In a state where political news comes fast and furious, and where newspaper and TV news staffs are steadily declining, it’s easy for a few stories to slip through the cracks.
At this time each year, APR tries to go back and catch a few of those and give them the attention they deserve. And so, here are the top 5 under-reported stories for 2018.
5. Marshall suicide
The death of Bridgette Marshall, wife of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, was a statewide news story the day it occurred, and even a few days later when the initial police report was made available.
But after an emotional press conference, at which Steve Marshall chastised the media for reporting the basic facts contained in a public police report — mainly that his estranged wife had committed suicide at an apartment in Murfreesboro, Tennessee — most reporting on the matter stopped.
To this day, basic details about the death of Bridgette Marshall — details that are routinely reported in similar death investigations — remain unknown and unreported.
4. Ivey health issues
While Kay Ivey’s health issues became a major focus during her campaign for governor, a story that gained little statewide attention was her attempts to cover up a 2015 health scare in Colorado and her retaliation against a state trooper.
Ivey suffered “stroke-like symptoms” while at a conference in Colorado and spent several days in a hospital. When one of the troopers on her security detail reported the hospital trip, according to the former head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Ivey had the trooper transferred and his pay cut.
The move was petty and punished a law enforcement officer for simply doing his job correctly (reporting the incident was required), but the incident never gained traction with the media statewide. And a couple of simple explanations from Ivey’s team were sufficient.
3. Ethics fights
Explaining complicated laws and even more complicated bills seeking to change those laws isn’t easy in a time when the general public is being inundated by information from all angles. So, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Alabama politicians’ attempts to rewrite and weaken the state’s ethics laws was met by general disinterest from the public at large.
Still, it was disappointing to watch Republicans — led by Marshall — work to overturn ethics reforms put in place by other Republicans, and pay absolutely no political price for their misdeeds.
From HB317, which opened up a giant loophole in ethics laws allowing for the wining and dining of lawmakers, to Marshall and the state “Ethics” Commission creating another loophole in the ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers in campaign donations, it was open season this past year on laws meant to protect the public from the ridiculous corruption that has plagued this state for decades.
2. Bentley lawsuits
Did you know that the state of Alabama is still paying thousands of dollars monthly to defend former Gov. Robert Bentley in multiple lawsuits? If you said no, you’re not alone.
In one of those lawsuits — filed by former Finance Department official James Nolin — the state has already apologized to Nolin and admitted Bentley was wrong for the actions he took. In the other, filed by former ALEA secretary Spencer Collier, officials from Gov. Kay Ivey’s office have privately admitted that Bentley was wrong.
Still, the lawsuits go on, costing state taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to this point. And there is little attention being paid to any of it.
1. BCA debacle
It is the most powerful lobbying group in the state — a group so powerful that it has shaped state politics for the past decade through its lobbying efforts. Yet, when the BCA went into a tailspin earlier this year, and its top members looked to push out longtime director Billy Canary, there was little statewide attention paid to the fallout.
The fight pitted some of the most influential businesses and business leaders in Alabama against each other, and against the BCA leadership. Those groups felt the BCA had suffered in recent years because of Canary’s heavy-handed approach to lobbying. And to their point, numerous lawmakers had snubbed the BCA’s wishes in recent sessions, with some going so far as to vote against bills simply because the BCA was backing them. In the 2017 session, BCA-backed legislation was essentially shut out. In the 2018 session, several top-priority bills failed to pass.
In response, seven top businesses in the state pulled out of the group, and two of its top officials and board members resigned, as leadership resisted ousting Canary.
But money, as always, does the talking. And after losing hundreds of thousands in annual donations from the defections, the BCA board acquiesced.
Canary got the boot and the leadership structure was reshuffled. The defectors rejoined and a new director, Katie Britt, was hired.
Governor awards $48 million to Department of Education, up to $50 million for higher education
Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday awarded $48 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF) to the Alabama State Department of Education in response to challenges related to COVID-19. This allocation will enable schools to enact policies established in the Alabama State Department of Education’s Roadmap to Reopening Schools.
