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Josh Moon

Opinion | Steve Marshall … fighting for ethics and the law?

Josh Moon

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Give Steve Marshall a round of applause.

No, I mean it. Fair is fair, give the man his due — he’s done his job as Attorney General of Alabama this week.

On Monday, Marshall’s office filed a response to former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s Alabama Supreme Court appeal. And if you were concerned that the AG’s office might mail it in to aid both Hubbard and some of Marshall’s top donors — who were accused of bribing Hubbard — you were wrong.

The response, likely written by Clark Morris, the new head of special prosecutions at the AG’s office, did not cut Hubbard any slack, made sound legal arguments and — maybe more importantly, given the ALSC’s tendency to ignore the law and legal precedent — made good, common-sense arguments.  

This follows a bold comment from Marshall’s office last week in which the AG challenged top GOP lawmakers on their efforts to blow up the state’s ethics laws. Marshall could have kept quiet about it, tried to work it behind the scenes, but instead, he took a stand … for ethics.

Look, I know what you’re thinking, and yeah, I’m as surprised as you to be writing this. I have cut Marshall no slack since he began his quest to obtain the AG’s office, and demonstrating a willingness to do anything, cut any corner, bend any law, accept any sketchy relationship to achieve it.

But fair is fair. The guy did his job.

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Maybe just doing your job shouldn’t warrant an entire column of praise. Actually, there’s no maybe about it. It shouldn’t.

But in this state, with elected goobers scurrying into every nefarious corner imaginable and everyone doing their dead-level best to avoid doing anything to stop anyone from stealing from the poor to pad the pockets of the rich, sometimes you have to make exceptions.

This is one of those times.

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Because to be more fair, Marshall did go a bit above and beyond. He was facing serious heat to support the ethics reforms. Sources close to the situation told APR last week that Marshall was told his office stood to lose all of its state funding if he didn’t support it.

That tactic has been tried before — back when the AG’s office, then led by Luther Strange, was prosecuting Hubbard. It was a threat Hubbard’s GOP lawmaker pals employed in a pathetic attempt to get Strange and then-prosecutor Matt Hart to back off.

It didn’t work then and it apparently isn’t working this time, either.

The statement issued by Marshall’s office wasn’t exactly fire and brimstone defiance, but it made it clear that the AG’s office was firmly against the proposed changes.

Those changes would annihilate the ethics laws, reopening state government to a virtual free-for-all. Lobbyists could give unlimited gifts to lawmakers. There would be almost no one to investigate crooked politicians. And Alabama would become even more of a pay-to-play state.

Marshall made clear that those changes were no good, and they would hamper his office’s ability to prosecute several matters before it now. One of those being the appeal of Hubbard, which GOP honchos are trying desperately to get overturned.

And they’re using the same old tired arguments that we’ve heard a thousand times: Matt Hart was an overzealous prosecutor who abused the well-intentioned-but-unclear ethics laws that prevent a good man from making a living simply because he’s an elected official.

Of course, that is complete and utter nonsense. And Marshall’s office, in its response to Hubbard’s appeal, said so in some of the plainest English you’ll ever find in a filing from a state AG’s office.

“Hubbard asserts that he was just trying to ‘make a living as other citizens do,’ Marshall wrote in a press release announcing Monday’s filing. “But private citizens cannot earn a living through jobs that involve minimal work and training over scotch. They cannot collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for occasionally calling a legislator. They cannot email lobbyists and expect riches. In short, private citizens cannot use a ‘public office … for private gain.’”

The filing also uses Hubbard’s own words and the testimony of his friends and colleagues to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that the former speaker knew full well that he was crossing ethical boundaries and violating the public’s trust, but did so anyway because he was desperate to cash in on his power and position.

The filing from Marshall’s office is convincing and it is damning. And it’s surprising.

Of all the people to save ethics laws and that smidge of decency that we have left in our state government, I never dreamed it would be Steve Marshall. But it’s nice to see the effort.

 

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Elections

Opinion | Voter suppression is still a deciding factor in Alabama elections

Josh Moon

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John Merrill is going to write me a snarky letter, and that’s OK. 

