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Josh Moon

Opinion | Is leadership in the Alabama Legislature planning a bait-and-switch on HB317?

Josh Moon

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The wall is crumbling.

Last week, a small group of senators held firm against an ethics bill, HB317, that would, among other things, exclude full-time and part-time “economic developers” from laws requiring them to register as lobbyists.

Heading into what should be the final week of the 2018 session, sources say that small group has dwindled to just three senators.

“I think the fix is in,” said one senator.

As APR has previously reported, HB317 is very unpopular outside of the State House, and is particularly problematic with those who combat political corruption in the state.

The head of the Alabama Ethics Commission issued a strong statement against the bill and has not backed away from it. The head of the Alabama Attorney General’s white collar crime unit has been oddly quiet, even as his boss insists that the office is supportive of the bill.

The issue with the bill, from the start, has been twofold: that it allows “part-time” economic developers — a distinction that opens the door to a wide range of individuals — and that there’s no revolving door limitation to bar lawmakers from jumping from the State House to a job as an economic developer.

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Closed-door meetings over the past two weeks ended in an impasse last Thursday, after officials from the AG’s office clashed with attorneys from the Ethics Commission over basic definitions in the bill.

Over the weekend, additional talks produced a brand new bill and a brand new problem.

While the substitute bill is rumored to take out the two problems and limit the exceptions to the law to only site selectors — a group of roughly 70 full-time employees around the state — and inserts a provision that should shut the revolving door, senators have been given no assurances that the bill they vote for will be the final bill.

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Because HB317 in its original form has already passed the Alabama House, the substitute bill, if approved by the Senate, would have to go back to the House in order for the changes to be reconciled. If the House doesn’t vote to simply concur with the new Senate version, a conference committee meeting — with three members from each house — will be held to reconcile the bill.

It’s that process that has senators wary.

“I want some assurances that if we vote this thing out, that the House will concur and the bill that goes to the governor will be the bill we vote out,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery. “I’m not certain at this point that that will be the case.”

That would be a rather unprecedented move, though — for the Republican leadership to pull a bait-and-switch on members of their own party, and particularly over a bill that is very unpopular with the general public.

“We’re going to need some assurances — some strong assurances,” Brewbaker said of the coming vote. “Otherwise, I can’t see this thing passing.”

 

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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Josh Moon

Opinion | Who is K.B. Forbes? The answer isn’t hard to find or all that unexpected

Forbes appears to be that guy who hangs around the periphery of politics and business. That guy who makes his money in mysterious ways. Who is aligned with this person or group one day, their sworn enemy the next. 

Josh Moon

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K.B. Forbes appears on the show "BorderLine" in 1996. (YOUTUBE)

You probably don’t know K.B. Forbes, but you know who he is. Unless you’re a journalist in the state of Alabama — or maybe Florida or California or Colorado — you’ve likely never dealt with Forbes, who serves as the executive director of Consejo de Latinos Unidos and as the publisher of the “BanBalch” blog. 

If you do happen to be a journalist — or just someone with a camera and a website that attracts a few eyeballs — you probably do know Forbes, or at least have read through one of his many emails, maybe even ventured over to the blog to read through the various allegations of corruption and horrors against the Balch & Bingham law firm. 

I like that blog. Mainly because I’ve never been a big Balch & Bingham fan, and generally believe that firm is a blight upon the state. So, that blog, on which Forbes writes and writes about the nefarious practices of Balch attorneys in a supposed effort to defend his attorney friend, is a fun read for me. 

But the other day, following a lengthy story written by my boss and APR publisher Bill Britt that questioned the funding behind Forbes and his website, I started to wonder: Just who is this guy? Well, that wasn’t hard to figure out. There’s plenty of information on him out there, readily available through a simple Google search of his name. 

And as it turns out, I knew exactly who Forbes was. And you do too. 

Forbes appears to be that guy who hangs around the periphery of politics and business. That guy who makes his money in mysterious ways. Who is aligned with this person or group one day, their sworn enemy the next. 

A piece of political putty, apparently completely devoid of deeply held beliefs, and willing to be molded into whatever form best fits his next clients.

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He’s a guy who one year is working on the anti-immigration campaign of rightwinger Pat Buchanan and a few years later is running a nonprofit allegedly devoted to protecting the rights of Latino immigrants. 

