4 years ago

Bentley only uses a private email account; here’s why that’s a big deal, and why it’s not

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, right, and Attorney General Luther Strange listen to Alabama Ethics Commission Director Judge John Carroll during an ethics training session at the Capitol Auditorium in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, right, and Attorney General Luther Strange listen to Alabama Ethics Commission Director Judge John Carroll during an ethics training session at the Capitol Auditorium in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

Alabama sports website and liberal political blog AL.com on Tuesday declared, “Gov. Robert Bentley has a Hillary Clinton problem.”

The provocative headline fueled a round of talk radio discussion surrounding revelations that Gov. Bentley has never maintained a state government email account, opting instead to correspond using a personal email account.

The article was penned by opinion columnist John Archibald. Mr. Archibald mentioned in the article that he made “an official records request for the governor’s emails,” but only received a reply from the governor’s IT administrator saying, “Governor Bentley does not have, nor has he ever had an email account with the State of Alabama.”

What Archibald did not mention in his column, however, is that he was also sent the records he requested: Text message and email correspondence for the year 2015 between Governor Bentley and his senior political advisor Rebekah Mason. This is a notable omission, one, because it exposes the author’s unstated motivation for making the initial open records request; and two, because it reveals his willingness to leave out pertinent details to advance a narrative.

On the first point, AL.com recently published a series of thinly sourced articles citing a Facebook post speculating that Governor Bentley had carried on an illicit affair with Mrs. Mason. The organization received intense criticism among journalists who questioned the ethics of using what the Montgomery Advertiser described as “some people are questioning” sourcing when they really want to report something but are missing verifiable proof. The blowback has presumably compelled Mr. Archibald and other AL.com writers to continue digging for vindication.

On the second point, once Mr. Archibald did not get what he was hoping for out of the open records request, he ignored his own findings while continuing to advance the narrative that the Bentley Administration is withholding information.

Yellowhammer News made the same request for records as Mr. Archibald and found that Gov. Bentley and Mrs. Mason have only corresponded via text and email this year on a handful of occasions.

The emails from Mrs. Mason to Gov. Bentley each included a link to a story with no additional comments.

The stories were as follows:
Bentley won’t retreat on taxes as budget stalemate continues | Dothan Eagle
Talladega Mayor Larry Barton describes beating; questions raised about sex tape | Al.com
Governor John Kasich speaks at the Iowa State Fair | C-Span

The text message correspondence between Gov. Bentley and Mrs. Mason was not much different.

Mrs. Mason sent the governor a link to one WAAYTV article titled “Alabama Governor Robert Bentley sits down for interview.”

The most interesting insight was from the morning of July 19th of this year when Gov. Bentley sent the following text to Mrs. Mason:

Need a briefing by perry smith 9am on Tuesday. About arming gaurd. I want a plant to arm!! Need you spencer perry and his people. Jennifer by phone for press. Or yas Rebekah for political. Others ? But probably enough.

The Governor followed up moments later with another text that said, “Sent to Seth,” presumably explaining that he had sent the previous text message to his chief of staff, Seth Hammett.

That same afternoon the story broke on Yellowhammer that Bentley had decided to arm the Alabama National Guard in the wake of shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee in which five service members were killed by a radical Islamist at two separate military facilities.

This is not to say that Gov. Bentley and Mrs. Mason do not interact frequently — even constantly, on some days — only that their interaction is done in person or over the phone, rather than by text and email.

With all of that having been said, let’s dig into an important question that is worth considering, in spite of Mr. Archibald’s dishonest tactics: Is it a big deal that Governor Bentley does not maintain a state government email address, opting instead to correspond using a personal email account?

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL

Transparency is important.

Trust in government is near an all-time low. Many Alabamians already question Gov. Bentley’s honesty after he drastically changed positions on tax increases after winning re-election. In that context, it is a particularly bad idea to fuel the perception of opaqueness by not maintaining a government email address.

