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North Alabama U.S. attorney collects more than $9 million in civil, criminal actions in 2018

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Attorney Jay Town announced Thursday that the Northern District of Alabama collected $9,044,060.80 in criminal and civil actions in Fiscal Year 2018. Of this amount, $7,221,160.63 was collected in criminal actions, and $1,822,900.17 was collected in civil actions.

Additionally, the Northern District of Alabama worked with other U.S. Attorney’s Offices and components of the Department of Justice to collect an additional $1,651,100.00 in cases pursued jointly by these offices.

The U.S. Justice Department, as a whole, collected nearly $15 billion in civil and criminal actions in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2018. The $14,839,821,650 in collections in FY 2018 represents nearly seven times the appropriated $2.13 billion budget for the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices.

“The men and women of the U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country work diligently, day in and day out, to see that the citizens of our nation receive justice,” said Director of Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys James Crowell. “The money that we are able to recover for victims and this country as a whole is a direct result of their hard work.”

“The prosecutors and support staff in my office strive each day to put criminals behind bars and protect the public fisc, and the collection of civil and criminal debts is an essential part of that,” Town said. “The forfeitures collected shows our continued commitment to pursue the recovery of those ill-gotten gains so that victims of crime, and the federal treasury can be given restitution. We will continue to do so aggressively.”

The U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, along with the department’s litigating divisions, are responsible for enforcing and collecting civil and criminal debts owed to the U.S. and criminal debts owed to federal crime victims. The law requires that defendants pay restitution to victims of certain federal crimes who have suffered a physical injury or financial loss. While restitution is paid to the victim, criminal fines and felony assessments are paid to the department’s Crime Victims Fund, which distributes the funds collected to federal and state victim compensation and victim assistance programs.

The largest civil collections were from affirmative civil enforcement cases, in which the United States recovered government money lost to fraud or other misconduct or collected fines imposed on individuals and/or corporations for violations of federal health, safety, civil rights or environmental laws. In addition, civil debts were collected on behalf of several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Internal Revenue Service, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Education.

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National

Remembering songwriter John Prine who died this week

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, song writing legend John Prine died from coronavirus complications.

John Prine was a singer-songwriter who wrote such songs as “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There” and scores of other tunes. He was 73.

The family announced in March that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He was hospitalized on March 26 and put on a ventilator. He died in intensive care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

His wife, Fiona, also tested positive for COVID-19 and she has since recovered, but her husband was hospitalized on March 26 with coronavirus symptoms. He was put on a ventilator and remained in the intensive care unit for several days.

Prine was the winner of a lifetime achievement Grammy earlier this year.

Music critics remember Prine as a virtuoso of the soul, if not the body. He sang his lyrics in a voice roughened by a hard-luck life, particularly after throat cancer left him with a disfigured jaw.

He joked that he fumbled so often on the guitar, taught to him as a teenager by his older brother, that people thought he was inventing a new style.

Prine was a U.S. Army veteran who became a mailman in Maywood, Illiinois. He and his friend, folk singer Steve Goodman were writing songs and performing at the Old Town School of Folk Music, when they were heard by Kris Kristofferson, then a rising country and pop music singer. Kristofferson invited the two to perform with him in Chicago and New York City and Prine’s career was launched.

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Prine’s open-heartedness, eye for detail and sharp and surreal humor brought him praise from both critics and peers including: Bob Dylan, Kristofferson, Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves. Musgraves even named a song after him.

In 2017, Rolling Stone proclaimed him “The Mark Twain of American songwriting.”

The late film critic Roger Ebert heard one of his performances with Kristofferson and declared that he was an “extraordinary new composer.”

Prine signed with Atlantic Records and released his first album in 1971.

“I was really into writing about characters, givin’ ’em names,” Prine said, reminiscing about his long career in a January 2016 public television interview that was posted on his website.

“You just sit and look around you. You don’t have to make up stuff. If you just try to take down the bare description of what’s going on, and not try to over-describe something, then it leaves space for the reader or the listener to fill in their experience with it, and they become part of it.”

“I try to look through someone else’s eyes,” he told Ebert in 1970.

