Politicians tremble as AG's grand jury heats up Birmingham

By John Archibald

Birmingham Water Works Executive Director Mac Underwood this week was called before the Alabama attorney general's special grand jury investigating corruption across the city.

So was board member Ron Mims, and board member George Munchus, and at least one family member of an executive at Arcadis, the water works' engineering firm that spreads more dough around than Sister Schubert.

It has been, as one person who ought to know put it, a good week for the state.

Meaning it had to be bad for somebody. And good for this town.

But those who were asked to testify would not describe the questioning, or who the target of this branch of the investigation might be.

Munchus was coy.

"Now John," he wrote in response to my questions, "you know I cannot talk about anything at the courthouse except I visit the local courthouse in Jefferson County from time to time doing research. Thanks for asking."

He wouldn't say whether he saw anyone else while "doing research."

Board member William Muhammad wouldn't say whether he was called to testify before the grand jury, which is investigating water works contracts but may extend to other agencies and politicians in city government.

"I can't tell you," Muhammad said.

I tried to argue that he could, under grand jury secrecy rules, tell me if he had been subpoenaed. He just couldn't tell me anything that happened inside the grand jury room.

But it seemed clear to him that he should say nothing.

"No," he said. "You want me to read you the letter?"

Sure. But he would read nothing. He didn't need to.

This is the grand jury that began last fall, when prosecutor Matt Hart petitioned a judge to open a special investigative grand jury. It has since indicted elected Jefferson County District Attorney Charles Todd Henderson on perjury charges, and subpoenaed reams of documents - including many from Arcadis - dating back to 2011.

Water Board Chair Sherry Lewis has come before this grand jury - for hours and hours - and contractor Chris Woods, now a candidate for mayor, was called to testify. He's the one who claimed the Birmingham Construction Industry Authority - run by the mayor's brother - demanded "pay-to-play" for construction jobs.

The connections are almost too much to untangle. Woods used to be paid by the water works, bringing in about $42,000 a month between 2009 and 2011. And his opponent, Mayor William Bell, more than 15 years ago brokered the sale of the water works' assets from Birmingham to the water works,. The water works then hired engineering firm Malcolm Pirnie, which would later put Bell on its payroll.

Malcolm Pirnie would later become Arcadis, which seems to be at the heart of the attorney general's investigation.

Arcadis lawyer Tommy Spina would say only this:

"Arcadis continues to cooperate with the government in its investigation."

The state investigation - not to be confused with the federal grand jury that has been is looking into the bribing of former Alabama Rep. Oliver Robinson - is expected to take months to complete, although questions about the statute of limitations on some crimes could make for a race against the clock.

Some close to the investigation believe the statute of limitation on some crimes could run out as soon as August. If true, that would put the attorney general's office in the position of choosing to file charges on the eve of August 22 municipal elections.

It's a tough choice. But you know what I say. It's not the timing that matters, but the facts.

If the limit's in sight, indict.

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