I’m going to write a snarky column about Alabama’s voter suppression — and Merrill’s role in it — and I don’t write these things expecting everyone to agree. I write them so at least a few people will at least consider that the way things are in this state aren’t the way they have to be. 

And nowhere is that more true than with Alabama’s access to the ballot box. 

Now, before Merrill and the other rightwing hacks start banging out replies, let’s get a few things straight. Because while all of them will be entitled to their own opinions, they won’t be entitled to their own facts. 

A standard response from the right whenever these matters of ballot access pop up is to demand to know the identity of a single person who lacks the ability or necessary access to be able to vote. Name someone, Merrill loves to say, and I’ll go to their house and make sure … blah, blah, blah. 

But this is not the point, and they know it. 

As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out in a new report, what Alabama lawmakers have done is to place speed bumps between voters and the ballot in the hopes that with enough speed bumps they can discourage certain targeted groups from voting. 

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That’s the point of Alabama’s voter ID law. And it’s not hard to prove. 

Correspondence between lawmakers in North Carolina — which has ID laws that Alabama lawmakers essentially copied — laid bare just how targeted and intentionally suppressive the ID law was in that state. A federal judge wrote that it targeted black voters with “surgical precision.” 

The same thing is happening here. Because the same laws are being used here. 

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ID laws largely target poor, minority communities and young people, and they establish a barrier between those would-be voters and the polls. They also do absolutely zero to prevent fraud in this state. 

It doesn’t matter how many roving caravans Merrill and his staff set up to get IDs to people. The fact remains that thousands of people are being forced to take an extra step, and/or pay extra money, to cast a legal vote. 

Under our old system, which allowed dozens of different forms to establish a voter’s ID, we had zero issues. In fact, in the last 30 years, there has been one instance in which a voter’s identity was stolen and an illegal ballot cast. And that one instance was caught and prosecuted. 

Whenever a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is implemented into law, you can bet that the goal wasn’t to actually solve a problem. It was to create one for someone else. 

Alabama doesn’t stop there. 

In addition to a worthless ID law, we also don’t offer same-day — or even same-week — voter registration. Instead, the deadline to register is 14 days prior to an election, which, in this cyber world where everything is handled by computers, is an eternity. 

It used to be just seven days. But after the Voting Rights Act was gutted a few years ago, Alabama lawmakers took the opportunity to target a handful of different groups. They got minority voters with the ID laws, and they took aim at young voters by toying with the registration laws. 

Young voters tend to procrastinate and tend to be driven by their peers. As the hype around an election grows, the more interested they become.

And since young people tend to vote for Democrats, well, I think you see how we got here. 

That’s not all. 

There is also no automatic voter registration in Alabama, which makes no sense with the voter ID law in place. If you have the proper ID, why in the world couldn’t you register online and go vote the same day? Why couldn’t you fill out the registration form at the polling place? 

None of it makes any sense, unless, of course, your goal isn’t to make the process of registering to vote as easy as possible, but is instead to deter certain groups of people from casting a ballot. 

To be clear, I don’t necessarily blame Merrill for any of this, and you shouldn’t either. As far as Republican secretaries of state go, he hasn’t been that bad, and has on many occasions gone out of his way to offset the negative effects of these suppressive laws. 

That said, voting and ballot access is within the purview of the SOS’s office, and as such, Merrill has a duty to speak up when unfair laws are passed and implemented. He has a duty to correct injustices in the state’s voting processes, and he has a duty to inform the Legislature when laws they pass are having a negative effect. 

It doesn’t matter the percentage of people that Merrill’s office has registered to vote, or how many registrations he’s managed from his caravan. 

The goal is fair elections. And Alabama’s are far from it.

 

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Elections

Opinion | Tuberville, Byrne and Sessions: Selling fear because they have no good ideas

Josh Moon

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Tommy Tuberville wants to scare white people. Bradley Byrne wants to scare white people. Jeff Sessions wants to scare white people. 

The Muslims are going to kill us all. The black people are committing scary crimes and kneeling a lot. The Hispanics are hauling deadly drugs over the border to kill your grandkids. The terrorists — not the white ones — are coming for you where you sleep. Everyone hates the police.

Be afraid, Alabama. 