Gov. Bentley is not the first governor to exclusively use a private email account. In fact, two former staffers to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley told Yellowhammer Tuesday that they do not recall Riley utilizing a state email account, either.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush earlier this year released hundreds of thousands of emails from his time as the Sunshine State’s chief executive. Many of them were sent via a personal email account housed on a private server. This resulted in Bush being praised by some transparency advocates, and criticized by others who insisted that all correspondence should have been subject to archival by the government’s process, rather than by the elected official’s.

All politicians know the importance of perception. Why create the perception — if not the reality — of surreptitiousness for no good reason? Just use the government’s email system.

The administration has a legal obligation to archive its official correspondence.

In addition to the public relations issues, Gov. Bentley’s decision to forego a state government email account could pose a challenge for the administration’s legal obligation to archive its official correspondence.

The administration downplays those concerns, saying that any of the Governor’s official correspondence with state government officials has been captured by the other individual’s state government email, in spite of the Governor not using one himself.

“If email from a state account on state business is sent to the Governor’s personal account, that email communication is to be preserved by the employee sending the email communication in accordance with the Governor’s Office Records Retention Policy,” said Bentley’s communications director Jennifer Ardis.

When asked if the administration could say with complete confidence that there had never been an instance in which the Governor used his personal email account for official business and it was not captured and archived, Ms. Ardis said they could.

“The Governor’s Office takes its archival responsibility seriously—both from a legacy perspective and a legal perspective,” she said. “As files are closed and matters concluded, these are archived on a rolling basis in accordance with the Governor’s Office Records Retention and Archiving Policy.”

WHY IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL

There is not much to archive.

The governor is just plain old school when it comes to communication, conducting most of his business face-to-face or over the phone.

Numerous individuals who regularly interact with the Governor — some inside the Administration, some not — all told Yellowhammer the overwhelming majority of their interaction with Gov. Bentley is done in one of those two ways. Some of them said they had never received a single email during their years working with the Governor.

This has been my personal experience as well. The Governor has typically responded to my emails with a phone call or by having one of his staffers reply to set up a meeting or address my request or concern.

Gov. Bentley is not alone in his sparse use of email.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) raised eyebrows earlier this year for admitting he has never sent an email. Yellowhammer also asked Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) about his email habits.

“I have an iPhone and it belongs to the Senate and it’s all I use,” he said. “I have [sent emails]. Not a lot. The best thing is person-to-person like I’m talking to you. To my staff, talk to them on the phone but also notes. Hand notes. I write a lot. I’ve been here a while; I’m a little older than y’all.”

While it is unimaginable for those of us whose work and personal lives revolve around Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail that someone could go their entire day—much less their entire life—without sending a single email, electronic communication is simply not as important to every day life for previous generations.

This does not excuse Gov. Bentley’s decision to forego a state government email account in favor of a personal one, but the point is, it seems a little over-the-top to make a huge deal out of emails when the guy barely sends any of them.

He’s not dealing with matters of national security.

“Gov. Robert Bentley has a Hillary Clinton problem,” the clickbait headline of AL.com’s article on Gov. Bentley’s email practices, is absurd on its face.

The differences between these two individuals and their email issues are so obvious that I hesitate to insult your intelligence by explaining them, but just consider this.

Hillary Clinton’s private email server held classified information like spy satellite images tracking the movement of North Korea’s nuclear assets. That type of intel is typically handled within a special compartment called Talent-Keyhole. In layman’s terms, this is some of the most sensitive information in all of the intelligence community, sometimes even referred to as “above Top Secret.” This is the kind of sensitive intelligence that Russia, China and North Korea deploy armies of hackers to steal.

To compare the sensitive nature of the emails of a governor who’s worrying about state parks and driver’s license offices, to those of the U.S. Secretary of State, who is tackling geopolitical crises and diplomatic negotiations, is beyond ridiculous.

However, there are times when governors do have to deal with issues related to homeland security. For instance, portions of certain natural disaster response or preparedness plans could be classified because they contain information related to the power grid or other critical infrastructure. Yellowhammer asked the Governor’s office if he had ever discussed such issues via email.

