The corruption within Alabama’s state government doesn’t surprise me anymore.
The brazenness of that corruption does.
Seriously, these people aren’t even hiding it anymore.
Former Republican majority leader Micky Hammon, before being busted, convicted and shipped off to federal prison, actually told a reporter about his illegal deal with a health care company.
Former Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard was scheduling official meetings and whining in emails about the ethics laws — the laws he helped pass — before he was busted.
Former Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and former Republican Attorney General Luther Strange stood in front of a room full of reporters and tried to pretend that Bentley wasn’t under investigation by Strange’s office, even after Strange wrote a letter all but saying he was. And he was.
I mean, maybe there’s an argument to be made that our people are more stupid than brazen, and they’re simply too ignorant to recognize that we all see what they’re doing. But that’s not a lot of comfort.
Because we seem to have reached a point in this state where corruption and shadiness is the norm.
We simply expect the crooked deals and underhanded payoffs and backroom politics. So much so that our politicians aren’t really hiding it anymore.
Perfect example: Steve Marshall.
Take a quick look through our interim AG’s campaign finance records sometime. And prepare to be amazed.
Not necessarily at the amount of the donations, although that figure, at well over $1 million raised so far — for a gig that pays $168,000 annually — should be scandal enough. But look at who’s giving.
On Feb. 26, a $2,500 donation came in from the Riley and Jackson law firm. That’s the firm of former Gov. Bob Riley’s son, Rob Riley. That firm also shares office space with Bob Riley’s consulting firm.
But more importantly to Steve Marshall, and the attorneys working for him at the AG’s public corruption unit, Rob Riley is currently representing Mike Hubbard in his appeal against a case brought by that aforementioned AG’s public corruption unit.
So the current AG is taking in donations from the attorneys of a convicted felon who was one of the most powerful men in the state.
But in Marshall’s case, not at all out of the ordinary.
Because Marshall has indirectly hauled in tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Jimmy Rane and Will Brooke — two wealthy and prominent business owners, and major political donors, who were caught up in the Hubbard conviction.
And here’s the fun backstory there: Rane and Brooke could technically still be indicted for their roles in giving Hubbard money. Of the 12 felony counts against Hubbard, two involved in Rane and Brooke. And with a grand jury still empaneled in Lee County …
But no biggie to Marshall. He’ll take their cash.
And why not? In fairness to him, now that HB317 — a bill that altered the definitions of who is deemed a lobbyist under Alabama law — has passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature, it’s not clear how Rane and Brooke would now be defined under the law.
Yeah, sure, he took in most of the cash before this bill was even introduced. And yes, if you want to get all nitpicky, he was out there publicly pushing for the passage of this bill. (Really, sarcasm on pause for a minute, when’s the last time you remember an attorney general pushing for major exceptions to the ethics laws, particularly those that define who is and isn’t a lobbyist?)
But then, it’s not like he’s the top law enforcement official in the state or something.
I mean, is there anything that defines Alabama politics better than the state’s top law enforcement official accepting campaign donations from an indicted felon’s attorneys during the appeals process and from two subjects in an ongoing investigation being conducted by his office?
And doing all of it right out in the open for everyone to see.
Maybe it’s just what we’ve come to expect, and accept, in this state.
Opinion | Ivey gets serious about coronavirus. Finally
For the first time since the COVID-19 crisis began in Alabama a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Kay Ivey finally, on Friday, seemed to grasp both the gravity of the situation and her role in it.
Up until Friday, Ivey had resisted calls for more restrictive guidelines barring Alabamians from moving about the state to shop and carry on as usual. While she had taken a handful of steps, she had been hesitant to do more.
Famously, or infamously maybe, she excused away not doing more by telling people that Alabama isn’t New York, California or “even Louisiana.”
I have never understood what that meant, exactly, and no one I’ve asked has been able to explain it to me. Was she saying the virus, which has infected nearly 600 people in Alabama and almost 100,000 across America, was less likely to infect the human bodies positioned within the state borders?
Did she mean that Alabama air was different? Or maybe all of those chemicals we’ve been consuming from our polluted waters made us uniquely resistant to coronavirus?
But on Friday, it seemed, a contrite and pleading Ivey told the state that more had to be done. Her tone, her words and her actions conveyed a much different message than her previous press events.
While she still refused to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, she issued one without calling it that. It’s being called a “safer at home” policy.
Ivey ordered closed a long list of non-essential businesses and facilities around the state, including department stores, clothing stores, most parks and athletic venues and pretty much all forms of entertainment venues. They will all be closed by 3 p.m. on Saturday. And they will remain closed until April 17.
As she made this announcement, Ivey talked of the difficulty of the decision, and how you can’t bring a dead business back to life — of how people who work at these temporarily closed businesses are losing vitally important pay and are suddenly at risk of losing everything they’ve worked for.
