South Alabama sophomore solves cold cases using DNA, forensic genealogy – Yellowhammer News

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South Alabama sophomore solves cold cases using DNA, forensic genealogy – Yellowhammer News | Yellowhammer News

South Alabama sophomore solves cold cases using DNA, forensic genealogy

From a Grand Bay bedroom decorated with posters from forensic TV shows such as “Bones” and “Dexter,” Olivia McCarter spends long hours on her laptop working to identify people and solve crimes.

Though just a sophomore at the University of South Alabama, where she’s studying anthropology and criminal justice, the 19-year-old is a senior intern with a Massachusetts company called Redgrave Research Forensic Services. Her team uses DNA analysis and online genealogy databases to match chromosomes, build family trees and identify suspects and victims.

Just in the last year, McCarter helped solve three cases.

In April, she joined a Redgrave team that identified the body of a man found along the Missouri River back in 1979.

“That was Harry – Harry was my first forensic case,” she said. “We worked nonstop for three days and solved it on the fourth day, which is really fast. I basically did not go to sleep, because I didn’t want to miss anything. It was exciting because we had such great matches. We found this man and he was perfect. He fit into the tree so perfectly. We knew it had to be him.”

Her second case was the 1984 rape and murder of Christine Jessop, a 9-year-old girl from Queensville, Ontario. Years before, DNA evidence freed the man charged with her death in one of Canada’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases.

Redgrave researchers worked for months this summer before genealogy and DNA records pointed to Calvin Hoover, a man who had been a friend of the Jessop family, as the likely killer. Hoover committed suicide in 2015.

“I found his name at 2 a.m. one night,” McCarter said. “That genealogy was so hard, compared to Harry’s. All of these people had 12 kids, and their kids had 12 kids, and then I had to keep going until I found Calvin. I knew he had to be from these parents, but I could not find any kids until I found three, all at once. I found them through a voting record, because they all lived in the same household in Ontario.”

Her third case was the one that hit closer to home.

In 1982, the body of an 18-month-old girl was discovered in the Escatawpa River just across the state line in Mississippi. The girl became known as “Delta Dawn,” or “Baby Jane Doe,” but she was never identified and what happened to her remained a mystery.

When the case was reopened last year, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department turned to the Othram DNA laboratory, where a team of Redgrave forensic genetic genealogists worked. A fresh DNA sample and genealogy records led police to a child and mother reported missing from Joplin, Missouri. Family there said the mother had met a man and was moving to start a new life in Florida. She remains missing and her body has never been found. Her child was identified as Alisha Ann Heinrich.

While working to identify the girl, McCarter would visit her grave in Jackson County Memorial Park. She would clean the gravesite marked “Baby Jane, Known Only to God.” She would bring flowers.

“Somebody had to remember,” she said. “Until her name was returned to her.”

The “Delta Dawn” case helped her make contacts in Mississippi law enforcement. She met everyone from FBI agents to sheriff’s officers.

Lt. Eddie Clark, one of the Jackson County investigators, remembers when McCarter visited the department to explain what Redgrave Research had found and how they had found it.

“We were floored by her skill set and how deep she could dig,” Clark said. “Excellent job, she did an excellent job. It was crazy how they did this, how they went back and built a family tree. I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

“I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

The ‘Wizard’ and the Intern

McCarter was born in Texas but grew up in Alabama. Her parents own several feed stores near Grand Bay, where she works part-time and saves money to pay her own tuition at South.

Olivia – “Liv” to her friends – was home-schooled by her mother. Her independent study included genealogy and then forensics, though no one in the family expected her research to go so far and so fast.

“We’re extremely proud of our daughter,” said Tracy McCarter. “She showed an aptitude very early on. She’s an excellent online researcher. What’s she’s doing now is outside our experience, our areas of expertise, so we’re kind of learning right along with her.”

She describes Olivia as an introvert who goes her own way. After years of home school, the McCarters were worried that she might have trouble adjusting to college in Mobile. Instead, she thrived.

