Thursday, the embattled Birmingham Water Works held a public meeting to discuss raising water rates 3.9 percent. One of the listed goals of the rate increase was to reduce the public utility’s debt which has grown to a staggering $957 million.
The debt has grown despite raising rates every year since 2012 by between 3.9 percent and 4.9 percent.
The average customer would see their water bill climb from $43.43 a month to $44.63 per month.
Earlier this month, Birmingham Water Works Board member and former President Sherry Lewis was found guilty on felony ethics charges. She will be sentenced on December 12.
“We’re very pleased with the jury in Jefferson County, who sat patiently and heard significant evidence of corruption over the last week and a half, obviously engaged in serious deliberation for the last day and a have and has returned a verdict that speaks loudly.” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) told reporters. “Our ethics laws work in Alabama and we are going to enforce them throughout the state. We’re going to hold public officials accountable when they break those rules.”
Lewis was found guilty of two counts of voting on a matter in which she or a family matter had a financial gain.
Two other alleged conspirators are scheduled to go on trial in January.
Some state legislators have argued that the 2010 state ethics law is overly harsh and too demanding and argue for reforming the law to give public officials more leniency in their private lives. Critics argue that those efforts would only weaken the ethics law and make it harder for state prosecutors to prosecute corruption.
The indictments come after a lengthy investigative grand jury process by the Alabama Attorney General’s office.
Even though the Birmingham Waterworks Board is a public utility; the legislature has prohibited it from falling under the jurisdiction of the Alabama Public Service Commission, which regulates public utilities.
The BWWB is regulated at the state level only by the Alabama Attorney General’s office, whose primary role is to enforce state law and defend the state against law suits.
Environmentalists claim that there is no effective oversight of the BWWB.
“A couple of years ago, I called the AG office as a ratepayer with a legitimate complaint, and despite phone calls and emails, I got literally nowhere,” one environmental researcher told the Alabama Political Reporter. :That’s why it took a lawyer to question the proposed sale of 120 acres of untouched land within the watershed to the AG office.”
“How are the ratepayers supposed to communicate with the Almighty Overseer of our rights?” the researcher and activist asked APR.
On January 29, 2001 the BWWB signed a settlement agreement with then Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor (R) in which the Board agreed to hold lands that it owns in perpetuity as a conservation easement in order to protect the health of the watershed.
The Board in recent years has declared hundreds of wilderness acres “surplus” and sold them to land developers. The environmentalists believe that the Board has violated the terms of that 2001 consent decree,
Almost a quarter of Alabama’s population receive their water directly or indirectly from the BWWB.
(Original reporting by Birmingham TV stations ABC33/40 and CBS42 contributed to this report.)
Voting rights activist calls for federal Department of Democracy
LaTosha Brown, a Selma native who co-founded Black Voters Matter, issued a statement saying that it is time to reimagine American democracy.
The co-founder of an organization that is working to mobilize Black voters in Alabama and elsewhere used the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday to call for a new federal agency to protect voting rights nationwide.
LaTosha Brown, a Selma native who co-founded Black Voters Matter, issued a statement saying that it is time to reimagine American democracy.
“The Voting Rights Act should be reinstated, but only as a temporary measure. I want and deserve better, as do more than 300 million of my fellow Americans,” Brown said.
The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the law in a 5-4 ruling in 2013, eliminating federal oversight that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get approval before they changed voting rules.
“To ensure that the Voter’s Bill of Rights is enforced, we need a federal agency at the cabinet level, just like the Department of Defense,” Brown said. “A Department of Democracy would actively look at the patchwork of election systems across the 50 states and territories. With federal oversight, our nation can finally fix the lack of state accountability that currently prevails for failure to ensure our democratic right to vote.”
She cited excessively long lines, poll site closings and voter ID laws in the recent primaries in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas as voter suppression techniques that disproportionately affect Black and other communities of color.
