Connect with us

News

Exempt from Open Meetings Act, high stakes ethics committee begins work

Bill Britt

Published

on

A meeting that will potentially impact Alabama for generations is being held at 1 p.m. today, at the office of the attorney general. But the public would know about this important conference if they had only searched the legislative resource site dubbed, ALISON.

However, one would have to know to click on the ‘Meetings & Announcements’ section of The Alabama Legislature website to find when meetings are being held.

The meeting at the office of appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall is the first official gathering of the Ethics Review Council, a group of 22 individuals selected to offer changes to the State’s Ethics Act.

The committee is a result of questions, real and manufactured, about the laws written in 2010, by the Republican Supermajority.

The select committee is absent many of the state’s foremost ethics champions with only a handful of individuals that would have an in-depth understanding of the code.

Most curiously missing are members of the attorney general’s office who actually wrote the majority of SB343, which was originally to be the starting point for the committee’s actions.

Special Prosecutions Divisions Chief Matt Hart, as well as others on his team, are excluded from the discussion. Grave concerns have given way to suspicions that the committee is little more than a rubber stamp giving lawmakers cover when the code is weakened during the 2019 Legislative Session.

Created under a Resolution sponsored by State Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the committee’s activities do not fall under the State’s Open Meetings Act, according to the State’s Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton.

Advertisement

“The way it was set up as purely an advisory committee, it is not subject to the open meetings act,” said Albritton in a phone interview with the Alabama Political Reporter. “But the meetings are public…and posted on the ALISON website.”

This means the committee can meet privately, discuss matters outside of public review and enjoy an anonymity rarely granted a body contemplating sweeping laws with such far-reaching ramifications.

There is also a question of whether the appointed members of the committee are in fact accountable under the current ethics laws?

The idea of an ethics review committee is an outgrowth of the indictment and conviction of former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. Since Hubbard’s indictment nearly four years ago, an ongoing battle to weaken the state’s “toughest in the nation’s” ethics laws enacted in 2010. Even though they were championed by Hubbard and the Republican Party, they now face an onslaught of criticism from the same Republicans in the wake of Hubbard’s conviction.

Nearly two years after Hubbard’s sentencing, a war of sorts has been evident among those who want to strengthen and clarify the laws and those pushing to weaken current statutes under the guise of clarification.

Over the last several months, Republican leadership and some rank and file have begun lamenting the state’s ethics laws as a detriment to service. The refrain goes like this, “The ethics laws are so restrictive that only a wealthy individual or a retiree can serve in the legislature.”

Even the resolution that created the review committee hints at the talking-points routinely voiced by GOP House and Senate leadership.

The resolution reads in part, “[T]he multiple piecemeal amendments over the last 40-plus years and the evolving interpretation of the Code of Ethics have created an environment where reasonable individuals can sometimes disagree on what is permitted and what is not with the result that qualified individuals are discouraged from seeking public office.”

Albritton, who co-chairs the committee along with Marshall, says that SB343 will be part of the discussion but other ethics proposals will be part of the mix. Albritton cites an ethics model being written by the American Law Institute. The nearly 100-year-old group, which has always attracted “the elite of the legal elite,” according to reviews, has a partial ethics draft on its website.

ALI’s Government Ethics project, while not complete, focuses, “on standards applicable to the operations of the legislative and executive branches… [including] lobbying, gifts and other things of value given to public officials, conflicts of interest involving the private activities of public officials, the political uses of public office, and administration and enforcement mechanisms.”

As Albritton notes, ALI’s efforts are a work in progress. “The value is that it is the working project of scores of lawyers from all over the country at all levels of government who are approaching basically the same issue that we are here.”

During the 2018 Legislative Session, several ethics bills were put forward and most would have severely undermined current statutes. Hart and Albritton were purposefully blocked from offering commentary and advice by their respective bosses, Marshall and Ethics Commission Chairman Judge Jerry Fielding.

The committee expects to offer its recommendations to the Legislature before the 2019 session.

