With an abundance of news source and a never-ending stream of daily political news, there are inevitably a handful of stories — important, meaningful stories — that slip through the cracks and go under-reported and under-read.
For whatever reason, these stories in 2019 didn’t go viral and weren’t a hot topic among your friends and family members. But they should have been.
These are the top 5 most under-reported stories of the year.
Astounding Pollution: From one end of Alabama to the other, pollution has crippled communities and brought about monumental lawsuits. From unfit drinking water to massive fish kills to human feces in the Gulf, the state has become an almost literal cess pool.
Yet, even in a state where the majority of the population claims to participate in some sort of outdoors activity — and where hunting and fishing are more popular than in most other states — there has been very little widespread outrage over the pollution issues.
That indifference, it seems, has driven a surprising lack of coverage of pollution statewide, leaving most stories to be reported by local news outlets and left unaddressed by state lawmakers.
That local reporting should, of course, be commended. But Alabama is teetering on the verge of a statewide catastrophe — one that could drive business and tourists away — and a bit more statewide outrage would be nice.
The Failing Charter School Commission: We have rules and regulations in place for a reason, and there are usually dire consequences when you fail to follow them. Just ask the folks dealing with charter schools in Washington County and Montgomery.
In both instances, the Alabama Charter School Commission skirted the rules set for it by the Alabama Legislature and approved unqualified charter schools. The results have been a mess.
In Washington County, the school needed an extension to even begin the building process — which is still woefully behind — and there is growing evidence that it still hasn’t met its minimum enrollment projections.
In Montgomery, more than half the staff has quit from LEAD Academy, where disorganization has reigned since it opened less than five months ago.
The problems being experienced by both schools were essentially predicted by the national authorizing agency that rejected those schools’ applications and pointed out clear deficiencies in their plans. The Commission approved both anyway, skirting their rules and making exceptions to satisfy political motives.
Such ineptitude and corruption should draw more attention. Particularly when the education of children is at stake.
John Merrill vs. The Alabama Ethics Commission: It’s the political fight you didn’t know existed.
For months, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill attempted to fine entities that violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act by failing to timely file a campaign finance report with the state. And for months, the Ethics Commission would knock down not only the fines but the number of offenses as well, claiming that it had the authority to do so.
Except, well, the law and the Alabama Legislature said otherwise. As did the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.
Under the law, Merrill has the responsibility to fine anyone who fails to file a campaign report. Because filing those reports allows citizens in this state to know — in a timely manner — just who is bankrolling the campaigns of their elected officials.
The Legislature made it clear when it passed the reporting law that the deadlines were real and they are serious. In fact, the more you missed, the worse the penalty.
The Ethics Commission, though, decided that, pfft, who needs the law. They kicked out several fines and washed away instances of failing to report based solely on several entities claiming that they “forgot.”
Merrill spent weeks banging his head against this bureaucratic wall. It got little attention and fewer results.
Greg Albritton’s Awful Year: There was no lawmaker worse than Sen. Greg Albritton in 2019.
That’s quite the mountain to climb in this state, when you’re stepping over the soulless body of Larry Stutts and out-awfuling the guys who kept all daycares from being licensed. But Albritton’s 2019 was a near perfect exercise in selling out the working class citizens of this state and his district.
He started out by introducing a bill that would roll back the ethics laws, making it legal for anyone to give lawmakers pretty much anything at any time and in any amount. It was such an awful bill that even some of his pro-business, Republican colleagues were outraged, and they ultimately played a role in killing the majority of the awful thing.
But Albritton was far from finished. The “Senator from Poarch Creek,” as his GOP brethren have started calling him behind his back, was also responsible for killing a statewide lottery, as he carried the water for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who were opposed to a bigger lottery that might carve into their profits.
Albritton’s actions cost the state billions in profits as he pushed an alternative bill that would have ensured the tribe’s profits were never threatened or properly taxed.
While the overall fights over ethics and gambling were hot topics in 2019, Albritton’s role in both didn’t draw near the scrutiny — and outrage — that it should have.
