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

Bill Britt

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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.

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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.

“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.

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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.

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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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Health

Alabama coalition pushes for Medicaid expansion amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research organization Families USA released a report Monday that shows that in Alabama, job losses during the coronavirus pandemic resulted in 69,000 Alabamians losing health insurance between February and May.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A coalition of Alabama organizations pushing for an expansion of Medicaid in the state says that the expansion should have happened before the COVID-19 pandemic, but is all the more needed now, as thousands of Alabamians have lost health insurance during the crisis. 

Jane Adams, Alabama Arise campaign director, said in a statement Wednesday that even before COVID-19 , the state’s failure to expand Medicaid left more than 220,000 adults uninsured. Adams directs Cover Alabama, which is a coalition of more than 90 groups pushing for Medicaid expansion in the state. Arise is a founding member of the coalition.

“Further coverage losses during the recession will bring health and financial suffering for even more families across our state,” Adams said. “More people will go without needed health care. More hospital bills will go unpaid. And all Alabamians will bear the additional strain on our health care system. This report’s findings should be a blaring emergency siren for our state leaders.”

The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research organization Families USA released a report Monday that shows that in Alabama, job losses during the coronavirus pandemic resulted in 69,000 Alabamians losing health insurance between February and May. Those uninsured adults raised Alabama’s uninsured rate to 19 percent, which is the ninth highest rate in the country, and 3 percentage points higher than in 2018, according to the report. 

“As workers and their families lose comprehensive health insurance, their risk of delayed care and complications from the virus increases. So does their risk of financial devastation,” Alabama Arise’s press release states. 

Across the country 5.4 million more Americans lost health insurance between February and May, the report notes, which was a 39 percent higher increase in uninsured than any annual increase on record. States with high numbers of uninsured are also seeing more increases in COVID-19 cases, according to the report, which ranks Alabama as having the seven highest rate of new COVID-19 cases among the 15 states with large numbers of uninsured. 

“COVID-19 is putting lives, livelihoods and economic security at risk for thousands of Alabama workers. And many communities face long-term challenges for health care capacity and economic recovery,” Adams said. “Alabama Arise and Cover Alabama urge Gov. Kay Ivey to save lives and stabilize our local hospitals by expanding Medicaid. We ask the Legislature to provide the needed state share of this pro-family, pro-health, pro-community investment in our future. And we ask Congress to strengthen Medicaid funding and help Alabama shore up our health care infrastructure.”

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Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that expanding Medicaid “is critically important.”

“We see clear data now that infant mortality rates are lowered in states that have expanded Medicaid, because women have better access to prenatal care,” Williamson said. “We see breast cancer diagnosed earlier, hence reducing the death rate due to breast cancer. We see diabetes being diagnosed earlier. We just see a general improvement in life expectancy and health outcomes associated with people having access to health care.”

In states that have expanded Medicaid there’s evidence that peoples’ credit scores improve, bankruptcies decline and jobs are created, Williamson said.

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“It seems to us like the right thing to do for our citizens, and it seems the right thing to do for the state, and that was all before COVID,” Williamson said. “And COVID has simply highlighted that there are thousands of people now who end up coming to hospitals and not having insurance.”

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, who hosted Williamson in the Tuesday press conference, has been a longtime proponent of expanding Medicaid in Alabama, and said he continues to work to try and get incentives approved to help reduce the cost to Alabama and other states for an expansion of the program.

“Going into this pandemic we had over 300,000 Alabamians it would have benefited,” Jones said of a Medicaid expansion. “Today, it’s probably closer to 500,000.”

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Governor

State Rep. Will Dismukes says mask order is “a ridiculous crock”

Brandon Moseley

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State Rep. Will Dismukes.

Several Republican lawmakers have not taken kindly to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision to issue a statewide mask order. This is being done to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which is ravaging the state, but State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, dismissed the idea as “the dumbest thing that could be done.”

“The statewide mask implementation is the dumbest thing that could be done besides shutting the state down,” Dismukes claimed. “Here is just a couple reasons why,” Dismukes wrote on social media. “As I have been watching people wear their mask, a vast majority do not wear them correctly. So that makes it pointless.”

“One of the main things we are told is, wash your hands and don’t touch your face,” Dismukes continued. “The majority of people who wear a mask are touching their face far more than if they didn’t wear one at all.”

Dismukes said the mask requirement is a “ridiculous crock.”

Former State Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, also questioned whether the governor has the legal authority to even issue the order.

“While it may be a smart move, in my opinion anything not passed by the legislature is only a suggestion and does not have the weight of law,” Butler said. “You can not force healthy people to wear a mask, and in my opinion if this were passed by the legislature, they can really only control state property and not private property.”

