1 year ago

Technology that led to recoveries of Aniah Blanchard, Kamille ‘Cupcake’ McKinney could help solve Alabama’s prison crisis

MONTGOMERY — Sources close to the investigations have confirmed to Yellowhammer News that LEO Technologies’ proprietary Verus Analytical System helped lead to the respective recoveries of both the remains of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney and Aniah Blanchard.

Remains believed to be Blanchard’s were recovered on Monday, as reported by Yellowhammer News. McKinney’s remains were recovered last month. Both were the subjects of separate Alabama missing persons cases, which now seem set to be prosecuted as kidnapping and homicide cases. Blanchard, a 19-year-old Homewood resident, had been attending school at Lee County’s Southern Union Community College; McKinney, 3, lived in Birmingham.

Three suspects have now been arrested and charged by the Auburn Police Department in relation to Blanchard’s disappearance: first Ibraheem Yazeed, then Antwain Shamar “Squirmy” Fisher on Friday night and finally David Johnson, Jr. on Monday.

While previous media reporting has advised that Fisher allegedly “disposed of evidence and provided transportation for Yazeed,” how authorities learned of Fisher’s reported involvement has remained a public mystery — until now.

What is LEO Technologies?

Before delving into the two aforementioned cases, it is important to understand just exactly what LEO Technologies does.

Co-founded by Tuscaloosa native James Sexton, LEO Technologies specializes in bringing cutting edge software and hardware, along with world-class subject matter expertise, to law enforcement agencies, intelligence entities, correctional facilities and private sector partners. “OUR SOLUTIONS ARE BUILT FOR COPS BY COPS,” their website highlights.

The company, founded in 2016, was featured in a recent national ABC News story about its revolutionary artificial intelligence (AI) system, Verus, that transcribes participating prisons’ phone calls virtually instantaneously and alerts law enforcement to relevant information.

Using inmate phone calls, which are hosted by other companies on behalf of the prisons, Verus produces near real-time intelligence based on keywords and phrases selected by law enforcement. It automatically downloads, analyzes and transcribes all recorded inmate calls, proactively flagging them for review.

While legally mandated warnings play at the beginning of every inmate phone call stating that each call is being recorded and monitored, inmates — and individuals on the other end of the line — still disclose an incredible amount of information, from incriminating evidence important in criminal investigations to warnings that an inmate is in danger — whether through self-harm or threats from other inmates.

Respective prison phone providers across the country already offer transcription services, however, these are done manually — and normally after a specific, reactive request. No law enforcement agency has the manpower resources to transcribe or monitor every prison phone call. Simply put, this means information is out there across the country that could be used to save lives and reduce crime — yet that goldmine of data is sitting idly by, collecting digital dust as business as usual in the American corrections system nets the same old problems.

Verus, on the other hand, is automated and proactive. And corrections facilities or the relevant associated law enforcement agency do not even have to expend manpower to constantly monitor the results produced. LEO Technologies provides each entity that uses Verus with an expert, retired law enforcement officer, from some of the best agencies in America. This individual becomes embedded in that law enforcement entity, monitoring the Verus results, helping facilitate the most effective keyword and phrase usage and forwarding relevant information to the proper investigator.

More Alabama ties

Jefferson County, under then-Sheriff Mike Hale, was the national beta test subject for Verus. The county’s prison went online with the system first and is still utilizing it to this day.

Retired Los Angeles Police Department detective Joe Ferreira is LEO Technologies’ embed that has been working with Jefferson County. Ferreira has worked every division imaginable for LAPD: homicide, narcotics, gangs, vice, forgery.

Yellowhammer News spoke with David Thompson, the retired Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office unit commander who worked to implement Verus for the sheriff’s office.

He called Verus “a very valuable tool to help with several things.”

Thompson then listed gathering intelligence on criminal activity as one of these things, explaining, “[B]ecause even though inmates are in jail, [many] still either operate criminal enterprises or they try to stay in the loop about what’s going on on the outside.”

Next, he detailed Verus helps provide a wealth of information on contraband already in the facility and planned smuggling operations of contraband into the facility. These operations can be conducted through employees, contractors or visitors.

Third, Thompson outlined that Verus is an important tool in helping with mental health issues in the facility. The system can help identify, through keywords, inmates battling mental illnesses, including those who are risks for self-harm or suicide.

Similarly, Verus can be used to thwart planned assaults, homicides or riots in the jail, Thompson remarked.

Verus typically costs about $500,000 annually for a corrections facility of 1,000 inmates. In addition to the potentially life-saving — thus priceless — benefits he mentioned, Thompson noted how the system pays for itself.

“When you find those calls ahead of time and you prevent an inmate from killing themselves or killing another inmate, it potentially saves millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements,” he added.

‘Success stories’ galore

Thompson explained that Hale’s office initially was very willing to try the system to decrease violent crime.

“The biggest untapped source of intelligence is the jail,” he said, speaking in general terms. Thompson added that trying to use a prison phone company’s monitoring tools is like “trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

He continued to praise LEO Technologies’ software for its unparalleled effectiveness and efficiency.

Citing a litany of “success stories,” Thompson remarked, “The reality is law enforcement is here to help bring justice, and the information [revealed by Verus] allows you to close a lot of cases.”

