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Billy Canary out at BCA, sort of 

Bill Britt

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Defense attorney Bill Baxley shows witness Bill Canary an email to reference for testimony during the Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard trial on Friday, June 3, 2016 in Opelika, Ala. (Todd J. Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool)

The long-anticipated exit of the Business Council of Alabama’s C.E.O. Billy Canary was agreed upon at a recent meeting of the association’s executive board. There’s one catch — current BCA Chairman Perry Hand is fighting to keep Canary around as long as possible in hopes the storms pass and Canary lives to fight another day.

During an April 10 executive board meeting, seven of the state’s largest corporations laid down an ultimatum: either Canary goes, or they do.

“They made it clear if Billy stays they walk,” said a current member who asked to speak on background.

These seven big players pay around $1,000,000 in annual dues as compared to the $1,500 to $2,000 paid by many companies that hold seats on the BCA board. For months these seven have withheld their dues to bring attention to their grievances with Canary. However, without reason, Hand has rebuffed these big mules in favor of Canary. On April 10, they made it known to the executive board that it was time for Canary to go and go soon.

“It doesn’t make sense to keep Billy around,” said a bewildered board member. “It’s like Perry has some weird attachment [to Canary] that I don’t get at all.”

Hand is Chairman of the Board of Volkert Inc., a Mobile-based infrastructure engineering firm that specializes almost exclusively in government contracts, many with state-funded entities across Alabama, including The University of Alabama, The City of Auburn, Corridor X/I-22 in Birmingham and Gulf State Park, just to name a few.

Current and former BCA members say the board’s vote to demand Canary’s resignation is good news for the state’s future, and those close to the process are angry that Hand is wanting to keep Canary on until the fall of the year.

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APR’s sources say this is apparently an attempt to control the outcome of political contests heading into the fall general elections. The plan, according to those once close to Canary, is for him to control campaign donations to win enough races to stage a comeback. Hand seems ready to risk everything BCA stands for to protect Canary, said one source.

Other board members see no upside to challenging the seven most influential companies in the state just to save Canary’s neck.

A political operative who speaks regularly with individuals at BCA said staffers see the future as unclear if not fatal. “It’s time. The sooner we make this change, the better, is what people are saying,” he said. He says within BCA, Canary has his loyalists, but it only goes so far.

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“We are at risk of losing our biggest members, which basically mean we are swirling around the toilet waiting for one more giant flush all because of this guy [Canary],” said a staffer. “I’m sorry, it’s time for a change.”

One of APR‘s sources said that the corporations may not immediately leave BCA altogether but would substantially reduce their dues payments to around $1,500 to $2,000 a year instead of the hundreds of thousands or millions they presently pay.

This threat, if acted on, would cripple BCA at a critical time when Alabama is rebuilding after the failed leadership of men backed by Canary.

According to APR‘s source, those demanding Canary’s resignation were representatives from Alabama Power, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Thompson Tractor, Drummond Coal and others.  APR‘s insider couldn’t recall all the companies present.

“What was amazing,” according to APR‘s person with intimate knowledge of the meeting, “is that there were executive board members who had no idea there was even a problem with Canary.” Over the last several years, Canary has painstakingly stacked the board with members who don’t pay attention to politics and believe Canary has been leveling with them on every issue.

After the big seven left the meeting, a vote to remove Canary passed. However, the timing of his exit is in doubt because of Hand’s reluctance to act.

Hand and a few holdouts want to give Canary more time.

“If these guys give Canary a day beyond May, it shows that Canary and Hand have outfoxed the big players,” said one of APR‘s informers.

Beyond prominent corporate leaders, it is no secret that Alabama Senior United States Sen. Richard Shelby wants to see a change in BCA’s leadership. Going back to last year, Shelby made it known that Canary was no longer welcome in his office. This loss of access means avenues to accomplish anything meaningful in D.C. are out of the question.

“Sen. Shelby made calls letting folks know that he was done with Canary,” said a close advisor. Now, as Chair of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, Shelby is acknowledged as one of the most powerful men in the country.

Despite calls for Canary’s resignation, it is Hand and a few board members that want to salvage Canary’s failed tenure at BCA.

At the meeting’s opening, Canary read an impassioned four-page letter in which he fell short of offering his resignation. Canary left the room before the seven corporate leaders made their case for his removal.

Canary has reportedly been letting people know that his days are numbered, and now he is waiting to see how much money he can squeeze out of BCA. “He wants a big payout,” said a former BCA board member. “What he deserves is to be reminded that Alabama is a right-to-work state something he’s always pushed on other folks.”

Canary is out according to well-placed insiders but just when he leaves is still as a question mark.

Perry Hand was contacted for this report but failed to answer APR‘s request for comment.

