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Josh Moon

Did Steve Marshall violate campaign finance laws?

Josh Moon

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Let’s chat about campaign finance laws.

Oh, believe me, I know that sentence ranks right up there with “Hey, watch this video of my kid singing” and “Let’s watch two soccer teams not score for an undetermined amount of time.”

But give me a minute, if you would, because I’m going to do something few people ever do: I’m going to at least attempt to make a few specific campaign finance laws easy to understand and relatable.

We’re going to start here: Attorney General Steve Marshall’s allegedly illegal campaign contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

This is the thing that Troy King, Marshall’s opponent in next Tuesday’s runoff election, keeps prattling on and on about. King held a press conference in Huntsville on Tuesday to blast Marshall again, claiming that the more than $700,000 he’s taken in from RAGA in this election has been illegal donations.

The reason King believes this is where things usually get complicated, regular folks’ eyes glaze over and we all find a ballgame to watch to forget it all.

But hear me out.

King claims these donations violate a rule in Alabama law that prohibits one Political Action Committee (PAC) from donating to another PAC in an effort to obscure the original source of funds.

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Let’s not get all caught up in precise definitions. Just know that a PAC is a group of like-minded individuals — Republican AGs or Republican governors or construction companies or any group of two or more people — who form this PAC in order to donate money to their preferred candidates.

Why would they do this?

Easy: Politics is a slimy business and sometimes candidates want to have a level of deniability when it comes to donations.

For example, let’s say you’re an anti-gambling politician in Alabama, but boy, do you ever want to get your hands on that sweet, sweet Indian casino cash. Solution: You have the Indian casinos donate money to a PAC, mix their money with other money donated by not-Indian casinos, and tah-dah, there’s a bit of deniability there.

While these PACs do have to disclose their donors, they don’t have to disclose where each donor’s contributed money went.

And if you have one PAC donating to another PAC things can’t get particularly confusing. Which flies in the face of the goal: To ensure the voting public has some idea who is influencing elections in the state.

So, did Marshall violate the law?

That’s a tricky question, but what’s stone cold for certain is this: He violated the spirit of the law.

Because there’s also no doubt that the RAGA PAC, before donating that $700,000-plus to Marshall, accepted transfers from other PACs.

Marshall’s camp is hanging its hat on alleged advice it received from the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, which says the state has no authority to force federal PACs located outside of the state to register in Alabama, or follow Alabama laws.

Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton, however, had a very different view when he answered that question in June from al.com, saying that he had informed other campaigns that similar donations would not be legal. (Albritton wouldn’t discuss his statement on Tuesday, saying that because King has filed an ethics complaint against Marshall, it would be improper for him to discuss a pending case.)

But he hasn’t retracted his previous advice, and there’s one reason why. In the 2010 law that created the PAC-to-PAC ban, it states the law applies to both in-state and out-of-state PACs.

That sure looks like an illegal donation.

But here’s the thing. Even if there’s a way to technically dodge a campaign finance law violation for this, Marshall can’t dodge the fact that he’s violating the hell out of the spirit of the law and trying to hide from voters who’s dumping huge buckets of cash into his campaign.

Unfortunately for Marshall, if you have enough time and know-how, you can dig through the RAGA contributions and expenditures and figure out where large chunks of money came from. And once you do, it’s easy to see why he wouldn’t want those donations disclosed.

For example, if one of your major talking points is your fight against opioids, you probably wouldn’t want it known that major drug companies — some of which have been sued by other states for their roles in the opioid epidemic — dumped more than $200,000 into RAGA in the first quarter of 2018 alone.

One of the biggest contributors, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, which dumped $100,000 into RAGA earlier this year, was found by the DEA to have supplied 66 percent of the oxycodone sold in Florida in 2016.