He’s the guy fighting for minorities and tackling racial injustices in Alabama, while at the same time publishing arguably racist, doctored images of a black lawmaker and his wife. 

He’s the guy who is allegedly running a nonprofit that goes after hospitals for overcharging uninsured immigrants, but who, numerous publications and critics have alleged publicly, is possibly using that nonprofit to aid himself and the insurance company owner he used to work for. 

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Forbes, of course, likely denies this. I don’t know that for certain. I sent him a lengthy email explaining exactly what I found through the Internet searches and quite bluntly telling him what those findings led me to believe — that his “BanBalch” website looked like a shakedown attempt. He didn’t respond. 

But being accused of shakedowns isn’t new for Forbes — primarily for the benefit of his former boss, J. Patrick Rooney, an insurance company owner. 

According to numerous stories over the years in a variety of publications, it is generally believed that Forbes started CDLU as a front operation. With Rooney’s initial financial backing — which Forbes has admitted in the past — CDLU started in 2001 targeting hospitals for their overcharging of uninsured patients and demanding that patients be charged equally. 

Noble work, right? Well, certainly, except that work also just happened to benefit the insurance company operated by Rooney, driving down costs and raking in millions for the multi-millionaire.

For example, Rooney’s relatively small insurance company allegedly owed Tenet Health millions of dollars in unpaid bills for clients. According to Business Week, CDLU went after Tenet in 2003 over the hospital’s collections practices, filing 10 lawsuits. However, according to the Business Week story, when Tenet agreed to forgive Rooney’s debt, CDLU dropped every lawsuit. 

Forbes, of course, has denied the connection between CDLU and Rooney, saying that Rooney provided him the startup money for CDLU — some $100,000 — and nothing more. But an investigation by Roll Call in 2005 found that Rooney had registered the domains for numerous websites that CDLU set up to attack hospitals, including two that were attempting to obtain back payments from Rooney’s insurance company. 

Forbes said that was all just a simple mistake. A “programmer” entered the wrong registrant when creating the websites, he told Roll Call. 

But there’s more. 

In 2005, when a U.S. House committee began looking into the practice of hospitals overcharging the uninsured, a list of questions was sent by the committee chair to the CEO of Tenet. Among the questions, the committee wanted to know about Tenet’s specific settlement with CDLU and Forbes. In a response, Tenet CEO Trevor Fetter acknowledged that it essentially paid Forbes, setting up a system in which it paid him for speaking engagements and funded his travel. 

That setup is suspiciously similar to what Forbes seems to be doing now with his Ban Balch website, as he pushes embarrassing stories and attacks the law firm’s clients. He has bragged about driving business away and has openly asked if it wouldn’t be better for Balch to pay him to go away. 

In a response to several questions I sent him, Forbes denied that he could be paid to shut down his website and said he refused alleged attempts by Balch attorneys to include CDLU and the website in negotiations with attorney Burt Newsome.  

Newsome’s grievance with Balch, which appears to be a legit complaint that highlights Balch’s notoriously awful tactics, is Forbes’ stated reason for starting his blog and going so heavily after Balch. He claims he met Newsome when their wives started participating in the same online moms’ group and became friends. He heard Newsome’s tale of how he was wronged by Balch and decided to devote CDLU’s resources to exposing the law firm. 

Which sounds nice, except, CDLU’s stated purpose is to advocate for the uninsured and Latinos facing wrongs. All of its previous work has been in those areas. 

The sudden shift to taking on a law firm over one man’s grievance seems … a convenient pivot that has allowed Forbes to use the media connections and resources of CDLU to apply pressure on Balch and its clients. 

And in the process, Forbes has seemingly abandoned the organization’s goal of protecting minorities. In a series of posts about an alleged “star chamber” hearing set up for Balch by Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Carole Smitherman, Forbes attacked Smitherman, wife of state Sen. Rodger Smitherman, calling her “corrupt,” “worthless” and “stupid.” 

Accompanying one post on the blog was a doctored photo of Carole and Rodger Smitherman that can only be described as racist. It depicts the Smithermans wearing striped jail uniforms.

A screenshot from Forbes’s “BanBalch” blog.

