By Eddie Curran
We can take it as a given than Alabama Power and the Southern Company will deny, dissemble, and in all ways fight like hell before acknowledging having the first thing to do with unethical, possibly illegal and unquestionably cowardly political and public relations campaign against a person elected by Alabamians to regulate the company’s rates.
So: How to get to the truth?
I see two options.
Option One: Considering how much time, money, effort and frustration I’ve invested in this project, I’d prefer to be the one that pops it open. For that to happen, I will need someone to provide me with documentation, such as e-mails, correspondence, records of payments, contracts, etc., or tips on how to acquire such records. (More on this can be found at the Whistleblowers/Contact page).
Being in Mobile is a disadvantage. The People in the Know are mostly in Montgomery and Birmingham. To that disadvantage, add another. I’m no longer affiliated with a media organization, such as a newspaper. I’ve little leverage to get people to answer my questions. I can’t, for example, tell them that I will go ahead and write the story with their no comment, and it will be on the front page.
My primary advantage is my devotion to the project. I’m simply not going away until this nut is cracked. To do so would be to engage in … Quitting.
Option Two: The “traditional media” — be it in Alabama or the national media — say, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, Fortune etc. — takes a shot.
It’s sad, really, that this late in the game — after well over a year of this stuff — that no one in the admittedly numbers diminished state media has properly tackled this story.
In fact, reporters with Al.Com (Birmingham News, Mobile Register) and the Anniston Star have done great work on the PSC situation as regards rates, Terry Dunn’s positions in that regard, Alabama Power, the gas companies, etc. The work by Birmingham News columnist John Archibald and reporter Mike Cason has been especially good. And the stories by former Al.Com/Mobile Register reporter Ben Raines were major contributions. The Associated Press has also done some stories.
The problem is that no one has swung for the fences. Alabama Power — and its parent, the Southern Company — haven’t been put on the spot. It’s past time for that to happen. For an idea of what I’m talking, read my piece on this site about the reporting in Arizona regarding payments to 60 Plus, a group that’s been very active in support of Alabama Power as well as highly critical of Dunn.
It’s presumptuous of me, I know, but I’m going to do it anyway: Presume, that is, to tell a reporter how to go after a particular story.
My excuses: I have experience in this kind of reporting, and know the subject matter. And: Many of the reporters whose bylines I see on state political stories, especially those for the “Al.Com” papers, have two things in common: Ability, and youth. And inexperience is joined at the hip to youth.
With apologies out of the way, we move on to solving the problem.
First thing: If you behave, as in, follow Alabama Power’s rules, you won’t get the story. You may not anyway, but if you behave, definitely not.
I’m not suggesting that you bypass company spokesman Michael Sznajderman. He’s a highly-respected former reporter, trustworthy, likable, and good at his job. But he shouldn’t be the one who provides the responses, such as in his name or a response by “Alabama Power” in some generic sense.
A company doesn’t make decisions. Individuals within companies make decisions. The primary individuals you must focus on are: Outgoing President and CEO Charles McCrary, president and CEO of Alabama Power until March 1, and still chairman of the board; new president and CEO Mark Crosswhite; Zeke Smith, Executive Vice President of External Affairs; Nick Sellers, VP of Regulatory and Corporate Affairs; and last but not least, Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning.
Not Sznajderman, but where the buck stops.
You should call Sznajderman and explain the general nature of your inquiries.Tell him you would like to interview McCrary, Crosswhite, Smith and Sellers. Tell Sznajderman that it’s important to you, and the readers you serve, to hear directly from the company brass. Sznajderman will almost surely tell you then or on a return call that it’s his job to respond media inquiries. Ask if it’s possible to meet with McCrary or Crosswhite. He will probably repeat the bit about his job being to respond for the company officers.
If your request is denied, as probably it will be, use a paragraph that goes something like this in your story.
“The (name of newspaper) requested an interview with McCrary, Crosswhite, Smith and Sellers, be it individually or as a group. Through a spokesperson, the Alabama Power executives declined to be interviewed. A second request was made to interview Crosswhite. This, too, was denied.”
Do the same for Tom Fanning, the Southern Company CEO. He knows what’s going on here and he is the ultimate boss.
You may wish to consider calling McCrary at home, as he may no longer have an office at the company.
If your requests are rejected, tell Sznajderman that you will send him questions by e-mail. He will assuredly agree to this. Time for you to draft your e-mail. (If interviews are granted, by all means use the following as a guide to that interview.)
Your challenge is to draft your questions with precision and clarity, so there can be no doubt what you are asking.
McCrary, Crosswhite, Smith and Sellers — and Fanning — will have three options:
1. A blanket refusal to respond. If so, the refusal might be couched in other terms. For example, a statement issued by Sznajderman: “We are deeply disappointed with the (name of newspaper) for suggesting that Alabama Power would act in the ways implied by your questions and therefore we decline to respond to your questions.”
2. They will answer the questions, and deny participating in any fashion with the efforts described in your questions.
3. They will acknowledge, in whole or part, participating in the efforts against Dunn. I have reason to believe they will cite restrictions placed on them by non-disclosure/confidentiality clauses in contracts with their vendors, such as political consultants. Contractual omerta, if you will. Most convenient. I would ask them to at the very least identify every 401c4 organization that they have contributed from 2009 to the present, and the amounts given. I don’t know how they could cite any sort of privilege for donations to such organizations.
They must be told that you will be writing the story whatever their response and that the story will describe in detail the efforts against Dunn as well as the identities of the people and entities who have engaged in these efforts. Such examples can be found throughout this web-site.