As schools across Alabama are navigating increased challenges related to COVID-19, this initial investment will assist by providing budget stability, enable distance learning for any student that seeks it, and get additional resources to students most in need.
The allocation will be used as follows:
- $10 million to equip all school buses with WiFi capabilities to increase internet connectivity and help bridge the digital divide
- $4 million to improve remote learning opportunities by providing digital textbook and library resources for all students
- $26 million to provide additional academic support to bridge learning and achievement gaps
- $9 million to support intensive before and after school tutoring resources for learning and remediation in schools
Additionally, Alabama institutions of higher education will be able to submit requests for a combined reimbursement of up to $50 million of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Alabama received approximately $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding to respond to and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama Act 2020-199 designated up to $118.3 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction.
“I am pleased to invest in our state’s greatest asset – our students,” Governor Ivey said. “As we respond and adapt to COVID-19, we must ensure that our local school districts and institutions of higher education receive necessary support and provide our students full access to their educational opportunities. Closing school during the pandemic disproportionately impacts students who are already struggling, and it is our obligation to provide as much stability and access possible in these uncertain times.”
Jefferson County GOP pens letter to governor complaining of Democrat appointed as probate judge
The members of Jefferson County Republican Party Steering Committee last week sent a letter to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey bitterly complaining about her recent appointment of Jim Naftel, a Democrat, as a Jefferson County probate judge.
“We, both as elected officials and leaders of the Jefferson County Republican Party Steering Committee, on behalf of the entire Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee wish to express our displeasure in your appointment to Jefferson County Probate Judge, Place 1,” the letter reads.
“Our main objection is we had one request and that was one request only – the appointment of qualified Republican to this post,” the Jefferson County GOP continued. “In recent history, your pick for this position was given the opportunity to participate in the Republican Primary, he chose to vote as a Democrat. In 2018, when you were running for Governor in the Republican Primary, he chose to vote a Democrat ballot. Even this past March of 2020, when he had a chance to cast his vote for President Donald Trump, he again chose to vote in the Democrat primary.”
“Secondly, this position runs all elections for Jefferson County,” the Steering Committee added. “On June 30th, Secretary of State John Merrill was quoted in Alabama Today as stating, ‘The probate judge has a significant level of influence. I cannot emphasize how important it is that this person is involved, interested, and informed on all things related to elections.’ We have no knowledge of your appointee’s experience in this area. We are not aware of his previous expertise in the election process at the county level or having been involved with any level of ballot security activities in our County.”
In the letter, the members said all of the Republican legislators and commissioners recommended a specific qualified Republican to be appointed to this post.
“This Republican had been recommended and mentored by a former ALGOP General Counsel who you personally hired to be your legal counsel during your last campaign,” the letter reads. “This choice was clearly experienced in the elections area of the Probate position and was best prepared to serve as our chief elections officer. Rarely, if ever, do all of these people agree on one thing and they agreed on this. These above stated reasons are why we, both as elected leaders in Jefferson County and members of the Jefferson County Republican Party, would like you to be aware of our displeasure for your selection of Probate Judge, we request a clear explanation of why this choice was selected despite the request as outlined above, and we hope you will listen to our counsel on future appointments in Jefferson County.”
The letter was signed by Jefferson County Republican Party Chairman Paul DeMarco and the other officers and members of the steering committee.
Naftel was appointed to fill the position previously held by Judge Alan King, who has retired after 19 years of service.
“As one of my appointees, you will be making important decisions that directly affect the citizens of Alabama,” Ivey wrote to Naftel. “I have made honesty and integrity a priority in my Administration, and I know that you will embody these two virtues while serving the people of Alabama. Please plan to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money and work in your position to instill trust in state government. The responsibility that comes with this appointment is not to be taken lightly. I trust that you will rise to the occasion and set a standard for others to follow.”
Naftel was an attorney with Maynard, Coooper & Gale, where he has worked since 1998.
