Thursday, February 25, 2021

Michael Donaldson, a veteran investigator and fraud examiner, takes a deep dive into the Joann Bashinsky case, searching for elder abuse and probate fraud

Joann Bashinsky


A certified fraud examiner -- with expertise in intelligence, investigation, and security services -- is writing a series of articles about elder abuse and probate fraud, focusing on the case of Birmingham snack-food heiress and philanthropist Joann Bashinsky. 

Michael Donaldson is the founder of Vindicatus, a company with offices in Fairfax, VA, and Nashville, TN. He served 24 years with the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD), working primarily on the SWAT team, participating in more than 2,500 high-risk operations.

The first part in the Bashinsky series has been published on Donaldson's blog at The introductory piece is titled "Presumed Capable - The Joann Bashinsky Story, Part 1."

Joann Bashinsky died in early January after a protracted court battle over her estate, estimated at $218 million. The court fight started when two former employees -- lawyer John McKleroy and finance manager Patty Townsend -- filed a petition in Jefferson County Probate Court, claiming Bashinsky had dementia and needed the appointment of a guardian and conservator to manage her affairs. Donaldson says his investigation found a number of irregularities with the Bashinsky case. From the "Presumed Capable" post that begins the series:

As Americans, we all know we are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.  

We don’t often think about it, but we are also presumed capable of living our own lives, making good and bad decisions along the way. We all make decisions other people would not make. We all regret decisions we made with the benefit of hindsight (I once had a respectable amount of Bitcoin). 

Americans are presumed capable until proven not to be.“I believe all Americans would agree that unless there is irrefutable evidence that someone is a threat to themselves or others, then they should be free to live their life and use their money and resources however they choose – right up until their last moment on earth,” - Joann Bashinsky  

In his experience, Donaldson says, most legitimate conservatorship cases involve emergencies. Such an urgent matter is hard to find in the Bashinsky court record. Donaldson knows a thing or two about emergencies, and he writes:

During my 20 years on FCPD SWAT, I responded to many suicidal person calls. The majority of the time, SWAT and our negotiators successfully talked the emotionally disturbed person (EDP) into surrendering and getting the help needed. Highly emotional people don’t always make good decisions and, tragically, some of these calls ended badly. 

If we were dealing with a single, suicidal person, SWAT would be operating in a community caretaker role. In most states, police officers have the authority to take an EDP into custody to prevent them from harming themselves or others. While SWAT was at the scene, other officers and mental health experts would seek an Emergency Custody Order from the local Magistrate. 

Once in custody, the EDP would be further evaluated by medical professionals and would either be released or a Temporary Detention Order would be sought. 

For SWAT to get involved, there needed to be an emergency - and not just any emergency - it needed to be a life-threatening emergency. Once we responded to a suicidal person armed with a knife. When we got eyes on the EDP, we noticed he had carved the skin and muscle on his left arm down to the bone. 

Another time, we responded to the call of a suicidal man with a gun. It was 0300 hours and I had been sound asleep when my pager went off alerting me to the call. A SWAT call-out started a small circus in motion. In addition to SWAT - K9, EOD (the bomb guys), negotiators, mental health support, fire department resources, patrol to control the perimeter, and dozens of police supervisors trying to look important would all arrive on scene. 

What struck my teammates and I as unusual was no one had made contact with the suicidal man. Dispatch had been calling his cell, but he had not picked up. The complainant claimed to be the man’s girlfriend. She reported he called her and told her was going to kill himself with his pistol. 

We found ourselves in a stalemate with a quiet, dark townhouse. After a period of inaction, my teammate and I made a crazy suggestion - let’s knock on his door. 

A short time later, there we were knocking on the door loud enough to wake the dead. For the first time we hear activity from within the house and the door begins to open. The middle-aged man was surprised to see us, but he wasn’t angry or, more importantly, suicidal. He did, however, look like he just got out of bed. 

I still remember our conversation: 

“Are you 'John Smith'?”, I asked. 


“Your girlfriend called 911 and said you threatened to kill yourself.” 

He responded, “She’s no longer my girlfriend. She’s crazy. Look…I’m an attorney and I need to get up for work in 2 hours.” 

“Are you suicidal?”, my partner asked. 

“No.”, as the man started to close the door. 

“Have a nice night…sorry to bother you,” my partner said as I got on the radio and reported we made contact with “Mr. Smith” and he was not a threat to himself or others. 

With no emergency to solve, the SWAT circus packed up and went back to sleep too.

“Every person deserves dignity, respect, and freedom, and anyone who threatens those American values should be held accountable,” Bashinsky emphasized. “I am requesting that the media keep a watchful eye on my case to ensure that it is conducted in a responsible and transparent manner. The public needs to know the dangers that I, and all older citizens can be subjected to, all too easily, by people who do not have our best interests at heart.”  

Donaldson has joined the "watchful eyes" on the Bashinsky matter, viewing through the lens of an experienced investigator and crisis manager. He writes:

So, who was Joann Bashinsky and why was she fighting for the rights and liberties of our elderly?

Ms. Bashinsky (Ms. B) was the widow of Sloan Y. Bashinsky, the majority stockholder of Golden Enterprises Inc. and was the founder, chairman, and CEO of Golden Flake Foods – a 98-year-old Birmingham, AL company. Golden Flake can trace is origins to 1923, in the basement of a Hill’s Grocery store in north Birmingham.

In 1956, Sloan Bashinsky purchased the company from his father and uncle. In 1968, Golden Flake went public and grew to be one of the largest snack food companies in the United States. Their growth caught the attention of Utz Quality Foods, which purchased Golden Enterprises, Golden Flake’s parent company, for $141 million in 2016. 

At the time of the events in this series, Ms. B's personal estate was estimated to be around $80 million, and her entire estate (to include trusts and business assets) was valued at approximately $218 million. Ms. Bashinsky was also one of the most generous people to ever call Alabama home. 

