Friday, August 6, 2010

Drip, Drip, Double Dip

If someone were pressed to point to the most recurring theme of the Alabama Republican Party in the last decade, it would have to be their incessant carping about “double dipping” - the practice of, in the case of their whines, an employed educator also serving in the Legislature, hence “double dipping” from the public fisc. And this tinny tone has resonated on the tinny editorial pages of not only Republican-leaning newspapers, but some journals whose editors should know better. Typical of this partisan screed has been this editorial from the Mobile Press-Register in June 2009:

Gov. Bob Riley pushed a sweeping ethics reform proposal this year that included strict financial disclosure rules. But even with scandals swirling around the two-year colleges and “double-dipping” lawmakers, the Legislature refused to clean up its own house.
We all know who the targets of this media crusade are. Career educators who have chosen to exercise their constitutional right to seek public office, and have successfully been elected - and in every case I know, re-elected - to the Legislature. With a couple of exceptions, these are Democrats, and many are members of AEA. Generally, they oppose the education-predatory policies of the Riley Administration. Those singled out by media attention include House Democratic Whip Jack Page of Gadsden, who works at Gadsden State Community College, and Representative Yvonne Kennedy of Mobile, who recently retired as President of Bishop State Community College in Mobile.

The media jihad against educators’ constitutional rights reached its nadir when the Pulitzer committee was snookered into giving the 2007 prize for investigative reporting to Brett Blackledge of The Birmingham News. While his report did contribute to the eventual conviction of Chancellor Roy Johnson for contractor kickbacks, the vast bulk of the “investigative” series consisted of rehashes of the very-public information that a handful of Legislators worked in the community college system. You only had to look as far as the legislators’ own campaign websites or legislative website biographies.

What is particularly objectionable - from a point of view of journalistic ethics - is that Blackledge’s series of articles, which had to be approved at the highest level of the News, were carefully focused on the predominantly Democratic legislators who worked in education. (Though to avoid totally overt partisanship, Blackledge did have to occasionally mention Republicans Todd Greeson and Blaine Galliher, though they got many fewer mentions than Democratic subjects.) What else the Blackledge articles never mentioned - and apparently, unknown to the Pulitzer committee - the educational employment of these legislators had been used by the GOP in campaign material in the 2002 election cycle, but all the legislator-educators were re-elected. If their constituents knew, and didn’t care, why should we - or the Pulitzer committee? (Mercifully, Blackledge decamped, Pulitzer plaque in tow, for Washington shortly afterward. At least one fewer GOP shill with access to a printing press in Alabama, and good riddance.) Perhaps most troubling, Blackledge and the News could just as easily have written a series on “public employees” who serve in the Legislature. Could have, but didn’t.

Such a series would have included Republican Cam Ward of Shelby County, who will be moving from the House to the Senate in the next Legislature, who is the Executive Director of the Industrial Development Board of the City of Alabaster, a public agency. It also would have had to name GOP Senator Larry Dixon of Montgomery, who is retiring from the Legislature, who is the Executive Director of the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, and who has worn both hats for a couple of decades now. Republican Representative Spencer Collier of Mobile is a former State Trooper, who has been employed by nonprofit agencies with state contracts since leaving the Troopers. Representative Jamie Ison, a Republican of Mobile, did not retire from her position with the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind until after she took her legislative seat (and campaigned while a full time employee). Senator Jim Preuitt of Talladega, who waited until the last day of qualifying this year to announce he was becoming a Republican, is an automotive dealer. While Preuitt is not a government employee, Preuitt’s dealership is a Ford franchise - sellers of the favorite wheels of police departments everywhere - the Crown Vic. (Soon to be replaced by the Ford Police Interceptor, a Taurus variation.) I do understand that Preuitt sells these vehicles to numerous law enforcement agencies, which are, of course, government agencies. The Democrats could all still have been mentioned in such a “public employees/vendors” series, but that would not have served the purpose of creating an impression that “Democratic” and “corrupt” are uniquely synonymous.