“Jim is a shareholder and member of the Firm’s Estate, Trust and Business Planning Practice, Fiduciary Advisory Services Practice, and the Fiduciary, Trust and Estate Litigation Practice groups,” the firm wrote in his bio on their website. “In his Fiduciary Litigation practice, Jim advises and represents both individuals and corporate fiduciaries in their capacity as trustees and executors, including pre-litigation, mediation, trial and appellate proceedings. Jim also represents beneficiaries of estates and trusts. In addition, Jim represents clients in proceedings related to financial abuse of the elderly, conservatorships, guardianships and other protective proceedings.”
Naftel is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, has been recognized as one of The Best Lawyers in America in the areas of Trust and Estates and Litigation: Trusts and Estates. He earned a law degree from the University of Alabama law school in 1998. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi in 1994.
“It is an honor to be appointed and I look forward to serving Jefferson County in this role,” Naftel told AL.com.
Republicans, including Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan, had been urging the governor to appoint a Republican to the position.
Former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead wrote hours ahead of the appointment, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are even having a conversation about our Republican governor appointing a Democrat as the top election official in Jefferson County. If we have to lobby our Republican governor to appoint a Republican to this important position we have a real problem!”
While Republicans continue to dominate Alabama politics, the party has grown increasingly uncompetitive in Jefferson County, where Republican Sheriff Mike Hale was defeated in 2018 and the last two Republican district attorneys were both defeated in general elections.
While Hillary Clinton was trounced statewide in 2016, she carried Jefferson County, as did Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.
The last time that a Republican presidential nominee carried Jefferson County was incumbent President George W. Bush back in 2004. Naftel’s appointment could perhaps be interpreted as meaning that the governor’s office believes that Jefferson County is a lost cause for Republicans moving forward given recent demographic changes and that the best a Republican governor can hope for is to pick the best Democrat for countywide office as a Republican would lose reelection.
Lawsuit claims governor ignored nomination process to appoint probate judge
A lawsuit filed Wednesday is challenging Gov. Kay Ivey’s appointment of Birmingham attorney James “Jim” Naftel II as Jefferson County probate judge place 1.
The suit, filed the day Ivey announced the appointment, alleges she circumvented the Jefferson County Judicial Commission’s nominating process. She should have selected an appointee from a list of three nominees provided by the commission as the state’s Constitution requires, the suit says.
“Because Judge Naftel was not lawfully or properly appointed as Probate Judge of Jefferson County, he is currently usurping, intruding, and unlawfully holding that office,” the suit alleges.
Ivey’s office said she disagrees with the suit’s interpretation of the law.
“The state constitution gives the governor the authority to fill this vacancy,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary. “Judge Naftel is highly qualified to serve as probate judge, and the governor looks forward to his many years of excellent public service to the people of Jefferson County and the state as a whole.”
Barry Ragsdale, an attorney with the firm Sirote & Permutt, P.C., said that he has no issue with who Ivey chose, only how she did it.
“I frankly have nothing but respect for Judge Naftel,” Ragsdale said. “I think he’ll make a great probate judge. I think he’s going to end up being the probate judge, but it’s about protecting a process that we’ve had in Jefferson County for 70 years.”
Jefferson County was the first of six counties to create such a commission. It originally applied only to Jefferson County Circuit Court, but that was expanded in 1973 to include any judicial office, the suit says — including probate judges.
Ragsdale said it is important because the process is meant to provide local input into whom potential judges are. Commissioners are local citizens who likely know the people they nominate, whereas a governor probably doesn’t.
“That takes most of the politics out of it,” Ragsdale said. He noted that before the first commission was created in 1950, George Wallace appointed his relatives to the bench when vacancies opened. A local screening process prevents that, Ragsdale said.
“We have that, we fought for it, and we fought governors for decades to follow the process,” he said.
Ragsdale believes this is a case of a governor simply wanting to exercise power, he said.
“She’s absolutely wrong about what the law says, and we intend to prove that,” Ragsdale said.
