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Opinion | Birmingham superfund scam extends well beyond federal courtroom

Josh Moon

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A scam took place in Birmingham.

It involved an EPA superfund site. It involved political corruption. It involved poor, mostly black people getting the absolute shaft by the people who swore oaths to protect them.

No, this scam isn’t part of the ongoing Oliver Robinson federal corruption trial.

It is very specifically not part of that trial.

Because that’s the scam. That only Robinson and three others are being shamed for their abhorrent actions.

It’s so absurd, it’s laughable.

I’ve followed along with this case since the beginning — pulling court filings, talking to those involved, talking to people on the fringes, discussing it with lawyers and former prosecutors. I’ve also followed the work of the reporters — mainly al.com’s Kyle Whitmire and John Archibald — who have been reporting this story on a daily basis.

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If you’ve somehow missed what’s happening there, here’s the gist: The EPA discovered massive, people-killing pollution in the ground in north Birmingham, allegedly from decades of pollution from nearby coal plants. The EPA was starting a cleanup project, which it planned to force the coal companies to pay for, and was looking to designate the site a “superfund site.” Doing so would’ve expanded their testing and put coal companies on the hook for millions more in cleanup.

Drummond Coal, one of the biggest coal producers in the country, was particularly annoyed by this. So, working through its lawfirm, Balch & Bingham, Drummond (allegedly) bribed former state Rep. Oliver Robinson to fight the superfund designation both in the Legislature and in the affected neighborhoods.

At least, that’s the story if you believe what the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham is pushing.

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In reality, as we know from the court evidence in this case, that’s far, far, far from all that was happening. And Robinson, Balch attorneys Joel Gilbert and Steve McKinney and Drummond vice president David Roberson — the three men alleged to have bribed Robinson — are far from the only people to have dirty hands in this.

Here’s what we know for certain: The Balch & Bingham law firm was producing documents on behalf of half the elected people in Alabama, and all of those documents were fighting the evil EPA, which had the gall to want to come into Alabama and stop poor black people from dying from pollution cancer.

I’m not exaggerating this.

We know these things to be true. We know it because most of our elected officials are idiots, and because Balch was producing so many pre-written letters it made mistakes, so there’s stone cold hard evidence that Balch wrote letters that then-AG Luther Strange sent to the EPA. And wrote a whole resolution that our entire state Legislature PASSED! And wrote more letters that Robinson and other elected officials coerced affected citizens to sign.

It didn’t stop there, either. Some of Drummond’s business partners and financial partners aided it and other coal companies in the area, contributing millions more to this scam.

But for right now, I want you to think about only the most egregious sellout.

Seriously. Take a moment and really think about the details of this:

There is an area of this state filled with people. That area, over the course of decades, has become polluted to the point that people — elderly people, children, preachers and sinners and Christians and good and decent folks — are dying early and falling sick more often.

A federal agency runs tests that conclusively prove this pollution is present. It believes the polluters are nearby multi-million dollar companies.

Instead of paying what would’ve amounted to a fraction of its annual profits to clean up the mess it made, Drummond Coal, one of the alleged polluters, gets its high-powered law firm to fight it. That firm draws up a resolution against the EPA.

A resolution against those poor, sick people in Birmingham. Against everything that is good and decent and holy.

And a powerful state senator, Jabo Waggoner, sponsors it. And both houses pass it. And the governor signs it.

Now, most of these lawmakers — as usual — had no idea what they were voting on. But that doesn’t matter. Because what they passed sent a message to the poor people of Birmingham. It made it easier to sell them out.

So, yeah, there was a scam in north Birmingham.

But don’t you for a second believe the perpetrators are limited to the people in that federal courtroom.

 

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Opinion | We are like a petulant child

Joey Kennedy

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(STOCK PHOTO)

I guess we’re done. Despite a shutdown that lasted weeks, apparently state leaders were twiddling their thumbs, wishing, like Donald Trump, that COVID-19 would just magically disappear.

It isn’t, though, is it?

Here are the grim facts: We’ve got record numbers of new cases daily. Hospitalizations are also at record numbers. Health care workers are burning through personal protective equipment. Plans are moving forward to reopen public schools, colleges, and universities in August, only a few weeks away.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (the nation’s top infectious-disease official), says states with high and growing caseloads should consider shutting down again. As painful as that would be, it’s advice leaders in hotspots like Florida, Georgia, California, Texas, Arizona, and, yes, Alabama, must seriously consider.

For Alabama, though, don’t hold your breath. You’re going to need it to fight the virus.

What is the alternative? Allowing COVID-19 to infect most everybody in a particular area – in this instance, the entire stateof Alabama – and that means increasing deaths and permanent health problems, especially among the most vulnerable: our older populations and people with underlying health issues.