“Classified and privileged information is shared and discussed with the Governor face-to-face only,” the Governor’s spokesperson said in response.


7 hours ago

Can cleaning the ocean be marketed?

Trillions of pieces of plastic are creating huge garbage patches in the world’s oceans. One company’s efforts to do something about this problem can lead us to rethink some perceived economic wisdom.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that two million tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year. Most of this waste results from irresponsible disposal. Ocean currents have created five major garbage patches. The most notable is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii, double the size of Texas and containing 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. The patches are nuisances, can harm ocean life, and provide one rationale for banning plastic straws, silverware, and bags, although the wisdom of plastic bans is a topic for another day.

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Floridians Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze witnessed the ocean trash problem while surfing in Bali and started 4Ocean in response. As the company’s website describes it, “Devastated by the amount of plastic in the ocean, they set out to find out why no one was doing anything about it.”
The problem was that no one could get paid to pick up the trash, and Mr. Cooper and Mr. Schulze hit upon an idea. For $20, customers can buy a 4Ocean bracelet made from recycled plastic and remove one pound of trash. To date, 4Ocean has removed more than 4.4 million pounds of plastic.
Can we trust that 4Ocean removes trash from the ocean? To assure customers, 4Ocean relies on Green Circle Certification. Green Circle provides third party certification of a variety of environmental claims, including recycled content in products, energy savings, and carbon footprint reduction. Companies like 4Ocean pay Green Circle to assess their operations. For certified claims, Green Circle lets the customer use their symbol and enters the product in their online database.

Certification seemingly faces a conflict of interest: Won’t Green Circle always certify the claims of paying customers? While this is a danger, ultimately a third party certifier really sells only its veracity. 4Ocean will only pay if Green Circle’s seal matters to potential customers. Green Circle, which has been in business since 2009, makes money over time only by being honest.

Third party certification has a long history. The case most studied by economists is Underwriters’ Laboratories, which tests consumer products for safety. The UL stamp assures insurers that lamps, toasters, and other products are not fire hazards.

How does this relate to government and environmental protection? Americans value protecting the environment, but conventional wisdom holds that business cannot make money protecting the environment. Any commercial venture must charge for its product or service, and normally does so by allowing only paying customers to get the product or service.

Yet allowing only paying customers to benefit from environmental protection is almost impossible: everyone benefits if the Great Pacific Garbage Pile is cleaned up. If businesses cannot market environmental protection, we will have to turn to government and taxes.

We have an incentive to let someone else clean up the ocean, but also like to contribute to good causes. 4Ocean taps into this sentiment, and their bracelet lets customers to show off their good deed. Environmental groups raise millions of dollars in a similar fashion. Charities do this too; Save the Children allows donors to learn the story of a child they “rescue.”

Proponents of government action will point with justification that the funds raised through markets to protect the environment are small relative to the scale of the problems. The 2,200 tons of plastic 4Ocean is just a drop in the bucket. Yet government efforts can be poorly funded, very costly, and of poor quality. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly documented the flaws of the Energy Star labeling program.

Ultimately we must pay for environmental protection. Businesses and charities must deliver to continue being supported by their customers or patrons. Each success in marketing environmental protection enables a valuable alternative and should be celebrated.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

7 hours ago

VIDEO: Alabama’s abortion bill gets plenty of attention, changes to a proposed lottery fund education, tariffs hurt Alabama farmers and more on Guerrilla Politics …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Dr. Waymon Burke take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Is Alabama’s abortion ban good policy or good politics?

— Will the 25 percent allocated for education secure the passage of a lottery in Alabama?

— Will Alabama farmers blame President Donald Trump or the previous administration for the current impact tariffs are having on their livelihoods?

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Jackson and Burke are joined by Democratic activist Pam Miles to discuss plans to protest Alabama’s abortion ban and how Democrats in Alabama move forward.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” at those perpetrating the “25 white men” narrative when discussing Alabama’s abortion ban.

https://www.facebook.com/303363616352436/posts/2418925051462938/

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

10 hours ago

Roby: A pro-life update from the federal level

Throughout my time in Congress, I have been staunchly and unapologetically pro-life. I will continue to use this platform to fight for life at every stage because unborn babies cannot fight for themselves. Since much of the news in our state and throughout the country lately has focused on recent pro-life efforts, I would like to take this opportunity to share an update about my work on the federal level to defend the unborn.

