Monday, November 15, 2010

Fowler Pleads Guilty

BREAKING: Former state trooper James Fowler pleads guilty to a lesser charge in the Jimmie Lee Jackson case. More soon.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What We're Working On

News goes in cycles.

We've had busy times, and we've had slow times. You've been there with us, and we thank you for it.

Recently, it's been awfully slow, and we could use your help.

If you have story ideas, news tips, or something interesting to share, contact us.

Remember our subscription prices haven't changed ($25 for Perry County and the immediate surrounding counties; $35 for the rest of Alabama; and $45 for the rest of the country). We need you.

Advertising is affordable. Having a yard sale, or want to sell a car? A 20-word classified is only $5 a week. Need a larger ad? We can give you a good price on that, too.

Meanwhile, here are some things we continue to tell you about:

Crime, corruption, how well our kids are doing in school, community events, interesting people, church events, local sports, obituaries, wedding announcements, opinions, and everything else you've come to rely on us for.

We remain the only independent, locally owned newspaper in the Perry County market. Thanks for your continued support.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

We have a new summer intern!

We are happy to welcome our new intern, Natalie Latta. She just graduated from The University of Alabama, and she decided she wanted to learn a little about the newspaper and publishing business. She will be writing some articles, so if you have a suggestion for a topic, let us know. Check out our website for some samples of her work.

Friday, January 29, 2010

At the risk of making a pun on "moral bankruptcy"...

Editorial from the January 28, 2010 Perry County Herald:

At the risk of making a pun on "moral bankruptcy"...

We apologize if this week’s front-pager on the landfill owners’ bankruptcy woes seems convoluted. Imagine how we felt trying to piece together all of the players in this bizarre saga for you.

It’s the story of a few Georgia real estate bigwigs and some multi-million dollar businesses; a confusing shell game of small corporations whose owners are difficult to pinpoint; money of dubious origin; one of the largest and most bulletproof public utilities in the nation; and corrupt or incompetent or apathetic government officials at every level.

It’s a story about greed, and the way greed warps people, makes them view the very earth itself as something to be exploited and stripped and pumped for every last dollar it will yield up. The way greed makes human lives, thousands of them, no more important than figures on a ledger.

It’s the story of Perry County, and in one way or another it’s been our story for as long as these borders have existed. There is no way around it; our county and its long-gone riches were built on the backs of oppressed and enslaved human beings. This is a story the people here know well. But that kind of oppression, when white citizens here made vast fortunes by owning the lives of their black brethren, is gone. We are all in it together now.

Perry County has had a hard, painful road towards reconciliation. Its citizens, black and white, still often have a difficult time trusting each other in light of our troubled history. But we’re trying. Look around you: the people, the regular citizens of Perry County, are not its problem.

We may disagree on politics, but we sit together at Commission and City Council meetings and treat each other, mostly, with respect. We are working, just by living here together, toward building a future for this home of ours. We know, and have for a long time, that we all need the same basic things out of life, and as long as we need them together, we can seek them together.

The old bad guys are dead and in the ground. The new ones drive SUVs with Fulton County plates.
…put down your Blackberrys, guys, and stay your attorneys. We don’t mean you’re “bad people.” But in this story, you are the villains.

You’re chasing the American Dream, of course, just trying to make a dollar, providing the country with the valuable and much-needed service of efficient and affordable solid waste disposal. You came by your permits legally, and with the full-throated blessing of Perry County’s elected representatives, who were, after all, just trying to get a little revenue for their little cash-strapped county.

No matter.

Here’s our fear: no amount of money will be able to make up for what the landfill, particularly the coal ash deal, has wrought. The City of Marion has met with ADEM’s furrowed brow over its handling of leachate from the Uniontown facility. While an environmental lawsuit against the city has been halted along with the leachate shipments themselves, environmentalists tell us hazardous materials have already made it form the treatment pond into Rice Creek. If that’s not bad enough, we have seen what appears to be photographic evidence of landfill workers in Uniontown pumping the sludge onto the ground right next to Chilhatchee Creek. Marion may get unscathed, but we wouldn’t bet on it. Phillips & Jordan can afford to pay whatever fines it may incur for whatever its employees may or may not have done. Can the city?

The investors who are taking the bulk of the $95 million generated by the coal ash contract will never have to set foot in our county again once the landfill outlives its usefulness. They’ll never drink our water, or breathe our air, or eat bream from our creeks. They can call the shots from offices with glitzy addresses, never get s speck of ash on their hands, and endorse fat checks until those pristine fingers need a latte break. Can you?

