One of the most precipitous falls in the history of college athletics is unfolding now in Columbus, Ohio. Enough sleaze already has surfaced in the Ohio State University football program to force long-time coach Jim Tressel to resign. With reports of star players driving snazzy sports cars, the sludge is likely to get deeper in the land of the Buckeyes.
The most thorough overview of the Ohio State scandal can be found as the cover story in this week's Sports Illustrated. In a 10-page spread titled "How Deep It Went: An SI Investigation Reveals the Full Extent To Which Jim Tressel Lost Control Of The Buckeyes," reporters George Dohrmann and David Epstein reveal that the coach's lax relationship with the NCAA rule book goes back more than two decades.
Tressel won championships at Ohio State, and in his previous stop at Youngstown State, so administrators were happy to look the other way, ignoring clear signs that the coach's programs were built on a foundation of non-compliance with NCAA rules.
In that respect, and several others, the Ohio State football story reminds me of the U.S. justice system--another mammoth enterprise that chugs along, while those in authority ignore obvious signs of decay. In reading Sports Illustrated's splendid cover story--Dohrmann has become one of the best investigative reporters in journalism--I was struck by several themes that I've seen play out during my unpleasant, 10-year journey through the American court system.
Let's consider three themes that show up time and again--at Ohio State and in my story of battling a groundless lawsuit here in Shelby County, Alabama: (1) Phony use of religion; (2) Weak oversight; (3) Blaming the victims.
* Phony use of religion--SI writes about Tressel's regular references to religion during his rise to the top of the college-football world, noting that he "wore his Christian values on his sweater vest." The coach had such a Boy-Scout image that he acquired the nickname "The Senator." Tressel often used the Bible as a prop for his coaching career, but SI uncovered signs of Tressel's slippery ethics going back to the mid 1980s, when he was an assistant coach at Ohio State:
One of Tressel's duties then was to organize and run the Buckeyes' summer camp. Most of the young players who attended it would never play college football, but a few were top prospects whom Ohio State was recruiting. At the end of camp, attendees bought tickets to a raffle with prizes such as cleats and a jersey. According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won--a potential violation of NCAA rules.
That episode was not nearly as serious as the recent violations while Tressel was OSU's head coach. But it speaks volumes about Tressel's two-faced nature:
Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, "In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel."
That's also quite a few of the people I've encountered in the legal world. One of my own attorneys, Richard Poff, gave me a business card with a cross on it. Poff then took $4,500 as a retainer and proceeded to do almost no work on my case, not the first drop of discovery. (Poff, by the way, no longer shows up as a member of the Alabama State Bar. His wife, Christina Mosca Poff, still appears on the bar's roster, which indicates her husband probably still lives her. I know a man named Gregory Dennis, and possibly others, had filed a bar complaint against Richard Poff. It's possible that Richard Poff has been disbarred, although I haven't found an official announcement. Such an outcome certainly would not surprise me.)
Let's consider J. Michael Joiner, the Shelby County circuit judge who probably is the individual most responsible for the cheat job Mrs. Schnauzer and I have experienced. (Joiner recently was appointed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals by new Governor Robert Bentley, who is from Joiner's former home base, Columbiana, Alabama.) After our troublesome neighbor, Mike McGarity, filed a lawsuit against me, my lawyers filed multiple motions for summary judgment (MSJs) because we had probably eight to 10 grounds for dismissal. (McGarity's primary claim was for malicious prosecution, claiming I swore out a criminal-trespass claim against him without probable cause. Malicious prosecution is a disfavored tort, and McGarity had no evidence to support it, mainly because he admitted to trespassing during the criminal trial. In other words, I had not only probable cause, I had actual cause. Hard to build a malicious prosecution case on that.)
My MSJs were properly executed and supported with material evidence (multiple affidavits), as required by law, shifting the burden to McGarity to show there was a reason to go to trial. He presented no timely evidence on the first MSJ, and no response of any kind on the others. When a nonmoving party presents no evidence in answer to a properly supported MSJ, the moving party's evidence must be considered uncontroverted and summary judgment granted. That's Law School 101, as spelled out in the Alabama case styled Voyager Guar. Ins. Co., Inc. v. Brown, 631 So. 2d 848 (Ala., 1993):
"When a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment offers no evidence to contradict that presented by the movant, trial court MUST consider the movant's evidence uncontroverted, with no genuine issue of material fact existing."