And that’s all true. But don’t think that hasn’t also weighed on the people who have called for such closures long ago.
In fact, in many cases, we had these businesses and employees and their futures in mind when we called for everyone to take things more seriously sooner. Because doing so would have lessened the impact of the virus and allowed life to return to normal — or some form that resembled the old normal — a lot sooner.
My family operated a small business for years. We operate one now. I make a living working for several small businesses. I know the work and worry that goes into them. I know the risk and sacrifice it takes to make a successful one. And I know the unique, caring relationships that are developed in a small business between owners and employees.
The last thing I want is to see them fold, or be forced to lay off employees who are like family.
But I also know that while reviving a dead business is almost impossible, reviving a dead person is actually impossible.
And the health and safety of people have to be the first priority — not the businesses.
Friday’s press conference — or, actually, it wasn’t a press conference, but more of a speech followed by responses to submitted questions — was the first real indication that Ivey understood that businesses might have to temporarily suffer in order to save hundreds of lives in this state.
Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall a single mention of Trump or his insane plan to open things up next month and get the economy rolling again or Ivey’s insistence that the economy was just as important as people.
It was an important pivot for her. And one that could save lives and lessen the impact of COVID-19 in this state.
However, as my APR coworker Chip Brownlee has pointed out in stories and graphs, Alabama’s current trajectory in terms of how fast the virus is spreading looks more like Louisiana than Georgia or Florida. That’s a problem, because Louisiana is widely regarded as one of the states with the worst outbreaks.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and basically America’s most trusted doctor right now, discussed new, very restrictive measures being taken by Louisiana officials to slow the spread of the virus. Fauci said it’s likely that Louisiana officials will look back and realize that those measures should have “come a little bit sooner.”
Let’s hope Ivey and Alabama officials don’t find themselves in a similar situation.
Opinion | In a party without a plan, Ainsworth stands alone
I am a practical person.
I place a lot of value on a practical, sensible approach to problem solving. Which is why I tend to vote for people who also think like me — who have a plan, who can identify problems and offer reasonable, fact-based solutions.
Those people make the world go around.
During the 2018 midterm elections, when Alabama was voting for a new governor and replacing dozens of legislative seats, I begged this state’s voters to take such an approach. To identify things that matter to them, to pick out specific issues within their communities and within the state that make the most difference to them, and then to vote for only the candidates who offer reasonable, fact-based, specific plans to address those issues.
Instead, Alabamians, in overwhelming numbers, gave me the middle finger, donned their “R” jerseys and checked the box for straight-ticket Republican. And they ushered in a governor, and expanded a Legislature, that is filled with men and women who have no plan for anything.
Not even common, everyday problems.
They’re still stumped by what to do about pollution and grappling with whether public corruption is truly that bad.
And when I say that Alabama voters selected these people despite them not offering a single real solution to any problem, well, check this: Gov. Kay Ivey, who defeated Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, refused to debate anyone, including her Republican challengers in the primary. She never offered a realistic plan for doing anything but showing up to ribbon cuttings.
The other GOP sheep ushered in by voters were similarly void of ideas for pretty much anything. At one point leading up to the election, I visited the websites of all GOP candidates running for office and pulled their ideas for improving Alabama’s public education system — one of the top issues listed by all voters.
Not one had a single specific idea, much less a comprehensive plan.
And if you’re that unable to provide leadership and planning when you’ve got all the time in the world to address common problems known to all, well, it’s hard to imagine how bad you’ll be in a crisis.
Or, it was until the past couple of weeks.
Until Wednesday afternoon, the state of Alabama has been without leadership throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
It has been an embarrassment on a grand scale, as we struggle to do even basic things, such as provide testing for those with symptoms. By late Wednesday, Alabama had tested fewer than 3,000 people. New York tested more than that in a single hour on Wednesday.
As coronavirus patients start to stack up at our hospitals, there remains no viable plan to accommodate them. No workable plan to get ventilators. No workable plan to test or treat our most rural areas. No workable plan to address the shortage of doctors and nurses.
And then Will Ainsworth dropped in.
Alabama’s lieutenant governor has been unusually outspoken in the last few days — cutting a PSA telling people to stay inside and take warnings seriously and offering his views on social media.
But by Wednesday, Ainsworth had seen enough. He fired off a lengthy letter to Ivey’s COVID-19 Response Team that basically said: What are we even doing out here, man?
Ainsworth set fire to everything — calling the state’s response to this point unprepared and unrealistic. He talked about his conversations with healthcare providers and how they’re scared to death of the “tsunami of patients” that are about to overtake the state’s hospitals, sucking up every available resource and then some. And he did the math on how awful this virus outbreak could be — or maybe even likely will be — for this state.