But of course, the King Pig Double Dipper is none other than state Republican Chairman, GOP House Minority Leader, and Siamese Twin of Bob Riley, Mike Hubbard of Lee County. Hubbard’s twisted, serpentine path to Alabama political prominence began in Athens, Georgia, where he attended UGA. From there, he landed on the Plains of Auburn in 1983, as the Associate Sports Information Director. In 1990, he left the university, to run the Auburn radio network. In 1994, he essentially became the Auburn radio network, when the company he founded, Auburn Network, Inc., took over the broadcast rights to Auburn sports. (Why Auburn, and “that other school,” can’t run their broadcasts in-house and keep the profits for university purposes, is a good question. Maybe someone should hold hearings.) In 1998, Hubbard was elected to his first term in the Alabama Legislature, and after the 2002 election, he became the GOP House Minority Leader. Meanwhile, however, Hubbard had introduced an amendment in the 2000 Regular Session of the Legislature to S.B. 260, a bill designed to give an advantage of a few percentage points to Alabama businesses trying to bid for state contracts. As I have been told, Hubbard let it be known that Republicans in the Legislature would filibuster the bill if his amendment was not adopted, and the bill’s sponsors relented. That amendment inserted the following language, now part of the Code of Alabama:

Notwithstanding the requirements under Sections 41-16-20, 41-16-21, and this section, contractual services and purchases of personal property regarding the athletic department, food services, and transit services negotiated on behalf of two-year and four-year colleges and universities may be awarded without competitive bidding provided that no state revenues, appropriations, or other state funds are expended or committed and when it is deemed by the respective board that financial benefits will accrue to the institution, except that in the cases where an Alabama business entity as defined by this section is available to supply the product or service they will have preference unless the product or service supplied by a foreign corporation is substantially different or superior to the product or service supplied by the Alabama business entity.

What all this legalese comes down to is, that Hubbard’s contract for Auburn broadcasting is exempt from the bidding law - but Hubbard kept his preference as an “in state” bidder. Shortly after this bill entered the lawbooks, Hubbard’s company was awarded a ten-year, no-bid contract that gave it the rights to all Auburn sports radio broadcasts. A contract worth millions of dollars to its owner. (Remember the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, when Bob Riley said the brimstone of Hell was too good for Don Siegelman because he awarded no-bid contracts? That was before Riley awarded his own ...)

Not only does this deal stink on its merits, it’s entirely likely that Auburn University was short-changed in the process. According to a complaint filed in 2006 with the Alabama State Ethics Commission, Host Communications, Inc., tried to offer more money than Hubbard’s contract with Auburn. According to one report in The Montgomery Independent, Host offered $1,000,000.00 a year more than Hubbard’s contract gives Auburn. (The Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint on the grounds that Hubbard had apparently gotten a bill passed to make what he did legal. Nice work if you can get it.) Hubbard told The Birmingham News at the time that Auburn was justified in spurning the superior Host proposal because Host was a “shaky” company. For the record, Host Communications is the “shaky” company that handles all sports radio for Florida, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Michigan, among other universities. I should be lucky enough to be so “shaky.”

Of course, Hubbard is ready with a response on the rare occasion he faces a media inquiry about his Auburn contract. In essence, he says “I don’t have a contract with Auburn anymore. I sold Auburn Network, Inc., to an outfit in North Carolina named ISP Sports, LLC. So, there’s no conflict of interest, and I am not making money off Auburn anymore.” Unspoken is the fact that, among its many employees, ISP Sports, LLC, now includes ... Mike Hubbard. Of course, since it’s a privately held outfit, and Auburn sports are officially conducted by a “private” foundation that isn’t subject to sunshine laws, we can’t find out how much of the “sold” contract Hubbard still gets for his “salary,” but I bet endorsing those checks is strenuous work.

The Hubbard/GOP largess with the Auburn contract doesn’t stop there. In addition to getting to keep all its advertising receipts, Hubbard’s employer gets one of the most valuable commodities in Alabama - Auburn football tickets. (Tickets that are physically printed, by the way, by Mike-Hubbard-owned Craftmaster Printers, Inc., as are the game programs.) 547 of them per game, to be exact, some of them of the VIP/skybox variety, in addition to VIP parking passes and other game-day perks. When challenged last year by Democratic Senator Zeb Little to respond to rumors that Hubbard was using these tickets as perks for Republican contributors, Hubbard predictably refused to clearly state that no GOP donors were enjoying these prime seats. In essence, the typical Republican refrain, that what goes on in a “private bidness” doesn’t concern us little people on the outside. Needless to say, when we’re talking about this number of tickets, the annual revenue loss to Auburn University on the free tickets alone is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe not enough to overtake MIT, but it’s enough to provide a scholarship for a couple of future engineers from the rural Black Belt.