He said this includes cases that law enforcement officers were not even actively investigating, rather Verus allowed them to “just stumble upon” evidence. Additionally, there are many high profile cases in recent years in Jefferson County that Verus did not receive public credit for helping close but were indeed some of these success stories.

Take this wild story originally reported by Carol Robinson, when LEO Technologies’ involvement went unheralded.

Thompson told ABC News about this example stemming from a Birmingham man who was arrested in 2017 on outstanding felony warrants. His car was towed to a local impound yard, and while he was in the Jefferson County jail, Verus alerted law enforcement officials to search his car for drugs.

“He calls family members and asks them to go to the tow yard, and get a locked camera case from his car,” Thompson said. “And he gives them the three-digit code to unlock the case.”

Law enforcement officers, once notified of the contents of that call, got a search warrant and rushed to the impound yard with a drug-sniffing K9.

“We sent our narcotics people to the tow yard and beat the family there,” Thompson explained. “We didn’t even have to break the case open because we had the code.”

Authorities reportedly recovered three grams of cocaine, two grams of heroin and an undetermined amount of the sedative alprazolam.

Without Verus, it would have been doubtful that law enforcement officials ever found out about the drugs. And, even with a slower, manual prison phone monitoring service, the man’s family members would have been able to beat authorities to the car and move the drugs.

This is just one of many positive results made possible by Verus in Jefferson County alone. Thompson said numerous illegal weapons and a large amount of drugs have been taken off the streets in the Birmingham metro area due to the technology.

Last year, an inmate call in Jefferson County even recorded a live murder outside the jail involving suspected gang members. Using intelligence from the call, local, state and federal authorities were able to launch a large-scale roundup called “Operation Focused Remedy” in and around Bessemer that sought targeted arrests on nine federal and 26 state warrants. Over 20 firearms were recovered from this operation.

Then there was the case of a Jefferson County inmate allegedly running a prostitution ring from inside his jail cell. Verus helped authorities bust the ring and rescue at least one human trafficking victim, Thompson told ABC News.

Another example obtained by Yellowhammer News pertains to ‘Two Gunz Vito,’ a local rapper who was indicted in 2017 for the murder of then Mayor-Elect Randall Woodfin’s nephew. The indictment was made possible because Vito, already an inmate, on a prison phone call provided a synopsis of the homicide that he allegedly committed. He was arrested and detained with an admissible confession in this high-profile case due to Verus, requiring no search warrant, phone tap, interview or law enforcement operation.

Indeed, information obtained by Yellowhammer News concluded that in 2018 alone, Verus helped the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office screen over four million inmate calls. These calls resulted in a total of 118 criminal reports, including 39 homicides.

More jurisdictions starting to benefit

Jefferson County, however, is not an outlier in having success with Verus.

The East Metro Area Crime Center has also subsequently chosen to use the technology, and Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge told ABC News “it made a believer out of me in the first week.”

In an interview with Yellowhammer News, Partridge, currently president of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police, shared personal experiences that mirrored the positive results that Thompson outlined.

Partridge stressed that the “biggest thing” that continues to strike him about Verus is helping prevent inmate suicides.

The police chief outlined that inmates, just as in the outside world, normally reach out to loved ones with a cry for help. Because this happens frequently via prison phone calls, law enforcement authorities are able to be alerted by Verus and act accordingly to potentially save a life.

“That alone is the most fantastic part about it,” Partridge said of preventing suicides.

He added that Verus “pays for itself with [suicide reductions] alone.”

“Now the rest of it is all gravy from there,” he further noted, mentioning lots of gravy at that — the same broad benefits outlined by Thompson.

“I think this technology is probably some of the best technology put out since the taser,” Partridge stressed, noting he has firsthand seen some “serious crimes” solved and multiple potential suicides prevented because of it.

These sentiments were echoed by Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade, who is now utilizing Verus in his county jail.

“We have — almost daily — analysts (from LEO) send us something,” he shared.

Wade detailed one example of an inmate who on a call told someone to go get a gun he had stashed, revealing the location. Authorities were then able to recover this gun before the inmate’s contact could, allowing the inmate to be appropriately prosecuted.

The sheriff said several crimes have been solved in Calhoun County that occurred outside the jail walls but were talked about over the prison phones.

“Having this technology is paramount,” Wade emphasized, outlining that the difference between Verus and traditional prison phone company monitoring is night and day.

He called the traditional, non-Verus method “the least effective way” possible. Wade, like Thompson and Partridge, praised potential suicide preventions as a key result for his jurisdiction.

“Intelligence-led policing is the future,” Wade added.

McKinney, Blanchard cases

While Wade very well might be right, it would seem intelligence-led policing’s time is now, too.

Just take the McKinney and Blanchard cases as prime examples — crimes that occurred outside of jail walls and rocked entire communities, with waves being felt around the United States.

First, before McKinney’s abduction become national news, she was the talk of the Jefferson County jail.

Yellowhammer News has learned that Verus helped identify approximately 20 phone calls about McKinney from the night she went missing alone. The calls identified potential witnesses and suspects alike that were at that point unknown to authorities.