And he offered suggestions for addressing the problems.
But if I know Republicans like I think I do, Ainsworth’s letter and plans and warnings will be treated not as a wake-up call, but as a traitorous act. He has dared to question the other GOP leaders publicly, and that is what they will take from this.
Because anything else is outside of their skill set.
This is a party built on opposing things, not on fixing things. It is a party that has only ever sold two things — Jesus and anti-abortion legislation. Never mind that their bills involving those things have ever once made the state even slightly better.
Ainsworth made himself a unicorn on Wednesday. He became a planner in a party that has never had one.
He should be commended for his stand. But he won’t be.
ALGOP hunts unicorns.
Opinion | Want to slow the spread of coronavirus? Tell people the truth
Alabama hospitals are running out of ICU beds. And ventilators.
Frontline staff is overworked. Nurses and doctors are running low on personal protective equipment (PPEs) and there is none to be had.
And we are only in the early stages of COVID-19’s spread through America. We’ve only recently moved up to third in the world in terms of most confirmed cases of the virus, and we’re certain we’ve only counted a small fraction of our actual cases.
By the end of this, we will almost certainly be No. 1 in total cases, and we could very well be near that rank in terms of deaths.
Those deaths from coronavirus are starting to mount in the country, moving past 700 on Tuesday night after reaching 600 only around lunchtime on Tuesday.
Doctors who have spoken out about their experiences working in ERs and clinics around the country, and in Alabama specifically, are scared and angry and exhausted. They see the coming storm, and the almost certain catastrophe — the excruciating decisions that they will be forced to make when those in need outnumber the ability to provide care — and they want to run. But running isn’t in them.
This is the reality of this moment in American history.
It’s ugly. It’s frightening. It’s infuriating.
But this is what it is.
And it would help a whole lot if people in positions of power would stop sugarcoating things, stop muzzling doctors and nurses who have firsthand experiences to share and start telling people the cold, hard truth.
From the president to governors and all the way down to hospital administrators. You’re not helping this by relaying fairytales and treating everyone as if the real truth would be too much for them.
Let me give you an example.
Over the weekend, APR published a story about the dire situation facing Jackson Hospital in Montgomery. The story quoted a number of unnamed sources who worked within the hospital and who had firsthand knowledge of its dealings with coronavirus patients.
Those staffers expressed legitimate concerns about PPE shortages, worker safety, the availability of ICU beds and the coming shortage of ventilators. Not a word of what was said was untrue. And all of it was common concerns at hospitals all over the state.
But instead of simply confirming the truth and speaking about the hard times that are ahead for Jackson and all hospitals, the Jackson PR team went with a “nothing to see here, all is well” press release that randomly called the allegations false without addressing a single specific.
At the same time the Jackson PR team was denying APR‘s story, the staff was turning a waiting area into a makeshift ICU unit to accommodate the expected influx.
To highlight the absurdity of this, on Tuesday, Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer, in a scripted teleconference with Gov. Kay Ivey that managed to set telecommunications back at least a decade, told reporters that pretty much every major hospital in every major city in Alabama was facing all the issues that were raised in the APR story.
Of course they are.
Alabama had one of the worst healthcare systems in the free world on a good day. It has become painfully obvious that no one had a plan to deal with a large-scale medical disaster such as this.
How unprepared were we?
We are three weeks into this mess and not one single test has been administered in most of the Black Belt counties.
Wrap your head around that.
Let’s also not forget that while Govs. Andrew Cuomo, Mike DeWine and many others are providing their states with daily updates and setting aside time to speak with media and answer questions, Tuesday’s teleconference was Ivey’s first media availability in a week. And I use the term “availability” very loosely.
It was actually a 35-minute, scripted performance that allowed Ivey and Harris to dance around important questions and never have to take a follow-up, because all of the questions had to be submitted four hours earlier.
The overriding message from Ivey was: Alabama is going to get back to business soon.
That’s a nice thought. It’s a nice thing to tell a child, so they won’t needlessly worry.
It is not a good message at this time for the state, because it fails to convey the gravity of the situation. It sends a message that this thing is nearly over, wasn’t all that bad and we’re doing OK. Ivey even said at one point that Alabama isn’t California, New York or even Louisiana — implying that we’re somehow different here and less likely to get the virus.
We’re not less likely. We likely have the same percentage of cases as New York — and we’d know this if we actually decided to test like New York. That state is running more than 16,000 tests per day. Alabama has tested 2,300 people — total, in three weeks.
But make no mistake: Our numbers here will be just as awful as the numbers from other states. Our hospitals are just starting to experience the coming onslaught of issues. There will be many deaths.
We will get through it and there will be life on the other side. But right now, the only way to limit these numbers is for people to take this seriously.
