No Comment — December 29, 2007, 11:14 am

All the King’s Men, Reloaded

Looking into prosecutorial misconduct in Alabama in the course of the last year, I’ve had plenty of encounters with the state’s print media. The major papers in the state (three of which are owned by the same company, S.I. Newhouse’s Advance Publications—though the Newhouse family is famous for letting former local owners continue to run the show even after acquiring them) have the outward appearance of newspapers, with the requisite supply of paper, news ink and photographs. But when you look into their coverage of the Siegelman case, and of local politics generally, you quickly get the sense that there’s something extremely foul afoot. They have a very sharply focused political agenda. It not only affects their call about what is and isn’t news; it creeps right into the coverage of the news they report.

The bottom line is that these papers have an amazingly warm and cozy relationship with the current political powers-that-be in the state. I have no idea what they get out of this relationship, but on matters such as this I am far too cynical to think that they’d engage in such reputation-damaging factual contortions without very strong incentives.

No doubt you once read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and remember how the Kingfish managed newspapermen. Some traditions are slow to die in the Southland. And the danger is, of course, that many people down in Alabama don’t realize that what they’re getting served up as news doesn’t pass minimal professional standards. On the other hand, the other issue is all the news that the publishers suppress because they’re concerned that it will harm the powers-that-be. And that provides the Kingfish’s natural growth matrix.


The saving grace in Alabama has been the small city papers, many of which remain suitably skeptical about the reporting of their larger city colleagues, and some of which occasionally do a bit of investigative work on their own. One of the stand-outs in that group is The Montgomery Independent which has broken the political exposé story of the year. In fact, I’d say it’s the only significant exposé story, since what the Vulcan City journal offers up as exposé journalism is laughable. The Independent has caught Governor Riley in campaign finance irregularities by producing a series of incidents which suggest that Riley attempted to cover-up unlawful corporate donations as individual donations; they have also shored up the charges of corruption made by insurance executive John Goff with an extremely revealing interview with an entrepreneur named Stan Pate. Here’s the core of the story written by reporter Bob Gambacurta:

It appears that Gov. Bob Riley’s gubernatorial campaigns in 2002 and 2006 may have violated the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act by improperly reporting the use of corporate airplanes, and improperly reporting advertising and printing donations to the campaign. In the 2006 campaign, Gov. Riley apparently failed to properly report the in-kind contributions of at least two corporate airplanes. In both cases, the aircraft used by Gov. Riley are listed as in-kind contributions from individuals and not from the corporations which actually own the airplanes.

Riley’s campaign finance reports for the 2006 campaign list in-kind contributions for transportation totaling $7,929.47 from John Saint of Mobile. Saint is listed on the Secretary of State Web site as president of a number of Alabama corporations. When asked about the in-kind contributions Saint said he did not recall when Riley may have used his company’s plane. He said: “Our plane gets used every day. A lot of charities use our plane for Angel Flights.” When asked if he had reimbursed his company for the Riley campaign’s use of the plane, he said: “I don’t recall.” He said he would have to go back and look, but it would be after the first of the year. When asked who owned the plane he said JDC Support Services, Inc. and added: “I own the company.”

Federal Aviation Administration records show that JDC Support Services, Inc. owns a Bombardier Challenger CL-600-2B16, a twin engine jet airplane. There are no aircraft registered to John Saint individually. Riley’s campaign finance reports also list a $7,350 in-kind contribution from Paul Wellborn of Cragford, Alabama, in Clay County not far from Riley’s hometown of Ashland. Wellborn is president of Wellborn Cabinet, Inc. of Ashland. The company’s Human Resources Director Ben Rosser returned a call placed to Paul Wellborn. Rosser said the company owns a King Air 350 turboprop and the plane is kept at an Anniston airport. When asked if Paul Wellborn had reimbursed the corporation for the Riley campaign’s use of the plane, he said he would have to check and would call back. When asked who owns the plane, he said: “It’s a corporate–a company plane.”

This was launched by a series of allegations by insurance executive John Goff, reported here, in which he noted that the Riley campaign had twice made use of his jet without reimbursing him for trips to Washington, D.C.

Montgomery insurance executive John W. Goff is a one-time Riley supporter who is now suing Riley, his son and others. In March and again in May 2002, Goff says he allowed Riley to use his corporate jet for two round trip campaign flights to Washington, DC. However, only one of the flights was listed on Riley’s campaign finance reports and it was listed as an in-kind contribution from Johnny Goff individually for $7,888.75. The plane Riley used was in fact owned by Goff Aviation, Inc., not by Goff individually.

In a letter to Goff, son Rob Riley, who managed both of his father’s gubernatorial campaigns, said the failure to list the second flight on campaign finance reports was an inadvertent oversight, not discovered until January 2007. However, almost a year later, the Riley campaign has yet to file an amended report correcting the oversight. In addition to failing to list the second flight, the Riley campaign listed the first flight improperly. In his letter, Rob Riley acknowledges the plane was owned by “Goff Aviation.” Riley wrote that at the time of the FCPA filing the campaign “reported the amount that was provided to us by Goff Aviation of $7,888.75 as being the correct amount for an in-kind contribution for the use of your airplane.”

In January 2007, Goff asked the campaign to reimburse him for the two flights. The Riley campaign sent Goff Aviation two checks totaling $25,000. Another former Riley supporter, who asked that his name be withheld, says Gov. Riley used his corporate jet on a number of occasions in 2002. The former supporter says the jet was used for three or four round trip flights to Washington and for an Election Day fly-around to the state’s major cities.

Goff’s account has been bolstered by statements made by Tuscaloosa developer Stan Pate, according to the second report in the Montgomery Independent.