A source with direct knowledge confirmed that authorities were even able to firmly place Patrick Devone Stallworth, one of the now-charged suspects, purchasing candy because Verus alerted to the keyword “candy.” Additionally, authorities were alerted to a call about exactly how McKinney was lured away from the party from a Jefferson County jail phone call, confirming what on-scene witnesses said. The totality of the information from calls into and out of the jail helped lead to the recovery of her remains.

Verus’ involvement with the Blanchard case is perhaps even more striking.

At the time of her disappearance, no entity in Lee County or Montgomery County was utilizing LEO Technologies.

Approximately one week into the search for Blanchard, the Montgomery City Jail requested to begin using Verus. After approximately another week that it took for the respective prison phone company to comply and allow LEO Technologies the proper access, the results started almost immediately.

A source close to the investigation confirmed to Yellowhammer News that on November 10, Montgomery Police Department received a tip in reference to a truck possibly involved in the disappearance. The word truck was then added as a keyword into that jurisdiction’s Verus alert list, and the following day, the system alerted to a phone call with that keyword used several times that seemingly helped solve the case.

In that phone call, it is alleged that Fisher, who had been arrested on unrelated warrants the previous day and was an inmate at the time, was extensively talking to an individual outside the jail about Blanchard’s disappearance. In said phone call, Fisher was personally implicated as having involvement with the aftermath of Blanchard’s disappearance, including having been in her car. Fisher reportedly warned the individual not to call the police, although the individual wanted to. Another suspect was also allegedly implicated in this same phone call.

After Verus alerted to the phone call, LEO obtained a copy through the prison phone company and gave the copy to Auburn Police Department. This was the piece of evidence that led to Fisher, then back out of jail, being picked up by Auburn PD on November 22. Sources close to the investigation confirm that the call also ended up being crucial in locating and recovering Blanchard’s remains.

What else can LEO Technologies help solve?

While the apparent closure of these two high-profile cases are two more examples of crimes committed outside of prison walls being aided by Verus, Alabama especially has an ongoing crisis in its corrections facilities.

This past spring, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — the prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

While public examples of the conditions — from prison violence to overcrowding and inadequate resources — have been reported on for years, Melissa Brown just this month published yet another tear-jerking account of Alabama inmates’ “horrid” experiences.

While some action has been taken on the state level in recent years, there is still clearly much to be done, especially to reduce inmate deaths.

“Alabama Dept. of corrections confirms 3 inmate deaths in 8 days.” That’s a headline from last month.

“2 inmates found dead in Alabama prisons.” That happened on Monday of this week.

These examples are the norm, not the exception.

However, while there is an acceptance by legislators and state officials that something must be done, there is still seemingly no consensus on what solution(s) should be implemented.

The governor has convened a study group to gather all of the relevant data and propose solutions. That group is set to hold its final meeting on January 12 ahead of the February 4 start of the 2020 regular session of the Alabama legislature.

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), viewed as the leading legislator on corrections and criminal justice reform, has explained that the prison problem is no “one bill, one solution” issue. He has emphasized the complexity of the crisis, as well as the necessarily multifaceted nature of any potential package of solutions.

Yet, lines are already being drawn by some. State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne), a career prosecutor before his election in 2018, on Friday argued against sentencing reform as a potential part-solution.

Governor Kay Ivey, for her part, will drive much of this conversation in 2020, just as she did on major bipartisan issues like the Rebuild Alabama Act last time around.

In an op-ed earlier this, she detailed the problems, some things done in recent years to start improving conditions and what more needs to be accomplished. As she wrote, Ivey wants “an Alabama solution” for what is surely an Alabama problem.

While potential proposals such as sentencing reform and new prison construction are sure to be political wedges, there may be one bipartisan, commonsense change to be made. As Jefferson County, the Metro Area Crime Center, Calhoun County and now Montgomery City Jail have witnessed firsthand (Talladega is also in the process of going online), LEO Technologies’ Verus system is making tangible positive impacts on the very worst issues that Alabama is facing in its prisons: suicide, violent inmate-on-inmate crime and contraband-related problems.

Alabama solutions for Alabama problems

Yellowhammer News spoke with LEO’s Sexton, who said the company has had conversations with the Alabama Department of Corrections and senior members of the governor’s staff, including chief of staff and former Congressman Jo Bonner. Conversations are ongoing between ADOC and LEO. The state has recognized and embraced the need first to address staffing shortages, and the company invites corrections to try out its technology as a complement to those efforts.

Sexton said, “Governor Kay Ivey has asked for Alabama solutions … for Alabama problems. I believe we have one, and I’m working through the proper channels to get it in front of her for consideration.”

“I’m an Alabama boy that was adopted by Alabama officials to solve Alabama problems (in Jefferson County and the subsequent partners),” he continued. “I love my state, and this is a hometown problem for me. I want Alabama to win every time.”

Sexton advised Yellowhammer News that LEO is offering 90-day trials for any Alabama law enforcement agency or corrections facility (or “bundle” of agencies/facilities like the Metro Area Crime Center) 700 beds or over that want to see the product work for themselves before making a long term commitment.

“We have past performance of dealing with every issue the state of Alabama has had,” he added.

He also stressed that this is a bipartisan measure. While Hale, a Republican, as sheriff in Jefferson County first brought LEO in mainly because of violent crime, now-Sheriff Mark Pettway, a Democrat, has been able to focus on different benefits through improving inmate welfare.