“It was very different,” she said. “I didn’t think I would acclimate, but I did. I met so many amazing professors, and I made a lot of friends.”

Dr. Philip Carr, professor of anthropology and the Chief Calvin McGhee Endowed Professor of Native American Studies, taught McCarter in several classes. She is quiet and unassuming, but often winds up leading her class team. Then she started telling him about her extracurricular work in forensic genealogy.

“That came as a complete surprise,” Carr said. “You don’t expect a student to already have these kinds of experiences. We hope that our students have an internship by their senior year.”

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, McCarter began spending more time at home in Grand Bay. She studies, works at the feed store business and spends hour after hour online.

She likes to wear jeans, Air Jordans and a pink cap that says “SOUTH.” She has several tattoos on her left arm. She wears glasses that fog up behind a face mask decorated with pictures of cats.

McCarter talks with her forensic research colleagues almost every day. Her mentor, Anthony Redgrave, is a co-founder of the company and a pioneer in the field.

“He’s basically a wizard,” she said. “I owe everything to him.”

Redgrave, who’s trained law enforcement officers, often works on cold cases with DNA samples provided by police departments across the country. He teaches his team members how to compare DNA records and genealogy records to triangulate relationships within a family tree. The latter has been made easier in recent years with commercial genealogy websites, along with organizations such as NamUs, an information clearinghouse and resource center for missing person cases.

McCarter was a quick study. He first met her on genealogy websites and forums, where he noticed that her hypotheses and educated guesses usually turned out to be correct.

“She just got it, you know?” he said. “She really fit the bill of exactly what we wanted in an intern.”

Redgrave has been impressed with her teamwork on investigations this year. She’s shown the patience and perseverance to see cases through. She’s taken the lead in some projects.

“Her memory and attention to detail really set her apart,” he said. “She’s really good at analyzing things off the cuff and then remembering something important from months ago.”

Unfinished Business

McCarter is looking forward to her next semester at South, where she’s a member of the Student Anthropological Society. She hopes to graduate in 2023. She’s already planning to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D in forensic anthropology.

“I don’t want to teach, though,” she said. “I want to work with law enforcement.”

McCarter is the kind of a dogged researcher who also has the people skills to talk with family members. She still keeps in touch with Harry’s children from her first case.

“I talk to them often,” she said. “They follow my genealogy stuff. I guess we’ll always be connected.”

At Redgrave Research, she remains the youngest intern, but has become a team leader. She says she still has a lot to learn. She’s looking forward to new cases.

“I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles,” she said. “I haven’t yet, at least.”

I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles.

In her bedroom, McCarter keeps a framed photograph of Alisha Ann Heinrich from the “Delta Dawn” case. She still visits the girl’s memorial in Jackson County Memorial Park.

Next to her plot is the grave of another baby girl whose body has never been identified. For McCarter, this is unfinished business.

“Definitely,” she said. “I won’t give up on that until it’s solved, too.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

Overnight tornado in Fultondale kills teenager, injures dozens

A tornado ripped through the town of Fultondale overnight, killing one 14-year-old boy, injuring around 30, and destroying significant amounts of property.

As of 10:30 a.m., emergency response teams are still conducting operations in the area. Eighteen people were reportedly hospitalized due to the storm as of Tuesday morning.

Fultondale is a town of around 8,300 people just north of Birmingham. The tornado was confirmed by the National Weather Service in Birmingham at around 10:45 p.m. on Monday.

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Reporters who arrived on the scene Tuesday morning shared images of the destruction.

The nearby town of Center Point also reportedly saw damage from the storm.

Local officials confirmed Tuesday that the young man who perished in the storm was a 14-year-old student at Fultondale High School. He and his father reportedly took shelter in their basement as recommended when a large tree fell on their dwelling.

Local emergency responders are asking the general public to say away from the most affected areas until they can clear the damage.