It also wouldn’t be too swell for voters to learn that the guy who was taking on gambling operations in Alabama a few months ago was accepting money from a PAC funded by Las Vegas casino owners, Caesars Entertainment and the lobbying firm that represents the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi.
This is why campaign finance laws — as boring as they might be — are vitally important to keeping elections open and giving the voting public a window into who is supporting each candidate. Because that support often says a whole lot about the candidate.

That the AG would be so willing to violate the spirit of that law seems like something you should pay attention to.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Gov. Kay Ivey moved the football again

Josh Moon

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I understand how Charlie Brown must have felt. 

The disappointment and surprise when Lucy moved that football one more time. The betrayal. The embarrassment. The anger. 

I know those feelings, because far too often I’ve experienced them with Alabama politicians. I want so badly to believe that our elected lawmakers are good and smart people who care about the citizens of the state. That they’re not money-grubbing, selfish dolts who will sell us all out for a nickel and new socks. That they will lean on science and facts when crafting policy and ignore the noise from the ignorant minority screaming the loudest. 

And so, far too often, I believe in someone who I know, deep down, is just going to let me down. Who’s going to move that football at the last minute. 

On Thursday, it was Gov. Kay Ivey moving the football. 

It seems like only last month that I was writing a column praising Ivey for her sound judgment and decision-making. That’s because it was last month when Ivey ignored the screaming crazies calling for a “reopening” of Alabama in the midst of a global pandemic that is, quite clearly, getting worse in this state. 

Ivey listened to real doctors. She leaned on facts. She had a cute comeback — “data over dates” — to shoot down any notion that a calendar day would carry more weight than the data showing infection and hospitalization rates. 

We had a governor making sound decisions rooted in public safety and health. She refused to budge on the matter and refused to let money outweigh the value of human life. 

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It was a great time to be alive in Alabama. 

And then, Kay Ivey moved the football. 

A week ago, after telling people that it would be data that determined when Alabama reopens, and that she would follow the White House guidelines for reopening, she did neither. Instead, she did exactly what she said she wouldn’t do — used a date to determine that it was time to lift restrictions. 

The lockdown had gone on too long, Ivey said, and it was time to lift it. 

She did so as positive cases were on the rise. And with absolutely no plan for comprehensive testing and tracing — the one thing that Ivey and all medical experts said we HAD to have before we could safely lift restrictions. 

Then, on Thursday, Ivey was back again to lift more restrictions — the day after the mayor of Montgomery told the world that his town and the surrounding three counties are out of ICU beds because of a massive outbreak of new cases. Hospitals in Montgomery are now transporting ICU patients to Birmingham. 

Still, there went Ivey, lifting restrictions to allow strip clubs and concert venues and casinos to reopen. Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend rush — a coincidence, no doubt. 

The reason for all of this is easy to understand. 

There is no plan to save people. 

The testing and tracing we were supposed to have — that would have allowed us to more safely reopen and go about our lives while the carriers of the virus and those exposed to those people are sequestered — have never materialized. And it is painfully obvious at this point that we will never have it. 

In addition, there is no true guidance from the White House, and what little has come from there, we’ve mostly ignored. We’re supposed to have at least seven straight days of reduced positive cases. We don’t have one day. 

There’s also the Idiot Factor — the groups of crazy people screaming about tyranny and government overreach because they have to put on a mask to shop at Publix. These are the same people who think strapping a bulletproof backpack on their kids to go to school instead of expanding background checks is simply the price of freedom. 

Add it all up, and it’s pretty easy to see what Ivey did: Tossed up her hands and said to hell with it, y’all be careful out there. 

And that’s disappointing. Because I believe the majority of Alabamians — and there are polls to back this up — were grateful for her measured approach and data-driven decisions. And I think most understand that there are ways to both reopen the economy and still keep in place restrictions that both limit the spread of the virus and impress upon people the danger it still poses. 

But we’re not doing that. Not anymore. 

Instead, we’re back to taking the easy way, back to catering to big business and rightwing crazies, back to ignoring science and data. 