Ms. B's only living blood relative is her grandson, Landon Ash (41 years old). 

What about the court battle? Donaldson describes its origins:

This story begins on October 1, 2019, when two former long-term employees of Ms. Bashinsky -- lawyer John P. McKleroy, Jr. and finance manager Patricia (Patty) Townsend -- filed an Emergency Petition in Jefferson County Probate Court, claiming they had “investigated this matter” and Ms. Bashinsky was in “immediate need of a Temporary Guardian and Conservator who can make decisions for Ms. Bashinsky and give consent for her care and treatment and manage her finances.” 

Despite having a net worth hundreds of times higher than most people reading this article, Ms. B (according to McKleroy and Townsend) was “unable to provide for her basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, and health care. Her diagnosis indicates that she may be mentally incapable of adequately caring for herself and her interests without serious consequences to herself and others;…” 

Ms. Bashinsky fired McKleroy and Townsend on October 1.  

In response, McKleroy and Townsend filed the Emergency Petition demanding the Probate Court of Jefferson County seize control of Bashinsky’s life and estate and place her under Guardian and Conservatorship.

Those terms sound innocent enough, but Donaldson says they can be onerous:

Like a lot of interesting stories and conspiracies, this story actually began long before October 2019 and there are many more characters involved.  

Few people placed under court appointed Guardian and Conservatorship ever regain their liberty. Who would control the fruits of Sloan Bashinsky’s hard work? His wife Mrs. B and, ultimately, her next of kin, Landon Ash? Or would the family fortune fall under the control of a lawyer specifically chosen by McKleroy and Townsend in the Emergency Petition?

In closing Part 1, Donaldson poses the following questions:

  • What kind of “investigation” did McKleroy and Townsend conduct?

  • The mortgage on Ms. B’s home was paid, and she certainly had the means to provide for herself, so what was the emergency?

  • Did McKleroy and Townsend have a financial interest in the estate?

  • Was Mrs. Bashinsky actually diagnosed with an incapacitating condition, as alleged in the Emergency Petition?

  • Bashinsky “may be mentally incapable of adequately caring for herself” is not the same standard as is mentally incapable of caring for herself.

  • Why did McKleroy and Townsend fail to mention they had been fired in the Emergency Petition?

  • How long had McKleroy and Townsend been planning to file the Emergency Petition? Was their plan complete, or were they forced to act sooner after they were terminated?

  • Choosing a specific Guardian/Conservator seems like a conflict of interest. Will the Probate Judge honor the request?

    Next: Introduction of the involved entities and individuals.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Missouri wants to honor right-wing radio talker Rush Limbaugh? Why not honor Jesse James? He was a native son -- notorious and conservative, too

Rush Limbaugh


A Missouri lawmaker is proposing the state designate a day to honor native son Rush Limbaugh, who left a large, right-wing mark over a 32-year career in broadcasting and died last week of lung cancer. State Rep. Hardy Billington (R-Poplar Bluff) is leading the effort to honor Limbaugh in Jefferson City, the state capital. From a report at


Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw, bank and             train robber, guerrilla, and leader of the James–Younger Gang. Raised in the "Little Dixie" area of         western Missouri, James and his family maintained strong Southern sympathies. He and his                     brother Frank James joined pro-Confederate guerrillas known as "bushwhackers" operating in                 Missouri and Kansas during the American Civil War. As followers of William Quantrill and                     "Bloody Bill" Anderson, they were accused of committing atrocities against Union soldiers and             civilian abolitionists, including the Centralia Massacre in 1864.

        After the war, as members of various gangs of outlaws, Jesse and Frank robbed banks,                         stagecoaches, and trains across the Midwest, gaining national fame and often popular sympathy            despite the brutality of their crimes. The James brothers were most active as members of their own         gang from about 1866 until 1876, when as a result of their attempted robbery of a bank in                     Northfield, Minnesota, several members of the gang were captured or killed. They continued in crime for several years afterward, recruiting new members, but came under increasing pressure from law enforcement seeking to bring them to justice. On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was shot and killed by Robert Ford, a new recruit to the gang who hoped to collect a reward on James' head and a promised amnesty for his previous crimes. Already a celebrity in life, James became a legendary figure of the Wild West after his death.

Today, we would call Jesse James a "domestic terrorist." But he was "a celebrity in life and a legendary figure in death." And as a Confedeate sympathizer and product of "little Dixie," he almost certainly was a conservative -- likely a racist. Heck, sounds like he needs to be honored in his home state.

Jesse James

It's not like Missouri has a shortage of people to honor. The state has produced Harry Truman,             Walter Cronkite, Mark Twain, Walt Disney, Chuck Berry, Brad Pitt, Sheryl Crow, John                             Goodman, Dick Van Dyke, Kathleen Turner, T.S. Eliot, Burt Bacharach, and many others. All of             these people were talented (as was Limbaugh, in his way), but these folks generally served to                enlighten, to engender respect for others, to act with dignity, to advance society. Limbaugh fell way short in that                 category.

        Back to that question: Was Rush Limbaugh good for America? We'll take a closer look shortly.

        As for me, I would like to see an honor for the Doobie Brothers' Michael McDonald, who is from St.                Louis. For one, I've long loved the Doobies' music --from "Listen to the Music," to "Long Train              Running" and "China Grove," to "Black Water," and "What a Fool Believes." But I consider                    McDonald's "Takin it to          the Streets" to be one of the best songs of the past 40 years or so.