For Alabama Power/Southern Company, the blanket refusal to respond will be the safe response. The danger of outright denial is the risk of being revealed later on as having lied to the newspaper and thus the public if they are subsequently exposed for engaging in the activities.
Also, a public denial in a major newspaper could trouble people who know otherwise, and prompt whistleblowers or others with information to come forward.
Be wary of the possibility that the response will be in the name of just one of the companies, and thus might be used to squirm out of an honest response while allowing them to feel as if they’re being technically accurate. I would suggest including something like this in your letter:
“As I understand it, some people who perform services for Alabama Power are technically employed by Southern Company or Southern Company Services. Just to be clear, when I use the term Alabama Power, I intend that term to cover the Southern Company as a whole, including all of its various subsidiaries and employees of those subsidiaries.”
Now, on to some suggested questions. Use some, use none, in any event, here they are.
1. Alabama Power’s rate of return on equity exceeds 13 percent every year. Alabama Public Service Commissioner Terry Dunn believes this is too high. The national average is about 9 percent.
Why should Alabama Power enjoy a rate of return on equity that is so much higher than other electrical power utilities in the country?
2. True or False: If Alabama Power’s rate of return on equity were brought to 10 or 11 percent, both above the national average, the power bills of Alabamians, including for the poor, and seniors, would go down.
If you say that is not true, please explain.
True or false: Top Alabama Power executives have performance incentives. Rate of Return on equity is one of the factors used each year by the company when awarding bonus pay to top executives.
3. Have McCrary, Smith, Sellers, Crosswhite or Fanning participated in meetings and/or strategy sessions in which efforts to portray Commissioner Dunn as an environmentalist were discussed?
4. Did any of the above-named (for future reference, McCrary, Smith, Sellers, Crosswhite, Fanning) in any way bless, authorize, approve of or direct the efforts to portray PSC Commissioner Terry Dunn as an environmentalist?
5. Do any of the above-named object to the the campaign to portray Dunn and his chief of staff David Rountree as liberal environmentalists?
6. Have any of the above-named authorized the use of Alabama Power/Southern Company funds to pay, either directly or indirectly (such as through a law firm or lobbying/political consulting firm) for services related to the efforts to portray PSC Commissioner Terry Dunn as an environmentalist and/or link him with the AARP?
7. Have any of the above, as well as anyone in public relations with the company, written or contributed or reviewed prior to publication any of the materials put out by these people and groups, including op-eds in newspapers?
8. Do the above-named deny participating in any fashion (including authorization of payments to) with efforts by one or more of the following involving matters related to the Public Service Commission including Terry Dunn:
— Joe Perkins, Matrix Group LLC or related companies, such as Perkins Communications.
— JobKeeper Alliance and Patrick Cagle
— People for Affordable Clean Energy (PACE), and Lance Brown.
— Swatek, Azbell, Howe & Ross, or individual members of that firm.
— Yellowhammer News and Cliff Sims
— Gale Force Productions
— 60 Plus
— Generation America
— The Alabama Coal Association, including its staff
— Drummond Coal, including its ownership and staff
— The non-profit, Peoples Alliance for Leadership, and its director, Mike Fields (a part-time consultant for Alabama Power)
— Any lawyers or law firms.
— Stephen Bradley & Associates
If the answer is yes, please describe the nature of the activities and the level of participation, including if it involved payment, either directly or indirectly.
You might also call some of the above. The political consulting firms, like Matrix, will probably say that they can’t discuss client matters. But the non-profits — Jobkeeper, 60 Plus, PACE — can’t claim to represent clients. Non-profits don’t have clients. Not supposed to, anyway.
Probably no reporter will contact Yellowhammer News or even mention it in a news story. As best as I can tell, the “traditional” state media is in denial as regards the existence of the two on-line political publications that have earned a readership. That would be Yellowhammer News and the Alabama Political Reporter. Despite their faults — both have blatant biases — they are now part of the state political scene. To ignore them is to do a disservice to your readers. Your job is to inform your readers, not keeps news from them, such as about who wields power, and how they do it.
Any reporter seeking to tackle this story will need to conquer the “Yellowhammer” issue. Yellowhammer is a big player in this story. And not just for what Cliff Sims and Yellowhammer have written about Dunn, and the nature of photo-shopped images used with these stories. More importantly — more newsworthy — is why Yellowhammer has been so unceasingly ugly to Dunn. Yellowhammer’s connections to the lobbying/political consulting firm Swatek Azbell Howe & Ross, and that firm’s role in at least some of Yellowhammer’s anti-Dunn work is established with this story.
I could go on and on with questions. If some reporter out there does read this and dives into the story, consider as well the following questions, or consider doing a separate story on this:
In 2009 and again in 2010, the non-profit PACE paid Charles Steele more than $100,000. Steele, then and still, participates in various forums to praise Alabama Power. Did you — McCrary, Smith, Sellers, Crosswhite, Fanning — have any discussions with Joe Perkins or Lance Brown of PACE and/or Steele about PACE’s payments to Steele?
Did Alabama Power provide any funds directly or indirectly to Matrix or related companies to pay for Brown’s salary as head of PACE? Same question, but for the funds paid to Steele?
Has Alabama Power provided funds intended for Steele since 2010, such as through PACE or another entity?
Good luck with your story. I’m dying to read it.
Meanwhile, I’ll be trying, with a fraction of your resources, to beat you to it.