The football was moved again.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Alabama’s long-overdue prison bill

Josh Moon

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Although scientists haven’t yet confirmed it, there is a cure for COVID-19: Incarceration in an Alabama prison. 

It’s amazing, really. 

If you work in the prisons or visit an Alabama prison, you get the coronavirus. If you’re an inmate who leaves an Alabama prison for a short period of time, you also get the virus. 

But inside those walls … you’re as safe as a baby. 

According to APR’s Eddie Burkhalter, who has covered Alabama’s atrocious prisons better than anyone in the state over the last several months, Alabama Department of Corrections officials contend that there is just one — ONE! — prisoner in the entire ADOC prison population who currently has COVID-19. 

Out of more than 22,000 prisoners. 

There have been nine prisoners to test positive for the virus over the last few months. All of them tested positive at medical facilities outside of the prisons while they were undergoing other treatments. 

There are 36 confirmed cases of prison workers testing positive. 

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But still just the one inmate. 

A major medical miracle. We should alert Fauci and Birx.

On the other hand, maybe it’s simply one more case of Alabama treating its prison population as though the men and women inside those walls are something less than human. Hell, something less than mammals. 

Actually, there’s no maybe about it. That’s definitely what’s happening. 

We’re not testing inmates, so, tah-dah, no inmates are sick. Even when we know from inmates and guards and prison staff that inmates are most definitely sick. And that many of our prisons have now established quarantine areas where dozens of prisoners are being housed, away from the general populations. 

But we’re not testing them. Or providing them much treatment. 

A few days ago, a woman at a Birmingham-area prison work facility was essentially left to die in a stairwell, according to another prisoner, because guards and staff were too afraid to help her get to the medical clinic upstairs. The reason they were afraid was because the prisoner, Colony Wilson, had exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. 

She died gasping for air. As several people stood over her and around her, doing nothing. 

It is the latest in an ongoing string of horrible, terrifying, unconscionable incidents within Alabama’s prisons, most of which have resulted in the deaths of dozens of inmates over the last few years. 

Because Alabama prisons are hell on earth. 

And that is not an opinion. It is a fact confirmed by anyone who has ever spent time in, worked in, toured or investigated incidents that have occurred in those prisons. Justice Department investigators agree. A federal judge agrees. 

Our prisons are poorly staffed, poorly funded and poorly maintained, and our inmates are poorly guarded, poorly fed and poorly treated for ailments. And no one cares. 

But you will. 

Mark my words, we will pay for our treatment of Alabama prisoners — all of us will. I know this because it is one of the few guarantees of life: You cannot dismiss and mistreat groups of human beings for decades on end and not pay a price for your sins. 

We have a big bill coming due. 

And I guarantee you one other thing: That bill would have been much smaller, much more easily managed had we simply done the right things from the start. 

Had we properly staffed the prisons with guards who weren’t paid so little that smuggling contraband was the only way to pay their bills. Had we provided inmates with actual tools to rehabilitate themselves. Had we treated their medical ailments properly. Had we shown a genuine interest in their contributions to society. 

We had an opportunity to show a group of mostly young men that the love and direction most of their early lives did exist. We could have proven to them that there are people who care about them, who understand that every life — even the ones outside of the womb and encased in non-white skin — are precious. 

But we didn’t. And those people found refuge with other wayward men and women — in violent gangs and prison cliques. They found an income selling drugs and selling humans and doing all the bad things that people buy all those guns to stop. 

And we pretended like it didn’t exist. Like they didn’t exist. 

So, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re just not testing inmates for a deadly virus. It would fit the pattern of ADOC and this state in dealing with our prisoners. 

But know this: the manner in which a state houses and cares for its worst people is the truest measure of the heart of the people leading that state.

Alabama’s heart stopped beating long ago.

 

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Opinion | The corruption case that didn’t matter

Josh Moon

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It was late 2014, early 2015 and the race to be the next president of the United States was just starting to heat up when word of nefarious actions at the Clinton Foundation started to circulate. 

