Thursday, March 16, 2023

Alabama political veteran Steve Flowers, perhaps needing a refresher course in media law, calls for Donald Watkins to be jailed for engaging in journalism

Steve Flowers

Steve Flowers has held a prominent voice in Alabama politics for roughly 30 years -- as a state lawmaker, commentator, author, and historian. His weekly syndicated newspaper column, "Inside the Statehouse," is published in 66 newspapers across Alabama. Flowers should know better than to traffic in ideas that are unlawful, nutty, even dangerous. After all, Flowers' Wikipedia page indicates his column has a readership/circulation of more than 450,000. It seems safe to assume that a fair number of those readers take Flowers' words seriously. But no one should take his current column -- "Donald Watkins blogs from prison" -- seriously. 

Flowers more or less calls for Watkins, a longtime Alabama attorney and businessman, to be arrested and thrown in jail. Why? It seems Watkins' online journalism, which can be found at, has offended Flowers and some of his friends. Here is the last paragraph of Flowers' current column, which I found at the Web site for Alabama Political Reporter (APR), in the opinion section at the bottom of the home page: 

Freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of America’s creed. But that freedom in the hands of a proven liar and brazen, arrogant, non-repentant federal prisoner is not what our forefathers envisioned when they enshrined the First Amendment. This blogger is a threat to society and deserves further jail time.

For roughly the past 10 years, Watkins has focused his reporting on the burgeoning Southern Company/Alabama Power/Matrix LLC fraud-bribery scandal, which has become so severe that former Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite reportedly is seeking an immunity deal in exchange for cooperating with federal investigators.

That is an extraordinary development, one that has been driven by non-traditional media -- including Web sites published by Watkins, K.B. Forbes and the CDLU, and yours truly here at Legal Schnauzer-- mainly because the mainstream media (MSM) has largely ignored a story of profound importance in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and beyond.

Steve Flowers apparently does not approve of Watkins' journalism, causing him to hold the retired attorney in low regard. Here's more from Flowers' current column:

I do not pay much attention to the so-called “internet bloggers,” but the outlandish lies of one such blogger has gotten my attention. A convicted criminal named Donald Watkins has been blogging scurrilous, vicious, outlandish lies about some of our state’s and nation’s most outstanding leaders and companies. Watkins is posting these lies to the internet while serving a federal prison sentence under the jurisdiction of the federal penal system. 

Those are harsh words, but Flowers likely has a legal right to put most of them in the public square. U.S. defamation law generally protects such expressions of opinion. (Note: Falsely saying Watkins is serving a federal prison sentence, while under the jurisdiction of the federal penal system, might be a different matter.)

That, plus other parts of Flowers' column could put him -- and the newspapers who carry his column -- at legal peril. (We'll have more on that in a moment.)

First, this appears to be a case of Flowers' emotions overtaking his brain, and his column provides clues about how that happened. In essence, Watkins has written, critically and powerfully, about the Southern Company scandal -- and that apparently involves some of Flowers' friends. Consider this from the current column:

In 2017, Alabama businessman Joe Perkins sued Watkins for defamation. A circuit court ruled in Perkins’s favor and awarded a judgment against Watkins of $1.5 million. Watkins appealed all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, and on February 27, the highest court in the land unceremoniously refused to hear Watkins’s ridiculous appeal.

So, why don’t more of Watkins’s victims sue him for his lies? As the old saying goes, you can’t get blood from a turnip. He owes his victims more than $15 million today. He is in such a deep hole that he cannot be stopped by more lawsuits.

That apparently led Flowers to conclude that the only way to stop Watkins is by throwing him in jail. No kidding. An American adult, with decades of experience in politics and journalism, actually wrote that. Why is this such a loony notion? We'll explain with a brief Legal Schnauzer primer on media law: The same First Amendment that protects Steve Flowers' right to express a low opinion of Donald Watkins also protects Watkins' right to report vigorously on chicanery at Southern Company and its affiliates -- even if it exposes some of Flowers' friends. In the United State, we do not lawfully throw a journalist in jail because his reporting hurts someone's feelings. (Although I'm aware this actually has happened at least once in Alabama history. We'll have more on that in a future post.)

