This is an opinion column.
The defense lawyers will say it’s not unusual, that public officials – especially Birmingham Water Works Board members – are used to taking lavish meals with contractors and using their jobs for small and not-so-small favors.
They’ll say – or they’ll try to say in court – that everybody does it.
And they’ll be right. A lot of people do a lot of really awful things, and call it the way things are.
And they’ll be so wrong. Because it may not be unusual, but it’s no excuse at all.
Opening statements are set to begin this morning in the trial of Water Works Board member Sherry Lewis, who served as chairwoman of the board at the time of her indictment. A special grand jury in Jefferson County in 2017 charged her with three ethics violations: Using her position for personal gain; voting on matters in which she or her family had a financial interest; and soliciting or receiving something of value for the purpose of corruptly influencing official action.
Prosecutors describe a whole trickle-down scheme between Lewis and two men, who were also charged.
The water works paid Arcadis – formerly Malcolm Pirnie – millions of dollars for engineering work, and Arcadis paid an employee named Jerry Jones hundreds of thousands a year to – among other things – maintain a good relationship with the board. Jones got Terry Williams paid as a subcontractor and he and Williams, the mayor of Mount Vernon in Mobile County, gave a no-show job to Lewis’ son in which, according to court filings, “he never accomplished a single task.”
The son, Joseph Lewis, deposited much of the money back into his mother’s bank account, according to prosecutors.
There is more, involving fancy meals and falsified expense reports and the 65 times Lewis voted for the benefit of Arcadis.
None of it was surprising to anyone who has watched the water board over the years. Its contractors and lawyers have always been the horses that pulled that cart, that both protected and endangered its members.
The defense had hoped to talk about how charging Lewis with these crimes amounted to selective prosecution, because some of the things she is charged with were common at the board, and were in some cases encourage. Lewis’ lawyers said a water works attorney wrote a letter years ago advising that those fancy meals were in fact legal. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Clyde Jones will not allow the selective prosecution argument, but you can bet they will try to show the behavior was business as usual.
And, yes, they will be right.
Which is why it is so, so wrong.
This is an agency that spends tens of millions of dollars on engineering alone, that is tasked with providing water that is critical to the life and the economy of central Alabama. It is an agency that has too longed seemed more beholden to politics than to public service. Positions on the board have been political payoffs with an emphasis on the pay, and the agency has become one of the most divisive in the region.
It is a body that has raised rates every year this century, and memory, even though its customers face skyrocketing sewer bills because of the sewer system’s bankruptcy and all the corruption that went with it.
“Everybody does it” will not be allowed as a defense in this case, and it is not a defense of the water works , either.
It is, in fact, an indictment.
John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a columnist for Reckon by AL.com. His column appears in The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register and AL.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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