Be so afraid that you elect one of these mind-less, plan-less, fear-mongering buffoons to represent you in the U.S. Senate. 

This is what passes for a political strategy in this state, apparently. Three guys doing their dead level best to convince you — in a time of record low crime rates, mind you — that the non-white scary people are coming to injure or kill you and your loved ones. 

Unless you elect God-fearing, gun-toting Tuberville/Sessions/Byrne to … hell, who even knows? They never get around to telling you how they’re going to save you from black/Hispanic Antifa, just that black/Hispanic Antifa is definitely going to kill you/change the America you love if you don’t elect someone who loves America/the Anthem/Trump/filming selfie videos while driving. 

They also never get around — and pay attention here, please — to telling you how they’re going to do anything. 

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Like, at all. 

They have no plan for anything. Not for bettering education. Not for solving our rural health care issues. Not for correcting the low-wage issues that kill this state. Not for getting more than 300,000 Alabamians into a doctor’s office for regular checkups. 

Not even for these scary terrorists and non-whites.

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Seriously, go to their websites. Look at the “issues” portion. It’s the dumbest, most generic bunch of garbage you’ll read today. (Well, except for Sessions’ website, which doesn’t even bother with an “issues” section.)

I’m not going to waste time with their pandering BS on phony issues like guns, “the economy,” and abortion. No one is coming for your guns, the courts will decide the abortion issue, not the legislative branch, and the idea that you can reduce the complexities of “the economy” into a single topic covered by a single paragraph from a candidate tells you how seriously they’re taking this. 

Let’s instead focus on the two biggest issues for most Alabamians: Health care and education. 

We’re dead last or pretty close to dead last in both large categories and in most of the sub-categories related to both. Basically, we’re sick and dumb. 

Here are the candidates’ plans for addressing these issues. 

On health care, both Byrne and Tuberville want to abolish Obamacare (because polling told them that that’s a popular thing to say) and they want to replace it with … “a free-market plan” that magically covers everyone for less money and with pre-existing conditions covered. 

Those are not plans. Those are dreams. 

Actually, I take that back. They’re not even dreams. They’re lies. 

Neither has a single, solitary idea on the specifics of how to solve Alabama’s complicated issues related to health care. Not a single idea.

And, again, Sessions didn’t even pretend that he had an idea, either. 

On education, where Alabama is lagging both in churning out well-rounded students and in producing a job-ready workforce, Byrne and Tuberville are similarly plan-less. 

Tuberville believes that our education woes can be solved by “school choice,” and “improving existing public schools.” Which is like saying you’re going to overcome your diabetes by not having diabetes anymore. 

Byrne, on the other hand, wants to improve education by opposing “the federal government telling teachers and parents how to educate our children in Alabama.” In other words, nothing. He wants to literally do nothing. 

(And just as an aside for Mr. Byrne: historically, the only really good things that have ever happened in this state have come because the federal government told us to do some things). 

Also, again, Jeff Sessions didn’t even attempt the education question. But we know from his past work in the state that his answer is always to give less money and resources to the black kids. 

Are Republicans really this stupid? 

And I ask that not as an insult but as a challenge.

Because, honestly, I don’t believe you’re that stupid. That’s why I keep writing these columns, consistently shocked by the decisions of my friends and neighbors to elect obvious morons to office simply because those morons chose to pay their registration fee to the Republican Party. 

When are you going to stop this madness? When are you going to realize that government isn’t a team sport? 

Our system of government was meant to be representative of the people. That’s why we divvy up districts like we do — to assure that all communities and all people have representation that looks out for their best interests.  

But that doesn’t work if a whole bunch of people are just voting for a party and ignoring their own interests and problems. 

That’s what Byrne, Sessions and Tuberville are hoping for — that you’ll continue to be part of the team, sacrificing your well-being, and the well-being of your family and friends, to elect unprepared, ignorant mooches to office. That you’ll continue to fall for the scare tactics and generic fear-mongering. That you’ll ignore the candidate that best serves you and instead vote for the team that best scares you.  

The idea that you might is what scares me.

 

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House

Opinion | Jim Zeigler has reminded everyone how useless the state auditor is

Josh Moon

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Alabama is known for its bad politicians. 

