Wednesday, March 6, 2020

Okay, neighbors, we got a big mouthful of awful to chew through to do, so get comfortable and put your bib on. In any event, I think we’re all glad from focusing solely on COVID-19. That being said, the epidemic that we’re totally awesome at handling (sarcasm, yes) is affecting both issues.

 First off, we’ll do the local mess. As we touched on back at the beginning of February, there have been some shenanigans involving funds earmarked for the Mississippi Department of Human services concerning around four million dollars that were supposed to help folks on welfare but wound up in all sorts of interesting places. Some went to Christian wrestlers, some went to Gov. Tate Reeves’ election campaign and some went to lobbyists and “consultants”.

 It didn’t really make much news at the time, as this was about the time everyone started to realize the COVID-19 business would be taking up much of our time. Well, thanks in large part due to some excellent journalism from Luke Ramseth of Jackson’s Clarion Ledger and Ashton Pittman of Mississippi Today, hoo buddy, turns out that wasn’t even the half of it. According to a study by State Auditor Shad White, a grand total of 98 million dollars that was supposed to go to poor families in the poorest state in the union instead went to buy cars and boats for politicians, scam jobs by third-generation wrestlers and Brett Farve actually doing something decent besides being a good quarterback. It also goes as far back as former Gov. Phil Bryant’s time in the Capitol.

 The money came from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which allocated federal funds to be distributed to, well, needy families living in poverty with a particular emphasis on helping out poor children. Instead, it went in the pockets of lobbyists, politicians and what can only be described as scam artists. A million-plus went to lobbyists and “consultants” that was spent on things like putting on religious concerts apparently for the hell of it and vacations to fancy destinations (outside of Mississippi, of course). Former Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase scored $1.9 million for his “Heart of David” ministries, who basically put on Christian wrestling shows. His two sons Brett and Ted Jr., also professional wrestlers but not quite having the same impact, were paid over two million for, respectively, the “Law of 16” self-help group and to provide anti-drug classes that were never given.

 It wasn’t all celebrities, either. Along with former director of MDHS John Davis, five other politically connected people have been charged with all six pleading not guilty. One example was Nancy New of the Mississippi Community Education Center, one of the two non-profit organizations listed in the charge. She’s accused of spending up to $150,000 on three new pickup trucks used by her and her sons. Over $650,000 was spent on grammar books and books on the Ten Commandments because that makes sense.

 On the very local front, the Family Resource Center based in Tupelo is also pulled into this mess. Full disclosure, I used the FRC’s services to hook up with my current psychiatric doctor and a childhood friend is an administrator there. As of right now, I can’t find what specifically part the FRC has in all this and I’m not going to bother my old friend, so there’s that there then.

 Perhaps the most egregious example of graft came in the form of $1.1 million dollars to former Green Bay quarterback and native son Brett Farve’s organization that’s dedicated to studying, quite naturally, the cumulative long-term effect of head injuries. Partly spearheaded by Bryant, Farve was paid that money to give speeches but it turns out he never showed. Credit where credit is due, though, he’s said he’d give the money back and had no idea anything shady was going on. Considering how bad his rep is these days, it’s probably a good move. At this time, no one’s heard what the DiBiase family is going to do.

 All of this comes screaming in on the heels of a very scandal-ridden Tate Reeves. His “Restart Mississippi” program, designed to help the state get back to work in light of the COVID-19 epidemic and over 200,000 unemployed folks, is looking pretty dirty. It’s come under accusations over the lack of diversity of anything but 17 rich white dudes, businessmen and lobbyists, which is one thing. Problem is, though, those rich white dudes were all contributors to various political campaigns Reeves has run going back to 2008, to the tune of over $330,000. The program has allowed almost zero oversight, which is part of the issue of the TANF program. That has almost no oversight with the end result being not only the aforementioned scandal but saw very little actually doing anything to help poor folks. According to a ThinkProgress investigation, only 167 of the 11,700 families applied for the aid in 2016 were actually accepted.

 One wonders if all of this isn’t the source of some of the animosity that’s sprung up between Reeves, his Lt. Gov. Delbert Hossman and the mostly Republican legislature. If you’ll recall, they’re all in a slap fight over who gets to decide where 1.25 billion smackers in federal funding to aid in COVID-19 recovery is supposed to go. Reeves has been on television daily claiming it’s his decision to make while everyone else is telling to go screw.

 This is noteworthy because the lieutenant governor of Mississippi has more actual power in the state than the governor, and Reeves was known to have burnt bridges and been considered generally sleazy and unlikable during his time in the seat. It should be noted he won against Jim Hood with the smallest margin of a Republican candidate since the two parties switched places, and this was three days after a rally held by President Trump in Tupelo.

 Again, the governor of Mississippi doesn’t hold quite the same amount of power as governors of other states, though it’s sort of like that across the board. In Texas, for example, the Agricultural Commissioner has more power in the state than the governor. Furthermore, the legislature here has always been very tight knit, even across party lines. I don’t know what it means for Reeves’ political future, but we’ll keep an eye. No one likes him as it is.