Alabama Music Hall of Fame Board Member Perry O. Hooper Jr. told the Alabama Political Reporter: “I join music lovers across the nation as we mourn the death of John Prine. We also celebrate his legacy of songs that will forever be remembered. From his debut album in 1971, John Prine has been hailed as one of the greatest songwriters America has ever produced. John didn’t become a superstar in the commercial sense. The debut album, “John Prine,” never even reached the Top 100 of the pop charts. The only substantial airplay any of those 13 early songs received was via versions by Bette Midler “Hello in There” and of course my favorite Bonnie Raitt’s rendition of “Angel From Montgomery”.

Hooper said that, “Prine was drawn to Montgomery as the songs setting by virtue of being a fan of Hank Williams. Within the creative community however, it was a different matter. John did become a superstar. He was acclaimed over the years by John Lennon, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris and, to complete the circle, Elton John and Bernie Taupin.”

“More recently, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Conor Oberst and Margo Price are among the dozens of top-level artists who have toured or recorded with him,” Hooper continued. John twice won a Grammy for best folk album and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy. His body of work isan American treasure.

Prine is one of 16,691 Americans who have died from COVID-19 since the disease first came to America in laste January.

(Original reporting by the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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Health

Feds seizing needed supplies slowed state’s COVID-19 testing efforts

Chip Brownlee

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Add Alabama to the list of states that have had trouble acquiring needed medical supplies from commercial vendors because the federal government intervened and took the supplies.

The federal government has been quietly seizing orders of medical supplies, protective gear and testing materials across the country, and Alabama has not been immune.

The federal government’s actions, blocking the shipment of those supplies, impeded the state’s ability to roll out widespread testing and added to supply shortages in the state, officials say.

The Alabama Department of Public Health told APR Thursday that several shipments of supplies from commercial vendors have been superseded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in the state.

“It’s been happening all along,” said State Health Officer Scott Harris. “We had orders through about three different vendors, national vendors that we would normally use for medical supplies. They had accepted the orders and given us a ship date.”

But then the vendors called and canceled the orders.

“They say, you know, the inventory was acquired by HHS,” Harris said, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have not publicly reported these acquisitions, according to the Los Angeles Times, nor has the administration detailed how these supplies are being used, when they decide to seize them and where the supplies are being rerouted to.

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The first time was three weeks ago. The state placed an order for about four thousand nasopharyngeal swabs, the long Q-tip like swabs used to perform COVID-19 tests. The order was accepted, but before it could be shipped, HHS seized the supplies.

“That was one of the things that slowed our rollout of testing around the state because there were no supplies to be had,” Harris said.

Since then, the state and hospitals have been able to acquire supplies from other vendors, but the delays have hampered testing, putting Alabama behind other states like Louisiana. As of Thursday, Louisiana had tested nearly 90,000 people for the virus. The number includes most commercial tests.

The main issue facing the state has not been the so-called “test kits” or even the state lab’s capacity to run tests.

“We’ve had days where we thought we were going to be out of reagent, and we’ve wondered if we were going to have to hold off testing, but we haven’t had to stop,” Harris said. “We’ve had some just-in-time deliveries that we weren’t sure were coming.”

The real issue has been the swabs needed to collect samples. Hospitals and health officials across the state, from Huntsville to Mobile, have at one point or another reported severe shortages of nasopharyngeal swabs.

“We’re bidding against every other state in the country, and in some cases, we’re bidding against health care facilities here in our own state who are doing their own testing,” Harris said of the process of acquiring swabs and other supplies.

ADPH and hospitals have been able to get more of those supplies, and Alabama has slowly ramped up testing as a result. But it has not been easy. “Getting those swabs and viral transport media has really been the rate-limiting step for most of our testing clinics,” Harris said.

As of Thursday, the state has tested about 20,000 people, nearly twice the number reported five days ago on April 4. Testing has been increasing over the past week and a half, Harris said.

More have been tested, but it’s hard to know exactly how many because not all commercial labs are reporting the number of negative tests they conduct. Harris said the state has asked the commercial labs to report those numbers, but some have been slow to do so.

Alabama has also had trouble receiving other types of needed medical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment. Some of the shipments seized by the federal government have been personal protective equipment intended to refill dwindling supplies at some of the state’s harder hit hospitals, nursing homes and other providers, according to Dr. Donald Williamson, the president of the Alabama Hospital Association.