Our elected officials are, for the most part, already better off than anyone who will read this paper. They get power (a teensy little bit, but that’s enough to satisfy most people), they get to rub elbows with folks who have even more money and power than they do, and they get the feeling of knowing they have done something “good” for the people whose lives they govern: they got a smattering of cold, hard cash to spend on pet projects. Feeling warm and fuzzy yet?

This, if we must remind you, is the county where people were willing to sacrifice their livelihoods, their personal safety, even their lives in the struggle for the right to vote, the right to say, “In this small way, my voice matters. I have a say, and mine is worth as much as yours is, no matter who you are.” That voice is now all but drowned out by the sons of the men who fought to get it.

Do you remember the smirks the landfill investors wore as they sat in the bleachers of RC Hatch’s auditorium, a deafening cry directed right at them, telling them, “We don’t want this landfill?” We remember. It’s the same look our elected leaders get when we plebes dare to question their wisdom. It’s the look Franklin Hill gave us when he came to tell us how EPA was going to make sure nothing bad happened here. That look is the look of power, certain of its rightness. Or, if not of rightness, at least of the fact that it will get what it wants.

They get it all, we get their trash.

Or maybe not. Environmental lawsuits get filed one minute, leachate shipments stop the next. A few weeks after that, the owners of the landfill are asking for bankruptcy protection. Doesn’t mean anything’s going to change just yet, far from it. Every statement these fellows have released takes pains to reassure the public the landfill will press on even through these trying times.

Here’s what it does mean: somebody listened. John Wathen listened. David Ludder listened. When people, regular, good, voiceless people like Jackie Fike and Ruby Holmes pleaded for help, money clouded the judgment of anyone who could have. The fatcats saw money, as did your elected officials, and even ADEM. TVA and EPA saw a way out of that embarrassing little flap up in Tennessee.

Fortunately for us, someone looked at Perry County and saw something besides a poor, ignorant little county no one’s heard of, with cheap land and cheaper politicians for the taking. Someone looked down here and saw, of all things, people. Human beings, whose very quality of life had become a mere casualty of the quest to collect as many little green pieces of paper as you can before you die. And somebody realized that was wrong.

When we can step outside of the endless pursuit of more and see that all those things we’re knocking over to get at it have eyes and mouths and names and beating hearts like ours, we’re not so quick to leave them lying in our wake. It’s a lesson Perry County has come by honestly. Will this fiasco finally teach its leaders?

Landfill bankrupt?

From the January 28, 2010 Perry County Herald

Bankruptcy proceedings will halt pending environmental lawsuits against the two owners of PCA Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, but they won’t stop shipments from coal ash from coming to the Perry County facility. Two business entities that own the landfill, Perry-Uniontown Venture I (PUV) and Perry County Associates (PCA), began Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings Tuesday in Mobile’s U.S. District Court, Southern District.

Environmental lawyer David Ludder entered notices of intent to sue the two companies in December of last year on behalf of Perry County citizens living near the landfill. The notices allege violations of the federal Solid Waste Disposal Act and Clean Air Act following the disposal of what environmentalists say is potentially hazardous and toxic coal ash waste there.

“When a party files for bankruptcy, the law imposes an automatic stay against the filing of new litigation against that entity,” Ludder said Wednesday. As long as both companies’ cases remain in bankruptcy court, he said, the environmental lawsuits cannot proceed. “That doesn’t mean we are without options,” he said. Ludder said he could not yet elaborate on what those options might be.

PCA and PUV claim they are owed substantial amounts of money by Phillips and Jordan, a large regional contracting firm that has worked closely with the Tennessee Valley Authority for decades, and Phill-Con Services, an entity created by Phillips and Jordan to operate the Uniontown landfill. Phill-Con has also worked in waste disposal in northern New Jersey, and is one of the firms overseeing the cleanup of the Emory River following the Kingston ash spill. These two companies, though they have no apparent ownership in the landfill itself, were hired by PUV and PCA to operate the facility when it opened in 2007.

P&J and Phill-Con have a $95 million contract to dispose of coal ash from TVA’s 2008 Kingston Coal Plant disaster. Perry County Commission will receive about $3 million of that as part of a “host county fee.” The complaint says Perry County Commission is owed over $700,000 in fees that P&J has failed to pay.

Perry County Commissioner Brett Harrison said he knew money from the landfill was in fact coming into county bank accounts because he had seen printouts of the quarterly wire transfers. The last payment came at the end of December. He said the county had been paid close to $1 million in the agreement so far.

Harrison said had spoken with representatives from PUV since news of the bankruptcy broke. Based on what he had been told, Harrison said all landfill contracts should remain in effect, although he acknowledged the bankruptcy could slow down payments.