My wife is one of those people, with liver and heart deficits. Except for one trip to the veterinarian for one of our pups last month, Veronica has not been out of our house since March, except for doctors’ appointments and to have blood draws or COVID-19 tests.

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She had a second COVID test this week, before a scheduled cardio ablation to try to get her heart rhythm calmed down. Her COVID test was negative and the procedure took place and, at least for now, is a complete success. Her heart is in sinus rhythm and her heart rate is around 55 bpm.

As hard as it was on Veronica Wednesday, at least she got Versed. I had to drop her off at University Hospital at 5:30 a.m. and drive away to my undisclosed location on UAB’s campus. I was not allowed to stay with her because of the high number of novel coronavirus hospitalizations at UAB. During the procedure, the doctor inserts a tube in an artery through her groin, much like a heart catheterization. She’s had two such procedures this year alone, and a couple others where the doctor went through a wrist and another through her neck.

I’ve been with her for those other invasive procedures, for her comfort and, frankly, for mine. I psychologically didn’t handle Wednesday’s separation well, but I had lots of close friends talk be back from the cliff. And even with everything going on at UAB, the health care workers communicated with me really well, and her cardiologist called shortly after he completed her procedure. Veronica’s recovery nurse was Preston, a former student of mine.

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Still, it’s scary times, and I’m pretty protective of Veronica, just as she is of me.

So here we are, practically throwing in the towel on COVID-19. Doing what’s right is just too hard. The science guides us, and we ignore the guidance, like some petulant child. We turn our backs on what will keep us safe, because what will keep us safe is too hard for us. Even if we have to do it for just a few weeks.

We refuse to wear our masks and make scenes at stores that won’t let us in if we don’t. We take risks like having a big boat parade in Gulf Shores with thousands of people to honor Donald Trump, yet another petulant child.

The virus is a hoax, we’re told, but it’s one that has killed more than 130,000 Americans and permanently injured thousands and thousands more.

So let’s get back to work and open the schools and enjoy large gatherings at the lake without masks.

And, for some of us, let’s die.

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Opinion | Senate and congressional runoffs next week

Steve Flowers

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Primary runoff elections will be helf on July 14. (Stock photo)

Believe or not, coronavirus notwithstanding, we have three important GOP runoffs next Tuesday.  You will go back to the polls to elect two Congressmen and a United States Senator.  That is assuming that you go vote and are not afraid of germs.

It will be interesting to see how the turnout is on July 14.  Mostly older folks, like me, are the ones that vote in all elections and we have been told for four months not to congregate or get around other people.  There could be some concern among older voters about getting out and going to the polls. Also, most of the poll workers are retired volunteers.

There is an open Congressional Seat in District 2.  Dothan businessman, Jeff Coleman, is the favorite.  He garnered close to 40 percent of the vote against a large field of candidates including former Attorney General Troy King, who finished fourth.  Former Enterprise State Representative, Barry Moore, finished second with 20 percent and will face Coleman in the runoff next week.  This seat is comprised of the Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore River Region area coupled with the Wiregrass.  The seat has been held by Montgomery Republican, Martha Roby, for 10 years.  She chose not to seek reelection.  It is surprising that the two combatants who made the runoff, Jeff Coleman and Barry Moore, hail from the Wiregrass and most of the people are in the River Region.  

Coleman has had a substantial campaign dollar advantage over Moore and the entire field running for this open seat. However, Moore has received a $550,000 gift from an innocuous Washington political action committee that has pummeled Coleman with negative ads. This contribution may make this race close.

The 1st District Mobile/Baldwin area seat is also up for grabs, literally.  This is the seat open by the departure of Bradley Byrne, who opted to run for the U.S. Senate. The two aspirants who wound up in the runoff, are veteran Mobile County Commissioner and businessman Jerry Carl and former Mobile State Senator Bill Hightower.  They finished in a dead heat with Carl getting 39 percent and Hightower 38 percent of the vote on March 3.  This one will be close and interesting.  My guess is that Jerry Carl wins this runoff. He received some late important endorsements in the waning days.

The marquee event will be the GOP runoff for the U.S. Senate between former Senator Jeff Sessions who sat in this seat for 20 years and former Auburn football coach, Tommy Tuberville.  This one will also be close.  The two conservative gentlemen finished in a virtual tie on March 3.

The winner may be the one who took the best advantage of the three-and-a-half-month hiatus.  They each could have and should have simply used the phone to call every single potential Republican voter in the state.