In February of this year, the Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services issued a rule that would restrict Title X family planning grants from being steered to entities that are not physically and financially separate from abortion providers. A series of court injunctions have frozen these rule changes, and as a result, hundreds of abortion facilities, like Planned Parenthood, are still receiving federal tax dollars through Title X grants.

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While the rule is going through the judicial process, the Democrat majority on the House Appropriations Committee has elected to tie the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services through legislation stating that the Department may only act in accordance with regulations established prior to January 18, 2017, just two days before Donald Trump became President. This is unacceptable – we simply cannot handcuff the current administration to regulations of the past.

During the recent full Appropriations Committee markup of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee Fiscal Year 2020 funding bill, I offered an amendment that would allow the courts, rather than the Democrat majority in the House, to decide the fate of the Trump administration’s proposed rule restricting Title X family planning grants from being awarded to facilities that provide abortions. Despite the inclusion of the Hyde Amendment, abortion providers have been able to get their hands on American tax dollars through these Title X funds. I am unapologetically pro-life, so I don’t want this to happen, and the majority of the people I represent don’t want this to happen.

The Trump administration’s proposed rule would draw a clear, bright line between family planning services and abortion providers. Unfortunately, my amendment did not pass, but to ensure that the rule has a fighting chance of becoming law, we must allow it to go through our judicial process – not block it legislatively as part of a political game.

In addition to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also taking measures to stand up for the unborn. Two foreign companies, Aid Access and Rablon, have been known to distribute chemical abortion drugs to customers in the United States by mail-order. This practice is already illegal, and the FDA has taken action against it, but it is still happening.

This abortion drug, called Mifeprex, is approved by the FDA, but it is only legally available to patients in the United States through health care providers. It is not available in retail pharmacies, and it is certainly not legally available on the Internet. However, these abortion-by-mail providers, primarily based in Europe, have widened their consumer base to include the U.S. They provide remote consultations, send prescriptions to be filled in India, then send the abortion drug to U.S. customers by mail.

By violating the FDA’s safety protocols, these companies are endangering the health of American women and their children. The FDA has been combating these practices, but I recently led a letter, signed by 117 of my colleagues, that was sent to Dr. Norman Sharpless, acting FDA commissioner, urging him to further crackdown. I was proud to join my fellow pro-life colleagues in sending the clear message that we will not tolerate these dangerous, illegal practices, and I applaud the steps the FDA has already taken to protect women and unborn children.

I share these updates to make the point that while we still face challenges, our pro-life momentum is strong, and I will keep pushing forward on the federal level. I want the people I represent in Alabama’s Second District to know that defending the unborn remains a top priority of mine, and I will continue to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband Riley and their two children.

12 hours ago

University of Alabama, other Southern flagship universities see biggest bump in enrollment

Enrollment at several universities in the South jumped more than 50 percent in a decade, according to data from the College Board.

University of Arkansas saw its number of full-time students grow 63 percent from 2007 to 2016, the most of any flagship university. University of Alabama and University of Mississippi had the next largest increases at 55 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

In addition to the allure of football tailgate parties, students may have been enticed by lower tuition fees and living expenses. Among the 50 flagships, University of Arkansas ranked No. 38 in cost, while Alabama was No. 30 and Ole Miss came in at No. 44.

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Admissions officers should take note. The high school class of 2012 ushered in a first wave of declines in the number of graduates nationwide, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Colorado. The trend will worsen after 2025, when the impact hits from a drop in births that began with the 2007 recession.

Some of the boost in enrollment at schools in warmer locales coincides with a rise in the region’s population growth, with exceptions. Florida’s population grew by 2.45 million since 2010 while its flagship university saw enrollment slide 4.4 percent from 2007 to 2016.