Though no hospital has run out of PPE, some have been running low, Williamson said. But hospitals have been forced to take unusual measures to conserve supplies, particularly the N95 masks that offer the most protection to health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

The city of Montgomery in late March received 28 cases of protective masks from the strategic national stockpile, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. When the city opened the shipment, about 5,800 of the masks had dry rot and an expiration date of 2010.

The difficulties in the supply chain have also affected the state’s ability to acquire new ventilators. Harris told APR on Friday that the state asked the federal government for 500 ventilators, and for 200 of them to be delivered urgently. HHS indicated that it would not fulfill the request anytime soon, and that the state could expect additional ventilators only if a dire need was expected within 72 hours.

So Alabama, like a number of states, is being forced to try to source ventilators on its own through the private market, where thousands of hospitals, all the other states and countries all over the world are trying to do the same, causing prices to skyrocket.

Alabama has placed an order for 250 more ventilators, and that order has been accepted, but it has not shipped yet, Harris said.

“We’re just not sure when they’re going to get here,” Harris said. “But we will need them in the next 14 days.”

In the meantime, Alabama has shipped about a dozen out-of-date ventilators to California for refurbishment. About half of those have been returned and distributed to hospitals based on their need. The state has also added to its ventilator capacity by retrofitting anesthesia machines and veterinary ventilators for use on those infected with the virus. Even though the state has added about two hundred new ventilators into service, the usage rate of ventilators has remained about the same. As of April 8, at least 101 people have required mechanical ventilation in Alabama for COVID-19. The number is expected to rise in the next weeks.

In the meantime, the state has had trouble getting ventilators from private vendors because the components needed to produce them have been redirected by the federal government to Ford and GM, who have been ordered to manufacture ventilators in mass quantities.

“They have had first-choice at these parts,” Harris said. “So the people who normally make ventilators can’t get those parts, which slows down delivery for all of us who’ve gone through the normal channels to get them where we would normally get them.”

Williamson and Harris said the state and its hospitals, which are already facing a cash crunch, have been forced to pay inflated prices for needed supplies because demand is high and supply is short.

“Some of our folks are seeing prices substantially higher than they normally have for PPE, specifically N95 masks. Some of it is supply and demand, and some of it is people taking advantage of an unfortunate situation,” Williamson said.

The state has been able to identify supply to help support hospitals who are sourcing their own, too, but the costs are exorbitant and a majority of the “vendors” offering to supply the state with supplies are counterfeit.

“You know, you would normally pay 60 or 70 cents for a mask,” Harris said. “These offers are typically $5 or $6 per mask now. I’ve seen some are asking for $10 or whatever, which is truly outrageous.”

The governor’s office, the Department of Commerce and the attorney general’s office have been helping the Department of Public Health source needed supplies.

“We’re doing our best to source those any way we can,” Harris said.

Harris and Williamson both said PPE supply and ventilator capacity, at least right now, appear to be in decent shape.

“I’m feeling better about ventilators,” Williamson said. “But it would always be nice to have more. With the surge we’re expecting, we seem to be okay. We’ve only had a couple of instances where we’ve had to try to assist and help move ventilators from one hospital to another hospital, but we’ve been able to do that and no one has gone without a ventilator who needed one.”

But the Department of Public Health expects a rise in hospitalizations over the next two weeks that could add further strain the state’s health care system.

“Let’s see what happens over the next week, but for today, we are much better prepared than we would have been, frankly, a few months ago,” Williamson said.

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National

Governor Ivey launches new COVID-19 search engine tool

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Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday announced the launch of a COVID-19 search engine tool that enhances the state’s official resource site, altogetheralabama.org.

Through a public-private partnership between Yext and the state of Alabama, this innovative platform will provide real-time answers to questions about everything from the virus itself, through a symptom checker that was developed at UAB, to upcoming COVID-19 testing site locations. 

This service is free of charge and can be accessed either through altogetheralabama.org or directly at covid19.alabama.gov.

