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Ethics Commission asked to rehear questionable opinion

Bill Britt

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Ignoring the objections of the Secretary of State’s Office on Oct. 3, the Alabama Ethics Commission issued Advisory Opinion No. 2018-11, which gives the Commission power to reduce violations of the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act by a mere vote of the Commission.

According to Secretary of State John Merrill’s Office, “The issue involved in this opinion is whether or not the terms offense/violation and penalty are interchangeable terms and whether when the Commission ‘set(s) aside or reduce(s) a civil penalty’ it may also reduce the number of the offense/violation.”

In other words, the Commission can now reduce not only fines but also collapse many violations into one or a few. Under current law, a civil FCPA violation can become criminal after four offenses. With Advisory Opinion No. 2018-11, the Commission claims the authority to roll several offenses together which would allow the perpetrator to avoid criminal charges.

Secretary Merrill in an October 24 letter to the Commission argues, “It is our position that the Commission may only ‘set aside or reduce’ the civil penalty imposed but may not reduce the number of offenses/violations.”

During the Oct. 3 hearing, Ethics Chair Judge Jerry Fielding said that since no-one from the Attorney General’s Office or District Attorney’s Association were present, he took it as a sign that they weren’t concerned with the change to existing law.

However, Fielding’s assertion that no-one from the Attorney General’s Office was present is not correct. There were several representatives of the Attorney General’s Office in attendance; they just didn’t speak to the matter, which has raised a number of serious questions.

Ethics Commission gives itself more power to reduce penalties for campaign law violators

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When Luther Strange served as the State’s Attorney General, members of the Special Prosecutions Division headed by Matt Hart were a constant presence at Ethics Commission meetings to ensure that the Commission did not dilute the Alabama Ethics Act. While SPD has continued to attend Ethics hearings, its mandate under appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall has been less rigorous.

Marshall, appointed by disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley, is facing charges before the Commission that he violated FPCA law when he accepted $735,000 in questionable contributions from the Republican Attorney’s General Association during his primary campaign.

Even though the complaint against Marshall was filed over three months ago, the Commission has failed to rule on the matter.

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Marshall received five separate donations from RAGA plus a nearly $19,000 in-kind contribution, which he has yet to report on his FCPA reports as required by law.

After Advisory Opinion No. 2018-11 was approved, the Attorney General’s Office finally weighed in on the matter, asking the Commission to rehear the issue. In the Oct. 11 letter, Marshall asks that the Ethics Commission withdraw and reconsider Advisory Opinion.

He states, “I believe the opinion’s conclusion that it may ‘reduce the number of civil offenses attributed to a political action committee’ should be withdrawn or modified for two reasons: (1) it is legally erroneous and (2) likely to cause confusion about the possibility of criminal prosecution among the public and regulated community.”

Individuals outside of the Attorney General’s Office believe Marshall purposely held his team on a leash to keep them from objecting to the Commission’s opinion during the Oct. 3 hearing.

Why Marshall would choose to wait until after the Commission’s ruling to wade into the battle is a mystery, but two well-placed individuals speaking on background believe it has more to do with politics than policy.

Secretary Merrill has joined Marshall in his request for a rehearing on Advisory Opinion No. 2018-11. The Commission has not said if it would grant the request.

Merrill and Marshall letters. 

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Congress

Jones: Senate should not have left D.C. without deal on COVID relief bill

“The Senate never should have left D.C. without passing a deal to extend emergency unemployment and eviction moratoriums, to provide funding for schools to reopen safely, and to create a national testing and contact tracing plan,” Jones said.

Brandon Moseley

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Sen. Doug Jones during a live streamed press briefing. (VIA OFFICE OF SEN. DOUG JONES)

Democratic Alabama Sen. Doug Jones said that the Senate should not have left Washington D.C. without a deal on a coronavirus aid bill. Instead, the Senate should have stayed and worked until a deal was reached.

Negotiations between the two sides broke down late Thursday night when the White House refused Democratic demands that the aid package be $3.4 trillion instead of $1 trillion.

“The Senate never should have left D.C. without passing a deal to extend emergency unemployment and eviction moratoriums, to provide funding for schools to reopen safely, and to create a national testing and contact tracing plan,” Jones said in a statement on social media. “We need to come together and negotiate a deal ASAP.”

The White House blames congressional Democrats and their insistence on such a massive package for the failure to pass a deal.