Joiner proceeded to deny MSJs that, by law, had to be granted--and under Alabama law, it is a nondiscretionary ruling. Like Jim Tressel, Joiner projects a Boy-Scout image. He has taught Sunday School classes at The Church of Brook Hills, a suburban mega-church in the Birmingham suburbs. His daughter, Christy, is a graduate of Briarwood Christian School, where Coach Fred Yancey (much like Jim Tressel) regularly touts his religious beliefs. As I've reported in several posts, Yancey, Briarwood Presybyterian Church, and its affiliated school are largely responsible for Mike McGarity (and his substantial criminal record) becoming our next-door neighbor.
Even William E. Swatek, the McGarity lawyer who has a 30-year history of ethical violations with the Alabama State Bar, spouts off about religion. After Swatek was acquitted of perjury charges in the early 1980s--and court documents indicate the prosecution had tape-recorded, irrefutable evidence that he was guilty--Swatek told a local newspaper that his belief in Psalm 37 helped him survive the ordeal. (Request vomit bag here.)
The 40-verse Psalm begins: "Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity." Bill Swatek referring to others as "evildoers" and "workers of iniquity"? That takes some serious chutzpah.
Bill Swatek was a religious phony long before the world had heard of Jim Tressel. Maybe Tressel needs to become a lawyer and join an Alabama firm. He would fit right in.
* Weak oversight--We repeatedly have shown on this blog that one of the biggest problems in our justice system is a lack of oversight. At both the state and federal levels, appellate courts are supposed to be the watchdogs, the ones who make sure trial courts get it right. But too often higher courts are primarily interested in covering up wrongdoing by their trial-court brethren. Blatantly unlawful findings are affirmed, often with no opinion. Trial judges who have acted in a corrupt fashion, and violated the oath of office, are not reported--even though lawyers are required to report misconduct of other lawyers.
Similar blindness is present in the Ohio State story. Tressel had an alarming history of non-compliance while he was at Youngstown State, long before he became Ohio State's head coach in 2001. From the SI article:
In February 2000, 11 months before Ohio State hired Tressel, Youngstown State acknowledged numerous football violations and announced self-imposed sanctions, including the loss of two scholarships. Because it was satisfied with those steps and its statute of limitations on the violations had run out, the NCAA allowed Youngstown to keep the '91 national title, one of four Tressel won with the Penguins.
During his 15 years at Youngstown State, Tressel left a substantial trail that pointed to only one conclusion: He was a rogue coach. But he won a bunch of games, so YSU never punished him and Ohio State was quick to hire him.
* Blaming the victim--What almost always happens when an individual stands up to a corrupt judge or lawyer? The legal establishment promptly labels him a "disgruntled litigant." Ask anyone who truly has been cheated by the justice system and tried to fight back. They almost certainly have heard that phrase.
How did Jim Tressel get away with misconduct for more than 25 years? He repeatedly blamed his victims, the ones who tried to point out the truth behind "The Senator's" image.
One instance came when allegations surfaced at Youngstown State that the football program was violating NCAA rules, and President Leslie Cochran was forced to ask a few questions. From the SI: article:
Over the next month Cochran quizzed football staff members in informal meetings. He believed that if anybody was aware of what was going on in the program, it was Tressel. But Tressel told Cochran that the tipster was just a disgruntled former employee. Given Tressel's sterling reputation, Cochran felt confident relaying a nothing-to-see-here message to the NCAA.
A similar event took place after Tressel became head coach at Ohio State, when former star running back Maurice Clarett told ESPN that he had witnessed multiple NCAA violations while playing for the Buckeyes. Clarett said coaches connected him to boosters who gave him thousands of dollars. Reports SI:
The NCAA never sanctioned Ohio State for any of those allegations. Clarett didn't respond when investigators tried to contact him after the ESPN story, so they weren't able to proceed. Like the Youngstown State whistle-blower years earlier, Clarett was dismissed as disgruntled.
We now know that Maurice Clarett should not have been labeled as "disgruntled"; he was telling the truth. So were others who tried to raise red flags about Jim Tressel.
Here's how SI describes the see-no-evil attitude that allowed a scoundrel like Jim Tressel to prosper for some 25 years:
For more than a decade, Ohioans have viewed Tressel as a pillar of rectitude, and have disregarded or made excuses for the allegations and scandal that have quietly followed him throughout his career. His integrity was one of the great myths of college football. Like a disgraced politician who preaches probity but is caught in lies, the Senator was not the person he purported to be.
We have shown on this blog that numerous judges and lawyers, in Alabama and beyond, are not who they purport to be. We will be writing about more such individuals in the weeks and months ahead. We've been raising red flags about the justice system since this blog started in June 2007. Other brave souls--Dana Jill Simpson, Tamarah Grimes, Andrew Kreig, to name a few--have stepped forward. A democracy cannot function for long with a broken justice system. Americans should not ignore the warning signs.
The decay in our justice system is far worse than anything that ever could happen at Ohio State.