Ivey announces SiO2’s $163 million expansion in Auburn
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday that SiO2 Materials Science plans to invest $163 million in an expansion at its Auburn facility.
The announcement came just after securing a major contract to supply the federal government with vials to support the COVID-19 vaccine effort if and when an effective vaccine is developed. The project will create 220 jobs.
“It is exciting to know that SiO2 will be directly involved in providing a product essential to addressing the COVID-19 crisis, which will impact not only Alabamians but the entire country,” Ivey said. “This is a testament to the ingenuity of this great company and its growing Alabama workforce.”
Economic developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Vials produced by SiO2 Materials Science may be the critical component needed to ensure safety in the vaccine distribution process. The breakthrough technology developed by the Auburn-based company provides a glimmer of hope amidst challenging times and showcases how Alabamians are working diligently to craft solutions that will assist our nation and the world in the fight against COVID-19. In addition, the 220 new, high-skilled jobs housed in Auburn Technology Park West will bring economic benefits to Lee County as well as the entire state of Alabama.”
The expansion will allow SiO2 to increase its production capacity so that it can meet the expected demand for vials and syringes when a coronavirus vaccine is finally approved for mass use.
In June, SiO2 announced an $143 million contract with federal government agencies for a production scale-up of the company’s state-of-the-art packaging platform for storing novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) vaccines and therapeutics.
Bobby Abrams is the CEO of SiO2.
“The pandemic presents an enormous challenge for all people,” Abrams said. “We are extremely grateful for Senator Shelby’s steadfast support and assistance, and we’re honored to collaborate with our government so a COVID-19 vaccine can be safely and quickly distributed. The State of Alabama and the City of Auburn for many years have been very supportive of SiO2 Materials Science during its research, development, commercialization, and now scale-up phases of the company.”
Over the last 10 years, SiO2 has developed its patented vial platform, which combines a plastic container with a microscopic, pure glass coating on the inside that is ideal for biological drugs and vaccines. The product, developed in Auburn with help from experts from four major U.S. research institutions, combines the benefits of both glass and plastic without drawbacks.
“There are problems with plastic, and there are problems with glass, and we resolve all of them,” Abrams said.
SiO2 will expand its existing facility at 2250 Riley Street and will invest in a new molding facility at 2425 Innovation Drive, both located in the Auburn Technology Park West.
Construction is already under way to expand the facility on Innovation Drive. The completed approximately 70,000-square-foot facility will increase the production capacity of SiO2’s injection molding operation.
“We’re proud to have some of the world’s leading scientists and product developers working in our community,” Auburn Mayor Ron Anders said. “With the presence of these companies and Auburn University’s outstanding medical and engineering programs, we believe we’ll see significant growth in the biotech industry right here in Auburn. On top of that, the well-paying jobs created through this project will result in significant economic opportunities for our local businesses.”
Greg Canfield, the secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said that SiO2’s expansion project in Auburn will help ensure that the nation’s health authorities have an ample supply of vials and syringes to administer a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as it is developed.
“Having a steady supply of SiO2’s innovative vials will represent a key strategic advantage for federal agencies wanting to act rapidly once a vaccine is available to counter the coronavirus,” Canfield said.
Robert S. Langer is a professor at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT and a company adviser.
A key element of SiO2’s product is enhanced safety for healthcare providers and for patients, who are at a lower risk of adverse side effects. A combination of plastic and a microscopic layer of glass also means vials and syringes won’t break, shatter or crack. SiO2 ships its products worldwide.
“Many drug development and drug formulation innovations can be limited due to variables associated with traditional glass vials and syringes,” Langer said. “The SiO2 vials and syringes eliminate these variables and allow drug development partners to bring their innovations to life.”
SiO2 is a privately-owned company based in Auburn, where it has around 200 employees. The Retirement Systems of Alabama provided early financial support for the company.
517,464 people have already died from the COVID-19 global pandemic, including 130,602 Americans.