Sexton also addressed head-on one potential talking point of naysayers: privacy concerns with the system automatically monitoring inmate phone calls.

“An inmate phone call is a consensual phone call, and it has been upheld for the last 30 years that … anything you say on those calls is evidence,” he said. “That’s the beautiful part about our tool. Anything discussed on the inmate phone call is for the benefit of society. Well upheld.”

In fact, LEO has a major civil rights organization in its corner.

Don Baylor with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., praised LEO Technologies and Verus in an interview with Yellowhammer News. He said he was “so impressed with the technology they offer.”

“They’re so effective at saving lives,” Baylor extolled.

He noted the SCLC was heavily involved with prison reform efforts as well.

Baylor continued to explain that LEO has been a big help with what they are doing in that regard. He underlined that Sexton is a big believer in giving deserving inmates second chances and actively aids in inmate education and rehabilitation initiatives.

‘I think they’re losing out’

To all of the corrections facilities and law enforcement agencies not using Verus in Alabama right now, Baylor urged them to get on board.

“Once this technology is understood, all of the things that it can do, I think it could revolutionize some of the issues that we have,” Baylor said.

He was joined by all of the law enforcement officials Yellowhammer News spoke to in making this call-to-action.

Thompson said Verus is worth it “if you can prevent (just) one jail suicide.”

Partridge added of facilities and agencies not using Verus, “I think they’re losing out by not taking advantage of the technology — not only the crimes they could be solving with it but also preventing those inmate deaths.”

“We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe inside jail — and then get them out of jail,” Sexton summarized. “And isolate the bad actors.”

If all of the above testimonials are not enough, Ferreira, the veteran detective and California transplant now working as LEO’s embed in the Heart of Dixie, told Yellowhammer News that he would not be in Alabama spearheading Verus’ usage if it did not work.

“I equate the technology we have to fishing with a fish finder,” he said. “I believe in the product. I was offered several other jobs prior to choosing to come here after I retired. But I was so impressed with the product and how effective it is that I wanted to be a part of it. Because I’m still doing police work but doing it in a different form. If I didn’t believe in the product, I wouldn’t be here.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

22 mins ago

State business leaders expecting economic growth

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – In the latest quarterly survey by researchers at The University of Alabama, business leaders in the state are feeling more encouraged about the economy than they have since the global pandemic began.

The UA Center for Business and Economic Research’s most recent Alabama Business Confidence Index shows that local business leaders have strong expectations for economic growth in the second quarter of 2021. The statewide business confidence index was 64.3, up more than eight points from the survey of the first quarter of 2021.

It’s one of the highest indexes ever and the most confident business leaders have been in the economy since the second quarter of 2019. It continues a steady recovery of confidence since the early days of the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020, when the ABCI decreased to 50.5 and business leaders were uncertain of what the coming quarter would hold for the economy.

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An index over 50 indicates a positive forecast compared to the previous quarter, and the higher the number, the more confident the forecast. The statewide and national forecasts, along with industry-specific components like sales, profits, hiring and capital expenditures comprise the six indexes that combine to make the ABCI total.

“This outlook suggests that business leaders in Alabama are ‘shaking off the pandemic,’” said Susannah Robichaux, a socioeconomic analyst for the center. “When there is a higher ABCI, it signals that business leaders are feeling optimistic about the coming quarter, which is absolutely informing their own decisions about their businesses.”

Business leaders expect to see an increase in sales, profits, hiring and expenditures in the second quarter, according to the survey.

Firms of all sizes reported especially strong confidence in growth compared to last quarter, though small firms with fewer than 20 employees had the most confidence.

In a telling sign from the survey, business leaders feel strongly they will increase hiring in the second quarter compared to the first. Only 6.5% of respondents expected to decrease hiring, and the healthcare and social assistance industry is the only one of nine industry categories that expects to possibly decrease in hiring, hinting at expectations of a possible contraction after a year of industry expansion.

Overall, business leaders are more confident in the state economy than the national outlook, but confidence in both increased from the first quarter of 2021.

The breakdown of all the industry forecasts by sector can be seen in the statewide ABCI report on CBER’s website.

In addition to the statewide ABCI report, CBER also collects ABCI data to write individual reports for Alabama’s five major metro areas. These metro reports offer insight into the forecasts for each specific region.

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama)

1 hour ago

Great Red Snapper Count may have little impact on 2021 season

Last week’s meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council (Gulf Council) Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) yielded mixed results for red snapper anglers.

The SSC voted to partially incorporate the Great Red Snapper Count, which estimated the red snapper population in the Gulf is three times higher than previous estimates, into the Gulf Council management process. However, that action may have little impact on the 2021 red snapper season.

“The Scientific and Statistical Committee is the science advisory panel for the Gulf Council,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division. “The purpose of the meeting was to review the Great Red Snapper Count, provide feedback and decide if it should be used in the interim analysis for red snapper this year and how it should be applied. The committee reviewed the Great Red Snapper Count and showed some areas that needed improvement. The researchers are going to go back and make some minor adjustments, but it won’t make a big change in the overall number. It just improves the report they have.”

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The Great Red Snapper Count estimated the abundance of red snapper in the Gulf at 110 million fish. Previous assessments from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries estimated the number of red snapper at 36 million fish.