 

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Legislature

Medical marijuana bill “is not about getting high” — it’s “about getting well.”

Bill Britt

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More than half of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form. Last week, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee passed SB165 on an 8 to 1 vote. If the measure becomes law, it will allow Alabama residents to obtain medical marijuana under rigorously imposed conditions.

Known as the Compassion Act, SB165 would authorize certain individuals to access medical marijuana only after a comprehensive evaluation process performed by a medical doctor who has received specific training.

“I care for people who are ill, and I try to reduce their suffering to the best of my ability, using the tools at my disposal that are the safest and most effective,” said Dr. Alan Shackleford, a Colorado physician who spoke before the Judiciary Committee. “Cannabis is one of those tools.”

Shackleford, a Harvard trained physician, has treated more than 25,000 patients at his medical practice over the last ten years, he says a large number of his patients have benefited from medical cannabis.

While there are detractors, the Compassion Act is not a hastily composed bill but is, in fact, the result of a year-long study by the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission that voted to approve the legislation by an overwhelming majority.

“It’s a strong showing that two-thirds [of the commission] thought the legislation was reasonable and well-thought-out,” said Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, after the commission vote.

Melson, who chaired the commission, is a medical researcher and is the lead sponsor of SB165.

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Two-thirds of Americans say that the use of marijuana should be legal, according to a Pew Research Center survey. “The share of U.S. adults who oppose legalization has fallen from 52 percent in 2010 to 32 percent today” according to Pew. The study also shows that an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (91 percent) say marijuana should be legal either for medical and recreational use (59 percent) or that it should be licensed just for medical use (32 percent).

These numbers are also reflected in surveys conducted by Fox News, Gallup, Investor’s Business Daily and others.

“This bill is not about getting high. This bill is about getting well,” says Shackleford.

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Cristi Cain, the mother of a young boy with epilepsy that suffers hundreds of seizures a day, pleaded with lawmakers to make medical cannabis legal.

“This body has said so many times that your zip code should not affect your education,” Cain told the committee. “Well, I don’t believe that your area code should affect your doctor’s ability to prescribe you medication. If we were in another state, my son could be seizure-free.”

SB165 will strictly regulate a network of state-licensed marijuana growers, dispensaries, transporters, and processors.

There will be no smokable products permitted under the legislation and consumer possession of marijuana in its raw form would remain illegal.

“The people of Alabama deserve the same access to treatment as people in 33 other states,” said Shackelford.

 

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Education

Opinion | Instead of fixing a school for military kids, how about just fixing the schools for all kids?

Josh Moon

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The education of police officers’ kids isn’t worth any extra effort. 

Same for the kids of nurses and firefighters. Ditto for the kids of preachers and social workers. 

No, in the eyes of the Republican-led Alabama Legislature, the children of this state get what they get and lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure any of them get a particularly good public education. 

Except, that is, for the kids of active duty military members stationed at bases in this state. 

They matter more. 

So much so that the Alabama Senate last week passed a bill that would create a special school to serve those kids — and only those kids. To provide those kids — and only those kids — with a quality education. 

An education better than the one available right now to the thousands of children who attend troubled school systems, such as the one in Montgomery. 

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The charter school bill pushed by Sen. Will Barfoot at the request of Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth carves out a narrow exception in the Alabama Charter School law, and it gives the right to start a charter school located at or near a military base — a school that will be populated almost exclusively (and in some cases, absolutely exclusively) by the kids of military members. 

The explanation for this bill from Barfoot was surprisingly straightforward. On Tuesday, Ainsworth’s office sent information packets around to House members to explain the necessity of the bill. 

In each case, the explanation was essentially this: the Maxwell Air Force Base folks don’t like the schools in Montgomery and it’s costing the state additional federal dollars because top-level personnel and programs don’t want to be in Montgomery. 

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And in what has to be the most Alabama response to a public education problem, the solution our lawmakers came up with was to suck millions of dollars out of the budget of the State Education Department budget and hundreds of thousands out of the budget of a struggling district and use it to build a special school that will provide a better level of education to a small group of kids simply because it might generate more federal tax dollars. 

And because having your name attached to a bill that supposedly aids the military looks good, so long as no one thinks about it too hard. 

But in the meantime, as this special school is being built, the hardworking, good people of Montgomery — some of them veterans and Reservists themselves — are left with a school district that is so recognizably bad that the Legislature is about to build a special school to accommodate these kids. 

Seriously, wrap your head around that. 

Look, this will come as a shock to many people, but I like Will Ainsworth. While we disagree on many, many things, I think he’s a genuine person who believes he’s helping people. 

The problem is that he is too often surrounded by conservatives who think every issue can be solved with a bumper sticker slogan and screaming “free market!” And who too often worry too much about the political optics and too little about the real life effects. 