From George Wallace to Mike Hubbard, and all the Guy Hunts and Robert Bentleys in between, we do political crooks better than anyone. And we’ve got more do-nothing, pander-happy, waste-of-space political dolts per capita than any other state. 

But rarely — I’d say maybe even never — has a politician come along who is so annoying, so pander-rific, so unbearable, so attention-starved, so utterly useless to everyone, including his own party, that legislators decided to completely eliminate his entire constitutional office. 

Not until State Auditor Jim Zeigler. 

On Thursday, Sen. Andrew Jones, who’s been in the Senate for about an hour, introduced a bill that would eliminate the state auditor’s office. That decision would have to be approved by voters, since the auditor is a constitutional office, so if the bill is approved by the Legislature it will appear on the November ballot. 

It would eliminate the office in 2022, which is when Zeigler would vacate it. But make no mistake about it, this bill came about because of Jim Zeigler. 

For years now, everyone has quietly wondered to themselves just what in the hell the state auditor does. And all of us secretly suspected that the auditor didn’t really do anything at all, but was instead like Milton from “Office Space” — surviving because someone forgot to fix a glitch in the system and the auditor, long after the invention of the computer and Internet, was somehow still getting a check. 

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Truthfully, the auditor’s position should have been eliminated once purchasing and inventory records landed online and were easily accessible by everyone in the state. 

Because all an auditor ever did was check purchases against inventory lists and ensure that the desk chair bought by the AG’s office wasn’t being used at the AG’s house. 

We don’t need that guy anymore. We haven’t needed that person in about 30 years now. 

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But we were all content, I believe, to go on allowing the position to remain because, honestly, it’s such a pain to eliminate it. You have to pass the bill in one house, then the other, then put it on the ballot and then get the people to vote — it’s a whole thing. And no one wanted to waste time on it. 

Until Jim Zeigler showed up. 

With his ridiculous ties and his shameless attention seeking. Worming his way into every controversial story. Issuing press releases and holding press conferences about things that have absolutely zero to do with auditing. Filing lawsuits against anyone for the simple pleasure of seeing his name in print somewhere. 

Along the way, though, as Zeigler alienated anyone within a 50-foot radius, he also reminded people that the state auditor’s office was still a thing. And when people tried to figure out just why in the world the state auditor was holding press conferences about the governor having an affair, those people had to first consider just what in the ever-loving hell the state auditor was actually supposed to be doing. 

And all of them came to the same conclusion: We have no idea, but we know it’s not much. Because if it was much, we wouldn’t let Zeigler do it. 

And then some people started to take a look at Zeigler — this seemingly harmless guy who has managed to insert himself, as state auditor, into a bridge debate in Mobile, a school tax debate in Athens, a governor’s investigation in Montgomery and a U.S. Senate race. 

Is he actually so harmless? 

This is, after all, the same guy who, by all appearances, misused a client’s funds so badly that the fee dispute committee of the Mobile Bar Association — a group of attorneys not exactly well known for its harsh strictness in punishing other attorneys — ordered him to give back $10,000 of a $12,000 retainer. 

A letter to Zeigler provided details of what he didn’t do after being paid by his elderly, veteran client: He didn’t do anything. 

The “complete estate planning,” for which his client had paid him, was left completely undone. Instead, Zeigler charged her for a number of services that did not require legal assistance, such as filling out a Medicaid nursing home eligibility form and a veterans aid and attendance application. 

Somewhere along the way, Zeigler was forced to give up his law license. 

Oh, he sold this story to everyone that he just didn’t want to pay the attorneys’ fees anymore, but that was nonsense. He could have placed the license on inactive status and not paid a dime. Instead, he agreed to surrender it to the disciplinary committee, and he told that committee that he would not try to get it back for at least two years.

Suspiciously, that is the exact same process and waiting period for a disbarred attorney. 

The bar keeps all of those records private, even after disciplinary action is taken, so there is no complete record of Zeigler’s possible transgressions. There’s no way to say for certain exactly what it is that Zeigler did, or didn’t do, or how he might have embarrassed us all one more time. 