“My priority as governor is making sure every Alabamian has the most accurate, up-to-date information about COVID-19, so we can keep our families safe,” Governor Ivey said. “To help with this, we’ve partnered with our friends in the private sector, Yext, to build this search engine tool that works in conjunction with our official resource site Altogether Alabama.”

“We are indebted to Yext for generously offering its resources and innovative technology to support the crucial job of keeping our state informed during this pandemic. Simply put, current information can be lifesaving and this resource will prove invaluable to all who use it,” Ivey said.

Using this search engine, someone can type a question about COVID-19 and get instant results directing them to answers from our local, state and federal partners.

“During a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, accurate answers can be a matter of life and death,” said Howard Lerman, Founder and CEO of Yext. “With Yext Answers, we can help every government organization deliver that critical information and save as many lives as possible.”

The search engine provides factual information regarding this new virus and will provide additional information that complements the work of the Alabama Department of Health.

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State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said, “I want to express my gratitude to Yext for donating services and support for the covid19.alabama.gov information hub. This further enables the Alabama Department of Public Health and the state of Alabama to provide our residents with vital resources to health information during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. Surgeon General of Bayou La Batre, served as an expert health care consultant in the site development and provided valuable insight of information most needed by the public.

“The information hub covid19.alabama.gov puts real-time, up to date information at the general public’s fingertips, including the latest health stats, a UAB-symptom checker, and test site locations,” says Dr. Benjamin. “You can ask ‘Natural Language’ questions and be directed to answers from trusted sources such as the ADPH, CDC, and the Federation of American Scientists.”

 

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Congress

ADOL begins paying federal $600 stimulus benefit

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Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington announced today Alabama has begun paying the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit that was established with the passing of the federal CARES Act on March 27, 2020.

ADOL began paying the FPUC benefits on April 8, 2020.  Claimants whose claims have processed should expect to see the funds within 2-3 days, if not sooner.  ADOL paid $40,060,495 in FPUC benefits to 60,848 claimants yesterday.

Under the legislation, anyone receiving unemployment compensation benefits is eligible for the additional $600 a week stimulus payment. The payment is added to the recipient’s state weekly benefit amount (maximum of $275/week). The payments will be made for eligible weeks beginning on March 29, 2020 through July 25,2020. This does not refer to the date the original claim was filed, but to the weeks being claimed.  For example, if someone filed their initial claim on March 16, 2020, and remains out of work, they will not receive the additional $600 for the weeks beginning March 15 or March 22, but would receive it for the week beginning March 29, and all weeks going forward.

ADOL will make payments retroactively for weeks already claimed since March 29, 2020.

“We understand the frustration of many Alabamians who are out of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and we know that they need these benefits to stay afloat,” said Washington.  “We are working as hard as we can to make sure that everyone gets the benefits they need as quickly as they can.  We are one of the first states to begin distributing these funds. We continue to urge patience as the department works to implement this vital legislation.”

Programs included in the legislation:

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) – provides unemployment benefits to those not ordinarily eligible for them. This includes individuals who are self-employed or contract employees. This benefit is retroactive to January 27, 2020.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) – provides $600 per week to any individual eligible for any of the Unemployment Compensation programs. This benefit begins March 29, 2020. 

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Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) – allows for an additional 13 weeks of benefits added to the end of regular unemployment benefits. This means claimants may collect unemployment benefits for a longer period of time than under normal circumstances.

ADOL is encouraging anyone who believes they may be eligible for these programs to file a claim at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382. Online filing is strongly encouraged.

Those who already have an active claim, or who have already filed a claim, DO NOT NEED TO REFILE to be eligible for these benefits. ADOL will begin processing PUA and PEUC claims as soon as administratively possible.

Important note: None of the benefits described above, nor unemployment benefits of any kind, are available to employees who quit without good work-related cause, refuse to return to work, or refuse to receive full-time pay. Refusing to return to work could result in a disqualification for benefit eligibility. Attempts to collect unemployment benefits after quitting a job without good work-related cause is considered to be fraud.

The CARES Act specifically provides for serious consequences for fraudulent cases including fines, confinement, and an inability to receive future unemployment benefits until all fraudulent claims and fines have been repaid. Employers are encouraged to utilize the New Hire system to report those employees who fail to return to work.

 

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