“Democrats in Congress wasted extensive negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows about an expanded Coronavirus relief package,” the White House wrote in a statement. “Democrat leaders were not only willing but determined to withhold vital assistance for families to use it as a political bargaining chip for their radical agenda.”

Since Congress didn’t act, Trump did, the White House said.

“He issued four major executive actions over the weekend,” the White House statement reads. “The first provides out-of-work Americans with $400-per-week in supplemental aid on top of existing unemployment benefits. The second assists renters and homeowners who are struggling to pay their lease or make their mortgage payment. The third defers payroll taxes for employees making $100,000 or less per year through the end of the year. The fourth suspends federal student loan payments and sets interest rates to 0 percent through the end of the year.”

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Jones dismissed Trump’s orders as being more for show than for actual benefit of the American people.

“By signing these executive orders that are more for show than actual help for the American people, President Trump has confirmed that his administration has not acted in good faith and had no intention of reaching bipartisan agreement on legislation that would benefit all Americans,” Jones said. “The Senate, which absolutely should not have recessed without passing a relief package, needs to immediately return to Washington to pass legislation that provides adequate support for the Americans who are suffering as a result of this virus as well as our economy.”

Jones faces a difficult re-election battle against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. Jones narrowly defeated former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore in a 2017 special election. Jones is the only Democrat to win a statewide election in Alabama since 2008.

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Education

FBI, DOE investigating potential fraud in Alabama virtual schools

The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money.

Josh Moon

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(APR GRAPHIC)

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Education have been conducting a lengthy and wide-ranging investigation into multiple virtual schools in Alabama, focusing specifically on those schools falsifying student enrollment records to drive up state reimbursements, potentially costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the past five years, several sources and various documents and recordings obtained by APR show.

The investigation, the sources told APR, is centered on two schools in Limestone County — the Alabama Connections Academy in the Limestone County system and Renaissance Academy in Athens City — but is not limited to those schools. The sources each participated in interviews with the FBI and DOE in this investigation and asked for anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs. 

APR was provided a recording of agents from the FBI and DOE conducting a joint interview with officials in Limestone County, and asking specific questions about the virtual schools in those districts, the superintendents in charge and about irregularities involving student enrollments. 

The home of Athens City superintendent Trey Holliday was raided by FBI agents in June, and the Bureau confirmed at the time that the raid was part of an ongoing investigation. 

In addition, three sources have confirmed to APR that officials working at the Alabama State Department of Education have been interviewed by the FBI and DOE and the state has provided records and other information to aid in the investigation. The sources each have intimate personal knowledge of the investigation, but spoke on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to provide such details.

When asked for an official comment on the investigation, a spokesperson for ALSDE directed APR to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. 

A spokesperson for the USA Middle District office declined to comment or confirm the existence of an investigation — a standard response when an investigation is ongoing but has yet to produce indictments — but did acknowledge the raid of Holladay’s house in June.  

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The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money. 

In less than three years, Limestone’s general fund budget has swelled from a reserve balance of around $2 million to now more than $20 million; Athens has experienced a similar uptick in revenue the last five years. 

Sources told APR that investigators also suspect that there has been illegal personal gain by both school system employees and individuals working with third parties that operated the virtual programs, and indictments could come before the end of the year. 

Virtual Schools

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In 2015, the Alabama Legislature passed a virtual school bill, allowing for school districts to operate one of two kinds of virtual schools. Local school boards could decide to operate their own virtual school, contracting with an outside entity for only the software and platform, but otherwise hiring teachers and controlling the school like any other in their district. Or local school districts can contract with an outside entity to provide all of the services — from hiring the teachers and monitoring classroom performance to aligning with state standards and meeting the needs of disabled students — and the local central office would serve as a simple pass-through for payments. 

Those payments are also key. Under that virtual school bill, students enrolled in virtual schools earn the district the same in per-pupil funding as a student enrolled in traditional schools. So, even if a child in the Black Belt is enrolled in a virtual school hundreds of miles away in Limestone County — and several reportedly are — and never sets foot in the county or a local school building, Limestone still gets the $6,000-per-pupil allotment for that student. 

This setup, of course, makes virtual schools extremely profitable — both for local districts and for the outside companies hosting the schools. 

