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2010 October 4 - 12:00 am

POLITICS & POLICY: Ex-Chancellor Now with Ala. Firm He Hired in 2009

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — After losing the Republican runoff for governor in July, former two-year college Chancellor Bradley Byrne became a partner in the same law firm that he had hired while chancellor to seek federal grants.

The law firm was paid $102,395 under the contract Byrne arranged. State school board members say the number of federal grants landed by the firm was zero.

“Taxpayers’ money was given away,” Democratic board member Ella Bell said.

Byrne said the one-year contract with the Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre law firm expired at the end of 2009 and had nothing to do with him becoming a partner eight months later.

“A lot of what you are hearing is part of an overall effort to undo the reforms we pushed through as chancellor,” he said in an interview.

Mobile attorney Palmer Hamilton, who handled the contract for the law firm, said that while several grant applications didn’t work out, the firm did help colleges secure about $5 million in funding through earmarked funds in federal appropriations bills.

The Department of Postsecondary Information has no records to indicate how that amount of earmarked funds compared with past years because earmarked funds are handled by each college.

Hamilton said the law firm had no discussions, directly or indirectly, with Byrne about joining the firm prior to his loss in the July runoff.

“Bradley is a first-rate lawyer and Jones Walker is honored to have him with us,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton and Byrne have known each other for years and were in the same law firm early in their careers.

Jim Sumner, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said he sees no ethics law problem with Byrne’s new position.

Byrne, a former state senator and school board member, said that when he was hired as chancellor in 2007, he found many colleges had their own lobbyists in Washington and Montgomery, and that was in conflict with policies set by the board, which oversees the state’s two-year colleges.

As part of his effort to coordinate lobbying through the postsecondary department, Byrne sought proposals in late 2008 for a firm to lobby for grants that were anticipated when President-elect Barack Obama got into office. Jones Walker, a large firm with offices in several Southern cities and Washington, offered one of seven proposals and got selected for a one-year contract. Byrne said he informed the school board of the contract, but it did not require board approval.

It did require approval by the Legislature’s Contract Review Committee, and Byrne got that.

After the contract began Jan. 1, 2009, Byrne said the huge amounts of federal grant money that had been anticipated never materialized. Anita Archie, who was director of government relations for the two-year college system in 2008, agreed with Byrne’s recollection.

Byrne resigned as chancellor in May 2009 to seek the Republican nomination for governor. He lost the runoff to Robert Bentley on July 13.

School board member David Byers, a Republican, said some colleges were having great success in getting federal funds when they could use their own lobbyists, but that changed when they had to relinquish those lobbyists.

“The untold story is how much did we not get,” he said.

Byrne’s replacement, Freida Hill, said the Jones Walker contract was about to expire when she was hired Dec. 1. She said she talked to some college presidents about it, and no one wanted to extend it. She said she had no discussions with the Jones Walker firm.

Administrators at the community colleges are now working with local congressional offices to try to secure federal grants and funds.

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