Although Flowers calls Watkins a liar, he does not point to any specific falsehoods in Watkins' reporting. So, this does not appear to be a matter about defamation. (Even if it were, under U.S. law, we do not throw journalists in jail for alleged defamation; the remedy for such claims is money damages.)

Flowers' main gripe appears to go something like this: "Watkins was convicted on investment-fraud charges in 2019 and spent roughly three years in federal prison. Therefore, he should lose his First Amendment rights and be returned to jail as a "threat to society."

Where does Flowers put himself, and the newspapers that carry his column, at legal risk? Let's start with the headline, "Donald Watkins blogs from prison," published on March 15, 2023. That indicates Watkins is in prison, right now. But Watkins was released on August 25, 2022. The headline suggests he is in prison currently, which would be due to criminal conduct. Even slight suggestions of criminal conduct can constitute defamation per se. Here is one definition of such claims: Defamatory statements falling into certain categories deemed particularly damaging to one's reputation are considered defamatory “per se” and may be compensable even without proof of reputational harm. False accusations of morally reprehensible criminal activity are a common example of this “per se” form of defamation.

The notion that Donald Watkins is in prison now, and he's there because of criminal activity, could raise legal issues.

Let's revisit the last paragraph in the Flowers column:

Freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of America’s creed. But that freedom in the hands of a proven liar and brazen, arrogant, non-repentant federal prisoner is not what our forefathers envisioned when they enshrined the First Amendment. This Blogger is a threat to society and deserves further jail time.

Flowers calls Watkins a "non-repentant federal prisoner." That's not opinion; it's a falsehood, suggesting recent criminal activity. It might be actionable as defamation per se. Flowers might have compounded his problem by deeming Watkins a "threat to society." Again, that suggests recent criminal activity or the potential to commit crimes -- and it might be actionable as defamation per se. (Flowers' words also are nonsensical; if someone already is in federal prison, why would you want to have him thrown in jail?)

At its heart, Flowers' column is a rant about the Watkins federal-fraud case. He trashes Watkins over allegations that have been adjudicated, and for which, Watkins has served his sentence. Watkins does not lose his First Amendment rights because he once was in prison -- and he certainly is not in prison any longer. Why does Flowers rail about the fraud case? Only Flowers knows for sure, but it might be because he seems to have no complaint about Watkins' reporting being false.

Watkins himself provides insight on what might have motivated Flowers' column. From Watkins' post, dated March 15, 2023, under the headline "Joe Perkins Crony Wants Donald Watkins Jailed":

Steve Flowers has been a paid political hustler in Alabama for decades. He is also a former state legislator and longtime Joe Perkins crony. Flowers' personal and political baggage is heavy, nasty, and smelly.

With mounting negative media headlines about Joe Perkins and the hot legal mess he has created for the Southern Company, Alabama Power Company, Florida Power & Light, NextEra Energy, and other public utility companies that are/were his clients, Perkins has unleashed Steve Flowers to attack me on his website.

Matrix/Perkins prepared the "attack article" for Flowers to post on his own website and distribute to friendly media organizations that receive laundered payments from the Southern Company and/or its affiliates. Sources inside Matrix's dwindling sphere of influence leaked a draft of Flowers' article to us, along with its background and intended purpose.

Steve Flowers is also a sycophant of former U.S. Senate Richard Shelby (R-Alabama). In fact, Flowers is the person who inadvertently outed Perkins’ “hunting buddy” relationship with Shelby and Scott Coogler, who is Chief U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Alabama. 

My published articles on Richard Shelby have been hard hitting, truthful, and unflattering. Shelby and former president Bill Clinton are the only career government officials I know who went to Washington with a meager net worth, but left public office as multi-millionaires. How did this happen? Neither man will say.

Claiming that lawsuits will not deter me from spreading “lies” about Perkins and his nefarious “dirty tricks” operations on behalf of public utility companies, Steve Flowers has advocated that I be jailed for my news reporting.

Flowers' call for my imprisonment comes straight out of Russian President Vladimir Putin's playbook for handling political and media dissidents.

Watkins takes note of Flowers' failure to cite anything false in  his reporting:

Steve Flowers does not dispute any of the following material facts, documents, or events cited in my published articles:

1. The Federal Election Commission maintains a public file that contains a written confession by Joe Perkins to breaking federal election laws.

2. In 2017, Joe Perkins prepared written notes in which he outlined his plan to destroy me, including his use of the federal criminal justice process in Alabama to do so.

3. On April 6, 2017, Joe Perkins prepared handwritten notes that outlined and annotated the accounting fraud scheme at the Southern Company.

4. A March 17-18, 2015 email chain between Alabama Power Company’s general counsel and Balch & Bingham attorneys set in motion a scheme to bribe former state Rep. Oliver Robinson with $360,000.

5. Perkins employs felons to work on his contracts with the Southern Company and its affiliates. Felons also work as subcontractors for Joe Perkins in his "dirty tricks"operations.

6. Former Alabama Power Company CEO Mark Crosswhite is cooperating with federal investigators and is seeking full immunity to spill the beans on Perkins, Matrix, and other co-conspirators.

Watkins notes that he and his son, Donald Watkins Jr., have filed a RICO complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, citing their status as victims of racketeering activities. Such a filing gives them certain protections, Watkins states:

It is a felony offense to threaten known crime victims who have reported racketeering crimes to federal law-enforcement authorities.

Watkins also addresses the criminal charges that were brought against him and his son:

In 2018, my son and I were framed by modern-day COINTELPRO federal prosecutors in Birmingham, Alabama, on trumped-up fraud charges arising from a handful of financial transactions with my business partners. These prosecutors used Perkins' handwritten notes as a playbook to railroad us. The transactions in question had been previously reviewed by unbiased federal prosecutors in the New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office two years earlier and were found to be compliant with all federal laws.

Efforts by Perkins and other Alabama power-players to imprison me on any trumped up charges continued through 2022. Flowers has brought these efforts forward into 2023.

My personal background and work towards progressive government in Alabama are posted in the Biography section on my website. I proudly declare my innocence and list my “political prisoner” status (2019 to 2022) on my Web site, Facebook page, and LinkedIn page. Flowers says this declaration makes me a "non-repentant federal prisoner."

Steve Flowers and his kind in Alabama are accustomed to "breaking" black men/women under their sphere of control. Obviously, this "breaking" did NOT occur in my case.


Anonymous said...

Seems like the Alabama frame up is an ongoing thing. Amazing these folks get away with anything they want. horrible

legalschnauzer said...

Here is a comment from Donald Watkins at his Facebook page:

Donald V. Watkins
I cannot believe this is the best PR attack the Southern Company can mount against me. I will let the Southern Company's internal accounting fraud and racketeering documents speak for me. At the right time, I will introduce the public to the real Steve Flowers.

legalschnauzer said...

Some historical perspective from Donald Watkins at Facebook:

Donald V. Watkins
Alabama has a long and ugly record of jailing political dissidents and advocates for positive social change. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the most famous victim of this abuse. Dr. King was arrested and jailed 29 times for his social justice advocacy. Dr. King was also one of the defendants in the famous New York Times v. Sullivan case where an all-white Alabama court system found him guilty of defamation for statements made by others regarding racial segregation in Alabama. Weaponizing the criminal and civil justice systems is a time-honored tradition in Alabama.

Anonymous said...

Three guesses which Flowers the columnist was in this Washington Post story, and who the politician acting like a little schoolboy really was:

“He just fell in love, bless his heart,” says Flowers, the columnist. “He was like a little schoolboy with a crush.”

Here's another quote from the same story!

"Flowers says Mason and Bentley called him to Bentley’s office in December to chew him out for a column he’d written months earlier, when the governor’s divorce was finalized, about the rumors about their relationship.

“She took control of the meeting and started browbeating me. . . . The governor was sitting there about to cry, saying he hadn’t seen his family at Christmas,” Flowers said. “She was going on for 15 minutes. . . . I felt really sorry for him. He was trying to talk at me, but she was too busy doing it.”

The whole messy affair blew up on March 22 when Bentley fired his longtime friend from his post as the highly respected executive director of the 1,400-member Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Collier, 44, then said he had seen and investigated text messages and audio “of a sexual nature” between Bentley and Mason. The governor, through a spokeswoman, denied the allegations."

Remind us how this all turned out? After all the media of Alabama whined mightily about the bloggers and sat on their thumbs with the browbeating whoops- the big prevaricating fornicating story- right in front of them.

legalschnauzer said...

Let me see if my memory is correct on this: I was the first journalist of any kind, blogger or otherwise, to write about the Bentley/Mason affair as the cause of the Guv's divorce from Dianne Bentley. That story broke on Aug. 31, 2015. Here is a link to that story:

In the following 6-7 months, I believe Donald Watkins and I were the only two journalists to cover the story -- breaking all kinds of angles, while members of the MSM mostly ignored the story or sat back and trashed us. Roughly a half year after the story broke, the "beach tape" became public, and the MSM suddenly was interested. John Archibald went on Rachel Maddow Show and took credit for breaking the story, but he didn't do much other than criticize the guy who did break it. Classy move, John . . .

BTW, it's been reported in several outlets that Bentley sought to retaliate against Watkins and me by unlawfully using federal criminal data bases in an effort to find dirt on us -- whether there was any dirt there or not.

Anonymous said...

Here's a quote from a story in the New York Times, "Alabama Governor, Robert Bentley, Denies Having Affair With Aide" that has a date of March 23 2016:

Mr. Bentley’s public demonstration of remorse came nearly seven months after Dianne Bentley, to whom the Republican governor was married for 50 years, sought a divorce, and just hours after Mr. Collier, the recently ousted leader of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, described what he saw as a history of improper conduct between the governor and Ms. Mason. Mr. Collier said that Mr. Bentley had, in 2014, effectively acknowledged an affair, and that it appeared to be continuing as recently as last month.

Mr. Bentley, 73, repeatedly signaled that he had no intention of resigning. Although the governor’s personal behavior has long been a subject of speculation here in the capital, it was not clear Wednesday how his admission would affect his standing among his constituents in this socially conservative state, where he easily won a second term less than two years ago.

“Bentley rode a white horse,” said Steve Flowers, a former state legislator who is now a political columnist. “The thing that has been so novel about this is that Bentley won the governor’s office and had high approval ratings because it appeared he was this First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa deacon who looked like somebody’s grandfather and, frankly, someone’s great-grandfather.”

Seems like if the April 15 Washington Post story with quote was accurate:

("Flowers says Mason and Bentley called him to Bentley’s office in December to chew him out for a column he’d written months earlier, when the governor’s divorce was finalized, about the rumors about their relationship.

“She took control of the meeting and started browbeating me. . . . The governor was sitting there about to cry, saying he hadn’t seen his family at Christmas,” Flowers said. “She was going on for 15 minutes. . . . I felt really sorry for him. He was trying to talk at me, but she was too busy doing it.”")

then some might wonder if columnist Mr Flowers kind of missed an oppportunity just after the recording story hit the fan to correct the record concerning various denials and pressure brought by the fomer Governor Bentley and certain of his staffers, some might say who were engaging in attempts to cover up what was actually going on.

At the very least, First Baptist Church Tuscaloosa was delayed in their apparently righteous dechurching, and the citizens of Alabama were delayed in getting some of the truth as to the apparently fornicating prevaricators inhabiting the Governor's Mansion and Goat Hill.

Anonymous said...

How many legitimate “cases” were not investigated or prosecuted because the Bemtley circus was in town. Investigators learned that politics dictated what they did and did not pursue. So how many people being paid by taxpayer money are laughing all the way to the bank because they have constantly had their hands in the cookie jar but not afraid of ever being caught!? If the agencies that are designed to protect us by enforcing the laws that are designed to protect us are afraid of losing their jobs or being harassed or worse, when would they EVER risk being subjected to the humiliation of being targeted by opening an investigation . In Alabama the guy who took credit for processing accountability laws took the “I meant look at THEM “ approach when he was prosecuted. (Hubbard) I expect there are many at the state, County and local level who just do as they please and threaten those powerless. They fill out annual reports and submit them to the ethics board I think I saw mentioned where said forms are filed not verified for truth. Had Bentley’s wife not had enough, that story would’ve forever been shushed. Look at the time between your report and it hitting mSM. People are not allowed to report ethics violations anonymously and I would think are afraid to make themselves a target by reporting and attaching their name.