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With dismay and outrage, Zeigler asks the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider its STAARS decision

Josh Moon

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Not that anyone expected him to, but state auditor Jim Zeigler isn’t giving up quietly on his lawsuit claiming the state violated competitive bid laws when purchasing software and support for it State of Alabama Accounting and Resource System, or STAARS.

The Alabama Supreme Court tossed the lawsuit last month, but on Thursday Zeigler and his attorneys filed a motion asking for a rehearing, claiming the court erred in its findings and in the process “neutered” state law that requires a competitive bid process.

“This Court’s ruling eviscerates the Competitive Bid laws of this State and basically gives a green light for corrupt officials to award state contracts to their buddies,” Zeigler’s filing reads. “This Court, unwittingly we are sure, has sent a message to the public officials in this state that they can knowingly violate the Competitive Bid laws of this State by entering into a no bid contract and as long as they terminate the contract before a taxpayer can obtain a ruling that the contract is void, there is nothing anybody can do about it.”

Zeigler filed his lawsuit after discovering that state officials bypassed the bid process when selecting a vendor for the STAARS software and support. Instead, state finance officials and the vendor. CGI Technologies and Solutions, rewrote a dormant — but still technically valid — contract from 1982.

Zeigler claims that process has ended up costing the state millions of dollars and delivered a mostly unusable product. Most of Zeigler’s claims in his original lawsuit had been tossed by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James Anderson, but Anderson allowed Zeigler’s claim that the contract violated state’s competitive law to move forward.

The ALSC spiked that claim, noting that the CGI contract was due to expire shortly.

However, attorneys for Zeigler claim that simply because the contract has ended should not be cause to not hold the state responsible for violating the law.

“This Court should allow this case to proceed through the normal course of litigation so that the truth behind this unquestionably illegal scheme can be discovered,” Zeigler’s filing reads. “It is inconceivable that the taxpayers can have to endure the loss of millions of their tax dollars under a void and illegal contract, without any alternative but to say, ‘Oh, well, we tried but all we can do is pay more taxes to cover this multi-million dollar illegal expenditure.’

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“How in the world can that be the law?”

 

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Health

“I’m completely isolated”: A woman’s COVID-19 experience, from her hospital bed

Joey Kennedy

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Tim Stephens, left, Pamela Franco, right. (Contributed photos)

For the past five days, Pamela Franco hasn’t seen her fiancé except over FaceTime. She’s at UAB’s University Hospital on one of the floors set aside for those infected with the novel coronavirus.

Franco’s room is a typical hospital room, which she isn’t allowed to leave. The exercise she gets is from walking around that limited space.

Franco was admitted on March 23. She says unlike some of the 55-plus other patients, she has actually improved every day. But she still must be on oxygen, and until she’s off, she’ll remain in the hospital.

Doctors tried to wean her off the oxygen Thursday, but she started coughing, her oxygen level dropped below an acceptable, normal range, and her oxygen flow had to be increased. Today, the oxygen flow is back to the lower setting, and Franco said she feels OK.

Franco doesn’t want to be off the oxygen again, though, without somebody monitoring her, because the consequences of no oxygen are the dry, hacking coughs that leave her exhausted but, worse, leave her feeling like she can’t breathe.

Before she was admitted last Monday, she had been diagnosed with pneumonia but was sent home when her COVID-19 test came back negative. But after that, she developed a dry cough.

The cough got worse and worse. Her fiancé, Tim Stephens, took her back to the ER, where she was met by a worker in full personal protective gear — a mask, face shield, gloves, scrubs, and a disposable robe over the scrubs.

Stephens was told to stay in the car as Franco was escorted into the hospital. “I have never seen someone cough so violently,” Stephens said. “It shook her whole body, and it was non-stop. It was scary to watch, but it was terrifying for her – like drowning in the bed.”

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“The coughing got so bad, it was making the trunk of my body contort,” Franco said. “I don’t want to say twisted. But it just made me go into a semi-fetal position.”

Stephens said she was whisked into the hospital and immediately admitted. “Like that, she was gone. I haven’t seen her since. I wasn’t allowed to even say goodbye.”

Today, if Franco starts coughing, she calls the nurse to turn up her oxygen immediately because once the cough starts, it’s painful and frightening. “There’s no phlegm,” she said. “I don’t have a runny nose. That’s the thing about this virus.”

She coughs, but the coughs are torture, not productive like a chest cold cough.

Franco is 49 and, before a flu episode earlier in the year, then the COVID-19 this week, she was healthy. She exercises three or four times a week and has been on that routine for 15 years.

“I’ve only been in the hospital twice my entire life when I’ve given birth,” Franco said. “That’s the only time I’ve had to stay in the hospital.”

Franco and Stephens have been engaged since late last year. They live on Birmingham’s Southside, and they have not set their wedding date. The couple both sell software for Birmingham-based tech companies.

The novel coronavirus knocked Franco for a loop, though. She’s getting better and believes she’ll make a full recovery, but she knows she’ll have to work back up to her exercise routine after she leaves UAB and the virus is gone from her body.

“I’m completely isolated from everyone,” Franco said by telephone from her hospital room.

Pamela Franco, left, and Tim Stephens, right. (Contributed photos)

As of Friday morning, UAB had at least 55 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and about half of them were on ventilators. Thursday, it was more than 60. Many more are under observation for possible COVID-19 infection.