Brown said that the July 17 passing of Rep. John Lewis, who was nearly killed marching for voting rights in Selma in 1965, has amplified calls for the Voting Rights Act to be strengthened. That’s the right direction, she said, but it isn’t enough.
“History happens in cycles, and we are in a particularly intense one. We have been fighting for the soul of democracy, kicking and screaming and marching and protesting its erosion for decades,” Brown said.
Arrest warrant issued for Rep. Will Dismukes for felony theft
Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, for felony theft from a business where he worked, Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said Thursday.
Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018, Bailey said during a press conference.
Bailey said the charge is a Class B felony and levied when a person steals in excess of $2,500 and that “I will tell you that the alleged amount is a lot more than that.”
“The warrant has just been signed, his attorney has been notified and we are giving him until late this afternoon to turn himself in,” Bailey said.
Bailey said the employer contacted the district attorney’s office with a complaint about the theft on May 20, and after reviewing bank records and interviewing witnesses, the decision was made to charge Dismukes with the theft.
WSFA reported Thursday that the theft occurred at Dismukes’ former employer, Weiss Commercial Flooring Inc. in East Montgomery. Bailey did not provide any more specifics on the charge but said the employer signed the arrest warrant after countless hours of investigation on the part of the DA’s office.
While the charge stems from a complaint filed months ago, Dismukes been in the headlines recently and faced a torrent of calls for his resignation in recent weeks after posting to Facebook an image of himself attending a birthday celebration for the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The event was hosted by an individual with close ties to the League of the South, a hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In response, Dismukes stepped down from his post as a pastor at an Autauga County Baptist church but defiantly refused to step down from the Legislature.
If convicted of the felony, Dismukes would be immediately removed from his seat in the Alabama House, to which he was elected in 2018.
In June, the Alabama Democratic Party called for his resignation over previous social media posts glorifying the Confederacy.
Will Mike Hubbard ever go to jail? Yes. And likely soon.
Mike Hubbard is likely going to prison within the next couple of months.
Hubbard, the former Alabama House speaker, had his conviction on 11 felony ethics counts partially upheld last week by the Alabama Supreme Court. The justices overturned five of the charges and sent them back to the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals for review, but upheld six of his charges.
And those six matter a lot.
Under the original sentence imposed by Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker, Hubbard was set to serve four years in prison and eight years of probation. That sentence was structured in a manner that all but assured that Hubbard would serve that time unless the entire verdict against him was overturned.
It wasn’t. And a source familiar with the ALSC’s opinion in the case told APR that the justices were fully aware that their opinion would not lessen Hubbard’s jail time.
That ALSC opinion puts an end to Hubbard’s appeals bond that has allowed him to remain a free man as his case worked its way through the appeals process over the past four years.
According to the Lee County Circuit Court clerk’s office, once a final determination is made by the ALSC on charges that result in a sentence, that opinion is the final piece supporting the need for an appeals bond.
Basically, there are no additional avenues for appeal that could possibly result in Hubbard not serving his prison sentence, so the bond has to be revoked and Hubbard sent to prison.
Once Walker receives the certificate of judgment from the ALSC showing it upheld the counts that related to Hubbard’s sentence, that should prompt Walker to revoke the bond and Hubbard will be notified that he is expected to begin his prison term.
According to Scott Mitchell, the clerk of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, that certificate of judgment can’t be issued by the ALSC until at least 14 days have passed. That span allows both the prosecution and defense time to submit requests for rehearings on ALSC’s opinion. Should either side do so, consideration of those requests by ALSC could add more time.
“It’s really hard to say (how long it might take) — it’s such a case-by-case thing,” Mitchell said. “It could be anywhere from weeks to a couple of months before we get it.”
It is also not uncommon for one side or the other to ask for an extension of time to file their requests for a rehearing, which would add additional time.
However, once that certificate is sent out by the ALSC, it should trigger Walker to revoke the appeals bond.
The Criminal Appeals Court will also have to review Hubbard’s case and issue a new decision that considers the ALSC’s opinion on the six reversed counts. That process is likely to take much longer.