Limestone’s Connections Academy, the largest virtual school in the state with more than 2,500 students enrolled this school year, falls into the second category of virtual schools — one in which the outside company, Pearson, handles all functions and Limestone gets a small percentage each year for serving essentially as a pass-through. APR requested a copy of the Pearson-Limestone contract but it had not been made available prior to publishing. 

Those types of contracts, however, have raised red flags with several local superintendents and even with officials at ALSDE, all of whom see massive potential for fraud and waste. At least two bills have been pushed since the passage of the original virtual schools bill that would close loopholes and put extra safeguards in place. Neither passed. 

“We’ve been sitting on a time bomb, and everyone knew it was ticking,” said one county superintendent. “There has never been enough oversight of these schools. Even when you saw the horror stories in other states, no one did anything.”

As it stands, companies, such as Pearson, are allowed to make almost every decision, and local officials are oddly and surprisingly unconcerned with how the schools make decisions. Or even what decisions they’re making. 

For example, Limestone County officials, including two superintendents and multiple employees, couldn’t tell APR or the FBI and DOE approximately how many teachers were employed at its virtual school. In addition, they didn’t know how those teachers were hired, if they were required to be certified or if they were adhering to Alabama standards. 

And their inability to answer those fairly basic questions came after Limestone County had been duped once into virtual school fraud scheme that cost the district millions of dollars and more than 100 laptop computers.   

The Investigation

According to Mark Isley, the former human resources director for Limestone County Schools, an investigator from the FBI and one from the DOE showed up unannounced at the system’s central office last September and began grilling then-superintendent Tom Sisk, Isley and others about the virtual school in Limestone County and a similar school in Athens, where Holladay served as superintendent. 

A recording of that interview was later provided anonymously to APR, and the two investigators can be heard asking specific questions about the enrollment figures in Limestone’s virtual school, whether the system had verified the authenticity of each student enrolled and how much interaction the Limestone virtual school had with the Renaissance school in Athens. 

“They clearly knew way more than they let on, and you could see that as the interview progressed and they laid out evidence of fraud taking place,” Isley said. “I was not shocked. I think anyone who was honest would tell you that they either didn’t know hardly anything that was happening in that (virtual) school or they suspected something wasn’t right.”

The two agents also asked Sisk in-depth questions about Limestone’s first attempt at operating a virtual school in the 2016-17 school year. On the recording, Sisk said that he signed a contract with an entity named Educational Opportunities to provide a full virtual school and enrolled more than 200 students. 

“Two to three months into it,” Sisk said, officials from ALSDE contacted him and told him that the students enrolled in the Limestone virtual school were also enrolled in private schools around the state. On the recording, one of the agents asking questions provides Sisk with a letter that was sent in 2017 by Sumter Academy to parents of students at that now-defunct private school. The letter informs parents of a new virtual opportunity in which their students can be “dually enrolled” in both Sumter and a virtual school hosted by Limestone County. The letter also offered free laptops to students who signed up. 

Limestone County never recovered the laptops it provided to Educational Opportunities. 

“I guess we can see where our laptops went,” Sisk says to the agents. 

A week after the interview with the FBI and DOE, Sisk resigned at Limestone County to take a job superintendent’s job in Tennessee. He resigned shortly after taking the job when it was learned by that school system that his doctorate degree was allegedly purchased from an online school in Pakistan. 

Reached by phone, Sisk declined to comment, saying “I’m retired now. Limestone has a new superintendent who can answer your questions.” 

The Isley Problem

During the interview with Sisk, it becomes obvious, as the FBI and DOE agents pepper him with questions and press him for specifics, that they suspect a certain level of collusion between Limestone County — or, at the very least, its virtual school provider — and officials at Sumter Academy. The agents press Sisk to explain how Sumter could be offering a stipend and laptops to students who sign up without Limestone being in on the fraud. 

Sisk maintains that he had no clue about any of it and shut it down as soon as he was informed by ALSDE officials of the potential fraud. 

What happened to that potential fraud — and whether it was ever reported or investigated by state or local officials — is unclear. Neither Sisk nor ALSDE would discuss it. But on the recording, Sisk is quite adamant that he knows nothing about what happened to Educational Opportunities and never chased down where the district’s 100 laptops ended up. 

But that virtual school would not be Limestone’s only problem. Following the interview, Isley said he told the FBI and DOE agents of current, equally-troubling issues with Limestone’s current virtual school, Connections Academy. 