The committee members are as follows:

  • Three members of the Senate appointed by the President Pro Tempore:
  • Senator Greg Albritton
  • Senator Arthur Orr
  • Senator Bobby Singleton
  • Three members of the House appointed by the Speaker:
  • Representative Alan Baker
  • Representative Prince Chestnut
  • Representative David Faulkner
  • The Legal Advisor to the Governor: Bryan Taylor
  • The Attorney General: Steve Marshall/Clay Crenshaw
  • The Solicitor General: Andrew Brasher
  • The Chief Examiner: Ron Jones/Rachel Riddle
  • A district attorney appointed by DA Association: Brian McVeigh, Calhoun/Cleburne County.
  • A circuit judge appointed by the CJ Association: Joseph Boohaker, Jefferson County.
  • Supernumerary DA: Ellen Brooks
  • Two attorneys appointed by the State Bar:
  • Christy Crow
  • Mike Ermert
  • Two attorneys appointed by the Director of LSA:
  • Debbie Long
  • Bill Rose, Jr.
  • ACCA appointee: Sonny Brasfield
  • League of Municipalities Appointee: Mayor Ronnie Marks, Athens.
  • Two Appointees by the Council of Association Executives:
  • Tom Dart
  • Kim Adams
  • An appointee of the Alabama Press Association: Bob Davis, Anniston Star.
Advertisement

Health

Judge hears testimony over temporary abortion ban during COVID crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

A federal judge on Monday heard testimony during the first hearing following the judge’s temporary restraining order last week, which temporarily barred Alabama from prohibiting abortions during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson heard testimony from Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris and Dr. Yashika Robinson, the named plaintiff in the case who operates an OBGYN office in Huntsville and conducts abortions at the Alabama Women’s Center, one of three abortion clinics in the state. 

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Alabama filed the suit on behalf of Robinson, which argues that Alabama is restricting access to abortions under the guise of protecting the public from COVID-19. 

The state is defending Harris’s March 27 and April 3 public health orders, which prohibit elective medical procedures except those necessary to treat an “emergency medical condition” or to “avoid serious harm from an underlying condition.” 

Attorneys with the attorney general’s office argue the order’s purpose wasn’t to target abortion clinics but to prevent the spread of the virus and to save scarce personal protective equipment as health care workers fight the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Harris told the court during the teleconference hearing Monday just that, that his order banned elective procedures to limit the public’s exposure to the virus and to help preserve the state’s limited supply of PPE. 

Alabama Assistant Attorney General Jim Davis asked Harris whether the Alabama Department of Public Health defined what is and isn’t an elective procedure, to which Harris said, “We did not specify. We just said all procedures” and the department instead “left that to the discretion of the provider.” 

Harris told the court that it’s up to health care providers to determine if their patient meets one of the two of the exceptions spelled out in his April 30 order. 

Advertisement

“Specifically,  can a woman who gets an abortion experience complications that require a followup?” Davis asked Harris, who said yes. 

Harris said one of the goals of his order was to prevent stress on the state’s health care system in the event an elective procedure requires emergency care. 

“We didn’t try to think of every possible procedure or every possible scenario, but I think, generally speaking, procedures do consume PPE,” Harris said. 

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney with ACLU, asked Harris about an ADPH directive regarding the COVID-19 outbreak that state health care providers are to seek guidance from organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“Were you aware that ACOG and other organizations have issued a joint statement stating that they do not support COVID-19 responses that cancel or delay abortion procedures?” Kolbi-Molinas asked Harris. 

“No. I’m not aware of that,” Harris said. 

Harris agreed during questioning that he cannot say how long his order barring elective procedures might last, and said that China’s ability to slow the spread of the virus was the result of strict travel restrictions that would be difficult to implement in Alabama.  

Kolbi-Molinas asked Harris about Alabama’s infant and maternal mortality crisis, which preceded the COVID-19 outbreak and noted that Alabama women die from childbirth complications at more than double the rate of women nationally, and rank third-highest in the nation in maternal death rates. 

Kolbi-Molinas pointed out through questioning that ADPH licenses abortion clinics and has the authority to take action against a clinic that violates an emergency order, and that prosecutors could also take action against them if ADPH declined to do so. 

Kolbi-Molinas asked Harris about the inclusion of gun stores as “essential” businesses in his April order, which allows the stores to remain open. 

“There are more than three gun stores in Alabama, aren’t there?” she asked. 

“I think you’re probably right about that,” Harris said. 

