Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rodger Smitherman and his 45 Helpers

Author column for Mobile Bay Times

Chip Drago -- whose internet blog MobileBayTimes.Com is a great place to go for what's going on in Mobile and Baldwin County politics -- asked me recently to do a one-shot column. Chip's suggestion: What might I be looking at, story-wise, were I still a reporter. I took him up on it. The column, re-printed below with Chip's permission, isn't exactly what he asked for. It was, to use a word I often hear from my children, "random."
Here, without changes or for that matter, updates (it ran on March 29), is the column.

Calling on Curran

What, pray tell, has ex-investigative reporter extraordinaire Eddie Curran been up to lately?

Other than peddling "The Governor of Goat Hill," of course. Surely, this newshound has felt an itch and urge to scratch when he reads the paper or goes online and spots a hole in this report or an unexplored angle in that one.  

So we asked and Curran responded as we hoped and expected. Among the items that have caught his random eye, tickling his urge to dig deeper and get to the bottom of things:

·        1. A story providing a complete-as-possible accounting of the staffing and expenditures from the office of former Alabama State Senate President Pro-Tempore Rodger Smitherman.
The "president pro tempore," of the Alabama state senate is that senator, elected by the majority, who largely runs the upper chamber. The position requires more staff than other state senators because of the additional duties.

Smitherman, it would seem, really needed help running things.

After the Republicans swept into control of the senate in November, they elected one of their own, Del Marsh of Anniston, as the new pro-tem. When Marsh's people came in, they found, to their astonishment, that Smitherman's staff was eight or nine times larger than what met the eye.

State comptroller records showed that Smitherman had 45 people on the pro tem payroll. Of those, only about six or seven worked in the building, said Derek Trotter, communications director and one of four members of Marsh's comparatively diminutive staff.
Senate employees told Marsh they had never laid eyes on most of the people on the pro tem's payroll, Trotter said. 
He said Marsh's staff found that "there were people we didn't know what they were doing," Trotter said.
Smitherman had a web-site for the office that's still up. It lists six staff members. Among those is, or rather was, his chief of staff, Patricia Chatman. She was pulling down a nifty $180,000 a year, said Trotter. 
Chatman's replacement -- former state Republican party official Phillip Bryan -- is getting $75,000 a year.
Because a pro-tem's staff members are political appointees -- as opposed to merit system employees -- Smitherman's people were out after the November election.
"There were more than 40, and (Marsh) has cut it down to four, so we have four people doing the work that the prior pro tem had more than 40 doing. We're staying busy, but we're able to take care of business," Trotter said.
Suggestions for any working reporter who may look into this:
Get the names of all of Smitherman's employees, their titles and their salaries, as well as expenses charged by them and, for that matter, the entire office during Smitherman's tenure.
Provide the employee list to Smitherman -- who is still a state senator -- and ask him to provide some level of detail for the duties of each, and why they were hired.
And, what the heck, ask him what his chief of staff did to deserve $185,000 a year.

·        2. Any Alabamians on that Swiss Bank Wiki-list?
I was greener than green when a Press-Register editor told me, in mid-1994, to go to the federal courthouse and look up a case, the only information about which I had was a file number. It was the first court file I ever laid eyes on, and it involved, among other shenanigans, payments routed to and from a Swiss bank.

Hot damn! A Swiss bank! I want this story!

There's a potentially juicy Swiss bank story (aren't they all?) on the horizon. It will, if it develops, be reported for its national and international repercussions, but who knows -- there may be an Alabama story or two as well.

In January, WikiLeaks trouble-maker Julian Assange announced that a former Swiss banker, Rudolf Elmer, had provided WikiLeaks computer records on more than 2,000 offshore banking clients. At the time, it was reported that it might be weeks, even months, before WikiLeaks published the information. 
So far, nothing, and perhaps, for legal or other reasons, the names will not be revealed. But if so, Alabama reporters should consider a scan of the names to see if any of "our" people or companies are on there. Maybe not, but if so, it would be a story, and a pretty easy one to punch out.
One obvious name to look for: Former HealthSouth Corp. chairman Richard Scrushy. Many simply assume that Scrushy, facing the possibility that his fortune would be seized by the government and/or HealthSouth plaintiffs, shifted large sums outside the country, be it to Swiss banks or those in places like the Cayman Islands.
Scrushy says it's not so. For some bizarre reason, I believe him. In any event, when and if the WikiLeaks' list comes out, it will be worth a gander.