Jeffery J. Hartley is the Mobile bankruptcy attorney retained by PUV. In a statement released Monday, Hartley blamed the bankruptcy on “Phillips and Jordan’s refusal to turn over monies to ownership, to make payments they had agreed to make, or to provide a proper accounting of the funds.”

The release goes on to allege that P&J have received “more than sufficient funds” to make payments to PUV and PCA, but failed to do so. As a result, the owners “had no choice but to petition the court to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection while it reorganizes,” Hartley said. Despite the bankruptcy proceedings, Hartley said his clients have “all the elements necessary to pay its obligations, to be profitable, and to ensure safe disposal of coal ash.”

Hartley’s release touted the landfill as a “public-private partnership,” saying it has created an “unprecedented economic boost” for Perry County.

Phill Con Services’ website lists Stuart C. Davis of Mobile as its “project executive.” When contacted by the Herald about the allegations against his company in the bankruptcy case Wednesday, Davis was mum, saying he was “on the road all the time” and had “no earthly idea” about the matter.

Besides halting legal action against the facility’s owners, the bankruptcy proceedings help to reveal the complicated nature of the landfill’s business organization. Rather than a single business venture, the landfill is the product of many large and small corporations and limited liability companies, along with a large group of loosely connected personalities whose level of involvement with the project at any given time is often murky.

Atlanta real estate businessmen Larry Matthews [by way of another corporation Matthews formed a year before, SKS International, Inc.], Charles Dinsmore, and Charles Bartenfeld formed Perry County Associates in 1999. Matthews became the public face of “the landfill” in Perry County years before construction even began on the facility. He attended several public hearings in Uniontown while working to gain a landfill permit on the 1113-acre Pitts property south of Uniontown.

That property, however, never belonged to Matthews. Another Georgia real estate developer, Brent Scarbrough, owned the parcel until 2006 when Matthews’ company finally gained the permit it needed to operate a Subtitle D landfill from Alabama’s Dept. of Environmental Management. Scarbrough then sold the land to newly created Perry-Uniontown Venture I for about $16.5 million. Under Alabama law, landfill permits are tied to a parcel of land itself, not the landowner or landfill operator.

At the same time, PUV purchased 231 acres from the Goodson family for $1.5 million. Mike Smith, an attorney in Tuscaloosa who married into the Goodson family, appeared at Perry County’s first public hearing on the landfill to speak out against the landfill. At that time, he said he was concerned over the potential harm it could cause to Perry County’s environment. After the land sale, however, Smith was retained by PCA and PUV as part of their team of attorneys. Since that time, Smith has often appeared at Perry County meetings speaking on behalf of the landfill owners.

It is unclear who currently owns Perry County Associates. Reporters from the Herald attempted to reach Matthews on his cellular phone, but were unsuccessful. Matthews is also a broker for ReMax realty in Georgia, and according to his website, sells real estate through his family company, the Matthews Group. A receptionist at S&D Associates, the ReMax office in Duluth, Georgia through which Matthews works, said she did not know how to reach him. “He’s probably only been in this office one time,” she said. The phone number on Matthews’ website redirects callers to an automated ReMax broker directory.

The major investor behind Perry-Uniontown Venture I, and an as-yet unused entity formed in 2007, Perry-Uniontown Venture II, is Atlanta real-estate heir John K. Porter. According to unsubstantiated reports, Porter may also now own Perry County Associates in its entirety. Porter was the single largest contributor to former Perry County Commission Chairman Johnny Flowers’ failed bid for re-election in 2006, and his only public visit to Perry County was during that election cycle.

At that time, Porter and Matthews held a press conference on the Perry County Courthouse lawn expressing their support of Flowers’ candidacy. At that time, Porter also announced plans to build what he called a “waste-to-energy” plant at the [at the time, proposed] landfill site. He and Matthews claimed that very little of the waste sent to the facility would actually be put in the ground, and most would be processed and burned to generate electricity for the region. As yet, such a facility has yet to materialize. A prominent member of the Atlanta business community, Porter works for international commercial real estate brokers CB Richard Ellis, Inc.

CB Richard Ellis, which often works with Phillips and Jordan, was one of the firms PUV hired to develop the landfill site in 2006. Ellis employee John Delvac took the lead in developing the site and emceed the landfill’s “grand opening” in 2007. When the Herald contacted him last year regarding the coal ash contract, Delvac said his involvement with the project had ended when construction ended and the landfill was open. On Wednesday, however, Delvac contacted the Herald and forwarded Hartley’s press release to its newsroom. At that time, Delvac said he was “still involved” with the venture. He directed any further questions on the matter to Guy McCullough, who he called “our PR guy.” McCullough owns an advertising firm based in Birmingham.