“Again, a lot of factors play into that and it’s hard to determine how long any one case might take,” Mitchell said. “I’d say you’re looking at a few months at least.”
It will only add to the extraordinary length of this case.
Hubbard was convicted in June 2016 on 12 felony counts for using his office for personal gain and directing public business to his clients. Court testimony and evidence revealed Hubbard was making more than $600,000 per year in “consulting” contracts, mostly for work in areas in which he held no prior work experience.
Since his conviction, a team of attorneys working for him — and financed by his campaign funds and various other entities — have challenged every word of his conviction, accusing the prosecution of misdeeds and attacking the state’s ethics laws — which Hubbard helped write — as overly broad and vague.
Those appeals have been successful in getting half of the charges knocked down. But because Hubbard’s prison sentence was tied to only a couple of the specific charges, those decisions will not lessen his jail time.
Opinion | Deception, subtlety and the wholesale destruction of current ethics laws mark proposed rewrite
Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would radically alter the existing State Ethics Act rendering it useless as an effective tool to regulate the behavior of public officials, much less prosecute a rouge lawmaker.
Testifying at a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in April 2015, Ball said the ethics laws needed amending to avoid prosecutions like Hubbard’s in the future.
If HB179 becomes law, Ball will have fulfilled the words he spoke at the Lee County Court House, where Hubbard was tried and convicted.
As House Ethics Committee Chair, Ball has sought to change the State’s Act since Hubbard was indicted.
Ball’s bill is subtly written from an enforcement and trial perspective to neuter the law.
Words are added, deleted, and meanings changed in ways that might look harmless but actually open the door for the kind of corruption Republicans vowed to change in 2010, when they passed the toughness in the nation’s ethics laws.
Beyond changes that would allow for general corruption to go unpunished, Ball’s legislation would strip the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute anyone who violates the ethics laws without first securing approval from the State Ethics Commission.
All prosecution of any public official would first have to be approved by the Ethics Commission, a group that has repeatedly shown that it bends its decisions according to the prevailing political winds.
HB179 reads in part, “This bill would prohibit the Attorney General or a district attorney from presenting a suspected ethics violation by an individual subject to the code of ethics, other than a member or employee of the commission, to a grand jury without a referral by the commission.”
In other words, Ball would have a politically-appointed commission decide if law-enforcement agencies can seek indictments against wrongdoers.
Neither the Attorney General or a county district attorney can even impanel a grand jury in an ethics probe without the commission first finding probable cause.
Some of Ball’s alterations come in the form of removing whole sections of the law under the guise of redefining words, like “a thing of value” or “widely attended event.”
An example of how Ball’s legislation plays with the law is under the section of code, which defines a family member of a public official. Currently, a family member is “[t]he spouse, a dependent, an adult child and his or her spouse, a parent, a spouse’s parents, a sibling and his or her spouse, of the public official.” Ball changes it so it only includes a spouse and a dependent. That means that a public official may act to enrich his adult children, a parent, an in-law a brother, or a sister. These small but destructive alterations to the law are at the heart of Ball’s legislation.
Some loopholes are so extensive that a sitting legislator could be paid by a city or county governmental economic development entity and still seat in the Legislature voting on bills that might directly affect his consulting client.
Out-of-state junkets make a comeback as do several other goodies lawmakers have been desiring.
It seems Republicans want to cash in on the rewards of office like Democrats did once upon a time.
One thing is clear, Ball didn’t write the bill, but whoever did knew precisely what they were doing and were probably paid handsomely for their efforts.
There are so many cunningly deceptive changes to the ethics laws in Ball’s bill as to make it impossible to catch them all without days of intense study—and perhaps a team of lawyers.
Ball, one of Hubbard’s most an ardent defenders has said Hubbard’s indictment and conviction was a political witch hunt. He has said he wants to rewrite the ethics laws to save future Hubbards; it now looks as if he has.