“When they come in, they come in full gear.” Like her greeter at the ER entrance when she was admitted, they wear full gear: Mask, face shield, double gloves, scrubs, and the disposable robe.”

The medical staff “are incredible professionals,” Franco said. “Every day I’m seen by a doctor or a nurse practitioner. Nurses take vitals and peek into the room. They’re treating me very well. I’ve been impressed. And grateful, because I know they’re putting themselves at risk as well every time they walk into the room of any of their patients.”

As for how national and state leaders have responded to the pandemic, Franco is frank.

“My own opinion is we were very slow acting,” she says. “The only reason why we’re having all these cases now is that they were slow.

“And now it’s spread,” she continues. “We’re going to run out of supplies, medication, all sorts of things. It’s snowballing. At this point, we’re elbows deep. We need to continue the isolation, the quarantines, and let people work from home if they can.

But she doesn’t like to be negative and look backward, Franco said.

“They need to do the best they can now to get this under control and to help the people,” Franco said. “I was so impressed to see that they have canceled school for the school year. I was very happy to see that they have postponed school for the rest of the year. I feel like that was necessary.”

“I want my voice to say to everyone who reads this,” Franco said, “at least abide by the rules. Stay separate. Stay quarantined. And wash your hands.”

Strangely, two of Franco’s sisters, who live in another state, also have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and Franco hasn’t seen them since last fall, Stephens said. The oldest sister was in an induced coma in ICU for several days, but is now awake, alert, and recovering, Stephens said.

Stephens, too, is developing that dry cough. He’s scheduled to be tested Sunday, but Franco said he hopes he can move it to an earlier day.

“This is not ‘just the flu,’” Stephens said. “It is a monster.”

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Health

Montgomery orders “indefinite” curfew to slow spread of virus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed on Friday ordered a curfew for Alabama’s capital city, which went into effect immediately and will be in place “indefinitely” as city officials try to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

The curfew will be in effect from 10 p.m until 5.am. each day 

“We’re doing this as a measure to try to discourage unnecessary public gatherings, Reed said, adding that the city cannot keep up the current rate of the spread of the virus. 

Reed said those who break the curfew will have committed a misdemeanor crime and could face fines and jail time.

As of Friday afternoon, Montgomery had 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Statewide on Friday, there were 587 cases and at least three deaths caused by COVID-19.

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Health

Alabama National Guard airman positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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An Alabama National Guard airman tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. 

The airman, assigned to the 187th Fighter Wing  self-quarantined after experiencing symptoms, according to a statement released by Dannally Field officials Friday. 

“Dannelly Field public health officials are working with military and state officials to monitor the airman who is recovering at home. The airman has not visited Dannelly Field since early March,” according to the statement. 

Dannelly Field has moved to Health Protection Condition Charlie, restricting some access to the base, limiting off-base travel for military personnel and encouraging civilian workers to limit travel. 

“My first priority is the health and safety of our Airmen and their families,” said Col. Ed Casey, 187th Fighter Wing commander in a statement. “To that end, we are acting on guidance and direction from Air Force and Department of Defense leadership to help prevent the spread of the virus on our base and in our communities. We will continue to fly and train to be ready to fight America’s adversaries if need be, but going to HPCON Charlie helps us take deliberate measures to safeguard our force.”

As of Friday afternoon there were 587 conformed COVID-19 cases in Alabama. The state Department of Public Health on Friday listed three deaths as a result of the virus, but state health officer Dr. Scott Harris said Friday morning that the department was investigating 8 other deaths as possibly caused by COVID-19.

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Crime

Attorney general partners with Facebook to stop price-gouging

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Friday announced a partnership with Facebook to address price-gouging on the social media site by people looking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There is no question that unscrupulous operators are trying to take advantage of Alabamians looking to buy basic necessities to protect and sustain themselves and their families during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic,” Marshall said in a statement. “What’s more, much of that illegal activity is centered online because many consumers find it easier to purchase supplies on the internet due to lack of local availability or self-quarantining. As my office seeks ways to protect our consumers, I am pleased to announce that Facebook is one of several major e-commerce platforms to respond to my call to participate in a coordinated effort to identify and shutdown online price gouging.”

Facebook has agreed to review and remove price-gouging listings and advertisements from the website, according to a press release form Marshall’s office.

The press release from Marshall’s office notes that Facebook has already banned advertising or sale of medical masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 testing kits, and the site also as prohibited products “cures” or products that claim to prevent someone from contracting the virus. 

Recent research by Digital Citizens Alliance showed, however, that many of those banned products and advertisements continue to appear on Facebook, despite the company’s March 6 announcement prohibiting them.

Alabama’s price-gouging law went into effect on March 13 upon Gov. Kay Ivey’s declaration of a state of emergency.

“Although what constitutes an unconscionable price is not specifically set forth in state law, a price that is 25% or more above the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days — unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity — is a prima facie case of unconscionable pricing,” according to the release.

To file an illegal price gouging report visit the Alabama Attorney General’s Consumer Interest Division at  https://www.alabamaag.gov/consumercomplaint, or call 1-800-392-5658 to receive a form by mail to complete and return.

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