We'll honor McDonald in our own way. Here are the Doobie Brothes and a live version of "Takin it         to the Streets." 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Domestic terrorism and discrimination are expected to take center stage as Senate conducts confirmation hearings for Biden AG nominee Merrick Garland

Merrick Garland

The U.S. Senate is holding confirmation hearings this week for Merrick Garland, Joe Biden's nominee as attorney general. The story hits close to home for several reasons. Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) was considered a front runner until Biden gave the nod to Garland, More importantly, Garland (if confirmed) faces a huge task. From a New York Times e-newsletter:

Should he be confirmed, Judge Garland will take over what prosecutors are calling the biggest, most complex investigation in Justice Department history, of the Capitol assault that led to the second impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Prosecuting domestic terrorism was formative work for Judge Garland, who oversaw the investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and similar cases.

As federal prosecutors unveil charges in the attack on the Capitol, they have repeatedly highlighted how two militant groups — the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys — had an outsize role in the assault.

The Washington Post reports on Garland's priorities

Attorney general nominee Merrick Garland plans to tell the Senate that if confirmed to become the nation’s top law enforcement official, he will strive to lead an agency committed to battling discrimination in American life and extremist attacks on democracy.

In written remarks prepared for delivery at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Garland, 68, highlighted the history of the Justice Department, noting that the agency was formed in the aftermath of the Civil War, and that many of the issues it confronted then remain pressing concerns today.

Saying America “does not yet have equal justice,” Garland plans to tell lawmakers: “Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system; and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution, and climate change.”

Garland gave up a lifetime job as a federal judge to accept the AG nomination:

Garland spent the past two decades as a federal appellate judge in D.C., and during the Obama administration was nominated to the Supreme Court, but Senate Republicans refused to consider his nomination.

At the confirmation hearing, Republicans are expected to try to extract promises of specific investigations and prosecutions in political cases, and have already publicly called for the judge to commit to investigating the administration of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, for his handling of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a judge, Garland has been known as a moderate with a knack for building consensus. Cabinet nominees often seek to deflect demands for specific actions or policy goals, and Garland’s current job as a judge may lead him to be even more circumspect in his answers.

Garland is well versed in the challenges that domestic terrorism presents:

Before becoming a judge, Garland was best known in legal circles for his role guiding the investigation and prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death, and in 2001 he was executed.

“From 1995 to 1997, I supervised the prosecution of the perpetrators of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, who sought to spark a revolution that would topple the federal government. If confirmed, I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6 — a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government.”

That work, he said, is “but a part” of the broad range of Justice Department responsibilities to protect the country from “environmental degradation and the abuse of market power, from fraud and corruption, from violent crime and cybercrime, and from drug trafficking and child exploitation.”

Monday, February 22, 2021

Federal authorities are applying heavy scrutiny to Ali Alexander, Roger Stone, and Alex Jones for possible roles in radicalizing rioters at Jan. 6 attack on Capitol

Ali Alexander and Alex Jones

Federal authorities are focusing their attention on high-profile right-wing figures in connection to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, according to a report at The Washington Post. The heightened scrutiny pertains to Roger Stone, Alex Jones, and Ali (Akbar) Alexander (who has strong ties to Alabama and reportedly is in hiding). From reporters Spencer S. Hsu and Devlin Barrett:

The Justice Department and FBI are investigating whether high-profile right-wing figures — including Roger Stone and Alex Jones — may have played a role in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach as part of a broader look into the mind-set of those who committed violence and their apparent paths to radicalization, according to people familiar with the investigation.

The investigation into potential ties between key figures in the riot and those who promoted former president Donald Trump’s false assertions that the election was stolen from him does not mean those who may have influenced rioters will face criminal charges, particularly given U.S. case law surrounding incitement and free speech, the people said. Officials at this stage said they are principally seeking to understand what the rioters were thinking — and who may have influenced beliefs — which could be critical to showing their intentions at trial.

However, investigators also want to determine whether anyone who influenced them bears enough responsibility to justify potential criminal charges, such as conspiracy or aiding the effort, the officials said. That prospect is still distant and uncertain, they emphasized.

Here is more from Hsu and Barrett:

While Trump’s impeachment trial focused on the degree of his culpability for the violence, this facet of the case shows investigators’ ongoing interest in other individuals who never set foot in the Capitol but may have played an outsized role in what happened there through their influence, networks or action.

“We are investigating potential ties between those physically involved in the attack on the Capitol and individuals who may have influenced them, such as Roger Stone, Alex Jones and [Stop the Steal organizer] Ali Alexander,” said a U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a pending matter.

Stone is a longtime adviser to Trump, while Jones is a radio and web-streaming host behind Both are frequent purveyors of conspiracy theories: Stone wrote a book suggesting Lyndon B. Johnson was behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination; Jones has spread and retracted claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a “hoax.”

Alexander, whose attorney is Baron Coleman of Montgomery, appears to have carefully steered himself into the Stone-Jones orbit:

Stone and Jones helped promote Trump’s false reelection fraud claims and earlier rallies in Washington and participated in pro-Trump events Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, but each has denied intending anything beyond peaceful protest.

Shortly after the riot, Jones said on Infowars that he was invited by the White House on about Jan. 3 to “lead the march” to the Capitol, and that he paid nearly $500,000, mostly donated, to help organize the event on the Ellipse.

Jones promoted the event vigorously, called for one million marchers and told his viewers on Jan. 1, “Roger Stone spent some substantial time with Trump in Florida just a few days ago, and I’m told big things are afoot and Trump’s got major actions up his sleeve.”

A day before the insurrection, Jones urged a pro-Trump crowd at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington “to resist the globalists” with his refrain, “I don’t know how all this is all going to end, but if they want to fight, they better believe they’ve got one!” In a Jan. 6 post from near the same spot, he declared “1776” — a term co-opted by Trump fans urging a kind of second revolution against the government. “We’re under attack, and we need to understand this is 21st-century warfare and get on a war-footing,” Jones said.

Alexander, in a since-deleted video on Periscope weeks before the Jan. 6 rally, said he and three hard-line Republican Trump supporters “schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting” to change the minds of those who wouldn’t go against certifying Biden’s win.

Alexander did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story. But in an email to The Post in mid-January, Alexander said he had “remained peaceful” during the riot.

