Monday, July 13, 2020

Muck-raking reporting that exposes elite B'ham law firm draws critical response from editor who seems to want hands-off status for Balch Bingham scandals

Jay E. Town stunned the Birmingham legal community on Friday by resigning as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. The move from the Trump appointee came three days after the Web site (BB), under the banner of the nonprofit Consejo de Latinos Unidos (CDLU), reported on discovery fraud -- the use of an imposter to testify for a video deposition in a lawsuit over an alleged conspiracy, orchestrated by Birmingham's Balch Bingham law firm and targeting solo practitioner Burt Newsome and his lucrative bank-servicing practice. Noting that Town once worked for a New Jersey law firm that represented defendant Verizon Wireless, BB Publisher K.B. Forbes noted the likelihood that Town helped orchestrate the deposition to protect Verizon and codefendant Balch Bingham.

Town's resignation comes almost exactly one month after BB reported he was under scrutiny at the U.S. Department of Justice, mostly for dubious actions involving Balch Bingham and its sister utility firm, Alabama Power. Town resigned less than two weeks after Jefferson County Probate Judge Alan King retired following a series of reports from BB and Alabama Today about peculiar rulings -- apparently tied to Conservator Greg Hawley and Balch lawyer Amy Adams -- in a number of estate cases, including one involving well-known philanthropist Joann Bashinsky.

The Bashinsky case, which the Alabama Supreme Court described with words like "unfathomable" and "egregious," appears to amount to elder abuse -- and BB's coverage might just be warming up. The Bashinsky case, and others like it, have been assigned to a federal investigator, a source tells Legal Schnauzer.

All of these stories, taken together, indicate BB and Forbes have engaged in the kind of hard-nosed, public-affairs reporting that generally draws praise in journalism circles. And yet, they are the subjects of a most uncomplimentary analysis by Editor Bill Britt at Alabama Political Reporter (APR). Britt and APR have engaged in aggressive journalism of their own, especially on the Mike Hubbard story, so one might expect they would appreciate Forbes' work. But one would be wrong.

In an op-ed titled "Under cloak of secrecy, dark money nonprofit targets Birmingham law firm," Britt has almost nothing positive to say about Forbes' scoops; mostly, he seems concerned that Balch Bingham's reputation might be sullied -- even though the firm has been enmeshed in scandal, largely of its own making, for almost three years, and that is a matter of public record.

So, what is Britt's problem with Forbes and BB? That's hard to say. He doesn't claim their reporting is inaccurate or poorly presented; he doesn't deny that high-ranking Balch lawyers have engaged in wrongdoing. He almost hints the firm, perhaps because of its ties to Alabama Power, is a sacred cow that should be above scrutiny. If that's the rule, why didn't it apply to Mike Hubbard?

Since we are struggling to discern Britt's issues with Forbes and BB, let's turn to his own words:

A California-based, dark money organization has set up shop in Alabama. It appears the move has substantially improved the group’s financial outlook and altered its core mission.

Because of the group’s federally protected status, it is impossible for the public to know who is pouring cash into Consejo de Latinos Unidos — translated as United Latinos Council — but a state tax lien and its CEO’s website may offer a peek at what might be hiding behind the nonprofit’s dark-money veil of secrecy.

Founded in 2001, and originally headquartered in Los Angeles, CDLU’s stated mission, according to reports, was to “foster, encourage and develop educational opportunities and programs in Latino communities.”

Leaving its Latino-centric advocacy roots, the current website says the group’s “primary mission is helping to provide urgent and life-saving medical care for those in need with nowhere else to turn.”

Although it relocated to Birmingham sometime between 2013 and 2014, CDLU has never registered with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office — and its board of directors is still located in California and elsewhere.

 Britt's primary concern seems to be with the CDLU, its finances, and its mission statement. He continues along that path:

In 2017, it appears CDLU once again found an added purpose for its activities far from its previously stated missions.

CDLU’s CEO, Kevin Brendan Forbes, who goes by his initials “K.B.” launched a website in 2017, on which he targets Birmingham-based law firm Balch Bingham.

