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McCutcheon announces emergency task force in response to DOJ prison report

Brandon Moseley

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Speaker Mac McCutcheon claps as Gov. Kay Ivey delivers the 2019 state of the state address before a joint session of the Alabama Legislature in the Old House Chambers of the Alabama State Capitol on March 5, 2019. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said the state is creating an emergency task force to address the U.S. Department of Justice’s report alleging violence and a callous acceptance of prisoner-on-prisoner violence by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to sue the state if it does not address the findings in the report.

The DOJ is suggesting that how Alabama treats its prisoners may constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishments.

Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

 

“This Legislature recognizes that Alabama’s correctional system is experiencing critical and fundamental issues, and we are committed to finding the solutions necessary to fix them,” McCutcheon said. “The problem within the correctional system did not occur overnight, and they cannot be resolved overnight, but we are determined to address them. Like any major undertaking, tackling this issue will be a combined effort between the governor’s office, the legislature, and the attorney general’s office.”

“Steps have already been taken to comply with the federal court orders issued in pending cases over mental health services in prisons, and we will faithfully continue those efforts,” McCutcheon added referring to a federal court case brought by the ACLU on behalf of inmates.

“We are also working to impanel an emergency task force of legislators, members of the executive and judicial branches, corrections professionals, and other stakeholders,” McCutcheon added. “This task force will be responsible for finding both short and long term solutions to the facility needs, staffing shortages, and other infrastructure breakdowns within the prison system. As speaker, I know that the Alabama House of Representatives stands ready to do its part.”

McCutcheon told reporters they have met with representatives from the Department of Justice about the prison conditions.

The speaker said that the task force will be tasked with figuring out what do we need to fix this and go forward.

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The speaker was asked if he was surprised by the report.

“No, I am still reading the report, but based on my career in law enforcement I am not surprised. There are parts of the report that yes are in some ways surprising. We had some indications, when we were talking about the bond issue about the safety inside the facility.

“I come from a law enforcement background,” McCutcheon said. “When you are dealing with violent type individuals and there are shortages” in corrections officers there are going to be problems with security.

The 2020 general fund budget request by Gov. Kay Ivey includes $30 million for hiring 500 more prison guards.

“This needs to be a priority,” McCutcheon said.

Reporters asked if Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn should be fired.

“No, I think Commissioner Dunn is doing a great job,” McCutcheon said. The Department of Justice representatives praised him. Ultimately, that is the decision of the governor. “That is beyond my pay grade.”

Reporters asked if the state should construct new prisons.

“I think it needs to be in the discussion,” McCutcheon said. “Some of our facilities were built back in the 30s. Things like line of sight,” are problems. “It becomes a safety issue.”

The Alabama Political Reporter asked: We talked with Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) yesterdays and he said that the state is going to have to pick up funding 20 percent of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) starting in 2021 and that will cost $120 million a year. Now there is the problem of addressing the prison report. Is it safe to say that we are going to need $200 million more in the general fund next year?

“Not at this point,” McCutcheon said. “It would be premature,” of me to put out a number like that.

The report alleges: “Our experts’ on site interviews of captains and lieutenants revealed that many ADOC staff appear to accept the high level of violence and sexual abuse in ADOC as a normal course of business, including acquiescence to the idea that prisoners will be subjected to sexual abuse as a way to pay debts accrued to other prisoners.”

Prisoners reported being raped. Prisoners reported being sexually abused because they reported sexual abuse.

The Alabama Political Reporter exposed much of the culture of corrupt prison guards, violent gangs, violence, drug and cell phone smuggling in our exclusive investigative report three years ago.

President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice reported their concerns about conditions in the Alabama Corrections system to address the issues to Gov. Robert Bentley’s administration.

Bentley presented an ambitious plan to build four mega prisons in 2016. That plan failed to gain support in the legislature and also stalled in 2017. Frustrated with Alabama’s inability to act, Attorney General Loretta Lynch order the DOJ investigation into Alabama’s prison system in the closing days of the Obama administration. AG Jeff Sessions oversaw much of the investigation. DOJ is threatening to sue the state if it does not come up with a plan in the next sixty days.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Corruption

Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail

Josh Moon

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Former Alabama Sen. David Burkette

Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday. 

Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.

He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal. 

“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports. 

The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations. 

The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.

The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign. 

“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”

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Legislature

Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws

Josh Moon

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Former State Sen. David Burkette

David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act. 

According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council. 

The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated. 

The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018. 

In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.

The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.

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Legislature

Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage

Josh Moon

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Sen. Doug Jones speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (VIA CSPAN)

What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job. 

These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.

The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials. 

Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices. 

The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.

“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”

Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare. 

Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities. 

A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest. 

“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”

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Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace. 

That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents. 

“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.

“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”

The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like. 

On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.

 

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Elections

Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49

Brandon Moseley

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House District 49 Republican nominee Russell Bedsole

As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.

At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.

“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.

Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.

“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”

Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.

There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.

Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.

The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.

Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.

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The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”

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