But then, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Forbes would have such a blindspot, given his work prior to starting CDLU. 

Serving as a spokesman for the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes (no relation), one of Forbes’ pet projects and his area of emphasis in dozens of interviews was on the dangers of illegal immigration and the threats that immigrants pose. 

Less than five years before starting an organization allegedly focused on ensuring the health care of immigrants, Forbes was actively fighting against those same immigrants receiving benefits. A clip of Forbes’ appearance on a TV show shows him criticizing then-presidential candidate Bob Dole for not hitting illegal immigration harder or making it a bigger issue in the campaign. 

Prior to that, Forbes’ rhetoric on immigration was even stronger. As a young advocate in the late 1980s in his hometown of San Marino, California, Forbes attempted to get the city council to pass an ordinance making English the city’s official language — an ordinance he openly acknowledged was aimed at the city’s growing Asian immigrant population. 

At the meeting, according to a Los Angeles Times story, Forbes exclaimed that the city was being “overrun by foreigners.” He was shouted down by attendees. 

But Forbes would be back. And later, he would be pushing anti-immigrant rhetoric focused on Hispanics, because that’s what he was paid to do. And then pushing for immigrant welfare, because that’s what he was paid to do. And then pushing for hospital pricing reform that just so happened to benefit his former boss, because that’s what he was paid to do. 

And really, after all the questions about Forbes, there’s probably only one that matters. Because, as I said at the start, we all have a pretty good idea who Forbes is. 

The only question is who’s paying him.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Despite having all the power, Republicans have set themselves up for failure

With their selection of no-issue candidates who hold little experience and zero aptitude for addressing real issues, Alabama Republicans will have only themselves to blame.

Josh Moon

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville, right.

Alabama Republicans on Tuesday selected as their nominee to the U.S. Senate a man who during more than a year of campaigning — much of it coming during a global pandemic, national recession and unprecedented civil unrest — never once discussed in depth his plans for doing much of anything about any of the numerous issues facing this state and country. 

And they also elected a former Mike Hubbard lackey who came within an eyelash of going to prison on ethics charges. 

It was … about what you’d expect for the Alabama GOP. 

Although, the margins were a surprise. 

In the night’s main event, Tommy Tuberville, the former football coach and guy who you really shouldn’t trust your money with, ran up the score on Jeff Sessions. With a handful of boxes still out late Tuesday, Tuberville was up by 22 points and Sessions had admitted defeat, continuing what has been a particularly rough few weeks for Confederate monuments in Alabama. 

But don’t fret if you’re concerned that Alabama is losing its sense of history. 

Because nothing screams Alabama history quite like two (alleged) crooks fighting for a U.S. House seat. 

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In the 2nd Congressional district, Barry Moore, the former legislator who a jury in 2014 found not-guilty of perjury charges despite an audio recording seeming to confirm the crimes, defeated by 20 points Jeff Coleman, who spent nearly $2 million trying to buy the seat. 

Coleman wasn’t exactly a Bible salesman himself, though. As APR reported, his moving company was at the center of a major fraud scandal, in which it paid $5 million to settle charges of fixing weights and over billing the U.S. military and service members. 

You’re welcome, the rest of America. 

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In the end, though, these races weren’t really about ethics or competency or something silly like choosing the most qualified candidate. They were about loving Donald Trump the most. 

That was Tuberville’s entire campaign. There’s literally nothing else that he even attempted to run on. 

No matter the question. No matter the issue. He always returned back to loving Trump and praising Trump as the country’s best president in his lifetime. 

In the meantime, Trump helped Tuberville by repeatedly criticizing Sessions, his own former attorney general, and encouraging people to vote for Tuberville. 

And while a clear majority favored Trump’s pick, a much larger majority — some 90 percent of registered Republican voters in the state — favored sitting at home instead. While some of the disinterest can certainly be chalked up to COVID-19 fears, that total is less than half the turnout that was expected, even factoring in the virus. 

That’s a bad omen for Trump nationally, if in even the state that loves him most he can generate only enough excitement to edge into double-digit turnout. 

But those voters who did show up were the defiant types. 

Neither Tuberville nor Moore would be considered establishment candidates, and neither had the backing of the national Republican Party. Both played up the “outsider” role, and both coveted the rural, blue collar voters. 