The FBI was looking into the allegations, and from all outward appearances it seemed as if the Clintons were in serious trouble — the sort that could end political careers. But that never happened. Because the Clintons have friends in high places, and they have plenty of money to toss around in order to bend the law to their liking. 

And so, attorneys working for the Clintons convinced both President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to use their influence to squash the investigation. At one point — in one of the most egregious abuses of power and obvious quid pro quo — both Obama and Lynch accepted large “contributions” from the Clintons in exchange for the two of them signing their names to letters written by Clinton Foundation attorneys. 

Those letters, sent on Obama’s and Lynch’s letterhead, encouraged the FBI to stop its investigation and vowed to cut funding to the agency if it didn’t act accordingly. 

Cut off at the knees, the FBI had little choice but to kill its investigation. 

Infuriating, right? 

That sort of abuse of power and corruption to aid friends — especially when they’re obviously guilty — should not be tolerated, and it shouldn’t matter which party’s politicians commit it. 

If you agree with that, then why the hell are you not more angry about nearly the exact same thing happening in Alabama? 

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The story I relayed above never actually happened. Well, I guess, to be more accurate, it never happened with the Clintons, Obama and Lynch. 

It did happen in Alabama, though. 

Attorneys at the Balch and Bingham law firm, working for Drummond Coal, actually wrote letters for former Gov. Robert Bentley and former AG Luther Strange, and all but wrote another one for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Those letters opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into pollution in north Birmingham. 

Bentley and Strange pasted those letters on their office letterhead, signed them and shot them out to the EPA, letting the agency know that the state of Alabama would not cooperate with the EPA’s attempts to … um … force a known polluter to clean up pollution that had sickened thousands of Alabama citizens. 

Those letters upended an EPA investigation, and they managed to keep Drummond from paying millions in clean-up fees. 

That actually happened. And while there was a federal trial and a whopping two — TWO! — guys went to jail, most of Alabama could not have cared less. And still don’t. 

I know this is a bit of older news, but it came storming back to the present thanks to lawsuits filed by the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) demanding the AG’s office and ADEM turn over public records related to the ordeal. 

What GASP wants, specifically, is all of the correspondence between state officials at the AG’s office and ADEM and the attorneys and executives working for a company accused by the EPA of poisoning Alabama citizens. Those records, GASP is assuming, show massive coordination between those public offices and the private business. 

And given how the AG’s office and ADEM are responding, it’s a pretty safe bet that the documents show exactly that. 

In fact, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, the documents requested by GASP “paint a clear picture of how in bed with big business most of our (elected officials) are.”

Honestly, this is one of the most detestable and corrupt periods in Alabama history, and how it didn’t cause more anger and outrage — and lead to more arrests and corruption charges for a number of Alabama lawmakers — is beyond me. 

At the very least, someone should publicly explain why Luther Strange was never formally investigated. 

The guy had no input in the EPA situation at all for months. Then the Balch attorneys show up at his office with pre-written letters promising to block state funds being spent on the clean-up. He sends them. And shortly thereafter large amounts of cash start showing up in Strange’s campaign account. 

It’s insane. 

And, I think, it speaks to a larger problem in this state: voter apathy. 

Even with all of this knowledge about what Strange did here, and what he did a few months later when he accepted a U.S. Senate appointment from a man (Bentley) he was investigating, Alabama voters would have voted for him in a landslide over Doug Jones. And they would have re-elected him state AG. 

Had Bentley understood how iCloud works, he would have continued on as governor. There never would have been fury over this incident. 

And yet, take this same set of circumstances and change the names of the people involved to Clinton and Obama, as I did at the start, and the voters of Alabama would be outraged. 

That has to change. Good, honest government should be the first and last goal, party be damned.  

Until it is, the corruption, incompetence and poor governance will never, ever end.

 

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Opinion | Is there no middle ground on coronavirus?