Kolbi-Molinas asked whether Harris knew if gun stores in the state are screening employees or customers for fevers, and Harris said that he did not. 

She asked if he was aware that the FBI conducted background searches for more than 100,000 gun purchases in Alabama during March, in which a customer must come into the store in person. Harris said he was unaware of that figure. 

“Would you say the decision to designate gun stores as essential retailers was driven by public health considerations?” Kolbi-Molinas asked. 

“I think the whole list of non-essential versus essential businesses was something that we’re trying to do as quickly as possible, and we really concentrated mostly on what we thought were close-contact professions,” Harris said. “Clearly, there are actually, literally hundreds of exceptions here, and we may not have gotten them all correct, but I think we were trying to do them as quickly as possible.” 

Dr. Yashika Robinson told the court that she has canceled some appointments during the COVID-19 crisis that she considers elective, including hysterectomies and tubal ligations. 

“They weren’t considered emergencies,” Robinson said. 

Asked why she hasn’t canceled abortions, Robinson said “they are time-sensitive. They cannot be delayed without causing harm.” 

Alabama law bans abortions beyond 21 weeks and six days, Robinson said. 

Robinson said complications from abortions are “less than one percent” and abortions are about ten times safer for women than carrying a pregnancy to term. 

Approximately 20 percent of pregnant women will miscarry, and about half of those will require medical attention, Robinson said. 

Robinson said women decide to have an abortion for a variety of reasons, from “a pregnancy that is just not developing correctly” and some “already have children” and decide to have an abortion so they can better care for the children they have.

“Some women, they just know it’s not the time for them to start a family, or increase their family size,” Robinson said. Most of the women she provides abortions for are low-income and many have no insurance. 

A delay in getting an abortion increases health risks for the woman, she said.  

“Every week matters for these patients,” Robinson said. 

Some women try and self-induce an abortion if they don’t have access to care, Robinson said, and can injure themselves badly doing so, requiring emergency room care. 

“Those patients usually require multiple days of hospitalization,” Robinson said, which uses more PPE than would an abortion in a clinic. 

The state filed an additional clarification with the court Sunday regarding how the state would determine which procedures are covered by one of the two exceptions.

“Defendants would clarify that while reasonable medical judgment of all healthcare providers will be treated with respect and deference, a health care provider’s assertion that a procedure meets one of the exceptions is not conclusive proof that the procedure meets one of the exceptions in the March 27 order or the current April 3 public health order,” the state’s filing reads.

Robinson told the court that she fears her medical judgment wouldn’t be recognized by the state were she to decide to conduct an abortion.

Assistant Attorney General Brad Chynoweth asked Robinson about screening procedures she’s adopted for patients at her clinic, which include her request for a patient who might present with COVID-19 symptoms to postpone the procedure. 

“You’re taking into account risk for others. Not just the patient herself, correct?” Chynoweth asked. 

“Absolutely,” Robinson said. 

Chynoweth asked if physical examinations are done before a medication abortion, and Robinson said they are and that appropriate PPE is used during the exams. 

Chynoweth noted during questioning that during surgical procedures 6 feet of distance between a doctor and the patient isn’t possible and PPE must be used. 

Chynoweth asked if she has any N95 masks at the clinic, and Robinson said “we have a few” but that they’ve not been used as she’s not seen any patients who presented with symptoms of COVID-19. 

Asked if any abortion could be postponed, Robinson said some abortions could be postponed, but any delay of weeks or even days could mean a higher likelihood of health complications for women. 

Judge Myron Thompson at the close of testimony asked attorneys on both sides about who or what agency would handle a criminal complaint resulting in the order, and was told the state Attorney General’s office has the authority to do so. 

Thompson asked for proposed opinions from both sides to be filed with the court by 8 a.m. Wednesday.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas last week ruled that the state’s temporary ban on abortions amid the COVID-19 crisis could continue.

Judges in Ohio on Monday ruled that most abortions could continue following a lower court’s ruling that upheld the state’s temporary ban.

Continue Reading

Health

Alabama COVID-19 cases surpass 2,000; 53 deaths reported

Chip Brownlee

Published

on

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Alabama surpassed 2,000 on Monday, marking another grim milestone in the outbreak.

