Getting elected and running for office as a Democrat in Alabama cost former Governor Don Siegelman his freedom. Writing about the Siegelman story has cost me my job.
The Raw Story Web site, in a major investigative piece by reporter Lindsay Beyerstein, breaks news today about my recent termination at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
I had worked at UAB for 19 years, the last 12 as an editor in the Publications Office, before being fired on May 19. At the time of my termination, I did not have so much as an oral warning in my personnel file about the issues UAB claims led to my firing.
In fact, before my Supervisor, Pam Powell, initiated an age- and gender-based harassment campaign against me in December 2007, I didn't have an oral warning about anything in my file. Only when I began to defend myself against this harassment did UAB initiate an "investigation" of my computer use at work. And when I defended myself against false charges of policy violations, I got a written warning, followed by forced administrative leave, and termination.
All of this is in clear violation of university policy and federal law. As Columbia University law professor Scott Horton states in the Raw Story piece, UAB's actions raise clear First Amendment issues.
As someone with 30 years of journalism experience, I'm not used to commenting on a story that involves me as a central figure. But let me give it a shot, with some thoughts just a few hours after the story has broken. I will be adding considerable new information and analysis in the days and weeks ahead.
* The evidence is overwhelming that my termination was a "political hit." Specifically, clear evidence shows that I was fired simply because I write a blog that has to do with Don Siegelman. I feel certain that my original reporting on the Paul Minor case in Mississippi--and my own experiences with corrupt judges in Alabama--made certain folks in our state's Republican power structure unhappy. But I have irrefutable evidence that simply blogging about the Siegelman case was the driving factor behind my firing.
* Some might ask, "Schnauzer, sounds like you were blogging on UAB equipment and time. Isn't that why you were fired?" Nope. At a grievance hearing on my firing, the IT rep who conducted UAB's "investigation" stated that I had not written the first word on my blog using UAB resources. The university claims that I was "researching" my blog on UAB equipment. But part of my job description is to keep up with current events and issues that could become story ideas for university publications. The Siegelman case was the biggest story in Alabama for a two-year period, and Siegelman's codefendant (Richard Scrushy) is without question UAB's most famous alumnus. If I had ignored the Siegelman story, I would have been neglecting my duty. But in Karl Rove's Alabama, you can get fired at a public university for doing your job. I know because it happened to me.
* A word about my supervisor, Pam Powell: I've known Pam for almost the entire 19 years I've been at UAB. In my first seven years at the university, she sought me out to write for her publications, which I did (without compensation, I might add). In 1996, she hired me as an editor in her office. When I joined the group, we had four people (counting Pam) and five or six publications. When I was fired, we had 12 full-time people and about 20 publications. Doesn't sound like my performance was hurting the department does it? I'm 51 years old, and Pam has a clear pattern of preferring younger people in the positions that work closest with her. I've come to accept that and never thought it would have a major impact on my job status. But the fact is this: Pam has not been easy on folks who are in or near their 50s. During my time in the group, we've had three people who fit that description. Two of us were fired, and one almost had to be hospitalized when her blood pressure spiked due to job-related stress. In spite of that, I would describe my relationship with Pam as good--at least until her behavior took a turn toward the bizarre in December 2007. While I have serious concerns about my supervisor's behavior in this saga, evidence strongly suggests that her actions were not necessarily all of her own doing. In fact, evidence indicates that my termination was driven by political forces external to UAB. I have a real good idea about the path those forces followed, and who was driving them. Much more information will be coming about that.
* Obviously, this story matters to me. But why should it matter to other people? Two reasons come quickly to mind: (1) To my knowledge, this is the first story that shows how people connected to the corrupt Bush Justice Department do not target only public officials and major Democratic donors. They also go after regular people; (2) You don't have to live in Alabama to be impacted by this story. UAB is one of the leading biomedical research institutions in the country. The university receives more than $400 million a year in federal research funds. In the South, only the University of North Carolina and Duke University rank higher than UAB in receipt of federal research dollars. Those dollars flow into Birmingham, but they come from Americans in all 50 states. My understanding is that part of every research grant is a requirement that the institution will abide by federal law, that it will conduct business in a lawful and nondiscriminatory way. My termination shows that UAB has failed to live up to that commitment, and that should be of concern to all taxpayers--and to members of Congress (particularly the House Appropriations Committee) who oversee federal grants programs.
* One final thought for now: Obviously I'm not a disinterested, neutral party in this situation. But I have a bachelor's degree in journalism, and I've worked in the field for 30 years. I like to think I know a good story when I see one. I definitely know a challenging story when I see one. Lindsay Beyerstein and the Raw Story crew were presented with a challenging story here. As the story makes clear, people associated with UAB and the Justice Department did their best to stonewall. But I can attest to the fact that the Raw Story folks take their work seriously. I was terminated on May 19, and Beyerstein had been working on the story for quite some time at that point. In fact, Raw Story's initial query to me came in response to the unlawful auction of my house by Republican officials in Shelby County, Alabama. By the time my employment issues came up, Beyerstein already had the scent of an important story. (While I'm making canine allusions, let me add one more: Beyerstein and her Raw Story colleagues went after this story with the doggedness of a schnauzer. I can think of no higher compliment I can pay a journalist.) In the end, it was fascinating to watch a story unfold from the "other side," as a source. And it was interesting to watch another reporter, and her editors, "work" a story. And I do mean work. Beyerstein fired numerous informed, probing, and challenging questions in my direction. She checked and doubled checked facts. She took suggestions from editors, sent more questions my way, and incorporated that material into her story. At one point, I remember thinking to myself, "Gosh, no wonder people at UAB and the U.S. attorney's office are stonewalling her. If I were in their shoes, I'd probably stonewall, too." Of course, that's what good reporters do. They hold the powerful accountable. And they make the shifty uncomfortable. I know from firsthand knowledge, that Beyerstein and Raw Story have made a few people at UAB uncomfortable. And I say, Bravo! As Beyerstein's piece shows, a number of folks associated with UAB should be uncomfortable.
I've learned a lot in the past two months or so. But maybe my most important lesson was this: A reporter doesn't have to be from The New York Times, ABC News, or Time to produce world-class journalism. And a news organization doesn't have to have years of tradition behind it to produce journalism that makes a difference. From the outset, the story of the politicized Bush Justice Department has been driven by the "alternative" press. My understanding is that TPM Muckraker essentially broke the story about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. And it's impossible to overstate the importance of work by folks like Scott Horton at Harper's.org, Larisa Alexandrovna at Raw Story, Glynn Wilson at Locust Fork News, and Adam Lynch at Jackson Free Press. They have driven this story of profound corruption into the nation's consciousness.
Now Lindsay Beyerstein has added a new chapter, showing that governmental evil can reach down and engulf a regular guy (and his wife and two kitty kats) who happens to write a blog about a certain subject--with his own time and resources. In Karl Rove's Alabama, you can (to quote Bill Clinton) "work hard and play by the rules" and still wind up suffering mightily.
I strongly suspect that I'm not the only regular guy around the country who has been cheated under the Bush regime. Don Siegelman has repeatedly said that the story of his political prosecution is not just about him. I know today, more than ever, what the former governor means. Raw Story focused on me, but the story really is about all Americans--all of us who pay taxes to support a system of justice, but instead have been given a system that promotes injustice.
My prayer is that Beyerstein's story will help move us toward a day when quaint concepts like "due process" and "rule of law" truly apply to all.