“The committee voted on whether that data was the best science available for setting the overfishing limit,” Bannon said. “They voted that in. The number they chose for the overfishing limit was 25.6 million pounds. The Magnuson-Stevens Act states that you cannot exceed that overfishing limit or immediate changes will have to be implemented to prevent overfishing.”

Bannon said the previous overfishing limit was set at 15.5 million pounds, so the new recommended overfishing limit is a 10.1 million-pound increase. The committee then recommended that the acceptable biological catch (ABC) be set at 15.4 million pounds, which Bannon vigorously questioned.

“That’s a 10 million-pound difference from the overfishing limit,” he said. “That’s a 44-percent buffer, which I’m disappointed in. That is relatively unheard of in fisheries management. I am pleased with the recommended increase in the overfishing limit. I’m not pleased with the ABC.”

The SSC report will go to the Gulf Council and will be discussed at the next council meeting, set for April 12-15 via webinar. The Gulf Council will then set the annual catch limit (ACL) for allocations among the five Gulf states for the 2021 season.

“With only 300,000 new pounds available, that’s a negligible increase,” Bannon said. “That increase would potentially be applied to all of the sectors – commercial, charter and private anglers.”

Another hurdle for private anglers is NOAA Fisheries is pushing that the catch data from the Marine Recreation Information Program (MRIP) survey and state reporting systems be “calibrated,” which could significantly impact Alabama’s quota and reduce the number of fishing days for private recreational anglers.

“Our goal is to avoid calibration,” Bannon said. “With calibration, Alabama and Mississippi allocations would be cut in half.”

Under calibration alternatives, Alabama’s quota for red snapper could go from 1.12 million pounds in 2020 to 547,298 pounds in 2021.

“Naturally we didn’t agree with that,” Bannon said. “NOAA Fisheries said that was going to be required because the fishery may have met the overfishing limit in 2019. The catch for 2019 barely exceeded the 15.5 million-pound limit by 150,000 pounds. That is Gulf-wide in all sectors, including private anglers, for-hire and commercial, but with the new Great Red Snapper Count data, whether there was overfishing at all in 2019 is in question. Our goal at the upcoming Gulf Council meeting is to postpone any calibration until the Great Red Snapper Count is fully integrated into the stock assessment so that Alabama and Mississippi would fish at the same level we’ve fished for the previous couple of years under the EFP (Exempted Fishing Permit) and state management, which is around a million pounds.”

The MRIP surveys have considerably overestimated red snapper catches compared to Alabama’s Red Snapper Reporting System, known as Snapper Check.

“We say we landed about a million pounds, but the MRIP survey says we landed about 2.5 million pounds,” Bannon said. “We have a monitoring program that we feel is accurate, and we are harvesting at a sustainable level. The Great Red Snapper Count says there are 10 million red snapper off the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi. We’re not getting the access to those fish that we would like. Across the Gulf, the count says there are 110 million fish, so no state is really getting the access to the fish we think they should.”

For those not familiar with the Great Red Snapper Count, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby sponsored legislation to provide $10 million for an independent survey of the red snapper population in the Gulf. More than 20 scientists across the Gulf from the academic world participated in the survey.

“It was designed to look objectively at the red snapper abundance in the Gulf,” Bannon said. “It counted fish that are two years and older. The scientists developed a plan that utilized cameras, acoustic arrays and a robust tagging program. They actually identify fish. They see them, count them and get size estimates with lasers on the camera equipment.”

The scientists surveyed natural bottom, artificial reefs and uncharacterized bottom. The uncharacterized bottom had no structures or vertical relief. Surprisingly, the surveys found far more fish on uncharacterized bottom than expected.

At the upcoming Gulf Council meeting, Bannon said any Council recommendations could be overruled by NOAA Fisheries, but he plans to make the argument that the alternative plan of no action on calibration is the proper choice.

“We are not in fear of overfishing,” he said. “The overfishing limit is now 10 million pounds higher, so if we sustain the level we’re fishing, we’re not going to get anywhere near the overfishing limit. I am disappointed in some of the decisions made by the SSC. We have an objective assessment done by more than 20 experts in the field that says there are conservatively three times the number of red snapper, but we’re not seeing the benefit of that. The SSC decisions only apply to 2021. This will give the scientists more time to review the Great Red Snapper Count in depth, make some minor changes, and hopefully it will be incorporated into the next red snapper assessment that will conclude in 2023.”

Bannon also reminds anglers or concerned citizens that the Gulf Council meetings always allocate a time for public comment on Wednesdays, which will be from 1-4:30 p.m. on April 14 for the next meeting.

“I always encourage people to voice their opinions and concerns about the decisions being made,” he said. “The Gulf Council does consider public comment. They listen, sometimes ask questions and consider it in their decision making. I will assure the anglers of Alabama that we’re not trying to take away any fish from other states or any sector, but we’re going to try to ensure that private anglers have the access that they should to this abundant resource.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

15 hours ago

Alabama’s congressional leaders bash Biden’s proposed defense budget — ‘Talk is cheap, but defending our country is not’

President Joe Biden on Friday released his proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, and the leaders in Alabama’s congressional delegation are especially sounding alarm bells about Biden’s defense spending plans.

