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Opinion | Whose side is ADEM on?

Josh Moon

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Imagine this scenario: A thief calls the local police and tells them that he’s been stealing from local homes and businesses, and that he plans to steal more. He tells the cops when and where he’s been stealing, and when and where he plans on stealing from in the future. And the cops tell him that’s cool, and they do nothing.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Except, ADEM is actually worse than that.

On Wednesday evening, WHNT in Huntsville reported that 3M has, for years now, been dumping illegal chemicals, identified as PFSA, into the Tennessee River. And for many of those years, the company was reporting those illegal dumps to ADEM, which apparently ignored the reports or didn’t read them or simply didn’t care.

Honestly, we are to the point now that we’re probably worse off with ADEM than without. We should take the money that we’re apparently wasting on that staff and give it to the various Riverkeeper groups around Alabama. Hell, they find half of the problems, and provide much more honest and thorough reports, and do a much better job notifying the general public of problems than ADEM ever has.

Because the problems with ADEM go well beyond its continued cozy relationship with 3M, which has led to ADEM essentially being a non-participant in an ordeal that saw two counties stop drinking their tap water and a $28 million settlement hit the table.

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ADEM has been an embarrassment for years now, and not just because it often misses or is late on serious environmental issues. It also has the infuriating tendency of serving as a sort of public relations arm of the offending companies.

Whether it’s Drummond Coal in North Birmingham or Tyson Foods in Cullman County or 3M and several others in Decatur or … hell, pick a major corporation near any body of water in this state, you’ll find ADEM there to tell you why the pollution isn’t really as bad as it seems.

Just last week, after the Black Warrior Riverkeepers tested the Black Warrior River downstream from a Tyson wastewater “spill” and found dangerously high levels of E-coli bacteria, ADEM swooped in like an Alabama environmental Baghdad Bob to tell everyone that the water was actually safe.

Nothing to see here. Ignore the 175,000 dead and rotting fish.

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And yes, there were an estimated 175,000 dead fish from that “spill.” And I keep putting “spill” in quotation marks, because the word implies that an accident occurred and I’m not so sure it was an accident, because this makes the third time something like this has occurred at that plant.

The Cullman Journal interviewed people who live along the river and downstream from the plant, and they talked extensively of this awful “spill,” and how they watched 50-pound catfish surface and die and how they were worried about their pets who routinely drink from that water and how ADEM never warned them about the spill or told them what precautions to take.

Those people also talked of the old “spills,” in 2016 and 2015 and 2011. And the newspaper noted that ADEM had fined the plant, for all of those spills, the staggering sum of $19,000.

Which is probably less than what it would cost the plant to appropriately dispose of the waste it’s dumping.

But this is the way ADEM rolls.

Under its current leadership, with Lance LeFleur at the helm, ADEM has been far more concerned with businesses’ bottom lines than with the state of Alabama’s environment. To a literally sickening degree.

The height of its incompetence and culpability was exposed worst in the legal battles surrounding the North Birmingham superfund site. Documents and testimony showed how ADEM officials cozied-up to the state’s worst polluters, helping them to avoid stiff federal penalties and manage bad PR.

Alabama citizens should be lighting the torches and digging out their pitchforks. This is the environment we all claim to love and cherish — the rivers and lakes we fish and boat in, the woods we hunt in, the wild game we eat, the air our children breathe.

And the cops we pay to patrol that environment appear to have switched sides on us.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Corruption

Judge reduces former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence

The trial court judge ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was booked into jail to begin serving his four-year sentence for ethics violations in September. (VIA LEE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER)

Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker on Wednesday reduced former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence from four years to just more than two. 

Walker in his order filed Wednesday noted that Hubbard was sentenced to fours years on Aug. 9, 2016, after being convicted of 12 felony ethics charges for misusing his office for personal gain, but that on Aug. 27, 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed convictions on one counts. The Alabama Supreme Court later struck down another five counts.

Hubbard’s attorneys on Sept. 18 filed a motion to revise his sentence, to which the state objected, according to court records, arguing that “Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency.”   

Walker in his order cited state code and wrote that the power of the courts to grant probation “is a matter of grace and lies entirely within the sound discretion of the trial court.” 

“Furthermore, the Court must consider the nature of the Defendant’s crimes. Acts of public corruption harm not just those directly involved, but harm society as a whole,” Walker wrote.

Walker ruled that because six of Hubbard’s original felony counts were later reversed, his sentence should be changed to reflect that, and ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months. 

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Wednesday said Walker’s decision to reduce Hubbard’s sentence was the wrong message to send.