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They could have taken a page from the playbook of the most prolific politician in Alabama history, one George C. Wallace.  He would keep the telephone glued to his ear.  Wallace would constantly call people on the phone 8-10 hours a day.  He would call you at all hours of the day and night.  Tuberville and Sessions should have used this method of campaigning without getting out of quarantine mode.  One-on-one old-fashioned campaigning and asking people for their vote goes a long way in Alabama politics.  It always has and it always will.  Folks like to be asked for their vote.

Tuberville has outworked Sessions in old fashioned one-on-one campaigning.  Although Tuberville is a novice to Alabama geographically and politically, he has traversed the state and met a lot of folks in a grassroots campaign style.  He is a very likeable fellow and sells well personally.  He did well in the rural areas in the first primary.  It helped him immensely, probably more than he realized, with the endorsement and full support of the Alabama Farmers Federation.  

If Tuberville wins, he needs to ask for a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.  We have not had a senator on the Ag Committee since the late Howell Heflin, who was Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.  By the way, this seat that Sessions held for 20 years and is running for again and Coach Tuberville is aspiring to, is the seat held by the late Senator Heflin for 18 years.

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This runoff has the potential to have a low turnout due to trepidation from older voters and it will be hot as blazes in mid-July.

Y’all vote. See you next week.

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Opinion | The clumsier, dumber George Wallace: Donald Trump

Josh Moon

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George Wallace acknowledges the cheers of supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Oct. 24, 1968. (CSU Archives/Everett Collection)

Be afraid, white people. The Blacks and Hispanics are coming for you. Coming for your children. Coming for your wives. And now, the police are being prevented from protecting you.  They’re going to take your statues. They’re going to take your jobs. They’re going to take your rights.

This is the message that the Trump re-election campaign will push. 

It is the only message they have left, as their candidate has so royally screwed up everything else he has touched. 

His precious economy is in shambles — a result of his botching the response to the coronavirus pandemic so spectacularly. There is unprecedented civil unrest — a result, in part, of his overbearing and callous attempts at “law and order” while ignoring the pleas of Black Americans seeking equal treatment. And there is a seemingly endless barrage of embarrassing news, mostly stemming from Trump’s Twitter feed and the bumbling group of imbeciles and racists that make up his cabinet and closest advisors. 

So, a culture war is all they have left. And dammit, they plan to play it like a fiddle at a bluegrass festival. 

Trump began his march down this pathway in earnest on Saturday, delivering a disgusting and divisive speech aimed at stoking fear and playing up the Black-v-white culture war. 

On Monday, after a day of golf on Sunday — because even racists rest on the sabbath — he was back at it, attacking, of all people, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace. Reviving an old story for no apparent reason, Trump called the noose left in Wallace’s garage stall a “hoax” — an outright lie, since there was, in fact, a noose in the garage stall — and asked if Wallace had apologized. Of course, Wallace has nothing to apologize for, since he didn’t report the noose, didn’t investigate it, didn’t ask the FBI to look into it and generally handled himself with grace and dignity throughout the ordeal. 

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Unlike the president. On any given day. 

But we weren’t finished. By late Monday, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was on the channel your grandparents claim tells them the truth about stuff, and was sending the scared whites into full-on panic. Meadows, without an ounce of shame or the intelligence to know he should have some, exclaimed that Trump is “the only thing that stands between a mob and the American people.” 

(And by “American people,” he means white people.) 

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“First, it’s the statues. Then, it’s the businesses. Then, it’s their homes,” Meadows said. 

It’s like a dumber, clumsier, less articulate George Wallace campaign. 

But then, the entirety of Trump’s presidential run and presidency has essentially been a slightly updated, less polished George Wallace campaign. Leaning on thinly-veiled racism, stoking racial anger, massaging the fear that so many white people have of anyone who looks slightly different. 

Now, they’re going full-Wallace. Because it’s all they have. 

Trump has proven that he doesn’t care about anything or anyone, and will put his interests above the American people and the security of the country. Hell, he sold out American soldiers without batting an eye. 

So, he will burn this place to the ground, if he must. And 30 percent of the country, at least, will follow along. Happily holding tiki torches and chanting that the Jews won’t replace them, like the very fine people they are. 

That hateful rhetoric and the regression it represents — after all this country has gone through, after all the growth and all the progress — is what we should all fear the most.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | A search for the American conscience

Our response to the immediate crisis will surely determine our long-term destiny, and the collective conscience of “we the people” can be the moral force that brings about needed change.

Bill Britt

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U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights with a quill pen. (Stock photo)

A seemingly unstoppable virus, a sputtering economy and a cry for equal justice for Black citizens are trying the very soul of our nation. We stand at a time when the very conscience of our county and state is being tested in ways perhaps unimaginable just a few months ago.

