Something is very wrong in the Land of Cotton



Dr. Robert Bullard
Environmental Justice Movement Founder

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Culture of Corruption in Alabama and BARD

Alabama has resisted change more successively than in any other state in the Deep South and the political climate of Alabama still belongs to the "good ol' boy network" of special interests and industry giants. They have succeeded in herding together and creating their version of a "New South" by aligning with the larger law firms and PR agencies as a coalition to further enhance their iron grip on Alabama's political machine.

So who is this heavy alliance in Alabama politics? The answer is BARD, an acronym for the Business Alliance for Responsible Growth who are the driving force during each election cycle to influence policy in the state, by heavily contributing to the politicians representative of its members interests and not the citizens of Alabama.

The recent Republican run-off election between Bentley and Byrne was an example of BARDs influence for the next Governor of Alabama, but it didn't go as they had hoped despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars they fed their chosen mule in training, Bradley Byrne.

In just one 8 day period of a long campaign, between June 11-18, 2010, during the primary run off, Bradley Byrne received 107,000.00 from the PACS of:
ALABIZ, HIGHLAND PAC, BESPAC, VPAC, HORIZON PAC with the registered address of:
Stephen Bradley and Associates LLC (205) 933-6676 2101 Highland Ave S Ste 420, Birmingham, AL 35205. The PR Firm of BARD and its autocratic creator-in-chief Stephen Bradley.

There were also PAC to PAC transfers from BARD interests and their lobbying firm ties during the same time period which poured even thousands more into the coffers of Mr. Byrne.

In this particular election, BARD lost and they lost big with Robert Bentley soundly defeating Byrne, but that is a rarity and not at all the usual outcome when they flex their collective powers and money and charge their way into Alabama's elections.

Alabama kicked back against the machine of politics of usual and elected a relative unknown in a very uncharacteristic move by voters. Bentley was viewed as the more honest candidate and not in the pocket of special interest PACs.

Is there change on the horizon in Alabama's politics? Are the politically influential PAC mules beginning to lose their grip on the state?

While the manner in which PACs work with politicians may seem like a straightforward model, this relationship throws open the doors for corruption that is hard to penalize with an impotent Alabama Ethics Board. The main criticism launched at PACs is that they offer a way for people and corporations to “buy votes” from elected officials. Scandal has seeped into this structure, but in some places, unlike Alabama, the law has followed close behind.
In fact, both state and federal governments have passed a number of laws to regulate how much money PACs can donate to candidates, but Alabama has failed in every legislative session to enact any reform on this issue. Lobbyists for BARD interests number 8-1 for each legislative member which is clearly a possible explanation for the legislature to stubbornly balk at any change that will hold them more accountable.

Alabama is the only state in the union that does not convey subpoena power to its Ethics Board and is the home of the weakest set of ethics laws in the country-- this creates a conducive climate for the entity known as BARD to run amok in Alabama through PACS and PAC to PAC transfers. 

Governor Riley issued a press release in October of 2009 and claimed one of the platforms of his two terms was fighting corruption, but that it was blocked by the democrats in the Alabama legislature:

“Until we have full disclosure and everything is out in the open for the public to see, government will never be truly accountable,” he said. “Our plan makes both state and local governments more open, transparent and accountable than ever before. Our administration has been pushing these reforms since I came into office and every year the Democrat majority in the Legislature either stops them or ignores them. When the Democrats announced their agenda for the upcoming legislative session, they conspicuously left out ethics and accountability and said they didn’t believe Alabamians cared about it. How wrong they are."

Riley was grandstanding as most politicians do, although it's usually around election time when they eagerly trot out the accountability card to elevate their appeal to voters. Nothing he has ever done resembles reining in the vast corruption in Alabama and the citizens are painfully aware of that fact.

The real problem has been PAC to PAC transfers which have long been the single largest force of undue influence in our elections, and every year that the Alabama legislature takes up the issue it is solidly voted down by the Republican Senators in Montgomery. The 2008 vote came down to 11 Republicans voting "No" and only 3 Democrats voting "No."

But in 2010, it shifted and it was both the Democrats and the Republicans, who refused to even hold committee meetings on sweeping ethics reforms, and a bill introduced to give the Ethics Commission subpoena power went nowhere in a hurry.

A Birmingham News editorial nails the board to the barn in writing there will be "no accountability in Montgomery until voter's demand it." We could not agree more, but wonder if the populace will wake up from it's long, self-imposed slumber and open their eyes to who really runs Alabama's politics--big business and special interests.

It has been that way for years here in Alabama and its seeds were sown in the "Big Mule" Black Belt Coalition which was comprised of the early industrial interests in the state. Nothing has changed after all these years and only the faces are different now in 2010-- the hefty "kick" goes on with the "New Mules" rooted in the "dirty 19 of Alabama"  the powerhouse of BARD.
(more information on "Big Mules" linked in right sidebar)

Check any election cycle's CFRs with the Secretary of State's database on mainly Republican candidates (but Dems also get their money),  from local races all the way up to the Alabama Supreme Court and the undue influence of BARD is mighty and pervasive. In recent years Federal investigators have uncovered unbelievably brazen acts of fraud, embezzlement, and nepotism never before seen in modern day Alabama politics.