“Conflating our legally, peaceful permitted events with the breach of the US Capitol building is defamatory and false,” he said. On Telegram, Alexander has since blamed outside “Capitol agitators” for sabotaging events.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Testimony: Drummond's contributions to Luther Strange were in exchange for opposition to EPA plans

David Roberson

Political contributions from Drummond Company to Luther Strange were in exchange for his opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) making North Birmingham a Superfund site, the company's former director of government affairs says in discovery filed yesterday in his $75-million fraud lawsuit against Drummond and the Balch Bingham law firm. (The full discovery is embedded at the end of this post.) States David Roberson:

"As head of government affairs at Drummond, I never made or recommended any campaign contributions on behalf of the company that were a bribe and/or in any way illegal. The political contributions to Luther Strange were in exchange for him to sign letters as the state attorney general opposing North Birmingham being made a Superfund site. I never met with Luther Strange in connection with this contribution and was not made aware of it until after the fact."

Roberson alleges in his lawsuit that Drummond General Counsel Blake Andrews helped set him up as a "fall guy," by encouraging him to take actions that led to his conviction in a federal bribery trial. Roberson describes in the discovery how that happened:

The first part of February 2015, Blake Andrews came into my office and asked if we could talk. I told him "sure" and invited him to sit down. He had a piece of paper in his hand. He proceeded to tell me he was now getting three invoices a month from Balch Bingham, including  a legal bill, a consultant-reimbursement bill, and now another consultant-reimbursement invoice for the Oliver Robinson Foundation (ORF). He stated that this was getting "confusing" for him to manage three invoices from the same firm, and he had come to ask if I would mind handling the ORF invoice, to initial and forward on to Mike Tracy. I told him if it was a problem for him, I would be glad to help out.

He handed me the first ORF invoice he had just received, which was addressed to Blake Andrews, in the amount of $14,000 to cover two months of the contract. Blake had drawn a line through his name and written 'Should be David Roberson" out to the side of his name.

My part of processing the invoice was to make sure that was what was due, initial the invoice, and take it to Mike Tracy or his assistant Carolyn Chambers. Mike Tracy had to initial every invoice in order for it to be paid. At a point after dropping off the invoice I sat down and explained to Mike why I was initialing the invoice instead of Blake and his "confusion" issue. Mike was okay with me handling the invoices.

During my meeting with Blake, there was no one else in my office.

At some point the day Blake and I spoke, I called Joel Gilbert at Balch Bingham to explain my conversation with Blake and asked him to forward future ORF invoices to me. He said Blake had already contacted him and asked him to make the change.

How did Roberson come to realize the payments to the Robinson Foundation were illegal or of questionable legality?

At trial, it became obvious to me that I was being used by Blake Andrews to be the fall guy for Drummond reimbursing the illegal payments made by Balch Bingham to the Oliver Robinson Foundation. That played the pivotal role in what convicted me. Looking back on things, the only reason for Blake to ask me to process only those invoices was that he knew what was going on was illegal.

Who at Drummond, besides Andrews, knew Balch's actions were illegal? States Roberson:

Originally only Blake Andrews knew that what Balch Bingham was doing could have been illegal and therefore tried to distance himself by having me process the invoices for reimbursements for payments to the Oliver Robinson Foundation. I also think that at some point he informed others at Drummond of his belief, but they did not share the fact that the payment into the ORF was illegal with me. This would include Mike Tracy and Bruce Webster, who is the Drummond Board legal counsel.

How did Roberson's entanglement in the scandal affect him?

Damages for what Drummond has done to me are enormous. Monetary wise, they cost me a beautiful home in Birmingham that we had to sell well below what we had invested in it due to the financial situation we found ourselves in after being told on several occasions by Mike Tracy, in person and also by phone when Anna was with me, not to worry because Drummond would take care of us through the appeals process. We had to sell almost everything in the house as well. Drummond also cost me my reputation, which over my 42-year career had been spotless. This has damaged my health, including blood-pressure problems and inability to sleep, even with medication. Stress and anxiety has been almost unbearable, and my stress memory loss continues to worsen. Insurance for my wife and son has been hard to pay on a limited income when they both have medical issues that require expensive medications, a lot of which their present insurance will not cover. We also were forced to sell our home in Florida. I am no longer employable in my specialty since I am a convicted felon.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Brutal winter storm puts the weaknesses of Texas' power system on glaring and painfully cold display


Is a winter storm in Texas providing new evidence that the postmodern Republican Party simply cannot govern? It sure looks that way. From a report at The Washington Post:

When it gets really cold, it can be hard to produce electricity, as customers in Texas and neighboring states are finding out. But it’s not impossible. Operators in Alaska, Canada, Maine, Norway and Siberia do it all the time.

What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans. It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.

It’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices,” said Matt Breidert, a portfolio manager at a firm called Ecofin.

And yet the temporary train wreck of that market Monday and Tuesday has seen the wholesale price of electricity in Houston go from $22 a megawatt-hour to about $9,000. Meanwhile, 4 million Texas households have been without power.

A Wild West approach to energy? Turns out that's not such a great idea in the postmodern era:

One utility company, Griddy, which sells power at wholesale rates to retail customers without locking in a price in advance, told its patrons Tuesday to find another provider before they get socked with tremendous bills.

The widespread failure in Texas and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the face of a winter cold snap shines a light on what some see as the derelict state of America’s power infrastructure, a mirror reflection of the chaos that struck California last summer.

Edward Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said the disinvestment in electricity production reminds him of the last years of the Soviet Union, or of the oil sector today in Venezuela.

“They hate it when I say that,” he said.

Texans have come face to face with some harsh realities:

The immediate question facing the Texas power sector is whether its participants are willing to pay for the sort of winterization measures that are common farther north, even for a once-in-a-decade spell of weather.

The Post reports: Wind accounts for just 10 percent of the power in Texas generated during the winter. And the loss of power to the grid caused by shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas, dwarfed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines, by a factor of five or six.

So, what did go wrong? Will Englund reports:

As the cold hit, demand for electricity soared past the mark that ERCOT had figured would be the maximum needed. But at a moment when the world is awash in surplus natural gas, much of it from Texas wells, the state’s power-generating operators were unable to turn that gas into electricity to meet that demand.

In the single-digit temperatures, pipelines froze up because there was some moisture in the gas. Pumps slowed. Diesel engines to power the pumps refused to start. One power plant after another went offline. Even a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants went dark, hobbled by frozen equipment.

“At a time when the need is the greatest it’s ever been, it’s a strain on the system like we’ve never seen,” said Tom Seng, director of the School of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce at the University of Tulsa.

Throughout the Southwest, he said, there has been a scramble for gas as sources have gone offline. Most surplus gas is stored underground, he said, and bringing it to the surface becomes more and more difficult in such prolonged low temperatures. March futures for natural gas are selling for $3 per million BTUs in Oklahoma, he said, but the spot price hit $600 over the weekend.

Texas is unique among the states in having a grid all its own that is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country. That has prevented Texas from importing much electricity as its power plants went down, but Hirs said that the cold is so widespread across the heart of the nation that no one has any electricity to spare anyway.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Experts find that grievance narratives, driven by unmet expectations in life, are driving right-wing extremism that can lead to events like Jan. 6


Donald Trump now has been acquitted twice in impeachment trials, most recently on charges of inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. As ugly and violent as the insurrection was, a writer at Politico suggests it was merely a symptom of a larger, more dangerous problem. The real elephant in the American living room is extremism, and it is likely to get worse before it gets better. Writes Zack Stanton under the headline: "The Problem Isn’t Just One Insurrection. It’s Mass Radicalization: Extremism is faster, more collaborative and happening at a far wider scale than it used to, says Michael Jensen. Does that mean more January 6th-type incidents in the future?"

[Last] week’s impeachment trial of Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection refreshed many Americans’ sense of shock at what took place on January 6, when thousands of pro-Trump extremists surrounded the U.S. Capitol, stormed into the building, bludgeoned police officers and sent congressional leadership into hiding.

But experts say the attack is hugely worrying for reasons beyond what the Senate is debating. Unlike other recent spasms of American violence, this was not the work of a lone wolf nor of a small cell of radicals. The pathway to an attempted government overthrow unfolded in public, out loud on the internet, in a process that experts call mass radicalization.

The protest was likely just the tip of an iceberg; nobody knows how many Americans—tens of thousands? more?—would willingly have joined them if they’d been in Washington that day. It’s a new challenge for America, and a serious one: At times and places when large groups of people have been inspired to embrace violence, it often leads to long-term unrest, if not outright civil war. And right now, experts think, it’s happening faster than ever.

“Historically, mass radicalization took time,” says Michael Jensen, an expert on extremism who leads the domestic radicalization team at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. “But that’s not our reality anymore.”

Jensen’s research has found that over the past roughly 15 years, the average time span of radicalization in the U.S. has shrunk from 18 months to 7 months, largely because of how much of our lives have shifted online. In the 1980s or ’90s, a would-be far-right extremist had to “know somebody in your real-world life who was involved in it,” says Jensen. “They had to recruit you in or introduce you to the ideas. That tended to be a pretty slow process.”

Jensen has emerged as a leading figure in the fight against domestic extremism. And though it might be tempting to draw parallels between the insurrectionist movement and other extreme groups, he says America’s far-right extremists are different from what you might expect. Compared to extremists animated by far-left or jihadist beliefs, they radicalize later in life, are substantially more likely to have a violent criminal background and are more prone to substance-use disorders. And where you may expect far-right groups to compete against one another for recruits, attention and resources—as has long been the case—that dynamic is currently evolving into a reality that poses an even greater threat. They are joining forces.

“The most concerning thing that we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that competition [on the far right] is actually eroding to some extent, and there has been more of an effort for these groups to link and to cooperate with each other,” says Jensen. “To some extent, January 6 was these groups coming together.”

What should we know about mass radicalization? Should we expect the future of American extremism to look a lot more like January 6? And is there something about American politics at the moment that is helping to fuel all of this?

To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Jensen this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Jensen: From our vantage point, it was somewhat predictable. We saw the conditions coming together that would allow for something like the insurrection on January 6. We have to back up and talk about how mass radicalization occurs, and—even more importantly—how mass mobilization occurs, which is what January 6 was. It wasn’t just the radicalization of beliefs; it was the mobilization of individuals on behalf of those beliefs.

Typically, when we talk about radicalization, we’re talking about it at an individual or small-group level. We talk about how Person X came to adopt an extremist viewpoint and act on it. We highlight things like personal grievances, their identity ambitions—perhaps they were seeking some thrill or meaning in their life, and got excited about the promises being made by an extremist ideology, and that if they participated, they would be revered as a hero. With small groups, we tend to talk about group cohesion. Individuals tend to isolate themselves among like-minded people—it’s just a natural human instinct. That tends to form echo chambers, where you hear the same ideas over and over, and they’re never challenged.

Mass radicalization is a much larger phenomenon in which you have tens of thousands—if not millions—of individuals who are vulnerable to [extremist] messages they receive from really influential people. And then, there might be movement towards mobilizing those individuals. They still talk about personal grievances, but there’s a broader national political message there, [where] this is a battle between good and evil, where the other side is looking to undermine us and our way of life, and we all have a responsibility to challenge and confront the other side.