The Unfair Incarceration of an Immigrant: When I first heard the story of Jorge Ruiz, I was skeptical. I thought that the person telling me about it must be leaving out some details, must be skipping over some important information.
After all, 99 years in prison for falling asleep at the wheel and causing an accident that kills another driver? Obviously, it’s a terrible tragedy, and there should be some punishment.
But 99 years?
Unfortunately, it was all true. And was uniquely Alabama.
In a case filled with racism and absolute rot, Ruiz was wronged time and again by the Alabama justice system and the community where his family lived. And also by the local media, which mis-reported the facts of his case, mis-identified him as being in the country illegally and failed to correct its errors despite being informed numerous times that their stories, headlines and newscasts contained incorrect information.
Instead, everyone ran away from the case as fast as possible following several APR stories. The judge who wrongly sentenced Ruiz is apparently quietly trying to undo that decision now. But you wouldn’t know it from the complete lack of reporting on the case in the local media.
Opinion | It should be clear by now: Kaepernick was right
A lot of people owe Colin Kaepernick an apology.
If nothing else, surely the last few weeks of horrible, horrible racial incidents have left even the most adamant Kap haters reconsidering their positions.
Maybe, just maybe, they’re thinking the man has a point: That justice in this country isn’t color blind.
And that the promises of justice and equality, represented by the United States flag and anthem, often fall well short for black men in this country.
Then again, if you didn’t understand before now, there’s a good chance that watching ANOTHER black man be choked to death in broad daylight on an American street by a police officer — as three other police officers defended him — then you’re probably not inclined to understand now.
George Floyd, the man we’ve all now witnessed dying on a Minneapolis street, as he begged a cop to let him breathe, did not deserve to die. Hell, he didn’t even deserve to be handcuffed and tossed down on the street, much less to have a cop put his knee on his throat until he died.
A store thought Floyd was forging a check. A person at the store called the cops. And a few minutes later Floyd was dead.
This, in a nutshell, is why Kaepernick began his protest several years ago. Why he sacrificed his NFL career. Why he has endured the death threats and vitriol.
Because these sorts of awful acts are far too common for black men in America. The prevalence of the cell phone camera has made that abundantly clear over the last several years.
It’s hard to imagine how many of these incidents were swept under the rug in years past. Especially after the actions of other cops, district attorneys and judges to protect the dirtiest of cops have also been exposed.
That sad fact was highlighted in the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Georgia in February. Even with video evidence, it took a new DA and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation becoming involved before the two men who hunted Arbery down were arrested.
All because one of the men was a retired investigator who worked for the DA’s office.
Because why mess up the life of a white man simply for shooting one black man who might have done something at some time?
But the deck stacking won’t stop with the arrest.
If the murder of Greg Gunn in Montgomery back in 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the entire system is rigged to ensure the bad cops never face full justice for their crimes.
After Gunn, who was walking home after a poker game in his neighborhood, was murdered steps from his own front porch by a white cop who thought he looked suspicious, the cop was — to the shock of almost everyone — arrested within a week and before a grand jury could rule.
Other cops — even ones who privately admitted to me that the cop, Aaron Smith, was in the wrong — pitched one hell of a hissy fit when the arrest warrant was issued. They threatened a walk-out. They showed up to sit in the courtroom during one of Smith’s early hearings. The mayor of the city vowed to keep Smith on the payroll.
And then the real shenanigans started.
Judges started to bail on the case — eight in all. The Alabama Supreme Court issued an unprecedented ruling that removed a black judge from the case. The appointed judge moved the trial from 70-percent-black Montgomery to 70-percent-white Dale County.
After all of that, and even with Smith admitting to investigators that he never had probable cause to stop, chase or shoot Gunn, the best prosecutors could do was a manslaughter conviction.
And in one final slap to the faces of Gunn’s family, Smith was released on bond while he appeals his conviction. He’s out today, having served only a few weeks to this point for a murder committed more than four years ago.
This is the system that black Americans must traverse in this country. One that leaves black parents rightfully concerned that the men and women all of us white people call for protection might just be the executioners of their children.
The rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution are not based on skin color. But too often, the protection of those rights by cops, DAs and judges is.
That’s not right. And all of us should be willing to say so.
And maybe admit that Kaepernick had a point.
Opinion | Gov. Kay Ivey moved the football again
I understand how Charlie Brown must have felt.
The disappointment and surprise when Lucy moved that football one more time. The betrayal. The embarrassment. The anger.
I know those feelings, because far too often I’ve experienced them with Alabama politicians. I want so badly to believe that our elected lawmakers are good and smart people who care about the citizens of the state. That they’re not money-grubbing, selfish dolts who will sell us all out for a nickel and new socks. That they will lean on science and facts when crafting policy and ignore the noise from the ignorant minority screaming the loudest.
And so, far too often, I believe in someone who I know, deep down, is just going to let me down. Who’s going to move that football at the last minute.
On Thursday, it was Gov. Kay Ivey moving the football.
It seems like only last month that I was writing a column praising Ivey for her sound judgment and decision-making. That’s because it was last month when Ivey ignored the screaming crazies calling for a “reopening” of Alabama in the midst of a global pandemic that is, quite clearly, getting worse in this state.
Ivey listened to real doctors. She leaned on facts. She had a cute comeback — “data over dates” — to shoot down any notion that a calendar day would carry more weight than the data showing infection and hospitalization rates.
We had a governor making sound decisions rooted in public safety and health. She refused to budge on the matter and refused to let money outweigh the value of human life.
It was a great time to be alive in Alabama.
And then, Kay Ivey moved the football.
A week ago, after telling people that it would be data that determined when Alabama reopens, and that she would follow the White House guidelines for reopening, she did neither. Instead, she did exactly what she said she wouldn’t do — used a date to determine that it was time to lift restrictions.
The lockdown had gone on too long, Ivey said, and it was time to lift it.
She did so as positive cases were on the rise. And with absolutely no plan for comprehensive testing and tracing — the one thing that Ivey and all medical experts said we HAD to have before we could safely lift restrictions.
Then, on Thursday, Ivey was back again to lift more restrictions — the day after the mayor of Montgomery told the world that his town and the surrounding three counties are out of ICU beds because of a massive outbreak of new cases. Hospitals in Montgomery are now transporting ICU patients to Birmingham.
Still, there went Ivey, lifting restrictions to allow strip clubs and concert venues and casinos to reopen. Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend rush — a coincidence, no doubt.
The reason for all of this is easy to understand.
There is no plan to save people.
The testing and tracing we were supposed to have — that would have allowed us to more safely reopen and go about our lives while the carriers of the virus and those exposed to those people are sequestered — have never materialized. And it is painfully obvious at this point that we will never have it.
In addition, there is no true guidance from the White House, and what little has come from there, we’ve mostly ignored. We’re supposed to have at least seven straight days of reduced positive cases. We don’t have one day.
There’s also the Idiot Factor — the groups of crazy people screaming about tyranny and government overreach because they have to put on a mask to shop at Publix. These are the same people who think strapping a bulletproof backpack on their kids to go to school instead of expanding background checks is simply the price of freedom.
Add it all up, and it’s pretty easy to see what Ivey did: Tossed up her hands and said to hell with it, y’all be careful out there.
And that’s disappointing. Because I believe the majority of Alabamians — and there are polls to back this up — were grateful for her measured approach and data-driven decisions. And I think most understand that there are ways to both reopen the economy and still keep in place restrictions that both limit the spread of the virus and impress upon people the danger it still poses.
But we’re not doing that. Not anymore.
Instead, we’re back to taking the easy way, back to catering to big business and rightwing crazies, back to ignoring science and data.
The football was moved again.
Opinion | Alabama’s long-overdue prison bill
Although scientists haven’t yet confirmed it, there is a cure for COVID-19: Incarceration in an Alabama prison.
It’s amazing, really.
If you work in the prisons or visit an Alabama prison, you get the coronavirus. If you’re an inmate who leaves an Alabama prison for a short period of time, you also get the virus.
