The Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper has recently taken a public beating in the court and the press.
But what if words spoken by the court and reported by the press are not proven true?
In 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan appointed Raymond James Donovan as the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Upon his appointment, Donovan went about implementing Reagan’s conservative agenda, inflaming the wrath of those who had championed former president Jimmy Carter’s more liberal governance.
During his tenure, Donovan became the first serving member of the president’s cabinet to be indicted. His alleged crime involved a scheme with a Genovese crime family associate to construct a new line extension for the New York City Subway.
For years Donavan’s name was dragged through the muck by Democrats and the press, who used him as a poster boy of Reagan’s “corrupt” conservative administration.
But at trial, he and six other defendants were found not guilty, with several jurors openly applauding the verdict.
After his acquittal, Donavan famously asked: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
Cooper came out of public sector retirement in 2011 to serve as the director of ALDOT. He is currently one of the longest-serving members of Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration. Cooper, much like his boss Gov. Ivey, has a reputation for being a tough-no-nonsense leader who delivers on promises.
Ivey’s administration has prioritized the state’s infrastructure to spur economic growth and job creation. Ivey has entrusted Cooper to carry out her extensive plan; by all accounts, he is delivering on the governor’s vision.
The mission of ALDOT is to “provide a safe, efficient, and environmentally sound transportation system for all customers.”
Everyone, it seems, complains about roads and bridges, and Cooper has taken the brunt of that criticism without comment.
In May of this year, Republican Rep. Chris Pringle called Cooper a “tyrant” during a Contract Review Committee meeting because Cooper had not answered a letter Pringle sent him dealing with an issue from the Gov. Robert Bentley administration. Soon after Cooper answered the letter Pringle said he was satisfied. But the word tyrant still hangs around Cooper’s neck even though the entire episode was really about Pringle’s grandstanding and not a matter of substance.
Pringle’s temper tantrum pales compared to the words issued by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Jimmy Pool in his ruling concerning a lawsuit filed by the Baldwin County Bridge Company.
The lawsuit surrounds the state’s decision to build a free-access bridge that would compete with the toll bridge owned by BCBC connecting Alabama’s beach cities.
In its lawsuit, BCBC claimed that Cooper acted in bad faith when planning the new bridge. Judge Pool agreed with BCBC and halted the construction of the state’s bridge.
In his ruling, Pool wrote that Cooper had acted in “bad faith” toward BCBC. He further wrote, “Director Cooper’s outrageous conduct in embarking on spending more than $120 million of State funds, on a bridge that ALDOT does not need, for the purpose of putting a private company out of business shocks the conscience of the Court.”
Harsh words will live in print forever. But are they true words or merely Pool’s opinion, which may be overturned on appeal?
Pool’s ruling halted the state’s bridge construction for now, with the Alabama Supreme Court subsequently denying ALDOT’s emergency motion to stay the preliminary injunction.
However, last Friday, June 8, ALSC issued an order recognizing “the need for expedited review of the issues raised in this appeal.” The court has given the parties until June 22 to file briefs with the court. This new court order could mean the bridge controversy could end with a very different conclusion than the one held by Pool.
The toll bridge company is being represented by famed Montgomery trial lawyer Joe Espy who brings a Baptist preacher’s zeal and a rock star’s grandiose to every court proceeding.
Before Judge Pool ruled against ALDOT and Cooper, he asked attorneys for the defense and plaintiff to submit written judgments. According to those knowledgeable about the proceedings, Pool accepted Espy’s and issued it as his ruling. In his scathing opinion, was Judge Pool parroting Espy? Espy referred to the state’s bridge during the hearing as “The Cooper Bridge,” and so did Pool. It’s not Cooper’s bridge. It’s a bridge that will belong to the taxpayer of Alabama, unlike the toll bridge that belongs to a private company.
Some court observers have pointed to Pool’s partisan leanings as a reason to rule against Ivey’s Republican administration. A look at the judge’s Facebook post shows that he is decidedly a Democrat who has scant regard for Republicans. While not questioning Pool’s motives, it isn’t easy in today’s political climate to see politics in every situation.
At the heart of the matter is ALDOT’s constitutional authority to build roads and bridges in the state. If Pool’s ruling stands, the state will likely find itself in court over every dust-up over a bridge or road, impeding its ability to carry out its duties.
John Cooper oversees a department with more than 4,000 employees. He manages the construction of roads and bridges and is tasked with building Alabama’s transportation future.
It’s certainly troubling that a man whose job it is to build is being personally torn down in court and the court of public opinion.
When the issue of the toll bridge versus a free-access one is decided, John Cooper will most likely be vindicated. The question then becomes, “Which office does he go to to regain his reputation?”