“Also the government cannot decide what goods, services, venues etc. are essential,” Butler added. “Only we the people can do such and we have had that right since 1776.”

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“I’m always against overreach of any kind even when it’s a good idea,” Butler said. “Government is supposed to protect your rights. Private property owners (businesses) are well within their rights to require you to wear a mask while on their property. I would have no issue had she stood up there and strongly requested everyone to wear a mask but to invent a law is never right. I predict a judge would quickly drop any charges. We have 3 branches of government for a reason.”

Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth similarly expressed reservations with the statewide mask order.

“Issuing a statewide face mask mandate, however, is an overstep that infringes upon the property rights of business owners and the ability of individuals to make their own health decisions,” Ainsworth said. “In addition, it imposes a one-size-fits-all, big government requirement on counties that currently have low to moderate infection rates and little need for such a mandate.”

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“Masks should be worn to combat further outbreaks, and while I admire Gov. Ivey’s leadership and her on-going efforts, I also believe a statewide order is the wrong way to go about encouraging their use,” Ainsworth said.

In March, the Governor shut down the Alabama economy to slow the spread of the coronavirus. By April 30, a growing number of people were panicked about the economic impact of the shutdowns, so the governor ordered the gradual reopening of the economy.

Since Memorial Day weekend, the number of coronavirus cases has grown tremendously. From March 20 to May 10, the state of Alabama had diagnosed a total of 9,889 COVID-19 cases (52 days). The next ten thousand cases were diagnosed between May 9 and June 7 (28 days).

The state broke 30,000 cases on June 22 (15 days), 40,000 cases on July 1 (9 days) and 50,000 cases on July 11 (10 days). On Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Public Health announced that the state had reached 58,225 cases. 32,073 of those cases are still active.

ADPH reports that 1,183 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 already and the department is investigating another 28 probable COVID-19 deaths. More than half of Alabama’s COVID-19 deaths have come since that Memorial Day weekend and the reopening of the Alabama economy.

Despite the risk, the state plans on reopening schools next month.

The state remains under a statewide “safer-at-home” order. Citizens are advised to please stay home whenever possible, wash hands frequently, wear a mask or a cloth face covering when out in public, avoid situations where you might be in crowds or within six feet of other people not in your immediate household, and to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19.

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Courts

Police may serve search warrants out of their jurisdiction, Alabama AG says

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said Tuesday that recent actions by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court have clarified that Alabama law allows law enforcement officers in the state to serve search warrants outside their territorial jurisdiction as long as a judge within the jurisdiction of service approves the warrant.

“The influence of the internet in the spread of criminal activity across jurisdictions has highlighted the need for timely collection of evidence critical to stopping crimes and securing convictions,” Marshall said. “These court actions remove any doubt that law enforcement has the authority to gather vital evidence across jurisdictions. I’m pleased the Attorney General’s Office played a role in this effort.”

In May 2018, Jeffrey Dale Hunt was indicted for over 6,500 counts for possession and production of child pornography. In that case, law enforcement officers in Lauderdale County seized evidence in nearby Colbert County. Hunt’s legal defense sought to suppress the evidence gathered by a Florence police detective at Hunt’s workplace in Colbert County. The Florence police detective had secured the warrant from a Colbert County judge prior to serving it.

In June 2019, a Lauderdale County circuit court judge granted Hunt’s motion to suppress the evidence. Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly appealed that decision to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Marshall supported Connolly’s appeal.

In handling the appeal, the attorney general argued that the circuit court had erred in granting the motion to suppress evidence collected from Hunt’s electronic devices at his workplace. The AG’s office argued that the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure allow Alabama law enforcement officers to serve locally-approved warrants outside their territorial jurisdictions.

In its March 13, 2020, opinion, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed. Hunt then appealed the court’s ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court. On July 10, 2020, the court denied Hunt’s petition for certiorari review.

Marshall wrote that the combined court actions not only allow the suppressed evidence in Hunt’s case to be readmitted, but they also serve to clarify for the first time in Alabama criminal case law that search warrants can be served by law enforcement officers outside their territorial jurisdictions provided a local judge within the jurisdiction of service approves the warrant.

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The victory before the Supreme Court will allow the Lauderdale County District Attorney’s prosecution of the Hunt case now to proceed.

Marshall thanked Assistant Attorney General Kristi Wilkerson, Solicitor General Edmund LaCour and Deputy Solicitor General Barrett Bowdre for their efforts in working this important pre-trial appeal case. The attorney general also expressed appreciation to the Lauderdale County District Attorney’s Office for its close cooperation in the successful appeal.

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