But inside those walls … you’re as safe as a baby.
According to APR’s Eddie Burkhalter, who has covered Alabama’s atrocious prisons better than anyone in the state over the last several months, Alabama Department of Corrections officials contend that there is just one — ONE! — prisoner in the entire ADOC prison population who currently has COVID-19.
Out of more than 22,000 prisoners.
There have been nine prisoners to test positive for the virus over the last few months. All of them tested positive at medical facilities outside of the prisons while they were undergoing other treatments.
There are 36 confirmed cases of prison workers testing positive.
But still just the one inmate.
A major medical miracle. We should alert Fauci and Birx.
On the other hand, maybe it’s simply one more case of Alabama treating its prison population as though the men and women inside those walls are something less than human. Hell, something less than mammals.
Actually, there’s no maybe about it. That’s definitely what’s happening.
We’re not testing inmates, so, tah-dah, no inmates are sick. Even when we know from inmates and guards and prison staff that inmates are most definitely sick. And that many of our prisons have now established quarantine areas where dozens of prisoners are being housed, away from the general populations.
But we’re not testing them. Or providing them much treatment.
A few days ago, a woman at a Birmingham-area prison work facility was essentially left to die in a stairwell, according to another prisoner, because guards and staff were too afraid to help her get to the medical clinic upstairs. The reason they were afraid was because the prisoner, Colony Wilson, had exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.
She died gasping for air. As several people stood over her and around her, doing nothing.
It is the latest in an ongoing string of horrible, terrifying, unconscionable incidents within Alabama’s prisons, most of which have resulted in the deaths of dozens of inmates over the last few years.
Because Alabama prisons are hell on earth.
And that is not an opinion. It is a fact confirmed by anyone who has ever spent time in, worked in, toured or investigated incidents that have occurred in those prisons. Justice Department investigators agree. A federal judge agrees.
Our prisons are poorly staffed, poorly funded and poorly maintained, and our inmates are poorly guarded, poorly fed and poorly treated for ailments. And no one cares.
But you will.
Mark my words, we will pay for our treatment of Alabama prisoners — all of us will. I know this because it is one of the few guarantees of life: You cannot dismiss and mistreat groups of human beings for decades on end and not pay a price for your sins.
We have a big bill coming due.
And I guarantee you one other thing: That bill would have been much smaller, much more easily managed had we simply done the right things from the start.
Had we properly staffed the prisons with guards who weren’t paid so little that smuggling contraband was the only way to pay their bills. Had we provided inmates with actual tools to rehabilitate themselves. Had we treated their medical ailments properly. Had we shown a genuine interest in their contributions to society.
We had an opportunity to show a group of mostly young men that the love and direction most of their early lives did exist. We could have proven to them that there are people who care about them, who understand that every life — even the ones outside of the womb and encased in non-white skin — are precious.
But we didn’t. And those people found refuge with other wayward men and women — in violent gangs and prison cliques. They found an income selling drugs and selling humans and doing all the bad things that people buy all those guns to stop.
And we pretended like it didn’t exist. Like they didn’t exist.
So, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re just not testing inmates for a deadly virus. It would fit the pattern of ADOC and this state in dealing with our prisoners.
But know this: the manner in which a state houses and cares for its worst people is the truest measure of the heart of the people leading that state.
Alabama’s heart stopped beating long ago.
Opinion | The corruption case that didn’t matter
It was late 2014, early 2015 and the race to be the next president of the United States was just starting to heat up when word of nefarious actions at the Clinton Foundation started to circulate.
The FBI was looking into the allegations, and from all outward appearances it seemed as if the Clintons were in serious trouble — the sort that could end political careers. But that never happened. Because the Clintons have friends in high places, and they have plenty of money to toss around in order to bend the law to their liking.
And so, attorneys working for the Clintons convinced both President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to use their influence to squash the investigation. At one point — in one of the most egregious abuses of power and obvious quid pro quo — both Obama and Lynch accepted large “contributions” from the Clintons in exchange for the two of them signing their names to letters written by Clinton Foundation attorneys.