Josh Moon

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So, what’s the plan for living with COVID-19? 

It would be nice to have a plan, wouldn’t it? Something that falls between “REOPEN EVERYTHING NOW!!!!!” and “SHUT IT ALL DOWN UNTIL IT’S SAFE!!!!” for those of us sane people who understand that life in the coming months will almost certainly have to fall somewhere in the middle. 

To date, neither side of this coronavirus … debate? … argument? … has done a decent job of explaining just how their short-term opinions on what should be done will apply to long-term actual life with a virus. A virus that has the potential to kill over 1 million Americans if we don’t adhere to certain guidelines, and promises to bankrupt tens of millions if we continue on with lockdowns.

Those two extremes are, quite simply, unsustainable. 

And, yes, in an ideal America, there would be a competent president and a competent federal government that would step in here and develop plans and protocols to guide us through this mess. For that matter, in that ideal America, those people would have taken the advice of medical experts early on and saved us from our current rates of death and unemployment. 

But alas, we have a carnival barker with the complete inability to care about or comprehend things that don’t directly affect him, and he long ago tossed in the towel on this problem that couldn’t be solved in tweet form. 

So, solving this pandemic is going to be up to someone else, it appears. And I’d like it a lot if everyone, just for a little while, could acknowledge that we’re not going to be able to survive with either extreme. 

We can’t just “reopen” things and pretend that all is cool. We will literally have more dead people than we can bury, and it’ll likely do more damage to our economy than the other extreme option. 

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That option, of course, is keeping everything closed down until it’s safe. Which sounds good until you start trying to nail down when that will be. Some say we need a vaccine before the country can relax. Some say massive levels of testing and tracing will be required. 

Dr. Rick Bright, who was the country’s top immunologist until he told the truth about coronavirus and was forced out, told Congress last Thursday that a vaccine likely wouldn’t be available for at least 18 months. He called the 12 to 18-month timeline that has been cited by the White House extremely optimistic. 

Additionally, Bright said that testing and tracing capacities throughout the country are severely lacking, and that America in no way has the capability at this point to do enough testing and contact tracing to adequately control the virus. 

So, here we are. 

Assuming we don’t want millions of deaths or to just stay tucked inside until Jeff Bezos literally owns us all, what do we do? 

No, really, I’m asking. 

Because as hard as it is to believe, there is no plan for living with COVID-19. No plan for allowing Americans to go back to work and for us all to get back to somewhat normal lives that include altered behaviors and different guidelines. 

There’s just reopened or not reopened. 

It’s almost as if the Trump administration, for a long period of time, put all of its eggs in the testing-and-tracing basket. We could get back to semi-normalcy if we had enough testing and tracing to keep things in check. 

But now that it’s obvious that we’ll never, ever have that capability, they apparently went with Plan B, which is to call everyone quarantining a liberal snowflake, pretend that being forced to wear a mask is an act of tyranny and walk around state capitols with firearms. 

In the meantime, the lack of universal guidelines that can be leaned on by governors has left states trying a mishmash of ideas and practices, with the expected mixed results. And it’s led to lots of confusion and genuine fear. And anger — lots of anger.

It would be nice if someone — or a group of someones — would get together with America’s top scientists and industry leaders and develop a comprehensive guideline to operating a functioning country that isn’t besieged by death and illness.

What are the best practices? Which activities are probably safe? Which aren’t? What safety protocols need to be in place for each industry? Should new laws requiring face masks or social distancing be adopted by cities? Should we develop new social programs that ensure our most vulnerable citizens can survive, both physically and economically, while they wait out the worst of this virus in isolation? 

Putting together such a plan, and reminding everyone of the overwhelming likelihood of surviving this virus, would go a long way towards easing fears and restoring the American economy. Not to mention, it would give Americans guidelines and practices that might actually reduce the spread of this virus. 

Or we could all just keep screaming at each other while our parents and grandparents die.

 

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