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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is Alice Martin Both Corrupt and Racist

In a post dated June 17 at Harper's.org, Columbia University law professor Scott Horton used the following language to describe Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama:

"Is there any more corrupt and crooked person in public office than Alice Martin? I doubt it. Her office has been transformed under her leadership into the state's central bastion of corruption and abuse of power."

That's about as strong a condemnation of a public official as I've ever seen, particularly when you consider this state also includes our ethically challenged governor, Bob Riley, and Martin's prosecutorial compadre, Leura Canary, in Montgomery. Most corrupt in Alabama? Lots of competition for that honor. And Horton says Martin wins, hands down.

Horton's regular readers know at least a couple of things about his work: (1) He doesn't make such pronouncements lightly and without significant evidence to back them up; (2) He has unusually powerful credentials in both the law and journalism; (3) He has outstanding sources.

Horton made the above comment in connection to Martin's handling of the Alex Latifi case in Huntsville. Latifi, a defense contractor of Iranian descent, saw his prosperous business ruined by a Martin-directed investigation and prosecution that proved to be filled with more holes than the Miami Dolphins' defense line.

Readers both in Alabama and around the country have seen powerful evidence recently that Horton is right on target about Alice Martin.

First, business reporter David J. Lynch presents a compelling account of the Latifi case in USA Today. Lynch's story, "Feds knock; a business is lost," is a splendid piece of journalism. It molds the legal, business, and personal aspects of a complicated story into a narrative that should be must reading, even for those who know little about the Bush Justice Department saga. Consider this from the USA Today piece:

The Latifi case now appears as a cautionary tale of what critics call an overzealous prosecution. It is also a reminder that the innocent can pay an enormous price while the gears of justice grind. "The government's case itself it seems to me was sloppily prepared. … Their prosecutorial zeal caused them to overlook some deficiencies in their case," says Clif Burns, an export law attorney at Powell Goldstein in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the case.

And consider this:

During a seven-day trial last fall, the government's case swiftly unraveled. The informant who tipped Army investigators to Latifi's alleged misdeeds turned out to be an Axion employee who was simultaneously embezzling company funds. Prosecutors also conceded that the government had failed to mark the sensitive technical drawing that Latifi, 60, was accused of illegally exporting with the warning language Defense Department regulations require.

In her Florence, Ala., courtroom, U.S. District Court Judge Inge Johnson called the government's case "sloppy" before swiftly dismissing all charges. The judge also ordered the government to pay Latifi nearly $364,000 for his attorney's fees, a move the local U.S. attorney called "unprecedented."

The story ends on a hopeful note. The possibility remains that Alex Latifi will obtain justice, and Alice Martin will be further unmasked:

Today, Latifi is seeking additional legal fees and access to the government's files through a legal channel called the Hyde Amendment, which provides for compensating exonerated defendants if "the position of the United States was vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith." Prosecutors are fighting back. This spring, while Johnson was visiting her native Denmark, Martin sought to have another judge overturn Johnson's order requiring prosecutors to appear in court with their files.

That further irritated Johnson. The "court can only surmise from the government's vigorous resistance to the possibility that it might have to disclose something about the prosecution of the defendants and its unusual actions while Judge Johnson was outside the country that 'something is rotten in the state of Denmark,' " she wrote.

On Friday, The Birmingham News reported that formal charges of misconduct against Martin have been filed with the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). Henry Froshin, an attorney for Latifi and Axion Corp., filed the complaint with OPR, the watchdog charged with investigating federal attorneys for wrongdoing:

"The thrust of our argument is these prosecutors told us they didn't care if Alex Latifi was found guilty or not, but that they wanted to put him out of business," Frohsin said. "They knew their case was weak, but they wanted him out of business anyway."

What about our earlier question about the racial component of Martin's handiwork? Given Latifi's roots in Iran, that case clearly raises race-based questions.

One also must wonder about the string of high-profile African-Americans who have been investigated and/or prosecuted by Martin's office. These include Jeff Germany, Chris McNair, Gregory Clarke, E.B. McClain, and Sam Pettagrue.

And recently we had a story indicating that Martin's handling of a possible case against Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford is anything but evenhanded. I'll be the first to say that I have qualms about Langford's questionable financial habits. But I have even more qualms about the way Martin handles her public duties.

Is Alice Martin corrupt? Scott Horton has answered that question with a resounding yes.

Does Alice Martin conduct her affairs with racial issues in mind? Evidence strongly suggests a very troubling answer to that question.

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