The Fultondale High School building suffered extreme damage in the storm. Fultondale Superintendent Dr. Walter Gonsoulin told reporters that he does not expect teachers and students will ever be able to return to the building, and the tornado will likely speed up existing plans to replace the school.

Estimates on the total amount of property damage and the number of families displaced by the storm are still being developed.

Those who wish to support the community can bring nonperishable items to the Fultondale City Hall, where a command center is operating. They can also donate to the Salvation Army or go to the United Way of Central Alabama’s web portal dedicated to the tornado response.

This story is breaking and may be updated.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

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Cliff Sims reflects, previews what’s next after serving as right hand to America’s top spy

From the Wiregrass to the White House, Cliff Sims has seen a lot over the past five years.

The Enterprise native served as a key adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump’s ultimately successful 2016 campaign before being appointed as director of White House message strategy and special assistant to the president when Trump took office in January 2017.

Sims served in the West Wing through May 2018, before publishing the best-selling “Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House.”

However, his journey in the Trump administration was far from complete at that point. Sims this past September was appointed as deputy director of National Intelligence for strategy and communications — making him one of the highest ranking officials in our nation’s intelligence community.

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Sims’ service in that important role ended this past Friday, following the inauguration of President Joe Biden and confirmation of new Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

Yellowhammer News conducted the following Q&A with Sims on his unique service to our country and what comes next for the Alabamian:

YHN: You’ve certainly had a rollercoaster ride over the past five years, from being on the 2016 Trump campaign to serving in the White House, writing a NYT bestseller and ending up in a legal dispute with President Trump, coming back to run speechwriting for the 2020 Republican National Convention and finally ending as Deputy Director of National Intelligence. There’s probably enough there for a second book, but walk us through how you ended up back at the senior levels of the Trump administration.

Sims: Yes, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, to say the least. There was really only a brief period there in the middle when the President and I had a misunderstanding over my book, but it was resolved pretty quickly. After that I worked with the White House on a daily basis from the outside on a wide variety of projects.

When the Republican National Convention came around, the President needed someone to lead the messaging and speechwriting operation, but it couldn’t be someone currently in the White House. I was asked to do it because I had written so much for him and had a deep understanding of his views on various issues and how he liked them to be communicated. At the time I had just led communications for the Senate confirmation of John Ratcliffe, the president’s nominee to be Director of National Intelligence. I had already agreed to go back into the government as one of the DNI’s deputies, but I knew the convention was an important flashpoint in the campaign and agreed to help out.

We pulled together the entire convention in just a few weeks in the middle of a pandemic. Some of the team who produced “The Apprentice” TV show were brought in to handle the production. We had a team of about a dozen speechwriters who come together every four years to volunteer their time for the convention. We probably wrote upwards of 80 speeches. We didn’t know if it would all come together, but it did, and the President was over-the-moon about it all. I came back into the government as Deputy DNI right after the convention.

YHN: Your last post was certainly different from the more political job you originally had in the White House comms shop. Having what is commonly known as an “above top secret” clearance, what kind of new perspectives did you gain as a senior intelligence official and being the right hand of the nation’s top spy?

Sims: I gained a heightened appreciation for the threats we face as a nation and for the people whose names the world will never know who sacrifice a great deal to keep us safe. The China threat in particular sticks out. The extent of Chinese espionage activities in the U.S. is alarming—from targeting dozens of members of Congress, to infiltrating academia and think tanks, to stealing intellectual property. They play hard and they play dirty, and they intend to dominate the planet technologically, economically and militarily. One of the things I am most grateful for is that I was able to be a part of the DNI’s team that shifted focus and resources to address the China threat. I believe history will judge that to be an important moment.

YHN: Speaking of your intelligence tenure, it’s been reported by The Washington Post and Axios, among other national outlets, that you had a significant role in closing the deal for Space Command to come to Alabama in recent weeks. Did you have a role, and, if so, how did that unfold behind the scenes?

Sims: One thing that hasn’t gotten enough attention is that career people inside the government — defense, intelligence and space experts — determined over a year ago that Redstone was the ideal location for Space Command. One of them told me it was a “no brainer.” I’ve seen politicians from other states that were in the running try to claim this was some kind of political decision. That’s nonsense. Governor Ivey’s team deserves a lot of credit, and of course Senator Shelby is an absolute juggernaut in D.C. Congressmen Rogers and Aderholt were well-positioned from a committee standpoint to play important roles as well. Alabama punches above its weight in D.C. It was a team effort and a huge win for the state.

Director Ratcliffe made it a top priority to bring Space Force into the Intelligence Community as its 18th member, and space is a priority intelligence domain, so we were deeply involved in a lot of space issues. But any conversations I had with the White House or Pentagon during the decision-making process simply pointed to the facts, which made Redstone the best choice to ensure the U.S. maintains the ultimate high ground for decades to come.

YHN: Someone who we know has done heavy lifting with Space Command and countless other transformational projects for Alabama is Senator Richard Shelby, a longtime friend of yours. In your view, what does the prospect of his possible retirement mean for our state? And, from everything you have experienced behind the curtains since 2016, how has this current term cemented his legacy?

Sims: Richard Shelby is probably the most consequential Alabama politician in modern history. Name a major win for Alabama in the last 30 years and he was involved, if not the driving force. For example, the widening and deepening of the Port of Mobile is something he’s been working on for many years, long before he was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. That initiative alone will do more for economic development in Alabama than most politicians do in their entire careers. He’s still on top of his game. What he’s done in recent years to bring FBI’s “HQ2” to Huntsville, and now Space Command—these are transformational things. Every lawmaker in D.C. has a story about how they thought they were getting something done for their state, only to find out at the last minute that Sen. Shelby had swooped in and got it done for Alabama. I hope he stays for many years to come because he will be missed when he’s gone.

YHN: Whether it be at the White House or in the intelligence community, what are the top highlights that stand out from your service to our country since 2016? Tell us about some of your favorite moments, achievements and/or projects. Similarly, is there anything in particular — if you could — that you would go back and do over again?

Sims: It’s the small moments that stick out to me right now after having just come out of it. I remember being with the President when he was told for the first time that a member of the military was KIA during a special operations mission he had ordered. I remember getting to be the first one to tell the President that we’d reached a deal in Congress and were about to pass the largest tax cut in a generation. I remember the first time I walked up to the memorial wall in CIA and saw fellow Alabamian Mike Spann’s name written in the Book of Honor as the first American KIA in Afghanistan after 9/11. There are so many. There are plenty of things I would do differently with the benefit of hindsight, but it has been an extraordinary run these last few years so I’m glad everything played out the way it did, even if it wasn’t always a smooth ride.

YHN: The Republican Party, post-November and post-Georgia, is certainly looking in the mirror right now to figure out what went wrong and where the GOP goes from here. What’s your outlook on the future of the Republican Party, post-Trump?

Sims: There will have to be some soul searching. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Trump, he reshaped the political map by building a coalition of working class voters across demographic groups. He made serious inroads with Black and hispanic voters because he actually pursued their votes and talked about issues that resonate in their communities. Republicans cannot return to being the party of the so-called elites and Wall Street. Keeping those rural, working-class voters turning out for the GOP could be the difference between being stuck in the political wilderness or rebuilding a long-term governing majority.

YHN: We’ve covered a lot about your recent past here, but knowing you, you’re just getting started on the next big thing. What are you planning to do now that you’ve served your final day in the federal government?

Sims: Well, I hope it’s not the final day. I don’t know what it will look like in the future, but I definitely hope to serve again if the opportunity presents itself.

My wife and I just adopted a three-year-old little boy, Shep, from Colombia so I’m excited about spending more time with them and not having to commute back-and-forth to D.C. I’m returning as CEO of Telegraph Creative, a branding, marketing and advertising agency in Birmingham. We just finished construction on a brand new office and we’re probably the fastest-growing creative services firm in the state, so we’re building something really special there.