Fortunately, while the White House proposes a budget, it is up to Congress to annually fund the government, so there is still time for lawmakers to improve upon the Biden administration’s proposal. However, many legislative Democrats want a significantly smaller defense budget — potentially one that is cut by 10% year-over-year.

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, will be perhaps the most powerful person in America this year when it comes to standing in the gap against gutting critical defense spending. Shelby is also the top Republican on Appropriations’ Defense subcommittee.

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Shelby, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Senate Select Committee on Intelligence vice chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released a lengthy joint statement on Friday in reaction to the Biden budget proposal.

“President Biden recently said, ‘If we don’t get moving, [China] is going to eat our lunch.’ Today’s budget proposal signals to China that they should set the table,” the Republican Senate leaders stated. “While President Biden has prioritized spending trillions on liberal wish list priorities here at home, funding for America’s military is neglected.”

They decried, “China’s military investments match its desire to out-compete America and hold our military forces at risk. President Biden’s defense spending cut doesn’t even keep up with inflation. Meanwhile, the non-defense discretionary budget increases by almost 20 percent in this budget on top of the trillions of dollars in new non-national security programs the administration is intent on spending this year. If President Biden’s support for America’s military matched his zeal for spending at home, China would get nowhere close to overtaking us.”

“Talk is cheap, but defending our country is not,” Shelby and his colleagues concluded. “We can’t afford to fail in our constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense. To keep America strong, we must balance domestic and defense spending priorities. President Biden has said much about reaching across the aisle. Both parties should be able to agree that we must maintain America’s edge over China. We urge President Biden to work with us in a bipartisan manner to ensure that.”

Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-04) expressed similar concerns in a statement to Yellowhammer News. Aderholt is a senior member of the House Committee on Appropriations, a member of its Defense subcommittee and the dean of Alabama’s House delegation.

“China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran are all maturing their military capabilities as fast as possible,” Aderholt commented. “Asking our Dept. of Defense to do with less money than last year, and also to engage in expensive green-energy programs, raises serious issues about whether our warfighters will have what they need when a conflict breaks out.”

While Shelby and Aderholt provide Alabama strength on the appropriations side of the equation, the state is well represented when it comes to defense authorization and policy, as well.

This includes Congressman Mike Rogers’ (AL-03) newfound service as the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC).

The East Alabama congressman released a lengthy statement of his own on Friday bashing Biden’s proposed defense budget for FY22.

“The Biden administration has talked a big game towards China. Unfortunately, the release of their skinny budget today indicates it is just talk,” Rogers said.

“During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Austin acknowledged that the gap between the CCP and the United States military has ‘closed significantly’ and that ‘our goal will be to ensure that we expand that gap going forward.’ I’m not sure how that is possible when today’s budget fails to keep pace with inflation and cuts defense spending in terms of real dollars,” he lamented.

Rogers outlined, “The bipartisan, Congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission recommended that ‘Congress increase the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation.’ That target has my full support. It also had Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks’s support when she was a commissioner and the recommendation was submitted to Congress. Unfortunately, the Biden administration is choosing to spend trillions on left wing priorities at the expense of our national defense.”

“This budget will impact our readiness, dampen our efforts to modernize our strategic weapons, limit our naval and projection forces, and prevent the latest innovations and enhancements from getting to our warfighters,” he concluded. “As I have said before, if we do not make the investments our military needs today, then we will not be able to defend our nation or our allies in the future. I hope to work with Congressional Democrats to undo the tremendous damage this budget will cause to our military.”

Another HASC member from Alabama, freshman Congressman Jerry Carl (AL-01), also made his displeasure clear with the Biden budget.

“President Biden has called for a drastic increase in domestic spending, but is putting our defense budget in danger,” stated the Coastal Alabama congressman. “The Biden Administration is all talk and no action when it comes to putting America first and strengthening our defenses. Now is the time to make critical investments in our military and ensure we have the best trained and best equipped fighting forces, rather than cutting defense spending and falling behind other global powers.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

16 hours ago

Draper’s Apollo heritage augmenting Dynetics’ modern, sustainable HLS that could land the next humans on the moon

NASA is expected in the coming weeks to select up to two prime contractors to continue competing to build the Human Landing System (HLS) that will eventually land the next man and the first woman on the moon through the Artemis program.

The agency last year selected three prime contractors to design a HLS: Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX.

Dynetics, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Leidos, is headquartered in Huntsville, and Blue Origin’s work on the program is also being centered in the Rocket City. Of course, Marshall Space Flight Center manages the HLS program for NASA, so the program is about as Huntsville-centric as it gets.

One of the key points Blue Origin has made publicly is the legacy of its team, which the company calls the “National Team” and includes the likes of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper — three storied American defense and aerospace contractors that helped guide the famed Apollo program.

However, an underreported aspect of the competition is that Draper is also a major part of Dynetics’ HLS team.

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One of the major stated benefits of Dynetics’ HLS proposal is the sustainability of the system. The Dynetics HLS has been intentionally designed to contribute to the sustainability of the Artemis program in three main ways: reusability, extensibility and supporting the development of a lunar economy. The company believes these three building blocks are vital to the goal of a long-term, sustainable presence on the moon — as well as future human exploration to deeper space, including Mars.