Perry-Uniontown Venture I’s bankruptcy filings also reveal the creditors holding the 20 largest unsecured claims against it. While PUV’s complaint claims Phillips and Jordan and Phill-Con Services are withholding large sums of money they owe the landfill owners, filings reveal that P&J and Phill-Con are also two of the firm’s largest creditors. According to filings, Phillips and Jordan holds a $4 million lein against PUV, and Phill-Con Services is owed $2.5 million in trade debt from the landfill owners.

PUV also lists two other companies owned by its owner John K. Porter as major creditors: it owes nearly $2 million in trade debt to Porter’s corporation Team Porter, Inc. and has a $600,000 loan from Briarcliff 55 LLC, another Porter concern.

Insurance giant Metropolitan Life loaned PUV about $1.25 million, as did Ensign Peak Advisors Inc, a Utah investment firm affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Perry County Commission is listed as a major creditor; with PUV claiming it owes the county around $780,000 in hosting fees. The company also says it owes Alabama’s Dept. of Revenue around $11,000 in sales tax. Filings also say PUV owes a $10,000 loan to Seagull Consulting II, an information technology firm based in Naples, Florida; a $7,695.54 trade debt to First Insurance Funding Corp.; a $5,395.24 loan to Georgia law firm Hartman Simons, which incorporated both Perry Uniontown Venture I and II; a $4,112.30 trade debt to Sadat Associates, a Trenton NJ environmental engineering firm; and $242.25 to Smith & Staggs, Mike Smith’s Tuscaloosa law firm.

The filings list the firm’s unsecured debts, but its largest creditor by far is the mortgage holder on the Uniontown landfill property itself, a Florida-based private equity firm known as Palm Beach Multi-Strategy Fund, to which PUV mortgaged the property for its $16.5 million purchase price in 2006. Palm Beach is part of a group of around 25 business entities affiliated with Palm Beach Capital Management. That bank itself filed for bankruptcy protection late last year following fallout from its participation in a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme headed up by Minnesota businessman Tom Petters.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tim Lennox OFFair and ONline: Coal Ash for Perry County

Tim Lennox OFFair and ONline: Coal Ash for Perry County

Why all the blogging all of a sudden?

I know, I know. I never update this thing anymore. But this is a special case. When Franklin Hill from the EPA came to talk to Perry County Wednesday night about TVA's plan to dispose of their coal ash here, he had some unkind things to say about local newspapers. That we're misinforming the public, that we have some insidious "other agendas" that cause us to fabricate information about this ash to get people up in arms. That we, not the ash, were the problem for making people here worry. Though he didn't come out and say it, this is what he meant: nobody down here, least of all the press, has the slightest idea what they're talking about. He was here to set the record straight for us, to correct our misguided and ill-informed concerns. I could see Commission Chairman Fairest Cureton giggling when Hill took his jabs at us. 

When people presented him with their worries, real and valid ones about the implications of disposing of the toxic ash here, he deftly brushed off their concerns. "I realize you have your perceptions, and your perceptions are real to you," Hill told the crowd. The implied meaning: they may be real to YOU, but they're certainly not ACTUALLY real. 

Our concern here at the Herald is this precise attitude: that bureaucrats, politicians, and executives know what's best for Perry County, and its own people don't. We can't get our local leaders to listen to us. They're only in it for the money. We can't get EPA to heed our concerns, Hill told us as much Wednesday night: "I'm not here asking, quite frankly for approval."

The arrogance displayed by federal, state, and local officials toward the real and deeply-felt concerns of our residents is disgusting. There are people living in Perry County right now who feel completely powerless, and rightfully so. Their concerns about the quality of life for them and future generations are being brushed aside. Their worry, and ours too, is that no one listens. Decisions are being made that will impact Perry County forever — once that ash is here, it's here to stay. That makes some of us uncomfortable. On one hand, EPA sent us a representative to tell us that the ash was perfectly safe, and we had no need to worry. In Washington, though, that same agency is rethinking its position on coal ash as we speak. Concerns about the material's toxic constituents may mean it gets reclassified as hazardous waste. The Dept. of Homeland Security wants to scrub over 40 existing coal ash storage facilities from the map, citing the danger they pose to surrounding communities as potential terrorist targets. With mixed messages like that, tell us again why we shouldn't be concerned. 

I've posted the Herald's coverage of the coal ash debacle thus far to get it to a wider audience. Does it seem inflammatory, or fabricated, or intended to mislead? That's not our intention. We check all our facts, and when we are informed of inaccuracies, we correct them. We're not here to lie to the people. We're here to give them a voice. 

From the look of things, we're the only ones who will.