Among the issues: Connections was failing to follow guidelines for serving disabled students, putting at risk millions in federal funding, and there was a huge discrepancy between the teacher units for which Pearson, the company that operated Connections Academy, was billing the state and the number it appeared to actually employ. 

According to Isley, who was responsible on forms sent to the state for “placing” teachers — essentially the act of accounting for the teacher units that were provided by the state by showing where those teachers were employed within the district — Pearson was claiming more than 100 teacher units, yet Limestone had placed no more than 23. 

“That’s all I could find, and I thought it was weird and that someone should look into it,” Isley said. “I’m in charge of HR, you know. It’s my job to make sure the teachers are there.”

Isley isn’t alone in his concerns. Two other sources, including one long-serving financial officer currently working for a school district in Alabama, viewed Connection Academy’s teacher data and concurred that a large discrepancy exists. 

What that discrepancy means, however, is unclear. On paper, it should be impossible for such a gap, because the state requires each district to submit a detailed report of all teachers employed, their years of service and their certification levels. Those numbers are compared to the teacher-unit funding each district receives, and adjustments are made. 

Still, there seems to be an issue somewhere. Current Limestone County superintendent Randy Shearouse told APR that Connections Academy planned to employ roughly 107 teachers for the upcoming school year. That would be a slight decline in teachers despite an enormous uptick in students — Connections will have nearly 600 additional students this year. 

Shearouse, who was named superintendent in June, said he couldn’t speculate on the numbers because he hadn’t been on the job long enough to dig into them. He also said he was mostly unaware of the investigation of the virtual school, having only heard about it. 

For raising the concerns, Isley was promptly shuffled out at Limestone in a very public fashion. He was placed on leave last January for reasons that the district refused to reveal, although it hinted to media outlets that Isley was the subject of an investigation. (Limestone’s attorney actually argued in a court filing that the district had no duty to inform employees why it placed them on paid leave.) A short time later, the district began termination proceedings against Isley, a former county superintendent who had been on the job less than two years. 

In documents submitted to the state department of education, Limestone listed four reasons for its decision to terminate Isley mid-year, including the very odd charge of improper dumping of a Christmas tree and ornaments at a thrift store and a discrepancy with how Isley documented time off. 

Dates on the supporting documentation, obtained by APR, shows that Mike Owens, who was serving as the acting superintendent at the time, didn’t collect a single piece of evidence to support terminating Isley prior to placing him on leave. In fact, two of the incidents happened months before — one of which Isley discussed with Owens — and didn’t receive a reprimand of any kind. 

Isley eventually settled with the Limestone system and agreed to a forced resignation. He remains unemployed. 

“The guy is a boy scout,” said Isley’s attorney, Shane Sears. “Even when it’s to his own detriment, he’s going to do the right thing and speak up. That’s what happened here. All you need to know about this is how they reacted to what he was saying.”

A Bigger Issue

The investigation being conducted by the FBI and DOE clearly has not stopped in Limestone County. Sources confirmed to APR that in addition to state and Limestone/Athens officials interviewed, the FBI has also talked with people connected to Sumter Academy and to officials at a virtual school in Eufaula, as well as to numerous people affiliated with multiple third-party virtual school providers.

Their focus, in each instance, involves virtual schools inflating enrollment numbers in order to secure more federal, state and local funding. Sources told APR that the FBI and DOE are exploring a variety of avenues by which those numbers have been inflated, including enrolling private school students, homeschool students and prisoners. 

The latter appears to be the primary issue in Athens, three sources familiar with that investigation told APR. The Renaissance Academy, which was started in 2015 in Athens, began enrolling prisoners the same year, pulling in more than 600 enrollees from Alabama’s prisons around the state, and pulling in the $6,000-plus-per-pupil funding that went with them. 

But according to sources, the Renaissance school did a particularly poor job of tracking those prisoners, and investigators have found instances of long-since-released prisoners still being on the Renaissance rolls. 

“Dr. Holladay has been an educator for over thirty-five years,” said Holladay’s attorney, Joe Espy. “There are no charges pending against him and if any are filed, he will vigorously defend them.”

Holladay is not alone in hiring legal representation. At least two other individuals involved in either the Limestone County or Athens investigations have hired Montgomery attorneys. 