There were questions, particularly with Tuberville, as to whether such a shallow campaign could endure a long campaign. Not only did it endure, it gained steam. 

The question for both now, though, is if the Trump-love strategy can be successful in a general election — even one in deeply red Alabama — against opponents who will push issues and talk about plans. And as the coronavirus worsens, the economy continues to falter and social justice continues to be a hot topic — all of which worsen the president’s approval numbers — can the door open enough for either Sen. Doug Jones or Moore’s opponent, Phyllis Harvey-Hall to slip through? 

If so, with their selection of no-issue candidates who hold little experience and zero aptitude for addressing real issues, Alabama Republicans will have only themselves to blame.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Teachers are scared and frustrated about starting school. Many aren’t coming back

Teachers are scared to death. And the biggest reason they’re scared to death is because they haven’t seen any sort of real, aggressive plan from anyone. 

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Terrified. Confused. Frustrated. Those are the terms teachers — both fulltime and substitute teachers — from across Alabama used to describe how they feel about schools reopening in about a month in this state. 

Over the course of the last week, I have spoken to dozens of teachers, principals, administrators and employees from school systems around the state. On Sunday, I used social media to solicit more comments, asking teachers and school employees if they have been provided specifics about the upcoming school year and how they’re expected to handle students and staff testing positive for COVID-19. 

Their answers were eye-opening and infuriating. 

Because it was obvious that the federal Department of Education — at the urging of the White House — and the Alabama State Department of Education — at the urging of the feds — are seemingly willing to march thousands of students, teachers and staff into school buildings and tightly-packed rooms in the middle of a pandemic without a plan to protect any of them. 

Not even a little bit. 

Among the shocking pieces of information provided by teachers and employees, these stood out: 

  • There is no plan to screen students, teachers or staff prior to school starting. 
  • There is no statewide plan for quarantining students, teachers or staff should someone at a school test positive. 
  • There will be no requirement that students wear masks. 
  • There is no statewide plan to contact trace any positive student, teacher or staff member. 
  • Teachers don’t know if they’ll be required to quarantine if they come in contact with a coronavirus-positive student or employee, and they don’t know if a quarantine will eat into their leave days. 
  • No one knows if there will be mandatory testing of students if another student in class tests positive, or who will pay for such tests. 
  • There is currently no plan in place to address the very obvious teacher shortage that is about to strike Alabama schools. 

Among all of those problems — and all of the unknowns that will go into them — a teacher shortage is probably the most certain, and possibly even the most important. 

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Because Alabama had a big problem with getting enough teachers to fill its classrooms prior to the current pandemic. Now, as we near a ridiculously-early start date, and teachers across the state begin to realize that there simply is no plan in place to protect them, hundreds are weighing their options. 

And the mass exodus could be staggering. 

Which, honestly, shouldn’t be surprising. Even if there were a great plan in place, most teachers over the age of 60 would be on the fence about working during this pandemic. In Alabama, that’s a decent percentage of the state’s total number of teachers and a big percentage of substitute teachers. 

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Now, add to that list all of the teachers who are at-risk or have underlying conditions that put them at greater risk should they contract COVID-19. 

Then add all of the teachers who can afford to either not work or who have other employment options. 

Now, add in ALSDE’s complete and utter joke of a “roadmap” for reopening — which only served to scare the living hell out of most school employees — and you’ve got a serious mess. 

“I know for a fact that eight of my teachers are probably not coming back and it could be as high as 12,” a principal of a school in Montgomery told me. “There aren’t people to fill those spots and we’ll be fighting with every other school in this city and surrounding area for substitutes.”

That same story is playing out all over the state. 

Because teachers are scared to death. And the biggest reason they’re scared to death is because they haven’t seen any sort of real, aggressive plan from anyone. 

Instead, the instructions appear to be: Do all of the things you were doing before, and then add in socially distancing your students, monitoring them for COVID symptoms and trying not to become sick yourself. Oh, and also maybe help with checking kids’ temps and quarantining them, since 300 or so of our state’s schools don’t have nurses. 

Would you go back to work in that environment if you had any other choice? 