However, Dynetics’ enhanced public focus on sustainability is not to say that its HLS team does not bring significant flight heritage to the table; Dynetics itself has quickly become a “‘go-to’ propulsion provider for partners in both government and industry,” and Draper’s inclusion on the team especially underscores the diverse experience and expertise of the entire Dynetics team — which is also buoyed by the likes of Sierra Nevada Corporation and Maxar.

Yellowhammer News recently spoke with Kelly Villarreal, Space Systems senior program manager and HLS lead for the Dynetics team at Draper; Pete Paceley, principal director of Civil and Commercial Space Systems at Draper and head of Draper’s Huntsville office; and Kristina Hendrix, director of communications at Dynetics.

The discussion included talks about how Draper’s expertise that first landed humans on the moon through the Apollo program is set to be used in an evolved form for Artemis.

“It’s a thrill to be a part of the Dynetics Human Lander team,” said Paceley, an alumnus of Auburn University. “Going back to the moon is a big deal for Draper.”

He explained that Draper, originally part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was named for the late Charles Stark “Doc” Draper who is known as the father of inertial navigation. He was the founder and director of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, later renamed the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. That lab made the Apollo lunar landings possible through the Apollo Guidance Computer it designed for NASA as the agency’s first prime contractor for the program.

Draper — the company — was spun off a non-profit in the 1970s into the private sector.

“We like to say we’ve already landed on the moon six times — we have a rich heritage there,” advised Paceley in explaining that Draper provided the flight control computer, all of the software, and the guidance, navigation and control systems for Apollo. “And we’ve maintained that legacy… Draper brings a lot to the party.”

The company opened an office in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park in 2006, essentially right down the street from Dynetics’ base of operations.

“We’ve had a great relationship with Dynetics over the years on various programs,” Paceley noted, adding the companies have “very complementary capabilities.”

Just like it did for Apollo, Draper is bringing world-class navigation, guidance and flight control software and hardware to the Dynetics HLS team.

Villarreal reiterated Draper’s enthusiasm for being on the Dynetics HLS team and functioning as a “major contributor to the overall effort to return to the lunar surface.”

Draper’s Huntsville office, which employs about 20 people, largely works on NASA programs; another contribution Draper is making in the Rocket City is also on the Artemis program through the Marshall-managed Space Launch System (SLS). The company additionally supports the Missile Defense Agency at Redstone Arsenal and other Pentagon-driven national security work in the area.

While Draper has been there before, a major difference between Artemis and Apollo is that NASA wants to land on the lunar South Pole this time around rather than near the equator. This presents a unique and difficult challenge, which Draper is helping to solve.

“The angle of light from the Sun is very low,” Paceley outlined. “So you have a lot of shadows and dark spots. Being able to land safely is a big challenge for this program. We have to provide the capabilities to enable the astronauts landing safely, whether that’s particular sensors that we use to navigate with or with some synthetic vision to allow them to see the boulders, the craters, so they they can avoid those as the vehicle lands. The nice thing about where we are today is we did that 50 years ago on Apollo, but technology has come so much farther now in terms of computers and sensors and electronics — the solutions you can apply to that problem.”

Villarreal added, “One of the exciting things we’ve been able to provide to help visualize the tough landing situation is a lunar lander simulator that’s based at Dynetics.”

“What that does is loop in our guidance, navigation, control algorithm tied to hand controllers for users to specifically stand in the simulator and act as though they are landing the descent/ascent lander element while visually seeing a representation of the lunar surface projected up over a dome,” she said. “So it really brings home the challenges of that lighting situation.”

“Astronaut-pilots (during Apollo) like Neil Armstrong could look out the window, control the vehicle and decide where they wanted to land in a safe area,” Paceley remarked. “Now, there’s a lot more emphasis on autonomy. While the astronauts can take over and pilot the vehicle, we are putting in a lot more autonomy so that the vehicle can do much of the landing on its own — and even, if need be, could land on its own if there were not a pilot on board — and do so safely.”

Hendrix told Yellowhammer News that Draper has been great to partner with. Overall, including Draper, Dynetics in assembling its HLS team sought out “the best companies available” of all sizes.

“We’re just glad they’re a part of it,” she concluded.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

20 hours ago

Blowout in Bessemer: Alabama Amazon team members resoundingly vote against unionizing

In a major blow to President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and others on the national left, thousands of employees at Amazon’s state-of-the-art fulfillment center in Bessemer have overwhelmingly voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

The balloting began in February and wrapped up on March 31. The National Labor Relations Board then conducted a ballot-by-ballot public vote count on Thursday and Friday, which showed a blowout result against unionizing.

The “no” votes crossed the threshold needed to clinch the win at approximately 9:55 a.m. on Friday. At that point and for most of the count, the “no” votes were garnering more than 70% of ballots recorded.

RWDSU, which is based in New York, did not even wait until the vote count was halfway through on Thursday to begin questioning the integrity of the election — and thus seemingly disrespecting the vast majority of the Amazon employees’ choice not to join them. One complaint RWDSU has made revolves around a USPS-installed ballot dropbox outside of the Bessemer Amazon facility; that dropbox made it easier for employees to return their ballots, however, the union opposed its existence. RWDSU had already signaled on Thursday that they would attempt to have the election results overturned and the employees’ votes thrown out.