·        3. Any bogus claims out there?
My contrarian streak compels me to suggest that the BP claims process -- of which I actually know little -- is probably far better than it's portrayed in the local media and by the politicians shooting at easy targets.
What if, say, there had been 5 million claims? Might that be so many that it would make it impossible to process them within the sort of time frame we'd all like? I think any reasonable person would agree that is so. Well, what if there were 256,000 claims?
That, roughly, is how many there have been. Do you have any idea how long it would take for even the most efficient court system to process or in some fashion settle that many lawsuits/claims for money? 
It is simply too easy -- and there's no downside in sight -- for politicians and editorial boards to bash BP and Kenneth Feinberg. 
If I had submitted what I believed to be a valid claim, I'd be every bit as angry at bogus or questionable claimants as at BP and Feinberg and his operation. 
It's my experience covering disasters (and if you've spent any time as a reporter on the Gulf Coast, you have such experience) that most follow a similar pattern. 
Stage One: Mass confusion, and a compelling need for immediate and substantial work by contractors, such as, in the case of hurricanes, disaster-chasing companies who remove the tons of debris and haul it to landfills.
Stage Two: Waves of criticism, be it from the media, politicians or both, and directed at FEMA for not moving fast enough and/or providing enough funding. (Ask yourself, has there ever been a disaster when FEMA didn't get it between the eyes?)
Stage Three: Waves of criticism, be it from the media, politicians, or both, directed at FEMA for not detecting fraudulent bills or simply overpaying during the clean-up process; and as a result, leading to millions of dollars in wasted tax dollars.
The above is, of course, a generalization, but this is not: Following disasters, there always will be people who will take advantage of the chaos to make a questionable buck.
At some point, I have to believe there will be a thorough auditing of the claims process, just as there is of FEMA after the dust has settled.
When this audit happens, it's sure to reveal that tens of thousands of people and businesses used the spill to weasel money out of the claims process; and in so doing, sucked funds from more deserving claimants and clogged the processing system, causing delays for those with more valid claims.
Of course, it's far easier to blame Feinberg and suggest he's a pawn of BP than to point a finger at your customers and voters.
4. Of far less importance, what's up with Eddie Smith?
I will have to trust that Mobile Bay Times' readers know the background on Smith, and that, a year ago, he was found guilty of trying to hire a hit man to kill Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Bordenkircher and U.S. District Judge William Steele.
Smith, who is 44, was given a sentence of about 65 years, essentially a life sentence. He is serving his time at a high-security prison in Coleman, Fla., which is near Orlando.
Some months ago Mobile attorney Arthur Madden was appointed to handle Smith's appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeal, filed last week, seeks relief on two fronts. The first is the sentence, which Madden argues is far too long. Of greater interest is an appeal based on what Madden asserts was a trial error by a Georgia judge appointed to hear the case. 
Though not an issue in the appeal, that judge -- and considering this involves Eddie Smith, somehow it's not surprising -- was removed from the case prior to sentencing for, among other things, acting far younger than his 67 years. As the Press-Register reported, "According to an affidavit filed by the FBI, (Jack T.) Camp met the stripper at the Goldrush Showbar in Atlanta in the spring and paid her for a private dance and, the next day, sex. After that, they began a relationship that included use of cocaine, marijuana and prescription painkillers."
In the appeal, Madden argues that Camp should not have allowed prosecutors to call Bordenkircher and Steele as witnesses to testify about their personal responses (fear for their families, precautions taken, etc.) since that was outside the scope of whether Smith intended to hire a hit man to kill them, and prejudicial.

Madden uses a quote from Camp in which the judge called Bordenkircher and Steele "victims." That suggests the judge had made up his mind, and, the potential problem, that he expressed that opinion to the jurors.
Who knows if it will fly with the 11th Circuit.
In any event, the long strange saga of Edmond Hudmond Smith IV continues. 

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