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. But only a glimmer. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has apparently taken a liking to the Safely Opening Schools (SOS) plan that I talked about a couple of weeks ago. That’s the plan from the school nurses association, which is backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, that would use CARES Act funds to put a nurse in every school and also build a stand-alone first aid/quarantine area for every school. It would also provide on-site testing and equipment to check the temps of students at a variety of different points. 

Ivey has invited several lawmakers to speak about the plan to the state Board of Education during Tuesday’s work session. 

APR has also learned that the SOS plan is one of several being considered by the White House to be part of its recommendations to schools across the country. 

That plan isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t address all of the problems that teachers, students and staff will face every day. But it does take some burdens off teachers, and could help prevent flare-ups and outright hot spots. 

And maybe, just maybe, it’ll ease some of the very real, very understandable fears.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Science is hard for Alabama, Del Marsh

Josh Moon

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Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh at a press conference with Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday April 28, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

On a good day in Alabama, science is not our friend. On bad days, during complicated, scary times, when science and medicine are confusing and offering hard solutions to tough problems, watching our people try to science is like watching a monkey fold a fitted sheet. 

Such has been the case in the days of COVID-19, when this state’s conservative leadership has been bamboozled by the great invisible enemy and left choosing between letting thousands die or potentially losing money and jobs.

Which is really no choice at all for them, even though they did pretend for a week. 

In reality, the actual choice for Alabama leadership has been what it always is: A choice between Option 1, which is supported by facts and science and experts and data, and Option 2: What they really want to believe, regardless of facts and data and science and experts. 

You can probably guess which way the majority has gone. 

We were one of the first states to “reopen” our economy, and despite skyrocketing new cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Kay Ivey has refused to reassert any restrictions that were lifted. Bars are still open. Restaurants are serving dine-in customers. 

It’s like life is going on just fine. Even though more than 1,000 people have died in less than five months, and hundreds more are packed into Alabama hospitals with a life-threatening virus. 

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Still, our politicians are clinging to the dumbest of beliefs and are actively pushing debunked theories that they really want to believe despite no evidence or even evidence to the contrary. 

Like Senate President Del Marsh, who, when asked Thursday about Alabama’s trend of record-breaking numbers of new cases, said he hopes more people get coronavirus because “we start reaching an immunity the more people who have it and get through it.” 

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Now, as much as it warms my heart to hear an Alabama conservative embrace evolution, Marsh is, in fact, wrong. Not only is there little evidence pointing to effective “herd immunity,” but there is evidence indicating that the theory is completely incorrect. 

Sweden, which was the most often cited example by your idiot friends on Facebook, tried the whole “herd immunity” approach. It shut down nothing. Let people have their freedoms. Didn’t impose any requirements for masks. It was hailed as a beacon of light by the far-right nuts. 

Fox News isn’t airing those puff pieces anymore. 

Sweden has turned into the world’s cautionary tale. Deaths in the country are 40 percent higher than in the US. They’re significantly higher than in neighboring countries. And Sweden’s economy has been hammered, just like everyone else’s economy. 

So, if you’re scoring at home, Sweden got all the economic catastrophe plus an off-the-charts death rate. 

Which is what Del Marsh apparently wants for Alabama. Or maybe he doesn’t know what he wants, because shortly after saying that he hopes a bunch more people get coronavirus, he also said that he doesn’t want anymore deaths. Which is a lot like saying you want a bunch more ice cream but no more calories. 

Of course, the real problem in all of this is that we’ve handled this crisis — both here in Alabama and at the federal level — in the same manner in which Republicans handle everything: As if there are only two, stark options and no middle ground. 

Because there’s simply no way we could both open businesses and impose meaningful limitations that scientists and doctors tell us help stop the spread of the virus. There’s no way we could allow some businesses to open while keeping other shuttered (and providing those closed businesses with needed money for survival). There’s no way we could have opened up things like beaches and parks — things that science and doctors tell us are unlikely to contribute to spread — while simultaneously preventing dine-in eating at beach restaurants or shutting down entertainment businesses, like nightclubs and bars. 

No, much easier to tell everyone to get the virus and hope for the best. 

What Marsh said Thursday is dangerous and dumb. He should be condemned for it. And when this is all over, and we’re counting our dead, his words, and the failed GOP leadership through this crisis should be remembered. 

Because they contributed to this catastrophe.

 

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