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Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, on Thursday, claimed, “But make no mistake about it: This still represents an important moment for working people, and their voices will be heard.” This, of course, came as the RWDSU could be set to silence the voices of Amazon workers in Bessemer by challenging the clear-cut election results.

On Friday, after the result was certain, RWDSU confirmed it is formally filing the paperwork with the NLRB to “set aside” the election results, forcing a union on the employees even though they voted against it. Without evidence, the union claimed it was not “a free and fair election,” despite the mail-in process giving Amazon team members months instead of the normal days to participate.

Amazon throughout the unionization push process has stressed that the company’s wages and benefits are already industry-leading; the company’s “Do It Without Dues” campaign spoke to this and the potential high cost of employees having to turn over hard-earned money to union bosses.

On top of Amazon’s $15 minimum wage, the company offers industry-leading benefits to full-time employees, which include comprehensive health care from day one, 401(k) with 50% match, up to 20 weeks paid parental leave and Amazon’s innovative Career Choice program, which pre-pays 95% of tuition for courses in high-demand fields. Since the program’s launch four years ago, more than 25,000 employees have pursued degrees in game design and visual communications, nursing, IT programming and radiology, just to name a few.

“Amazon is already about the best-paying job a non-skilled laborer can get in Alabama,” Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, told NBC News.

The quality of job offered by Amazon is especially important in Bessemer, which — per data from the Alabama Department of Labor — has consistently had the third-highest rate of unemployment among the state’s major cities.

One big winner emerging from the union vote results is U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who publicly defended the Amazon employees against mounting public pressure from out-of-state Democratic politicians and left-wing activists.

“Alabama is a right-to-work state, which is why we have a growing economy that attracts great companies to our state. But importantly, right-to-work laws protect workers and give them the choice to form a union or not,” Tuberville previously said. “These employees in Alabama don’t need Hollywood elites or the federal government telling Alabama workers what to do.”

This rout of Sanders is akin to his humiliating defeat in last year’s Democratic presidential primary; it is also yet another public instance of the senator’s rhetoric not reaping results. Likewise, this loss for Biden is even worse than the thumping he took in the state’s 2020 general election.

UPDATE 12:00 p.m.

Amazon has released a statement regarding the union election in Bessemer.

The full statement reads as follows:

Thank you to employees at our BHM1 fulfillment center in Alabama for participating in the election. There’s been a lot of noise over the past few months, and we’re glad that your collective voices were finally heard. In the end, less than 16% of the employees at BHM1 voted to join the RWDSU union.

It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true. Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace. We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.

We hope that with this election now over, there’s an opportunity to move from talk to action across the country. While our team is more than a million people around the world and we’ve created 500,000 new jobs since Covid began, we’re still a tiny fraction of the workforce. There are 40 million Americans who make less than the starting wage at Amazon, and many more who don’t get health care through their employers, and we think that should be fixed. We welcome the opportunity to sit down and share ideas with any policymaker who wants to pass laws ensuring that all workers in the U.S. are guaranteed at least $15 an hour, health care from day one, and other strong benefits. Our employees have seen tremendous benefit from what we offer and we think every American family deserves the same. We believe that we can work better together instead of against each other to pass those important laws, and we hope that’s what will happen in the months and years ahead.

In the meantime, for anyone who’s interested in meeting some members of our team and seeing what it’s like to work inside one of our buildings, we encourage you to sign up for a tour at www.amazonfctours.com. It’s an incredible operation, supported by a world-class team, and we’d love for you to see for yourself.

UPDATE 12:50 p.m.

Senator Tuberville released a statement, saying, “The folks at Amazon’s Bessemer facility made the decision they felt is best for them, their families, and their community. But the important thing is that they had the choice.”

“Alabama’s Right to Work law gives workers a choice in whether they want to unionize or not,” he continued. “It’s unfortunate to see President Biden and Democrats in Washington trying to override state laws and make forced unionization the national norm. As workers across the country and now in Bessemer have demonstrated, they value their Right to Work protections, and I’ll continue to be a strong voice for their rights in the Senate.”

UPDATE 1:00 p.m.

Katie Britt, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, released a statement.

“The workers at the Amazon facility in Bessemer have spoken,” she said. “Their vote is a testimony to the partnership between Alabama’s business community, and the working people of our state. It is the quality of our workforce that brings major international companies like Amazon to Alabama. Alabama is a Right to Work state and that status has helped attract companies that recognize that what is good for Alabama workers and their families, is also good for business.

UPDATE: 2:05 p.m.

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield released a statement on the vote.

Canfield’s statement as follows:

It’s not surprising Amazon employees in Alabama voted overwhelmingly against unionization, as the company provides world-class benefits and a safe, quality work environment. We’re proud that Amazon chose Alabama, and we are proud to be a Right-To-Work state. Alabama has an unwavering support for its workforce, just as it supports the growth of business and economic development so vital for our citizens and communities.

We respect the decision of each and every employee at Amazon’s Bessemer operation and look forward to working with Amazon to facilitate its future growth plans in Alabama. Alabama remains a very favorable destination for investment, offering high-performing companies from around the world a business-friendly, low-cost environment with a highly motived workforce, among other advantages.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn