Riley aims to wrap up DOT suit
Bob Ingram, Alabama Scene
MONTGOMERY–In 1984 a 25-year-old man named Johnny Reynolds filed a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination at what was then called the State Highway Department, now the Department of Transportation.
Today, 19 years and $148 million later, that case still pends in the federal court.
Gov. Bob Riley says bringing that nightmarish litigation to a conclusion is one of his top priorities. He calls the case "the craziest thing I have ever seen" and few people can argue with him.
That there has been little or no outcry from Alabama taxpayers is puzzling. Perhaps it is because most of them don't understand the ramifications of the case.
The dollars in this case involved are overwhelming.
Consider this: The state has paid legal fees to attorney's in the case in excess of $59 million; it has put into escrow $54.4 million, which is the amount the federal court has said the state owes Reynolds and countless other black and some white employees who joined the suit.
The department was also found in contempt of court because it failed to abide with court orders related to hiring and the meter on this fine is running at the alarming rate of $63,000 a week.
To make a terrible situation even worse, the millions this case has cost the department are all state funds–no federal dollars can be used in lawsuits.
Almost every week since he left office on Jan. 20 he has made headlines, albeit not the sort you would think he wanted.
First came the allegations that some of his staffers had trashed the Executive Department offices…causing damage estimated at more than $70,000…as a going away present for incoming Gov. Bob Riley.
Then came the revelation that Siegelman had taken advantage of an almost-forgotten law which allows former governor's the use of a state car and State Trooper driver. The law was passed to provide assistance to Gov. George Wallace, who had been crippled by a would-be assassin, and no other governor since–Guy Hunt, Jim Folsom Jr. or Fob James–had used the law for their benefit.
Last week yet another story broke. It was reported that in the final months of the Siegelman Administration First Lady Lori Siegelman had made a number of trips…including a week's stay at a hotel in Canada which overlooks Niagara Falls…which she paid for with a state credit card. The money for her trips came from the Governor's Contingency Fund.
When the story broke a Siegelman spokesman insisted she used the credit card for a "public purpose."
Siegelman's campaign for another term in 2006…and there is not much doubt he is already running…has gotten off to a shaky start.
Every Wednesday morning other Executive Department staff members…also on a voluntary basis…have a similar meeting at 7:15 a.m. in another room at the Capitol.
Gov. Riley, a Southern Baptist, made no apologies for these programs but they drew strong criticism from other quarters.
Morris Dees, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, suggested the Riley prayer meetings were politically motivated. Dees said that Riley may be trying to emulate Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has attracted strong support in this state because of his stand on the Ten Commandments.
Far more critical of the bible studies and prayer meetings was Larry Darby, Alabama director for American Atheists.
"It's political panhandling for public piety," Darby said. "It's a form of Christian terrorism this bible-belt state, Gov. Riley probably welcomes political enemies like Darby.