But few of these investigations result in charges that stick and with each failure of the AGs office and the Feds to obtain a conviction, the mules grow bigger, bolder and stronger. Walter Johnsey, BARDs CB, beat some serious charges in the late 1970s and 80s that were based in racketeering and wire fraud which also involved some Alabama legislators, Drummond Coal and legendary Montgomery lobbyist Joe Fine among others.

They slipped the collar of RICO prosecution on technicalities of double jeopardy.  All of the men involved in that case went on to become quite rich and influential in the upper circles of Alabama power. The impression left from examples like these is that if you commit egregious offenses while in office you will be rewarded rather than jailed.

Birmingham News (AL) - December 10, 2006
New business alliance flexes its muscle to get its way Foes accuse BARD of putting its desires above community's
JEFF HANSEN News staff writer
Behind the scenes in the past 23 months, some of the Birmingham area's economic giants - developers, major landowners and utilities - worked to find a unified voice. They found it in BARD, the Business Alliance for Responsible Development. Few in the region ever heard of the group before it lobbied successfully to substitute its own floodplain ordinance this year for one crafted by county planners. 

The group's instant clout drew attention and controversy. 

Supporters say BARD promotes what they call reasonable growth, which the group sees as inherently good for the region and its people. Detractors see it as a my-way-or-the-highway group, out to help its members build what they want, where they want, regardless of the long-term consequences. 

But on one thing, both sides agree: BARD quickly emerged as a formidable force. 

The group is well-funded, backed by some of the region's biggest businesses, and intent on continuing to use its nowunified voice to influence change across the region. 

''The fact that they have the strength of a lot of the business folks - the power company, the Chamber of Commerce, a lot of the members of the chamber - that's where their clout and their power come from,'' said former Jefferson County Commissioner Gary White. ''The business community in our area has had a lot of power for a long time; they just haven't flexed it collectively. ''I think, in this issue, they've flexed it collectively.'' 

The impetus BARD formed in January 2005, when some business leaders were troubled by a study of the upper Cahaba River watershed, a major source of drinking water that the Birmingham Water Works draws from its intake on the river at U.S. 280. 

Joel Gilbert and Rob Fowler, lawyers at the firm Balch and Bingham, attended the meetings about the watershed on behalf of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. They felt that business voices went unheard, and Gilbert said he felt the ability of landowners to develop their property was being threatened. 

The board was packed with the business elite: 
Walter Johnsey, senior executive vice president of Drummond Co.
John Grogan, manager of environmental compliance for Alabama Power Co.
John Knutsson, a vice president of Daniel Realty Co.
Samuel Lowrey III, construction-infrastructure manager of Liberty Park Joint Venture
Joseph Saiia, president of Saiia Construction
William Crawford, then the executive director of the Greater Birmingham Association of Home Builders; and  
Joseph White, owner of Curtis White Cos. 

Johnsey, BARD's chairman, decided the alliance would function as a three-legged stool made up of science and engineering experts, skilled legal advice and an experienced public relations firm. BARD hired Lehe Planning, Walter Schoel Engineering Co. and Sain Associates for floodplain expertise and engineering, Balch and Bingham for legal advice, and Stephen Bradley and Associates for public relations.
Walter Johnsey was one of the most dominant players in Alabama politics for four decades before his death in 2007 and in a strange turn of events, his estate sued his partner Drummond for withholding information on investments totaling millions. The case is still under ligation. The lure of big money compels even these so-called buddies, who are supposed to be a team, to pull dirty tricks on each other in their climb to the top of the money and power heap.
(Birmingham News (AL) - October 3, 2008 Drummond sued by ex-partner's estate)

The Birmingham News Editorial Board put the shoe around the pole when they wrote:

If the Senate ever does approve campaign-finance reform bills, it will be because of an eruption of a different sort: Angry voters who demand to know the names of everyone trying to influence candidates and causes must make their voices heard, by Senators today and at the ballot box in November. 

But, if the voters do not take the time to examine the political contributions of the candidates, in addition to their voting records, then the power structure of BARD, through its political benefactions and the prodigious influence of its members, will continue unbridled in its stranglehold on Alabama's political machine.

They have left a trail of bodies in their wake who are in prison for corruption or surrounded by scandal and ethics violations, but the alliance advances on with no repercussions to any of the major players.

It is past time for these "mules" to leave the barn and get turned out to the back forty and let the citizens come forward to walk in the tall clover of opportunity. November is galloping up fast and Alabama voters have a chance to hobble BARD again in the upcoming elections.

We have lived behind the barbed wire of scandal, corruption and undue influence long enough. If this state really wants to move forward it has to buck off the corruption and break free once and for all--rather than just stand around wait to be led to the greener pastures of progress for the citizens of Alabama.
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  1. Get em, Get 'em, GET 'EM Max!!!
    Love it!

  2. It's a shame that the few rule the many in underhanded ways. I for one will certainly pay more attention to this issue, I hadn't really thought of it like this before. but it makes sense to follow the money.


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