Is there an American conscience?

Our government, our institutions and even who we are as a people are in question, and as with life in general, there are no easy answers.

Nearly 130,000 in the U.S. have lost their lives to COVID-19. In Alabama, almost 1,000 souls, and yet some of our citizens don’t even believe the virus exists, and if it does, some think it is not as bad as health professionals say.

Hospitals are being pushed to the brink, both physically and financially. While unemployment numbers are improving, there is a yet a steep hill to climb before fiscal solvency is restored to all Alabamians.

There are arguments over masks, fights over monuments and some are corrosively dismissive of the social injustice that disproportionately targets Black citizens.

The winds of change are blowing seeds of renewal; will they find a fallow ground or fall among the weeds and rocks?

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Many of our citizens want the nation to remain in the past, a past that, for the most part, never existed. Others desire that the country move forward and fulfill its greatest promises.

Can a house divided stand?

This national crisis of moral conscience is where the dividing line is drawn.

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil.”

In this rendering, it is as if an unseen umpire sits somewhere in our minds and judges our actions.

But if the conscience is formed from birth and as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests, “is like an empty box that can be filled with any type of moral content,” then our learning and understanding is the umpire and not some innate righteous force.

Is this why seemingly reasonable people see things so differently?

Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. According to a recent CBS/YouGov poll, a majority of the American public, including more than half of white Americans, say they agree with the Black Lives Matter movement’s ideas.

The June CBS/YouGov survey also found a partisan divide exists on the issue with most Democrats and Independents supportive while a “large majority of Republicans say they disagree with the ideas expressed by the Black Lives Matter” and most Republicans also oppose the protests—though “one-quarter of Republicans join that majority of Democrats in supporting them.”

The poll is neither startling nor unimaginable and only confirms a divided nation.

The same schism can be found when individuals are polled about the new coronavirus and monuments.

Since individuals see things through entirely different apertures, is it possible to turn to a national conscience for resolution?

On December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Paine was rallying the people of the American colonies to a revolution that would form a new nation with an aspirational promise of equality and unalienable rights, “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

America just celebrated its 244th year of independence and the principles of the new nation were well-defined — even if not universally applied.

For Black Americans, the promise of the founding principles is yet unfulfilled.

Yes, the laws changed in the 60s, but there is still a long way to go in practice. Laws in themselves do not alter hearts and minds.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was written to deny equal access to justice for Black and poor Alabamians by keeping Montgomery as the power center from which all money and rights would flow. There have been changes but none so great as to amend the wrongs written into the state’s founding document.

A few short years ago, the state government passed a law that protected Confederate monuments that state lawmakers thought should be preserved as part of Southern heritage.

What monuments are revered speaks to national and local character. Is our character one that says we should honor those who sought to ensure the continuance of human bondage?

Should we honor those who preached and enforced segregation for political gain?

There is another way to look at statues and that is to realize that they are more reflective of the thinking at the time than the shrine itself.

If monuments are artifacts of the moment and not truthfully to honor history, then what they mean today is an open subject for debate.

Is the statue of Jefferson Davis on the Capitol grounds in Montgomery a symbol of who we are now or a reminder of who Alabama citizens were at the time it was erected?

This is not about erasing history but about recognizing monuments for what they are and acknowledging their meaning to all citizens.

The fact that most world religions warn against idols shouldn’t be lost in the moment either. Statues are tricky because heroes are almost always redefined by present events.

While nations should be built on laws alone, they are also made on myths and legends. But history has a way of exposing myths and bringing legends low.

Washington could tell a lie, Honest Abe was not always truthful, and under our current law application, some people are more equal than others. Should their memorials be removed because they were flawed? No

In his work “Adam Smith on the nature and authority of conscience,” Albert Shin argues, “there is a need to cultivate our conscience. We do so; I will argue, primarily through encountering diversity, which leads to disagreements, which prompt us to reevaluate how we judge others.”

Again the Catholic Church finds, “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.”

Are we more divided than ever? Probably not.

Is there a way out of the present threefold dilemma? Yes.

Returning to our founding principles while understanding that they are for everyone is a start. But principles shouldn’t change with every election or be sacrificed to win one.

Indeed, King George III thought those who staged the Boston Tea Party were thugs and looters, set to overthrow the government.

No, they were ordinary citizens who saw injustice and launched a revolution.

Today, we do not see so much a call for revolution but a demand for evolution across a broad front of problems.

There is now a need for better respect for health and science, for our neighbors of all skin colors and a rethinking of the inequities of poverty.

Our response to the immediate crisis will surely determine our long-term destiny, and the collective conscience of “we the people” can be the moral force that brings about needed change.

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