I’ll continue to be involved in the national security space and have some other things in the pipeline that I look forward to sharing with everyone soon.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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Mo Brooks, Barry Moore cosponsor bill banning biological males from competing in female sports

U.S. Reps. Barry Moore (AL-02) and Mo Brooks (AL-05) have signed on as original cosponsors of the Protecting Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2021, authored by Rep. Gregory Steube (R-FL).

The bill would codify that for purposes of determining compliance with Title IX related to athletics, sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.

In practice, this would prevent transgender females — biological males who identify as females — from participating in female-only sports.

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The bill was introduced after President Joe Biden signed an executive order to allow transgender females to utilize female restrooms and locker rooms in K-12 schools across America; the order would also allow transgender females to compete in female sports. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in any federally funded educational program or activity, and Biden is threatening to withhold funding from any jurisdiction that does not comply with his order.

In a statement, Brooks commented, “There are numerous examples of men pretending to be women in order to compete against and beat women in sports contests.”

“Take for example the biological male who easily won the 2019 NCAA Division II championship in women’s hurdles, beating his female opponents by more than a second. In 2017, a man set new masters powerlifting world records for women while competing at the World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand. Two boys won first and second place in Connecticut’s state championship titles in girls’ track events. This disturbing trend of males competing in female sports threatens to upend women’s sports completely,” the North Alabama congressman continued. “I won’t stand by and go along with this science denial nonsense.”

Brooks concluded, “Girls are being robbed of college scholarship opportunities and will be robbed of the virtues learned from fair play competition like perseverance, teamwork, and determination— let alone the victories they work hard to earn. Letting men compete in women’s sports isn’t progress, it is a major step backwards and it ought to stop. People should compete in sports according to their biological sex. Anyone who argues differently is a science denier, plain and simple.”

Steube last year, during the 116th Congress, introduced the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2020; the bill failed to advance from committee and was not cosponsored by any representatives from Alabama.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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7 Things: McConnell beats Schumer on filibuster, one Alabama school system shutting down completely while another opens up, vaccine scheduling website coming in February and more …

7. Bill for no more concealed carry permits

  • State Senator Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa) has pre-filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would remove the requirement to have a concealed carry permit for a handgun. Open carry is already allowed without a permit.
  • Allen has previously brought up legislation to do away with concealed carry permits for the state. In years past, law enforcement agencies are the main opposition to these bills, as well as groups like Moms Demand Action.

6. U.S. Senator won’t seek reelection due to partisan gridlock

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  • U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) has announced that he will not be running for reelection, saying that it’s become “harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress.” He’s had a career in the federal government for more than three decades. This creates another seat the Republicans must fight for in 2022.
  • Portman said that the “country is very polarized,” adding, “We need to tone it down.” He’s announced that he won’t run for reelection as the U.S. Senate has also received the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. Portman has maintained that he’ll listen to both sides before deciding how to vote.

5. Transgender military ban ending

  • As President Joe Biden has continued signing executive orders, one of his latest was to end now-former President Donald Trump’s ban on people who are transgender from joining the military. Biden’s order will completely reverse this and protect members of the military from being kicked out due to gender identity.
  • The order says, “Allowing all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform is better for the military and better for the country because an inclusive force is a more effective force.” The order adds that “it’s the right thing to do and is in our national interest.”

4. More stimulus

  • President Joe Biden is apparently supporting a plan by House Democrats that will provide American families with $300 per month, per child younger than 6-years-old and $250 per month for children between 6 and 17-years-old but there are roadblocks.
  • The current plan would be for the payments to last at least one year. Details on who would qualify for these payments based on income hasn’t been released, but it’s expected that this plan would cost around $120 billion. This would be included in Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package that hasn’t been released.