Whatever comes of potential criminal charges, though, there is little doubt that state lawmakers have to find ways to secure the virtual school setup, and to instill some level of oversight. 

“This is like the wild west out there right now,” said a longtime ALSDE employee. “People have quickly figured out that no one is watching what’s going on here and they’re taking advantage. We’re talking about millions of dollars lost to fraud. And, oh, by the way, the schools they’re providing aren’t great either. This can’t go on.”

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Congress

AFL-CIO endorses Adia Winfrey for Congress

Brandon Moseley

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Congressional candidate Adia Winfrey. (VIA WINFREY CAMPAIGN)

Democratic congressional candidate Adia Winfrey’s campaign announced Monday that she has received the endorsement of the Alabama AFL-CIO in Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District.

At their annual convention last week, union leaders from across the state recognized Winfrey’s “passion, ability to lead and attentiveness to the issues affecting working men and women” as reasons to endorse the Democratic challenger against incumbent Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Alabama.

“Labor unions have long been a leading force in our nation’s economy,” Winfrey wrote. “Workplace safety standards, employee benefits, equal pay for women, non-discrimination policies and so much more can be attributed directly to union members who were willing to speak up for what is right. I look forward to being a voice for Alabama’s hard-working men and women in Congress.”

Winfrey is challenging Rogers, a nine-term incumbent, in the Nov. 3 general election. During his 18 years in Congress, Rogers has earned only a 16 percent lifetime rating by the AFL-CIO for his votes.

“For seven generations, my family has called Talladega, Alabama, home,” Winfrey said. “I am the mother of four amazing children, a doctor of psychology, author, founder of the H.Y.P.E. (Healing Young People thru Empowerment) Movement, and … I am running for Congress in Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District! I believe in the future of our beautiful state and nation. It is time for leadership with a new vision which is #FocusedOnAlabama.”

Winfrey has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wilberforce University and a doctorate of clinical psychology degree from the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology.

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Environment

Gulf State Park will have a prescribed burn in late August

Brandon Moseley

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A fire at Gulf State Park. (VIA ALABAMA STATE PARKS)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced that it is planning to have a prescribed burn at Gulf State Park later this month.

The planned prescribed burn at Gulf State Park is a necessary part of a forest management plan associated with longleaf pine restoration, wildfire fuel reduction and invasive species control. The 140-acre burn will take place in a section of the park’s campground between Aug. 18 and Sept. 3, 2020 weather permitting.

Camping reservations are not being accepted for campsites 1 to 123 and sites 469 to 496 during the burn period.

If weather conditions are favorable during the burn period, an additional 110 acres of marsh near the campground might be burned as well to reduce the risk of wildfire in that area. The planned burns will not affect camping reservations for campsites outside of the burn location.

The Alabama Forestry Commission will conduct the prescribed burns for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources State Parks Division. They assure the public that every effort is being made to ensure safety and proper smoke management during these burns.

Prescribed fire is an effective way to reduce wildfire risk, enhance wildlife habitat and maintain a healthy forest ecosystem. This is especially important in the South Alabama coastal region due to the vegetation type and a longer growing season. The use of prescribed fire enables the Alabama State Parks Division to better manage its parks’ forest resources into the future.

Gulf State Park has two miles of beaches, a spacious campground, a brand new Lodge and Conference Center, Lake Shelby, miles of walking paths, camping sites and a fishing pier that allows anglers to fish out into the ocean for schools of saltwater fish normally accessible only to fishermen with boats. Gulf State Park has gorgeous white sand, surging surf, seagulls, pelicans, restaurants, a pool at the lodge and a variety of activities for the entire family to enjoy.

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Gulf State Park is a destination that Alabamians visit over and over again all year round. Gulf State Park has beaches, hiking, camping, dining, canoeing, a dog park, indoor lodging amenities, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, educational adventure at the Nature Center as well as new programs starting at the Learning Campus and Interpretive Center.

Gulf State Park is located on the southern end of Baldwin County, fronting the Gulf of Mexico. The Alabama gulf coast is world-renowned for its beaches.

The fishing pier is presently closed for renovation and some facilities may not be available currently due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. Alabama has 22 state parks across the state available for a variety of entertainment needs. Six of those parks are developed into resorts including Cheaha State Park, DeSoto State Park, Gulf State Park, Joe Wheeler State Park, Lake Guntersville State Park and Lakepoint State Park.

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