First, you have to have a vulnerable audience receptive to the extremist narrative—individuals who are scared, angry, isolated and looking for answers that satisfy their own personal biases, looking to cast blame for their problems on someone else. They find narratives that tell them their problems are not their fault; it’s the product of a conspiracy trying to undermine your way of life and well-being. Those messages are deeply appealing, because it’s harder to look inside and question your own decision-making and behaviors. Over the past year in particular, we’ve had an unprecedented situation that has left a very large audience receptive to those narratives. The pandemic has left people scared, without jobs and looking for answers to what happens next.

The second thing you need is an influential voice pushing the extremist narrative. And over the past 4½ years, we have had a very influential political leader [President Donald Trump] pushing a narrative that is not only polarizing—not only highlighting that the right and left are far apart on policy issues and disagree on discretionary spending—it’s a narrative of “othering.” It’s a narrative that casts the other side as evil, as “enemies,” as individuals you have to fight at all costs in order to preserve your way of life. We saw this, whether [Trump’s “others”] were Democrats, the news media or the scientific community.

The final thing you need is a mechanism to spread that narrative to the masses. Historically, mass radicalization took time. If an influential leader wanted to spread a message, they’d do it through newspapers or political speeches in towns and cities throughout their country, and it could take a while for that message to spread. But that’s not our reality anymore.

The online world has helped change the way radicalization spreads, Jensen says:

Our reality now is one in which a radicalizing message can be broadcast to hundreds of millions of people in a matter of seconds. And if it catches on, you’re virtually guaranteed that millions of people will [believe] that narrative. We’ve seen this in the more traditional forms of media, with outlets like Fox News pushing some of these conspiratorial views, but we’ve also seen it with social media companies not cracking down on this rhetoric early, and instead letting it fester.

Those three conditions [make people] ripe for mass radicalization. And once that narrative changes into a call for action—when it’s not just about changing someone’s beliefs, it’s about inspiring them to act on those beliefs—you get January 6. You get mass mobilization. That’s what we saw.

The question moving forward is, are those conditions still present? Does the future of extremism in this country look like January 6, or does it look like something we’ve been dealing with for a couple of decades? In my estimation, we are reverting back to somewhat of a mean. The future of extremism in this country won’t look like January 6, but it will look like what we’ve been dealing with for the past couple of decades, [with a] significant threat we have to challenge in a very smart way.

Stanton asked Jensen if politics is driving Americans to extremism?

Polarization is nothing new in American politics. There have always been multiple sides, and that gap has perhaps been widening over the past 20 years, where there are just fundamental issues [on which] it’s hard to find common ground. It doesn’t always manifest in expressions of violence unless it turns into that “othering” narrative.

That’s been a big change in recent years: It’s not so much that the other side disagrees with you on policy issues; it’s that the other side is in cahoots to undermine you and fundamentally challenge you and your way of life, and they’re doing it for their own personal benefit and greed, and you have to fight that at all costs. It’s more politically lucrative for individuals to play up polarization, to play up their tribe vs. the other tribe. It’s more politically expedient for them to do those things than to be the old-style leader who tries to find a bridge and a middle ground.

The other big change is that we’re just exposed to polarization a lot more now. It’s so much easier to be exposed to how much we don’t agree on things. Every time you jump online, you’re going to get hit with the fact that your viewpoint is quite different than perhaps your neighbor’s or somebody in your family’s. We’re confronted with that polarization a lot more, and I don’t know that we have found a way to constructively speak to each other about those divisions. 

The Internet plays a huge role in the rapid spread of radicalization, Jensen says:

The main effect of the Internet on radicalization is that it speeds the process up quite considerably.

We ran a research project where we looked at this for individuals in the U.S. who tried to travel to Syria and Iraq to help the Islamic State. We were trying to measure [the time between] their first exposure to extremist beliefs and when they got caught in that airport or boarded that plane. We found that the average [time span] of radicalization over the past 15 years or so had gone from something like 18 months to 7 months. Really, the only thing that changed in that period was the fact that these communities are now flourishing online.

Think about somebody in the 1980s or 1990s radicalizing into the “white power” movement. You had to know somebody in your real-world life who was involved in it. They had to recruit you in or introduce you to the ideas. That tended to be a pretty slow process—a process that, for a lot of individuals, didn’t happen. Now, it’s a click away. It’s really easy to find. And once you start expressing interest in those viewpoints, the way social media platforms are set up is to keep you immersed in their environment for as long as possible. As you express an interest in an extremist viewpoint, the algorithm says, “Well, you like this extremist stuff, so we’re going to give you more of it.” You fall into the rabbit hole. You isolate yourself into an echo chambers where all you’re hearing is the extremist narrative, and you’re hearing praise for individuals who have acted on behalf of the viewpoints. So [for instance], you’re hearing a narrative that praises the Dylann Roofs of the world [Roof is a white supremacist who murdered nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015] for taking a stand and fighting on behalf of the cause.

Extremist views are not new in the U.S., Jensen says, but their evolving forms -- and the people attracted to those forms -- are new:

I think the overriding characteristic of extremism in the United States is its diversity in terms of the viewpoints promoted, in terms of the characteristics of the individuals who adhere to those viewpoints, and in terms of the actions and behaviors that individuals take on behalf of those beliefs.

We have always had a wide variety of extremist views in the U.S. For forever, we’ve had white supremacist and white nationalist narratives. Those have been paired with narratives on the far left—the social-justice narratives that promoted violence in the 1960s and ’70s, and then morphing into animal-rights and eco-terrorism extremists. We’ve had anti-government views; “sovereign citizens” and the “patriot” movement have been around a really long time. We’ve had jihadist-inspired individuals and narratives. And then we have these kind of “fringe” ones we don’t really know where to put.

It is important to recognize, though, that there’s not an equal [threat] level across those ideologies. Our data suggest that far-right extremist views are the most prevalent of the extremist views in this country.

Le's close with a compelling question from Stanton:

In your studies, you’ve found that far-right extremists in the U.S. tend to radicalize later in life than far-left or jihadi extremists. You’ve also found that they are statistically much more likely to have had a history of violent criminal activity—roughly 25 percent of far-right extremists, compared with 11 or 12 percent for jihadist or far-left extremists. What accounts for that difference?