Mother Jones characterizes Forbes as a “self-styled ‘child of the Reagan revolution,’ [who] grew up in a mixed household in a Los Angeles suburb.” Forbes also worked for far right-wing commentator and one time Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan, as well as media-mogul and former Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes. (The men are not related.)

Why a leader of a nonprofit would devote daily energy to attacking a law firm is not entirely clear, but it seems to have begun with what Forbes refers to as the “Newsome Conspiracy Case,” which involves an extended court battle between Burt Newsome, a Birmingham attorney, and Balch Bingham.

Does Britt provide any details about the Newsome Conspiracy Case, and Balch's role in it? Nope. Did he attempt to contact Forbes or Newsome? We see no sign of it; the column includes no quotes from them. Britt then turns his attention to the alleged friendly relations between the Forbes and Newsome families:

Not only did CDLU’s focus change when Forbes became close to Newsome, the organization’s fortunes began to improve, as well.

Forbes is considered the driving force behind the group’s ventures in Alabama. He is also personal friends with Newsome. Facebook posts show both Newsome and Forbes’ wives enjoying social events on multiple occasions.

There is a direct friendship between the wives of Forbes and Newsome. They have been friends since at least 2016 and posts show a number of public interactions since then.

This is a problem? I have 3,970 Facebook friends, and I interact with quite a few of them. Does that somehow color my journalism?

Forbes reserved the website “” shortly after the Newsome and Forbes families formed a friendship, and the website’s first articles were aimed squarely at Newsome’s lawsuit with Balch Bingham.

From the beginning, the website set out to tarnish the law firm by claiming to expose “unsettling controversies surrounding Balch Bingham,” much of which stem from allegations, inference and speculation.

There is nothing speculative about Balch's involvement in the North Birmingham Superfund scandal. Here is the DOJ press release from Sept 2017 about the indictments of Balch partners Joel Gilbert and Steven McKinney, which is in line with the launch of Forbes' Web site. Newsome's lawsuit is well into discovery, a sign that a court sees the factual allegations as substantive.

Britt focuses on the following from a Forbes post:

So, we ask, would it not have been cheaper to simply resolve the Newsome Conspiracy Case for $3 million? If Balch Bingham had simply reached out to us, the CDLU, and tried to resolve the Newsome Conspiracy Case in early 2017, this blog would not exist and our advocacy efforts at the CDLU would not be focused on educating the public, law enforcement, legislators, corporate leadership, and institutional investors on Wall Street about Balch Bingham's alleged unsavory, if not criminal, conduct.

Britt goes so far as to hint this amounts to extortion:

A veteran of hundreds of legal skirmishes who, like others, asked not to be quoted because of Forbes’ propensity to write unfounded accusations, said Forbes’ actions in his opinion rose to extortion and tortious interference with business relationships.

Is there anything in fact or law to support such an allegation? We don't see it. Extortion is defined at Code of Alabama 13A-8-13

A person commits the crime of extortion if he knowingly obtains by threat control over the property of another, with intent to deprive him of the property.

Where is the threat in the Forbes statement Britt cites above? How has Forbes taken control of property of another? We don't see either one. Forbes' words appear to form a statement of fact, that if the Newsome matter had been resolved, the case would be over, with nothing else to write about it.

Is it wise for Britt to make such an allegation in print? No. Under Alabama law, an imputatation of criminal activity generally is considered defamation per se, meaning damages are assumed and do not have to be proven.

K.B. Forbes published his response to Britt's analysis at the following link. What does Burt Newsome make of all this? We asked and received this reply:

In the article, it says I have a long-running legal dispute with Balch. It does not bother to mention the reason I went crazy after them was that Balch framed me for a crime I did not commit and had me falsely arrested so that it could email my mugshot around to our common clients and falsely claim that I had lost my law license.

It says Forbes is exposing various supposed scandals associated with Balch. No, the FBI did that when it arrested a Balch partner for bribing a State representative.
It also says that Forbes/CDLU is giving me money. This is absurd. Why would a public charity be giving me money? No one has given me anything since I left home to go to Troy State back in 1984.

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