But it was one more straw on the camel’s back. One more reminder that the state auditor wasn’t doing anything, except being an embarrassment. One more reminder that the state auditor was Jim Zeigler. 

And the response to all of that, from even his own party, is to get rid of the entire office.

 

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Education

Opinion | Alabama Charter School Commission finally did its job

Josh Moon

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Finally, the Alabama Charter School Commission is doing its job. 

On Monday, the Commission voted to revoke the charter for Woodland Prep, the beleaguered charter school in Washington County, and it took steps to force LEAD Academy, the steadily failing charter in Montgomery, to provide the Commission with necessary information to assure it is operating appropriately. 

It’s about time. 

The Charter Commission is the state’s lone line of defense ensuring that approved charter schools can and do provide a quality education that compliments the existing public school structure and makes good use of public tax dollars. And up until this point, there were plenty of questions if the Commission ever planned to take that responsibility seriously. 

And then Monday happened, and a little faith was restored. 

Credit where credit is due, this change in competency for the Commission is mostly due to the people who screwed up the board in the first place: Gov. Kay Ivey, Senate President Del Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon. 

After building an initial Commission that seemed far more interested in pushing through the applications of charter schools than adhering to rules and regulations put in place by the Legislature, Ivey, Marsh, McCutcheon and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth blew it up last year. (It should be noted that Ainsworth didn’t have an original selection, having been elected to office in 2018.)

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Facing a growing number of angry lawmakers and thousands of angry constituents, the Commission saw five new members be appointed last year. And there was a distinctly different feel to the appointments — moving away from the politically connected to former educators and nominees with experience in job training programs. 

That change was brought about by the outrage generated over the Commission’s approval of LEAD and Woodland. 

Those approvals followed the Commission completely disregarding regulations that required charter applicants to meet certain standards and gain the approval of a national certification organization. Neither group did. 

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But the Commission circumvented those regulations and ignored the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — a group the state paid handsomely to evaluate the applications of would-be charters. 

The NACSA rejected the applications from both Woodland and LEAD and cited specific issues — mostly dealing with their incomplete plans for operating a functioning school. 

The NACSA questioned LEAD’s financial projections and basically laughed at the proposed personnel figures. For Woodland, the NACSA raised questions about the school’s fundraising potential and was skeptical of the company hired to operate the school. 

You’ll never believe this: Those exact shortcomings led to myriad problems for both schools, which led to Monday’s showdown between the new Commission and the leadership from LEAD and Woodland. 

Honestly, it’s embarrassing that it ever got to this point. And it wouldn’t have if the Commission had simply followed the laws. 

But that wasn’t the goal under former chairman Mac Buttram. Instead, placing politics over principle and forcing through inferior charter applications seemed to be the goal. 

That was definitely the case in Montgomery, where local officials and some influential state leaders went to bat to get LEAD pushed through the process. The city desperately needed a charter — or really any shiny object — to take the eyes off its dreadful public school system, which city leaders and the wealthy whites have spent the last half-century destroying through systemic racism and underfunding. 

It’s to the point that the school system is driving away new families and making it difficult for Montgomery to service its debt. 

Charters were going to be the answer. And it didn’t matter if the charter was a good school. It just needed to be operational, so the folks in charge could point to this new school and proclaim it better simply because it wasn’t under the control of the local school board. 

In reality, LEAD had no business ever opening its doors. It was unprepared and under-staffed, and the NACSA had it nailed. 

Now, with barely more than half the school year gone, the overwhelming majority of LEAD’s staff has quit or been forced out. The new principal was forced out just weeks into the job, and then filed a lawsuit letting the world know that the school is unsafe and its management team shady. And the group managing the school quit, bailing on a five-year contract. 

Things are even worse for Woodland, which couldn’t manage to even get its building constructed. It was back before the Commission on Monday to ask for yet another extension to get off the ground. 

Woodland is not popular in Washington County, and a room full of people traveled to Montgomery to speak against the charter. 

The commissioners did not hold back on officials from either school. After berating those officials for several minutes, the Commission voted to deny Woodland’s request for another extension and revoke its license; the Commission also voted to give LEAD officials 30 days to satisfactorily answer a number of questions about its operations, and to complete a number of basic steps. 

It was a pleasant change.

 

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