Studying in the Sunshine State comes with a hefty price tag for non-residents. Out-of-state students at the University of Florida pay more than four times what their in-state counterparts pay, the largest premium among the 50 flagship schools. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ranks second. Out-of-state students there pay more than $35,000 in tuition while those in-state pay less than $9,000.

University of Michigan is the most expensive flagship university for out-of-state students, at close to $50,000 per year. Next are University of Virginia and University of California at Berkeley. All three are consistently among the top-ranked U.S. public colleges.

Meanwhile, the cost gap for in-state and out-of-state students decreased the most at University of Georgia over the last decade.

University of MontanaUniversity of Idaho and University of Alaska saw the biggest declines in enrollment despite their in-state tuition costs trailing their faster-growing counterparts. Enrollment also tumbled at University of South Dakota, which has the best deal for out-of-state students. Tuition and fees for the 2018-19 school year there were just $12,425.

(With assistance from Janet Lorin and Marie Patino. Contact the reporter at shagan9@bloomberg.net.)

This article first appeared on Bloomberg.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

13 hours ago

Birmingham Botanical Gardens water features get a makeover

Every spring, visitors stream into the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Children dart among the uprights at the Granite Garden fountain and dash to the Rose Gardens to see if the roses have started to bloom, or humor their parents and pose for photos.

Whether they’re coming for exercise or inspiration, guests of all ages and interests have a chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of springtime, and among these – in no small part – are the artistry and lyrical babbling of the gardens’ beloved water features.

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Over the past two years, more than half of the gardens’ 14 water features have undergone a transformation, thanks to membership support and the combined efforts of Jane Underwood, operations manager with the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and Virgil Mathews, district horticulture supervisor with the city of Birmingham. During your next visit, check out these newly refurbished water features – a testament to the dynamic relationship between garden and water landscape.

The Cochran Water Wall in the Hill Garden was the first to be rehabbed. Dedicated in 1988, it is the focal point of the garden.

“The water wall had stopped sheeting over the entire top edge. As a result, the basin was not filling up and recirculating,” Underwood says. “We had to figure out where water was going and how to repair it.”

Underwood and Mathews worked with Alabama Aquatics, which removed the tile on the back wall and sealed the wall before replacing the tile. Problem solved.

They then turned their attention to the 1967 Japanese Garden streambed because the water was not cascading over the waterfalls.

“It was flowing into cavities before it ever reached the waterfall,” Underwood says.

Parrot Structural Services pumped the cavities with hydraulic cement to fill the voids. They applied the same treatment to the Abroms Rhododendron Species Garden basin, the Curry Rhododendron Garden pond and the Fern Glade streambed.

The team was excited to discover a way to have the iconic North and South Urns repaired on-site. Dedicated in 1988, the urns are fixtures of the Formal Garden and help frame the space. Estes Paintingused epoxy to fill rust holes in the cast-iron vessels, sanded the urns and repainted them.

Alabama Aquarium & Pond Services (AAPS) then installed new pumps and placed them in such a way that they’re not visible from the paths,” Underwood says.

Other improvements were less extensive but no less important. In the Curry Rhododendron Garden pond, “horticulturist Tiffany Sutton had been filling the pond with a hose when the water level dropped,” Underwood says. A new pump with an auto-fill feature now fills it as needed.

The 2006 Loblolly Pine Cone fountain by sculptor Brad Morton in the Southern Living Garden also received a new pump. The Abroms Rhododendron Species Garden basin, which like most streambeds at the gardens was created with shotcrete applied directly to the soil without rebar to reinforce it, was rebuilt using reinforced concrete. Thanks to the combined efforts of Bright Future Electric and AAPS, the quaint pond in the McReynolds Garden greets visitors with the gentle welcome of a bubbly fountain.

“It’s amazing – the feel of the place – when the fountains are up and running,” Underwood says. “When you walk through the Japanese Garden or sit in the new swings in the Abroms Rhododendron Species Garden, water makes such a difference in the aesthetic of these spots. The gardens feel so alive.”

This story first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of The Garden Dirt magazine published by Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)