“Mr. Hubbard was convicted of the intentional violation of Alabama’s ethics laws, the same laws he championed in the legislature only later to brazenly disregard for his personal enrichment,” Marshall said in a statement. “Even as he sits in state prison as a six-time felon, Mike Hubbard continues to deny any guilt or offer any remorse for his actions in violation of the law.  Reducing his original four-year sentence sends precisely the wrong message to would-be violators of Alabama’s ethics laws.”

Hubbard was booked into the Lee County Jail on Sept. 11, more than four years after his conviction. On Nov. 5 he was taken into custody by the Department of Corrections.

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Corruption

State Rep: Lee County DA’s past cases should be reviewed by AG, DOJ

Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika, wants the AG’s office or DOJ to examine all of the DA’s previous cases for similar issues.

Josh Moon

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Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes

A state representative from Lee County is calling on the Alabama attorney general’s office and the Department of Justice to open an investigation into past cases handled by indicted Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes. 

Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika, said that in light of the details regarding Hughes’ indictment and arrest, he wants the AG’s office or DOJ to examine all of Hughes’s previous cases for similar issues. Gray also wants the public to be allowed to come forward if they were ever extorted or mistreated by Hughes. 

“In light of the very serious and disturbing charges facing Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes, and the brazen nature of his alleged crimes in which he used the power of his office to extort vulnerable citizens — including by threatening them with bogus charges — I call on the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and the US Department of Justice to open an inquiry into possible other instances in which Hughes misused the power of his office against the people of Lee County,” Gray said in a statement. “That investigation should include a thorough review of all convictions and indictments procured by Hughes and should allow the people of Lee County an opportunity to report any additional instances of Hughes misusing his office.”

Hughes was charged on Monday with seven felony ethics counts, including allegedly using a DA’s subpoena to steal a pickup truck and using another subpoena to allegedly coerce a private business into aiding his defense. Hughes was also accused of hiring private attorneys with public money to benefit himself and his wife, and accused of hiring his three children to work in his office. 

He was arrested Monday afternoon on felony perjury charges for lying to a grand jury about his alleged crimes.

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Corruption

Lee County DA arrested on second perjury charge

The arrest was based on a complaint filed by Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office, charging him with first-degree perjury.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes

Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes — who was arrested Sunday on seven counts of ethics violations, theft and perjury — was arrested again on Monday for an additional perjury charge, according to the Alabama attorney general’s office. 

Hughes on Monday was booked in Montgomery County jail based on a complaint filed by Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office, charging him with an additional count of first-degree perjury for allegedly giving false testimony to the Alabama Ethics Commission. 

Hughes was previously indicted on five counts of violating the state ethics act for using his office for personal gain, including paying private attorneys with public funds to settle a matter that benefited himself and his wife, according to Marshall’s office. He was also charged with illegally hiring his three children to work for his office. 

The grand jury also indicted Hughes on a charge of illegally using his office for personal benefit by issuing a district attorney’s subpoena to a private business to gather evidence for his defense to potential criminal charges, according to the statement. 

Hughes was also charged with conspiracy for allegedly agreeing with others to steal a 1985 Ford Ranger pickup truck from a Chambers County business by using a Lee County search warrant to force the business to release possession of the truck, according to the statement. 

The five violations of the state ethics law charged in the indictment are Class B felonies, punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $30,000. The charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree theft and first-degree perjury are Class C felonies, each punishable by one year and one day to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

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Corruption

Lee County DA Brandon Hughes indicted on 7 counts of ethics violations, theft and perjury

The attorney general’s office said Hughes was indicted by a Lee County grand jury on ethics, theft and perjury charges.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Monday announced the indictment of Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughs on multiple charges. 

Marshall’s office in a statement said Hughes was indicted by a Lee County grand jury on ethics, theft and perjury charges. Hughes turned himself in to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office on Sunday and was released on bond. 

Hughes indictments include five counts of violating the state ethics act for using his office for personal gain, including paying private attorneys with public funds to settle a matter that benefited himself and his wife, according to Marshall’s office. He is also charged with illegally hiring his three children to work for his office. 

The grand jury also indicted Hughes on a charge of illegally using his office for personal benefit by issuing a district attorney’s subpoena to a private business to gather evidence for his defense to potential criminal charges, according to the statement. 

Hughes was also charged with conspiring to steal a pickup truck for allegedly agreeing with others to steal the truck from a Chambers County business by using a Lee County search warrant to force the business to release possession of the 1985 Ford Ranger, according to the statement. 

Hughes is also charged with first-degree perjury for providing false testimony to the special grand jury, according to Marshall’s office. 

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The five violations of the state ethics act charged in the indictment are Class B felonies, punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $30,000. The charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree theft and first-degree perjury are Class C felonies, each punishable by one year and one day to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

In September, Hughes was named prosecutor of the year by the victims’ advocacy organization Victims of Crime and Leniency. He was elected as Lee County district attorney in 2016.

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