And Montgomery Public Schools is as real life as it gets.

Right now, there are nearly 30,000 kids in that system. And they need some real, actual help — not the window dressing, money pit BS they’ve been handed so far through LEAD Academy and the other destined-for-doom charters. And they sure as hell don’t need a special charter for military kids to remind them that the school system they attend isn’t good enough for the out-of-towners. 

Stop with the facade and fix the school system. 

You people literally have the power and the money to do this. Given the rollbacks of tenure laws and the passage of charter school laws and the Accountability Act, there is nothing that can’t be done. 

Listen to your colleagues on the other side, who took tours recently of charter schools in other states — charters that work with underprivileged students and that have remarkable success rates. Hell, visit those charters yourself. Or, even better, visit some states that have high performing public schools in high poverty areas, and steal their ideas. 

But the one thing you cannot do is leave children behind. Whatever your solution, it cannot exclude some segment of the population. It cannot sacrifice this many to save that many. 

That sort of illogical thinking is what landed Montgomery — and many other areas of the state — in their current predicaments. Carving out narrow pathways for a handful of students has never, ever worked. 

Let’s stop trying it.

 

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Crime

ADOC investigating possible suicide at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The death of a man serving in the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County on Sunday is being investigated as a possible suicide. 

Marquell Underwood

Marquell Underwood, 22, was found in his cell unresponsive at approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, according to a statement by the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Underwood was being held in solitary confinement, known as “segregation” cells in Alabama prisons. Suicides in such isolated cells is central to an ongoing lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

“He was not on suicide watch. All attempts at life saving measures were unsuccessful,” The statement reads. “ADOC cannot release additional details of the incident at this time, pending an ongoing investigation and an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death.” 

Underwood pleaded guilty of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Gregorie Somerville in Tuscaloosa and was sentenced to life in prison. 

Underwood’s death is at least the second preventable death inside state prisons this year. 

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Antonio Bell’s death on Jan. 9 at Holman prison is being investigated as a possible drug overdose. 

Last year at least 6 people serving in Alabama prisons died as a result of suicide, according to news accounts. During 2019 there were 13 homicides in state prisons, and as many as 7 overdose deaths, according to news accounts and ADOC statements. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2014 lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections over access to mental health care for incarcerated people is ongoing. 

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“The risk of suicide is so severe and imminent that the court must redress it immediately,” U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in a May 4, 2019, ruling. 

Judge Thompson in a 2017 ordered required ADOC to check on incarcerated people being held in segregation cells every 30 minutes, to increase mental health staffing and numerous other remedies to reduce the number of preventable deaths. 

“The skyrocketing number of suicides within ADOC, the majority of which occurred in segregation, reflects the combined effect of the lack of screening, monitoring, and treatment in segregation units and the dangerous conditions in segregation cells,” Thompson wrote in his order. “Because prisoners often remain in segregation for weeks, months, or even years at a time, their decompensation may not become evident until it is too late—after an actual or attempted suicide.” 

The SPLC in a Jan. 2019 filing wrote to the court that “the situation has become worse, not better, since the Liability Opinion. There have been twelve completed suicides since December 30, 2017…Defendants fail to provide the most basic monitoring of people in segregation. Defendants fail to do anything to learn from past suicides to prevent additional suicides.”

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Crime

Early morning contraband raid at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday raided the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County to collect contraband. 

More than 200 officials from ADOC, state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Department of Natural Resources, Game Warden Division, and Russel and Coffee County Sheriff’s departments conducted the early morning search, according to an ADOC press release. 

“Operation Restore Order is a critical initiative designed to create safer living and working conditions across Alabama’s correctional system,” ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement. “The presence of Illegal contraband including drugs, which undoubtedly is perpetuated by the presence of illegal cell phones, is a very real threat we must continue to address.” 

“Additionally, our aging and severely dilapidated facilities are constructed of increasingly breakable materials that ill-intentioned inmates can obtain and fashion into dangerous weapons. The presence of illegal contraband puts everyone at risk, and action – including Operation Restore Order raids – must regularly be taken to eliminate it,” Dunn’s statement reads. “We remain committed to doing everything in our power to root out the sources of contraband entry into our facilities, and will punish those who promote its presence to the full extent of the law.”

ADOC is developing plans to conduct more of these larger raids, in addition to smaller, unannounced searches, which prison officials hope will help the department “develop intelligence-based programs to identify contraband trends and provide necessary intelligence to identify corruption indicators.” 

“The public should contact ADOC’s Law Enforcement Service Division at 1-866-293-7799 with information that may lead to the arrest of anyone attempting to introduce illegal contraband into state prisons. The public may also report suspicious activity by going to the ADOC Website at http://www.doc.alabama.gov/investigationrequest.”

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