Here is Jensen's response, and it's alarming:

In terms of extremist individuals [overall], when you look at the backgrounds, you see everything you can imagine. You see well-adjusted individuals who have good jobs, who are married with children, but maybe have some identity needs that aren’t being fulfilled, who want to matter more than they think they do, and find extremist narratives appealing. We see individuals who have had horrible lives—victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse as children; people with substance-use disorders who join an extremist movement because it gives them access to friends, parties and drugs. We see young people. We see old people. We see people with mental illness. We see people without mental illness.

When we look at individuals on the far right, we’re seeing much higher rates of previous criminal history that had nothing to do with their ideology. We’re seeing much higher rates of substance-use disorders. We’re seeing somewhat older individuals. And the reasons why can be complicated. 

Far-right narratives often appeal [more] to older individuals. “Grievance” narratives are often tailored to individuals who have unmet expectations about the way their lives were supposed to turn out—people who are already into their lives, where they supposed to have established a career and a family and their identity within the community. The narrative is really appealing to them: All your ambitions were thwarted because of this evil “other” working to undermine you.

There is also a decently high rate of individuals with past military experience in [far-right] communities. These individuals tend to be a little bit older because they had a previous life in the military. They are the most recruited of anyone. They possess a set of skills that these groups find really appealing. The Oath Keepers, for example, are [active in] recruiting military and law enforcement.

The final thing worth noting in terms of those more troubling characteristics, [like] substance-use disorders, mental illness, histories of past trauma: Those are really high in certain extremist groups because those individuals are the most vulnerable to recruitment. Far-right groups know that. They find individuals who have those characteristics and promise them camaraderie. They promise them a “party scene” to be a part of, and a pretty radical change in their life. Whereas jihadist groups often shy away from recruiting people who they deem as having problems with their mental health or with substance use, for white supremacist groups, that’s their bread and butter.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Alabama Power helped finance robocalls promoting pro-Trump Stop the Steal rally that turned into a bloody and deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

Alabama Power helped finance the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to a report at Under the headline "Blood Money! Alabama Power’s Largest PAC Contribution Helped Provoke “Domestic Terrorist Attack”, Publisher K.B. Forbes writes:

During the 2019-2020 election cycle, the single largest contribution from Alabama Power Employees Federal PAC went to the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the entity that launched robocalls the day before the insurrection mob marched to and desecrated the U.S. Capitol.

The robocall stated, “The March to Save America is tomorrow in Washington, D.C….At 1:00 p.m., we will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal,” according to The Washington Post.

Mark. A. Crosswhite, the Chairman and CEO of Alabama Power, boasted in 2016 that he enjoys being the final decision maker as the leader of the utility.

Did he make the final decision to funnel $25,000 to this entity or will he blame others?

As many Americans still struggle to digest the horror show that erupted on Jan. 6, they now learn that one of Alabama's most powerful corporate entities helped finance the mayhem. Writes Forbes:

The insurrection mob led to the out-of-control breach of the U.S. Capitol where the building was vandalized and feces allegedly was spread on some walls.

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick was pepper sprayed twice and later died. According to news reports, Capitol Police said that Sicknick had “passed away due to injuries sustained while on duty.”

Sicknick was one of five individuals to die during the violence:

Lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, Sicknick received a final tribute from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, including President Joe Biden and the First Lady.

How did Crosswhite and Alabama Power get associated with this egregious and deadly mess?

The answer appears to run through the Alabama Attorney General's Office, reports Forbes:

Alabama Power funneled the large donation because the Rule of Law Defense Fund was run by the Republican Attorney Generals Association (RAGA) whose Chairman is Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, a political ally of both Alabama Power and their sister-wife, embattled law firm Balch and Bingham.

        With the tremendous fall-out, Crosswhite and         Marshall                 appear to have covered their              wounded asses and played         the stock-and-                trade political blame game. Adam                Piper, the      Executive Director of RAGA, resigned and                     was the “fall guy” for the fiasco.

But the truth will come out as investigators probe more deeply. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi yesterday called for the creation of a 9/11-style commission.

The Independent reports what Pelosi declared yesterday:

“To protect our security, our next step will be to establish an outside, independent 9/11-type commission” to “investigate and report on the facts and causes” surrounding the riots that she has characterized in her statement as a “domestic terrorist attack” upon the Capitol complex and the “interference with the peaceful transfer of power.”

Here is another Alabama connection to this ugliness: Jessica Medeiros Garrison, one-time campaign manager for former state AG Luther Strange, was  president and senior advisor of the Rule of Law Defense Fund from 2014-16. She was senior advisor and executive director of RAGA from 2011-16. 

From 2011-17, Garrison held an "of counsel" position at Balch and Bingham, Alabama Power's law firm. Garrison left Balch when Strange's name surfaced in the North Birmingham Superfund scandal.

How gross will the stain on Mark Crosswhite appear?

Called “the most powerful man in Alabama” by his admirers, Crosswhite and his apologists may try to say that he has no control over what the Rule of Law Defense Fund did.

But Crosswhite has absolute control over what he did not do in the aftermath.

  • Crosswhite should have publicly distanced his company from the insurrection, calling the domestic terrorist attack for what it was: an ugly stain, a crime, absolutely revolting, and truly un-American.
  • Crosswhite should have declared unequivocally that the robocalls and contribution were a grave mistake and should have apologized on behalf of Alabama Power.
  • Crosswhite should have had Alabama Power donate $25,000 to the family of Brian Sicknick.

Crosswhite’s inaction proves he is unfit to lead. He should resign or retire and Wall Street must demand so.

In the meantime, another probe of Alabama Power and their web of patronage and interference is needed, now, today.