3. Vaccine website launching next month

  • The Alabama Department of Public Health’s Dr. Karen Landers has said that the online scheduling platform for the coronavirus vaccine will be available in February, or possibly sooner.
  • Governor Kay Ivey announced the website during her press conference where she also announced extending the statewide mask mandate. The purpose of the website is to alleviate pressure from the scheduling hotline.

2. School systems are heading in different directions on in-person schooling

  • Montgomery Public Schools are shutting down their in-person schooling until all staff is vaccinated after four teachers died in the last week. While it unknown if those teachers died of COVID-19, or whether they caught the coronavirus at school, it is known that the number of COVID-19 cases is similar to those found in other districts in the state.
  • After being on a hybrid learning schedule for months, where students are split into groups and alternate in-class and virtual learning, Madison County Superintendent Allen Perkins announced students will return to a traditional five-day in-person class schedule. Those who chose full-time virtual learning will continue with that.

1. McConnell beats back Democrats’ demands to end the filibuster

  • While Democrats in the media claim victory in the latest debate over power-sharing in the U.S. Senate, Alabama native and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that he is willing to operate under a previous agreement after U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) said they would not help end the filibuster.
  • In reality, there has been a push to end the practice with party leaders like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) calling it a “cherished tool of segregationists” amid Democrats’ push to give Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood, pack the courts, and ram through their unpopular legislative agenda.

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State Sen. Chambliss gives update on U.S. Highway 82 improvements between Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Rebuild Alabama Act progress

Two of Alabama’s major cities, Montgomery, the capital city of Alabama, and Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, are connected by what has been known since the late 1940s as U.S. Highway 82.

Originally, the route was concurrent with U.S. Highway 31 across the Alabama River, where it split in Prattville just north of Montgomery and is now concurrent with Interstate 65. Beyond that, over the last decade, improvements have been made near where it breaks away from I-65 to what is known as the Prattville Bypass.

However, beyond Prattville headed northwest to just outside of Centerville in Bibb County, where the road widens to a four-lane bypass completed in 2015, U.S. Highway 82 has remained a two-lane thoroughfare through western Autauga and Chilton Counties and into Bibb County throughout its history.

Part of the justification for the Rebuild Alabama Act’s passage in 2019 was to make improvements to the Prattville bypass portion of U.S. Highway 82. During an appearance on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” State Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) discussed that project’s progress.

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“That particular project — it has some delays,” he said. “But it should be being bid in the next month or so. And then hopefully this spring, early summer, we’ll start seeing that project move forward. A couple of other major projects have already started. So, it’s just a time thing. A few years down the road, we’ll look back, and they’ll be many many big projects, good projects that will benefit our state, benefit the economics of our state.”

Chambliss also commented on the seemingly slow process of completing highways that is presently in place. He attributed that to more consideration given to environmental concerns and used the original construction of Highway 82 as an example.

“It definitely takes more time,” Chambliss explained. “Let’s take, for example, if you travel Highway 82 between Prattville and Tuscaloosa. You know that road goes right through the middle of some swamp. Well, back in the day, they made provisions and went right through the middle of it. We would never do that these days. We would avoid those environmental situations, avoid whatever we can. So those things take time, and there are obviously federal requirements on that as well.”

(Screenshot/ALDOT)

The Autauga County lawmaker also spoke about how the Rebuild Alabama Act has allowed counties to avoid some of the burdensome requirements of federal money by shifting funds around to give county governments the ability to expedite some projects.

“Those remind me of a reason we shifted the county money to federal aid money — we shift it back to the state and then replaced it with state-only dollars,” he added. “That is one of the reasons they’re able to get out ahead or faster than some of the state projects because they’re no longer subject to those federal requirements and federal processes on all of the projects. They’re state processes and state requirements. That is one of the major benefits of the Rebuild Alabama Act — getting those dollars on the county roads much faster and with a lot less red tape. The state is going to have to go through it anyway. It made a lot of sense for us just use that money at the state level and then replace it with state dollars so that counties and cities don’t have to do that.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

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