And the only way they’re ever going to take it seriously is if they’re told the truth.
How the coronavirus can upend a life in just a few days
The direct message on Twitter came from a familiar name, which made the contents a bit more unsettling.
My cousin, Payton, was writing to let me know that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had all the symptoms — fever, a cough, achy all over. And he had been in and out of medical facilities where he could have contracted the virus.
He wanted advice, having read a few of my tweets citing information from medical professionals around the state. What should he do?
I forwarded him the number to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s helpline, and I told him to let me know what happened.
What transpired is both an infuriating example of Alabama’s — and the country’s — lack of preparation for this pandemic, and a sad example of how even suspecting that you’ve contracted this virus can have devastating effects on your income, your life and your future.
The reason Payton contacted me — and the reason I simply forwarded him a phone number — was because he developed his symptoms on a Friday evening, about 10 days ago. His primary physician was shut down for the weekend and he wanted advice on whether to try to go to a hospital ER or just stay at home and away from people.
The voice on the other end of the helpline asked some questions and ultimately told Payton to just stay home and go see his doc on Monday morning.
On Monday, March 16, he and his girlfriend were two of several to be tested for coronavirus at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. By that time, the hospital was already out of swabs to collect samples, so they were asked to spit in cups and told the results would be available in the next 3-5 days.
They were provided with access to a patient portal and told that they would be contacted if they were positive for the virus. If not, check the website after three days and look for their negative test results.
However, after discussions with their doctors, there was a general consensus that they likely had a relatively mild case of the virus.
At that point, they decided the right thing to do was to alert their employers and self-isolate at their home. In a matter of hours, Payton’s girlfriend had lost both of her jobs — a contract teaching position and a part-time waitressing gig — and was, understandably, in a panic.
In the meantime, Payton was told he couldn’t come in but there would be no paid time off for dealing with the virus. Instead, he’d have to burn through his limited paid-time-off days until they were used up. And then, well, hopefully, Congress will come up with something.
A couple days later, Payton sent me a message saying he still didn’t know if he was positive for the virus, although he still felt like absolute hell. He’s a pretty smart guy, college grad and all, and he couldn’t manage to access the DCH patient portal.
After hours of trying, he contacted the facility and was finally told that the portal was down.
Ah, well, no one had called either Payton or his girlfriend, so they were probably fine — just a bad cold or some sort of upper-respiratory infection.
And then, Thursday night, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox revealed that more than half of the samples collected by DCH were “spoiled.” Some of samples had become too warm on transport and couldn’t be tested. Others didn’t have enough sputum in the cups to perform the test.
That, of course, included the tests of Payton and his girlfriend.
So, Friday morning, they loaded up in the car and drove to the Church of the Highlands’ drive-up testing location in Birmingham and waited hours to get a redo. This time they were swabbed and provided more info on where to check their results.
And by Tuesday morning, the 11th day after he first contacted ADPH and informed someone that he had symptoms of the coronavirus — and eight days after being tested — Payton and his girlfriend still don’t have test results.
He still feels miserable. She has mostly recovered.
They are still without income because they’ve been treating this as if they have the virus — because that’s the responsible way to behave — and so they cannot go to work. They are hopeful for negative test results someday soon that they can show to their employers and possibly start back to work. (Payton asked that I not use his last name, and his girlfriend asked that I not use her name at all, out of fear that their employers would see their names and not allow them to return to work.)
Their story is just one of many. And there are certainly others who didn’t face such complications or mistakes or dramatic life shifts.
But many, many Americans — from all walks of life — are facing similar hardships. Overnight, they developed a fever and a cough and their entire worlds turned upside-down. Or they didn’t even develop symptoms and their steady jobs vanished in a profession that lost millions of jobs overnight, leaving them out of work with near-zero short-term options for a new line of work.
There is a lot of skepticism among many of the comfortable people about the need for dramatic assistance and drastic measures to help bring an end to this pandemic. I guess, maybe, it’s hard to imagine your life crumbling before you — going from steady work and a happy home to sleepless nights and trying to scramble to make sure the kids are fed and the lights stay on — if you’re not the one going through it.
But it’s happening all around you. To people you love and respect. To people who would rather eat dirt than accept a handout. To people who are good and decent.
The country was ill-prepared for this pandemic, despite plenty of warning. The state of Alabama didn’t do any better.
The least we could do now is try to make things a little less catastrophic for our struggling neighbors, family and friends.
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Alabama National Guard airman positive for COVID-19
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Montgomery’s Jackson Hospital near breaking point with COVID-19 patients, ER staff say
Lieutenant governor criticizes state’s lack of preparation, response to COVID-19
45 COVID-19 cases hospitalized at UAB, 18 on ventilators
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