From alleged interference in the North Birmingham Bribery Trial to alleged interference in an outside investigation of the Miller Steam Plant, from the alleged interference in the Newsome Conspiracy Case to the alleged interference and rigged prosecution of ex-Drummond executive David Roberson, Alabama Power and Crosswhite have some answering to do.

The many years of political patronage, influence peddling, and absolute power in Alabama culminated in a deadly domestic terrorist attack on Capitol Hill.

Unbelievable. Disgusting. Embarrassing.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Biden press aide T.J. Ducklo resigns after threatening reporter for writing about his romantic relationship with a journalist from another news outlet

T.J. Ducklo and Alexi McCammond

The first mini-scandal of the Biden administration has come (and seemingly gone), leaving behind the foul smell of a press aide exhibiting bone-headed behavior toward a member of the media.T.J. Ducklo, a deputy press secretary, resigned over the weekend after being suspended for threatening a reporter who was writing about his romantic relationship with a reporter from another news outlet. From a report yesterday at CNN:

White House deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo, who threatened a reporter who asked about his relationship with another reporter, has resigned.

"We accepted the resignation of TJ Ducklo after a discussion with him this evening," said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, in a statement. "This conversation occurred with the support of the White House chief of staff."

Ducklo released his own statement on Twitter saying, in part, "I know this was terrible. I know I can't take it back. But I also know I can learn from it and do better."
Ducklo was suspended Friday for one week without pay after Vanity Fair story published earlier that day a reporter from Politico was working on an article about his romantic relationship with a reporter from another news outlet.
Multiple White House officials described the situation as untenable because they did not feel a one-week suspension was sufficient. Another source familiar with the situation said no one expressed that sentiment directly to the leadership of the press and communications office. This person said Ducklo's resignation was a result of a realization by the press and communications leadership that there needed to be a conversation with Ducklo about what was best for President Joe Biden, and whether his remaining on the job represented the standard this administration tried to set.

 Biden knew about the situation, per CNN:

Biden was made aware of the situation involving Ducklo late Saturday afternoon, a White House official said, and the President supports his decision to resign.
Psaki said Ducklo apologized to the reporter he threatened, Politico's Tara Palmeri, over the incident. She had reported on Tuesday that Ducklo had been in a romantic relationship with Axios reporter Alexi McCammond.
Axios told Politico that McCammond "disclosed her relationship" with Ducklo in November and was "taken off the Biden beat." But Palmeri pointed out that McCammond's beat includes covering Vice President Kamala Harris and that she had commented glowingly on Biden after he was inaugurated.

From the Vanity  Fair article that helped break the story open, under the headline “I Will Destroy You”: Biden Aide Threatened a Politico Reporter Pursuing a Story on His Relationship:

A White House official tried to quash a story about his relationship with a reporter by issuing threats and using derogatory language to another reporter pursuing it, according to two sources familiar with the incident. In a sympathetic profile Monday, People revealed that White House Deputy Press Secretary TJ Ducklo is dating Axios political reporter Alexi McCammond, who covered the Joe Biden campaign. But behind the scenes, Ducklo had previously lashed out at Politico reporter Tara Palmeri, who was reporting the story, exhibiting behavior that led to tense meetings between the Washington news outlet’s editors and senior White House officials.

After Vanity Fair published this account, the White House announced that Ducklo would be suspended for one week.

The confrontation began on Inauguration Day, January 20, after Palmeri, a coauthor of Politico’s Playbook, contacted McCammond for comment while one of her male colleagues left a message for Ducklo, according to the sources. Ducklo subsequently called a Playbook editor to object to the story, but was told to call the Playbook reporters with his concerns. But instead of calling the male reporter who initially contacted him, Ducklo tried to intimidate Palmeri by phone in an effort to kill the story. “I will destroy you,” Ducklo told her, according to the sources, adding that he would ruin her reputation if she published it.

During the off-the-record call, Ducklo made derogatory and misogynistic comments, accusing Palmeri of only reporting on his relationship—which, due to the ethics questions that factor into the relationship between a journalist and White House official, falls under the purview of her reporting beat—because she was “jealous” that an unidentified man in the past had “wanted to fuck” McCammond “and not you.” Ducklo also accused Palmeri of being “jealous” of his relationship with McCammond. (Palmeri had no prior relationship or communication with McCammond before calling her to report on the Playbook item, which was a story that she was assigned and had not independently pursued.)

In my almost 40 years as a professional journalist, I've interacted with dozens, maybe more than 100, PR pros. While in various editorial positions at UAB, I worked under the same umbrella with the media-relations department. Along the way, I've picked up a few rules of the PR trade, and Ducklo violated several of them:

1. If you think a story is not worth reporting, keep that opinion to yourself. That's a decision for a reporter and her editor to make;

2. Answer questions honestly and as fully as you can. Be prepared to conduct research and get back to a reporter if you don't immediately know the answer to a question;

3. Never use vile, offensive language with a journalist. It makes your whole organization look bad;

4. Recognize that journalists work in a competitive business. If you appear to show favoritism or have a conflict of interest, journos likely will not view it with kindness;

5. There are plenty of attractive female journalists, but the press room is not a place to pick up women. If you don't create separation between your social life and professional life, you are asking for trouble;

5. Never, ever threaten a journalist.        

PR can be a tough job, particularly when you get caught in the minefield between information a         reporter wants revealed and information your boss wants kept under wraps. It's not unusual for PR      types to answer, up the line, to someone who knows little about the profession -- whose expertise is in a          totally unrelated field.  

Ducklo is from Nashville, TN, and earned a bachelor's degree in political communication from George Washington University. He worked as a staff assistant for political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin before becoming national press secretary for the 2020 Biden campaign.

In December 2019, Ducklo posted on Twitter that he had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. He reportedly still is undergoing treatments. Did dealing with a serious disease at a young age skew his judgment while in the White House? That's possible, but Ducklo's boorish behavior left the Biden team with little choice but to let him go.