed to give medical help and also because we had never received any instructions from the police about where to go.

We got word that they were loading up large numbers of police into trucks and coming … to do what, we didn’t know, but we were worried, so we walked further away from Church Street toward the Von Braun Center area.

We saw a line of police advancing down Clinton and onto Monroe Street, and we were worried we were going to get trapped. A large crowd to the left of us were moving past the art museum, and suddenly there were explosions again and what looked like fireworks aimed at the crowd. I was told it was tear gas.

People were running and screaming and several of us were trying to help wash their eyes. These tear gas explosions happened several times. We thought they were trying to drive us to Monroe Street, but we had also seen troopers marching that way, and we didn’t know if we were going to get cornered.

We were still washing people’s eyes. Some people were having intense skin reactions to the gas, burning and redness.

One person had been hit so badly in the eyes that they couldn’t see to find their ride, so they walked with my group back to where we were parked and got a ride with my friends. It seemed like protesters were mostly dispersing from that end of the park. We heard there were continuing protests on Jefferson Street.

I made it home. That was like being in a war, getting shot at, having gas thrown at us. And once again, one of the scariest parts was that it wasn’t clear where to go and be safe from being shot at.

We have to keep showing up for these protests. They are obviously trying to terrorize us into staying home, but we must persist.

The Huntsville police chief is saying that us putting on eye protection and getting out first aid equipment was one of their reasons for gassing and shooting us, because it was a sign we wanted violence.

If I go hiking during hunting season with an orange hat on, am I hoping a hunter will shoot me in the head?

If I lock my car door, am I hoping to have my window broken?

If I wear a mask, am I hoping to get COVID-19?

They had snipers yesterday. If we come wearing bulletproof vests — and no, I don’t own one — are they going to shoot us and say well, look what they made us do?

Could it be that we are aware of their weapons and their history of unprovoked brutality and want to protect ourselves while we exercise our First Amendment rights?

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Computer issue causes under-reporting of Alabama COVID-19 cases

Chip Brownlee

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An issue with the computer system the Alabama Department of Public Health uses to calculate and publicly report COVID-19 cases on the state’s public-facing dashboard is causing delays and a temporary underreporting of positive COVID-19 cases over the past several days, Alabama’s top public health official said Thursday.

“We’re working with our IT folks and the vendor of the program to try to get it straightened out, but yes, we are undercounting the positives on the public dashboard right now,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in an interview with APR Thursday.

The data issue is causing daily case counts to artificially decline, Harris said, adding that the undercounting is not purposeful.

Either way, the decline may give some the false sense that the pandemic has subsided when the decline has more to do with technical issue than a real decline in transmission of the virus.

It does not appear that the data issue is causing the Department of Public Health to miss positive cases but rather the issue is related to inputting those cases into a system that then posts the data for public consumption.

Once the system returns to normal functionality, the case count is expected to adjust, which may cause a spike in daily cases.

The Alabama Department of Public Health, in a tweet Thursday morning, said the issue with the program was due to the large increase in the volume of test results being processed by laboratories nationwide, causing the “national surveillance pipeline” to become overwhelmed.

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The overwhelmed system, the department said in the tweet thread, is causing delays in reporting, but the department, at least on Twitter, did not specifically address whether the delay was causing an underreporting of cases in the near term.

Harris said it was, the issue has affected several other states, and he hopes it will be resolved soon.

“There is definitely more than one state that has had the same problem because this is like an open-source program. There are other states that use it in public health — their own versions of it. So yeah, there’s more than one state having that problem,” Harris said.

The delays in data reporting are artificially making it seem as if the state’s daily case count is declining when it may not be, Harris said.

Over the past four days, the number of new cases per day has plummeted from more than 500 on May 31 to just 216 on Wednesday.

The 7-day average of new cases and the percent of tests that are positive, widely cited as better ways to assess trends, has also dipped as a result of the decrease in new reported cases.

“I’ve had several calls today, and I’m trying to make it clear to everybody that we don’t know that that’s true,” Harris said of the declining daily case counts. “The last four or five or six days, we’ve had 300, 400, sometimes 500 cases a day, and I don’t know why that would be different in the last day or so.”

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Huntsville police chief: Protesters “brought this on themselves”

Chip Brownlee

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Huntsville’s police chief and the Madison County sheriff defended the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters in downtown Huntsville Wednesday evening, claiming the demonstrators “came here for the fight, not us.”

Chief Mark McMurray said Thursday that demonstrators — whom he described as “anarchists” — “brought this on themselves” after refusing to disperse following the expiration of a permit at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening.

“We kept asking them to leave,” McMurray said. “They brought this — this group brought this on themselves. They came here for the fight, not us.”

Huntsville police and Madison County sheriffs deputies deployed tear gas and fired rubber bullets at peaceful protesters and demonstrators Wednesday evening, injuring several people.*

Video from the scene shows demonstrators in the aftermath of a peaceful Alabama NAACP rally peppered with rubber bullets and tear gas as law enforcement helicopters hovered overhead and police with guns moved among the rooftops in downtown.

One protester who was at the demonstration described her experience.

