Imagine that you work for a state institution in Alabama, and one day you wake up and don't feel like going to work. You're not really sick, but you call in sick, and spend most of the day watching Montel, scratching yourself in indelicate places, napping, watching My Fair Brady reruns, scratching yourself some more and, well, you get the idea.
You might think you've taken a "mental-health day," a day to get away from the grind and be genuinely useless. But in Alice Martin's Alabama, you evidently have committed a federal crime.
At least that seems to be the lesson we take from the indictment against Sue Schmitz, a retired social studies teacher and a Democratic member of the Alabama Legislature.
Scott Horton, of Harper's.org, is a Columbia University law professor and says he came away "terrifically unimpressed" after taking a look at the charges and evidence in the Schmitz case. The primary charge against Schmitz seems to be that she did not generate sufficient "work product" in exchange for her salary in the Alabama two-year college system.
Horton gets more specific: "What are the charges against her? That she did not adequately perform on a contract she had with a non-governmental organization to support a civics education project."
According to Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, this amounts to theft, stealing from the public--the same kind of theft you evidently would be committing in our imaginary "sick day" scenario above.
Neither Horton nor I are condoning fake sick days or otherwise underperforming in a state job. But if such a situation exists--and we don't know if it did in the Schmitz case--what is the proper remedy?
"Is it normal to bring a federal prosecution against a school teacher who fails to perform all of her teaching plan?" Horton writes. "Has anyone ever heard of such a thing? The normal course would be for her contractor (which is not the state of Alabama) to fire her. And in fact they did. That firing was contested, and the court ruled that her firing was wrongful. It's on appeal now."
In a recent editorial, The Birmingham News all but called Schmitz a thief, never mentioning that a court has found Schmitz' termination was wrongful. "Of course, these are inconvenient facts, so The Birmingham News doesn't share any of them with you," Horton writes. "The Birmingham News is not interested in fairly presenting the facts, it's engaging in character assassination . . . of a 63-year-old retired social studies teacher."
Horton notes that employees of four-year colleges and universities in Alabama might have committed the same "crimes" as Schmitz. And people in any number of other professions also might have committed similar "crimes." But that doesn't fit with the right-wing political agenda of Martin, The Birmingham News, and Alabama Governor Bob Riley. They want to take control of the Alabama Legislature, and that's why they focus on Democrats who serve in the legislature and also work at two-year colleges.
"Legislators who teach in universities and four-year colleges arguably face the same issues," Horton writes. "And indeed, so do doctors, lawyers, accountants, insurance men--professionals who may regularly sell their services to the state--or even car dealers, like Bob Riley. Why aren't we discussing them? There's a simple anwser to that undeniably logical question: run the numbers and look at the party affiliations of those involved. You'll see that it wouldn't serve the objective of creating a Republican legislature to push the question so far."