At least 53 deaths have been reported.

Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed by lab testing in 66 of the state’s 67 counties. At least five of the state’s counties have at least a hundred lab-confirmed cases. Jefferson County has reported 438 cases.

The number of cases per capita remains higher in some rural counties, though. Eleven counties have higher per capita cases than Jefferson County. Chambers County and Wilcox County have the highest number of cases per capita in the state at 289 cases per 100,000 people in Chambers County and 125 cases per 100,000 people in Wilcox County.

Of the counties with at least 50 cases, the number of cases has grown fastest in Mobile County, where testing was slow to get off the ground.

Over the last week, the number of cases in Alabama has grown by 112 percent.

Continue Reading

Health

Cases jump in Alabama nursing homes, tests still scarce, association says

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alabama nursing homes have jumped in recent days, and delays in getting test kits and test results is putting lives at greater risk, according to the Alabama Nursing Home Association.

As of Monday, 31 nursing homes in 17 counties had confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to a statement from Alabama Nursing Home Association President Brandon Farmer.

The last update from ANHA on March 28 noted eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in six nursing homes across the state.

John Matson, director of communications at ANHA, told APR in a message Monday that the organization was uncertain how many individual COVID-19 cases were currently in the 31 homes.

“These reports involve residents, staff members or both at nursing homes in rural and urban locations. These nursing homes are following the reporting guidelines and implementing isolation procedures,” Farmer said in the statement. “I predict the number of nursing homes with cases will grow as more tests are administered and the results are returned. As previously stated, the delays in receiving test kits and test results are beyond our control yet places our residents and employees at great risk.”

State nursing homes have stopped visitations and early on began screening staff for symptoms of the virus and strengthening infection control measures, Farmer noted in the statement.

“They continue to practice infection control guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and isolate residents who test positive or are believed to have been exposed to someone who is COVID-19 positive. Like other health care providers, nursing homes need a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). Infection control measures will only be as effective as our ability to secure PPE,” Farmer said.

Continue Reading

Economy

Gov. Ivey launches state guide to COVID-19 relief efforts

Staff

Published

on

By

Governor Kay Ivey on Monday announced the launch of altogetheralabama.org, an online resource that will serve as a hub of information for the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

The site becomes the state’s official guide to COVID-19 relief efforts, to help empower those impacted by the outbreak and those who want to offer support.

“We wanted to quickly create a trusted resource that centralizes information, resources and opportunities for businesses and individuals in need of support,” Governor Ivey said. “We are all in this together.”

The website is designed to be a comprehensive guide to aid in navigating all issues related to the COVID-19 response. Individuals and business owners can seek help and identify state and federal resources that can provide a lifeline in the form of low-interest loans and financial assistance.

Business owners, for example, can learn about the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which launched April 3 to provide a direct incentive for them to keep their workers on the payroll. Displaced workers, meanwhile, can use the site to learn about enhanced unemployment benefits.

“It’s important for Alabama’s business owners and its workforce to take full advantage of the resources being made available through the federal government’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “The site is meant to expedite the process so both employers and employees can get back up on their feet as fast as possible.”

At the same time, the site will function as a pathway for Alabama’s good corporate citizens and the general public to offer support and solutions that can help spark recovery across the state. It will act as a portal for companies, non-profits and individuals to volunteer, make donations of supplies, offer an assistance program, and even post job openings.

The site was developed in partnership with Opportunity Alabama, a non-profit organization that promotes investment in the state’s designated Opportunity Zones. It was facilitated by a partnership with Alabama Power.

Advertisement

“Over the last two years, Opportunity Zones have allowed us to build a network of stakeholders that care deeply about helping distressed places,” said Alex Flachsbart, Opportunity Alabama founder and CEO. “We hope this site will provide a gateway linking our network to those businesses and communities in economic distress, no matter where they are in Alabama.”

“These are challenging times,” added Governor Ivey. “We needed a place to efficiently and rapidly post and disseminate information – as soon as it’s available – for all affected parties. Thank you for your support and partnership in helping bring Alabama together.”

Any business, program or individual who would like to join ALtogether as a resource in COVID-19 response and relief can register at altogetheralabama.org/join.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Authors

Advertisement

The V Podcast

Facebook

Trending

.