“After being forced into the park, the police boxed in the crowd and then shot tear gas behind us,” said Kelly Jovenitti. “I was forced to run into a cloud of it. Everything was chaotic. I couldn’t see. I know someone grabbed me and a medic was called. Some kind lady told me to take off my glasses and quickly rinsed my eyes the best she could.”

She said she has asthma.

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“I couldn’t breathe,” Jovenitti said. “My face was one fire. But the police were still coming. The gas was still coming. The rubber bullets were still coming. It sounded like a warzone.”

Jovenitti said she was not an anarchist. “I just love all people and believe we all should be treated the same,” she said.

McMurray said police felt they needed to clear the area before dark because protesters began donning protective equipment. Video shows a peaceful protest interrupted by police moving in.

“It’s darkness coming on, when we lose the fight,” McMurray said. “We have daylight, we win. It’s 90 minutes. It’s an unauthorized protest against the government. That’s what it is. That’s what anarchists do. This was not NAACP. This was a separate splinter group that took advantage of a peaceful protest and hijacked it to cause anarchy against our government. Their way is to cause damage, set fires, loot, pillage.”

He said law enforcement saw guns and other weapons among the crowd, though none appear to have been used. The police chief said two officers had minor injuries and were back at work Thursday, but that protesters threw rocks and water bottles at police cars, which he said counts as assaulting a police officer.

Protesters had bleeding wounds on their legs after being hit with rubber bullets, and a small child — less than four years old — was engulfed in tear gas Wednesday evening, according to AL.com’s Ian Hoppe.

“The whole tensions changed as they brought out more and more equipment, as they brought out the masks, the goggles and all of the bags started coming out,” McMurray said. “We didn’t change that tension.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, in a statement Thursday, said he supported law enforcement’s tactics Wednesday night.

“What occurred after the NAACP event was disheartening. A second event occurred, structured by people who were not part of our community,” Battle said. “They gathered at the courthouse to block the square and protest. This was not part of a permitted event, and there were no local organizers in charge, which becomes a public safety issue. Even so, police allowed the protestors time to express themselves before asking everyone to leave. Most complied, but others did not. Police were clear in their instructions and worked with the remaining protestors for more than an hour before using non-lethal irritants. The protesters had every opportunity to peacefully leave and they chose otherwise. The leadership of this second group is not our community.”

The first sign of any offensive action by protesters came after police deployed smoke and after trooper cars sped through the area, according to reporters at the scene, when the protesters threw water bottles at state trooper cars.

“How many warnings do you give before you lose your sunset?” McMurray said.

Huntsville has so far not imposed a curfew, but law enforcement declared the event an unlawful assembly after a city-issued permit expired at 6:30 p.m.

“I think that law enforcement needs to be very, very careful about what they’re doing and not anticipate violence,” said Sen. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney. “I saw some people say last night in Huntsville that they were trying to prevent violence before it started, and you don’t do that, I don’t think, with gas and rubber bullets.”

Jones called for a “good, long review” and said images of snipers on roofs and children gassed were disturbing.

At least 24 people were arrested Wednesday evening, all of them from Madison County, the chief said. Twenty were arrested for disorderly conduct for participating in the “unlawful assembly.” But he also claimed that outside splinter groups agitated the crowd and “anarchists” organized the demonstration.

“The ones who stayed began donning all their protective equipment,” McMurray said. “They put on their eye protection. They put on their gas masks. They broke out their first aid kits, their water, their milk, their preparations for combat, and they stood their line, and they were confrontational with us.”

The police chief and sheriff said they were confident the protesters were an out-of-state splinter group because they saw cars with out-of-state tags.

“A lot of these people came in to ramp up the numbers of what happened Monday,” McMurray said, referring to the first time law enforcement deployed tear gas against protesters in Huntsville after a protest Monday evening. “They weren’t here for the NAACP. They were here for anarchist movements.”

McMurray displayed what he said was an anarchist poster found at the demonstration. He also showed photos of pipes and other materials, which he said were weapons stashed by the demonstrators, though none appeared to have been used.

Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner said police “did the right thing” Wednesday evening.

“We did the right thing last night,” Turner said. “At 6:30, when that permit was over, when they came to the square, we still showed patience and allowed them to march that square — when we could have initially just ended it. There is tensions across this country. We see it every single night on TV. It is a terrible thing, a terrible thing that happened to Mr. Floyd — terrible. But we’ve got to do the right thing. By doing these acts and coming into our town, or any town for that matter, and destroying it, it takes everything away from what happened. And we’re not going to allow that here in the city of Huntsville or in Madison County. We’re not going to do it.”

*Correction: This article previously stated that State Troopers joined Huntsville police and Madison County Sheriff’s Deputies in deploying tear gas and rubber bullets. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency says State Troopers were only present as backup support and did not fire tear gas or other dispersants.

“Huntsville is one of several Alabama cities this week requesting support from ALEA. The agency has assigned ALEA Troopers to serve as backup during protests, but they have not participated in deploying tear gas or using other such means to disperse crowds. Details are law-enforcement sensitive and not available,” an ALEA spokesperson said in a statement.

 

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