There is an uncanny similarity between the stories told by Pate and Goff.
Pate was one of the more high-profile critics of Gov. Riley’s $1.2-billion tax increase in 2003. He poured a good deal of money into defeating the tax plan in a statewide referendum. After his tax plan was defeated, Riley moved on, the economy took a major upswing, the state’s financial crisis passed and most voters forgot about what Pate had called: “Billion dollar Bob’s big tax increase.”

By 2005, Riley was looking to mend fences with Pate. He called Pate by phone and they discussed Alabama’s future. Riley invited Pate to come visit him at the Governor’s Mansion. Then, he asked Pate to contribute $100,000 to his 2006 reelection campaign. They set a date for Pate to visit Riley in Montgomery and the call ended. Not long after the phone conversation, Pate received a visit in his Tuscaloosa office from Steve Windom, now a Montgomery lobbyist and close ally of Gov. Riley, and Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, at the time the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

It quickly became apparent to Pate that Windom was there to collect the $100,000 contribution requested by Gov. Riley. It appeared to Pate that “Twinkle was just along for the ride.” According to Pate, Windom kept asking him what he wanted from the administration. Pate said he never gave Windom an answer, but that Windom kept coming back to the question: “What is it you want?”

Sure sounds suspiciously like a political shakedown to me. With an unmistakable quid pro quo. And what are the Federal prosecutors doing about this? Just guess.

Riley became governor of Alabama in 2002 following an extraordinary campaign. Windom had been his primary rival–except that, as the Independent notes, they are now curiously close and friendly for primary rivals. Presidential advisor Karl Rove was deeply involved in planning and strategizing for the Riley campaign. Billy Canary advised Windom, and then turned to support Riley. In fact, he seems to have been the glue between the two of them. Jack Abramoff and former Riley congressional staff advisor Michael Scanlon, now both convicted felons, were deeply engaged in raising money for Riley. During this period, millions of dollars from casino gambling sources were raised to support Republican causes, and a substantial part of that money appears to have flowed into Riley’s gubernatorial campaign—which was fought on a “no gambling” platform. This would have been an exposé writer’s goldmine, but the Alabama papers were curiously blind to all of this while the campaign was running, and even after it was over and bits and pieces of it poured out of Senator McCain’s investigations in Washington.

My hunch is that the heavy, unreported use of private planes that the Goff allegations turned investigators on to had something to do with these extraordinary and highly sensitive fund-raising efforts.

And what does all of this have to do with the case of former Governor Siegelman? Everything. All of this went on in connection with an effort to remove Siegelman. That effort had its first peak in the gross irregularities that marked the 2002 election that brought Riley to power, including a highly suspicious vote tabulation process in which Attorney General William Pryor intervened to obscure a probable fraud that occurred in Baldwin County. The strange post-midnight vote manipulation that occurred in Baldwin County produced a highly improbable shift of votes that suddenly reversed the results, putting Riley over the top and in the Montgomery statehouse.

The second peak in this effort occurred with the abuse of the criminal justice machinery of both the state and federal prosecutors’ offices to destroy Siegelman’s reputation and remove him as a political threat.

These steps are, taken cumulatively, not an attack on Don Siegelman. They were an effort to obliterate the state’s democratic process. And they were pulled off with remarkable aplomb and with considerable cover, courtesy of a mass market print media which failed miserably in its duty of critical inquiry.

Bob Martin, who opposed Siegelman’s reelection, but has continued to ask penetrating questions about the way the former governor was investigated and prosecuted, continues to be one of the real stand-outs in Alabama journalism. Martin points correctly to the issues raised in a column in the Cherokee County Post:

The question which stands out front-and-center is whether or not the listing of individuals instead of the true corporate donors was intentional, as in to bypass the legal limits on corporate donations or was just a mistake in reporting. The governor’s office would not return our telephone calls seeking a clarification and the contributors whose names were listed could not, when contacted, clarify if they had reimbursed their corporations for the expenditures.

This is a serious violation of the law on the part of the governor’s campaign if what we have uncovered cannot be refuted — just as serious as the matters for which former Gov. Don Siegelman was convicted. There are valid reasons that individual corporations are limited to $500 per election cycle and a failure to abide by the limitations under the election laws is a crime.

The governor must come clean on this and correct his campaign reports. If he doesn’t either the state attorney general or the Montgomery district attorney should take action.

One thing of which we can be certain: neither of Billy Canary’s “girls,” U.S. Attorneys Leura Canary and Alice Martin, will touch any of these irregularities. More likely they’ll use their offices and resources to obstruct any probe, as Canary contrived grand jury proceedings to intimidate Goff. And another passage from the Independent’s report on Stan Pate caught my eye:

Pate said Windom told him there were numerous ways Pate could have access and be on the home team, and that’s the way it works in Montgomery, just tell me what you want.

There’s that phrase again, “the home team.” Remember back in October Time Magazine’s Adam Zagorin spoke to Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Niven about the allegations Lanny Young made against Senator Jeff Sessions and then-Attorney General William Pryor. Zagorin quotes Niven saying that career prosecutors were waived off–Sessions and Pryor were members of the “home team.” Bob Riley, of course, is the team captain.

And that is the way it works in Montgomery. Michael B. Mukasey made a number of promises about cleaning up the political hackery that has lodged itself inside of the Department of Justice. But he has yet to lift a finger to stop it. The Kingfish is still running the show.

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What China Threat?·

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Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Without a Trace·

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In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
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When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

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America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
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In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

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An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.

The 70th governor of Ohio was sworn in on nine Bibles, which were held by his wife.

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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