A terminated position, a transfer, a well-financed primary opponent and a ballot challenge.
Over the last several weeks, some of the major players who exposed a scheme to smear a state superintendent candidate and hand the job to an outsider have fallen on hard times.
And the source of their problems isn’t much of a mystery among Montgomery insiders: The Business Council of Alabama.
“This is (the BCA’s) MO now,” said one Republican lawmaker. “They crossed them and this is the payback.”
To understand what’s going on, we’ll need to backtrack a bit. Back to the Dumbest Scheme Ever.
That scheme was carried out during the 2016 search for a state schools superintendent that eventually landed Michael Sentance.
To make quick work of it, here’s what happened: Jefferson County superintendent Dr. Craig Pouncey was the frontrunner for the state job, but just before the official interviews of the finalists, a mysterious ethics complaint was filed against him. That complaint originated from State School Board Member Mary Scott Hunter, who said she received it anonymously, like every other board member, prior to a regular meeting.
The allegations in the complaint were way old and way outside the statute of limitations. But that didn’t stop Hunter from passing them along, the Ethics Commission from opening an initial investigation or the legal staff at the Alabama State Department of Education from opening its own investigation.
Ultimately, the allegations were found to be without merit. But when Pouncey lost to Sentance, a number of people wanted to know just what the hell happened.
State Sen. Gerald Dial opened a bipartisan legislative committee investigation into the matter and started calling witnesses. At ALSDE, another investigation was started — this one headed by department attorney Michael Meyer, at the direction of Sentance, to uncover whether department employees had conspired with Hunter to smear Pouncey.
Keeping tabs on the whole matter was blogger and now Montgomery school board candidate Larry Lee, whose popular “Education Matters” blog was a daily must-visit site for most education employees in the state during this ordeal.
The result of it all was an embarrassing chain of discoveries — that Hunter bragged about Pouncey’s “ethics problem” at a BCA event, that ALSDE attorneys called Pouncey’s alma mater to encourage it investigate him, that Ethics Commission violated at least three of its own rules to open an inquiry and that attorneys from a politically connected firm were mysteriously aiding the whole process.
It was a mess.
One that led to Hunter backing out of her bid to become lieutenant governor and played no small role in Sentance ultimately being forced out after just a year on the job.
“That wrecked a lot of plans, when he was pushed out of there,” said a source close to the situation.
But last month, things took a turn for the BCA, when its candidate of choice, Eric Mackey, was selected by the board as the new state superintendent. And ever since, some odd things have been occurring.
Dial, who headed up the legislative committee investigation, is retiring from the Senate and is running for state Agriculture Commissioner. And wouldn’t you know it, he has a well-financed opponent. (Although, apparently one who has a questionable past.)
Lee’s candidacy for the Montgomery County School Board was in serious jeopardy recently after a challenge was filed with the Alabama GOP executive committee. Lee found evidence of at least two hired attorneys working to dig up dirt on him, and BCA director Billy Canary personally donated to Lee’s opponent.
Meyer, who wrote the report on the Pouncey smear — the report that famously found evidence of five people colluding to smear Pouncey — was surprised a week ago with a transfer out of ALSDE and to the state Department of Human Resources. Three days later, Meyer’s wife, Tracey, a longtime legislative liaison who was well liked around the State House and ALSDE, had her position eliminated by Mackey without warning.
Several state school board members have privately expressed shock and anger at the moves. But for several state lawmakers, who spoke to APR on condition of anonymity, the revenge tactics by the BCA and Canary aren’t a surprise. And they’re a major reason so many of them have soured on working with the BCA.
“I don’t get what they’re trying to do,” said one longtime Republican lawmaker. “This is not the way it was done in the past, when that group had a lot of power. We had disagreements, but there was understanding of why and we still worked together. There was none of this vindictive revenge junk or whatever it is — punishment, I guess. A lot of people are tired of it, and I think that shows in how unsuccessful BCA has been lately.”
Two sessions back, BCA-backed legislation was shut out. Last session, the only meaningful bill it pushed through was a revisement of ethics laws — a bill that was so unpopular by the time it passed that it could cost lawmakers their seats in upcoming elections.
Now, with a potential gas tax and an infrastructure overhaul bill poised for consideration, the BCA is facing a critical time. If these pushes fail in the upcoming session — and passing a tax hike is never easy in this state — it would be a major blow to many of the businesses that contribute the most BCA money.
But instead of building bridges to ensure it all passed, the BCA leadership appears to be setting them on fire.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise
The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9.
UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.
“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said.
Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.
Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.
Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”
Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.
“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”
Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.
“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.
Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New unemployment claims decreased last week
Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.
There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.