 I went on longer than I meant to about this, but I do want to talk a bit about Ahmaud Arbery. By now I’m sure we’ve all seen the video on Twitter or Facebook. I’m not going to link to it because I always find those things disturbing and couldn’t watch the whole thing. As always in these cases, you’ll find some who want to “have all the facts” before making a decision. Usually what they mean is “I don’t mind a black person got shot for no good reason and the shooter got off, but don’t you dare call me racist” even though they generally are. It’s sort of a tell.  So, let’s look at the facts.

A now-deleted video posted on a Georgia radio’s website showed an altercation between Arbery, African American, and two white men, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis. The video shows Arbery running around the pair’s pickup before the younger McMichael, carrying a shotgun, initiated a physical altercation. The elder McMichael had a handgun but didn’t get physically involved, and at least one of three shots took place off camera. Arbery got off one left-handed punch while he and the younger McMichael struggled with the shotgun.

 Two more shots went off and Arbery lay dead in the street. This was all recorded by a heretofore unknown fourth person who wasn’t actively involved in the altercation. The whole affair took place on one street in the predominately white Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, GA, about an hour-and-a-half south of Savannah.

 That’s what we know. Those are the undeniable facts. Moving on, then. Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper said her son was a fitness nut and former high-school football player who ran daily to keep in shape, sometimes through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. According to the McMichaels, they saw a “black guy” running down the street. Recently, McMichael claims, $2,300 in fishing equipment was stolen from a neighbor, who didn’t report it, and a 9 mm handgun out of the younger McMichael’s car, who did report it. According to a report from the Glynn County Police Department, after seeing Arbery running down the street, the elder McMichael said, “Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go.”

The McMichael’s claimed they also saw Arbery look into the window of a house under construction, which isn’t against the law. Either way, before the fatal altercation began, McMichael told Arbery “Stop, stop. We want to talk to you.” Initially, they pleaded “stand your ground” but recently changed that to “citizen’s arrest”. Calls to 911 were made, but S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Arbery family, said although the operator asked what the issue was, all the McMichaels would say was, “He’s a black man running down our street.”

 Okay. Are you ready to hear why people are so righteously pissed off apart from what may just have been a tragic if rock-stupid mistake? This all happened Feb. 23 and it wasn’t until April when the video surfaced that the Glynn County DA took any action whatsoever. So far, no charges have been filed and three attorneys from the county have recused themselves due to conflict of interest. Why? The elder McMichael worked as an investigator for the district attorney in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit Jackie Johnson. After she recused herself, it went to George Barnhill, the district attorney of Waycross, GA. However, he recused himself when Arbery’s mother brought to attention that his son works in Johnson’s office. The matter is now in the hands of DA Tom Durden of Hinesville, some 70 miles away. Muddying the waters even further, Barnhill wrote a letter explaining why the McMichaels did nothing wrong under the “stand your ground” law Georgia has, even though they later changed it to “citizen’s arrest”

 He went one step further, claiming without evidence Arbery had “mental health issues” and pointed out that Arbery had once been arrested in high school for shoplifting and another time for bringing a gun to campus. Merritt dismissed both Barnhill’s interpretation of “stand your ground,” noting the McMichaels claim “citizen arrest” even though they saw no crime in action as the law states is necessary. As for Arbery’s high school history, Merritt dismissed them as completely inconsequential to the case, noting that all that the McMichaels accused Arbery of doing was looking into an under-construction house’s window, which doesn’t make the nut nor justify shooting Arbery.

 Supporters of Arbery and his family have been demonstrating outside the Brunswick Courthouse over the injustice of the matter. Notably, they were not armed with high-powered rifles like the anti-shut down “protesters” up in Michigan because they can’t get a haircut. Governor Doug Kemp, Democratic rising star Stacey Abrams, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have all stuck their fingers in, and Joe Biden has condemned the whole mess. Trump hasn’t said a thing, which is probably for the best.

 Due to the epidemic, Georgia won’t be empaneling any grand or trial jury through at least June 12. One hopes the law in Georgia doesn’t forget that a black man was shot and killed by a white man for, if anything, because he “fit the description” of who he thought might have stolen less than $3,000 worth of guns and fishing equipment, and that probably deserves at least a solid looking into. When we remember Trayvon Martin and Botham Jean, well… let’s just say we’ll be keeping an eye on them.

 Okay. Them’s the facts and that’s what the police report says. This is the judicial field the case is being decided on, and that’s how the participants are all connected. Tune in tomorrow to the Blogger site, and we’ll get into supposition and opinion. All I will say is the elder McMichael claimed race had nothing to do with it, and speaking as a Southern Man, I can’t help but be skeptical that’s anything but bullshit. I’ll apologize if I have to, but I ain’t holding my breath.


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