Those letters, sent on Obama’s and Lynch’s letterhead, encouraged the FBI to stop its investigation and vowed to cut funding to the agency if it didn’t act accordingly.
Cut off at the knees, the FBI had little choice but to kill its investigation.
That sort of abuse of power and corruption to aid friends — especially when they’re obviously guilty — should not be tolerated, and it shouldn’t matter which party’s politicians commit it.
If you agree with that, then why the hell are you not more angry about nearly the exact same thing happening in Alabama?
The story I relayed above never actually happened. Well, I guess, to be more accurate, it never happened with the Clintons, Obama and Lynch.
It did happen in Alabama, though.
Attorneys at the Balch and Bingham law firm, working for Drummond Coal, actually wrote letters for former Gov. Robert Bentley and former AG Luther Strange, and all but wrote another one for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Those letters opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into pollution in north Birmingham.
Bentley and Strange pasted those letters on their office letterhead, signed them and shot them out to the EPA, letting the agency know that the state of Alabama would not cooperate with the EPA’s attempts to … um … force a known polluter to clean up pollution that had sickened thousands of Alabama citizens.
Those letters upended an EPA investigation, and they managed to keep Drummond from paying millions in clean-up fees.
That actually happened. And while there was a federal trial and a whopping two — TWO! — guys went to jail, most of Alabama could not have cared less. And still don’t.
I know this is a bit of older news, but it came storming back to the present thanks to lawsuits filed by the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) demanding the AG’s office and ADEM turn over public records related to the ordeal.
What GASP wants, specifically, is all of the correspondence between state officials at the AG’s office and ADEM and the attorneys and executives working for a company accused by the EPA of poisoning Alabama citizens. Those records, GASP is assuming, show massive coordination between those public offices and the private business.
And given how the AG’s office and ADEM are responding, it’s a pretty safe bet that the documents show exactly that.
In fact, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, the documents requested by GASP “paint a clear picture of how in bed with big business most of our (elected officials) are.”
Honestly, this is one of the most detestable and corrupt periods in Alabama history, and how it didn’t cause more anger and outrage — and lead to more arrests and corruption charges for a number of Alabama lawmakers — is beyond me.
At the very least, someone should publicly explain why Luther Strange was never formally investigated.
The guy had no input in the EPA situation at all for months. Then the Balch attorneys show up at his office with pre-written letters promising to block state funds being spent on the clean-up. He sends them. And shortly thereafter large amounts of cash start showing up in Strange’s campaign account.
And, I think, it speaks to a larger problem in this state: voter apathy.
Even with all of this knowledge about what Strange did here, and what he did a few months later when he accepted a U.S. Senate appointment from a man (Bentley) he was investigating, Alabama voters would have voted for him in a landslide over Doug Jones. And they would have re-elected him state AG.
Had Bentley understood how iCloud works, he would have continued on as governor. There never would have been fury over this incident.
And yet, take this same set of circumstances and change the names of the people involved to Clinton and Obama, as I did at the start, and the voters of Alabama would be outraged.
That has to change. Good, honest government should be the first and last goal, party be damned.
Until it is, the corruption, incompetence and poor governance will never, ever end.
Opinion | Dodge the Economic Impact Payment card fees
Governor awards grants for bulletproof vests
100+ clergy call on governor to take action on coronavirus effects in underserved communities
Ag commissioner encouraged by Trump order to DOJ to investigate packers for cattle market manipulation
Byrne sues Speaker Pelosi to stop House rule changes
National Right to Life Committee endorses Aderholt
Phyllis Schlafly Eagles’ President Ed Martin endorses Bill Hightower for Congress
More confirmed COVID-19 cases among state inmates, prison staff
Alabama health officer: Numbers “are not headed in the right direction”
“We’re surging:” Alabama reports largest COVID-19 increases to date
New COVID cases in Alabama increasing faster than 46 other states
Montgomery hospitals are out of ICU beds, mayor says
“Why are we retreating when our caseload is increasing?”: UAB infectious diseases expert
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