This mess ought to upset any Alabama citizen. (Not to mention anyone who is a true supporter of Auburn University!) Yet, has the porcine trough-gouging of Mike Hubbard been the subject of media scrutiny? I ran a Google search for pages containing the terms “Hubbard,” “ISP,” and “contract,” and limited to the site www.al.com - the Newhouse site containing the combined editorial output of The Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register, and The Huntsville Times. The search produced exactly two items. One was the story, linked above, from The Montgomery Independent, not one of the broad-circulation Newhouse dailies. The other was this story from The Birmingham News, in the aftermath of the failure of Auburn bigwig Bobby Lowder’s Colonial Bank, quoting Hubbard on the Auburn Network’s efforts to find a replacement sponsor for Auburn football broadcasts. The latter article doesn’t identify Hubbard as a legislator, or as a Republican Party official.

By way of action concerning this scandalous state of affairs for the Democratic Party and its supporters, several items come to mind. Letters to the editor are always a good way to get things before the reading, voting public, and even the Newhouse papers do a creditable job of printing letters adverse to their preferred positions. The trick is, all newspapers print something of a cross-section of letters received, so we need to send several on a topic for every one we get published. These letters should ask why this issue isn’t page one news; even the most biased media - well, maybe not Fox News - are sensitive to such criticism. There are, remember, a few dozen daily newspapers in Alabama, and some of them are moderately progressive. Combined, the non-Newhouse outlets even have wider circulation, and they reach more deeply into swing counties. Perhaps more important than the letters themselves would be their tendency to force the media to balance its “double-dip” issue coverage.

Another prospect that comes to mind is the frequent pairing on a television set of Hubbard with Democratic State Chair Joe Turnham. WSFA in Montgomery and Alabama Public Television seem particularly fond of the matchup. Chairman Turnham, I know Hubbard is your Auburn neighbor (and your Representative; he took your dad’s old seat in the House), and you are an Auburn grad, but part of the job description of party Chair is to step on his toes until we hear the King Pig Squeeeeeal. And bringing up his Auburn double-dip while he’s there for the camera to record his florid complexion is too good an opportunity to miss. Finally, if I were a Democratic nominee for the House, I wouldn’t overlook making, or having a concerted effort made, to publicize this looting of Auburn coffers at the local Auburn football boosters’ meeting. Such an effort wouldn’t have to be formal, but if informed, the potential for a backlash is there. Remember, Tim James’s one joke about firing Nick Saban has taken some blame for keeping him out of the runoff with Byrne. And those Auburn folks might not cotton to someone - a GEORGIA graduate no less! - making all that money that could be supporting Auburn athletics, AND becoming Speaker!

An endnote: lest you think I am taking a cheap shot at the football mill on the eastern border of the state - guess whose radio broadcast rights are also owned (under the same no-bid statute) by Hubbard’s new corporate “employer”?

12 comments:

  1. Blackledge is no more...

    Last time anybody saw his byline he wrote a negative story for AP out of Alaska about Sarah Palin.

    Poof, he disappeared...

    Former Birmingham News Reporter Discusses Pulitzer
    http://blog.locustfork.net/2008/08/former-birmingham-news-reporter-discusses-pulitzer/

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  2. I knew about this, but it's good to see it stirred up a little! While this is good and accurate stuff, I bet if a reporter contacted that Host Communications Company, they could dish out some real dirt on Hubbard. Nothing like a business competitor as a source of dirt.

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  3. @ GW: The most recent Blackledge AP byline I can find is a November 4, 2009 story purporting to find instances of discrepancies in stimulus job creation statistics. I also find a transcribed appearance on Fox News talking about the report (one of several appearances there; he seems popular with that network.) After that, gornischt. The stimulus report is also cited in The American Spectator - big surprise.

    @WarEagle - good point about calling Host, but I am more of a researcher than investigator.

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  4. I wish Turnham would have run against Hubbard instead of wasting his time waiting on the national Democrats to go against Rogers.

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  5. Bob Lowry, the Montgomery correspondent for The Huntsville Times, did numerous stories on Hubbard/Bob Riley and AU Board of Trustee dealings from 2006 until al.com essentially ran him off in 2011. Google his name with Hubbard and see what you come up with.

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