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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another "Suicide" Darkens the Political Landscape in Karl Rove's Alabama

Charles "Bubba" Major

For the fourth time in roughly a year, a person with ties to Alabama's corporate/political elites has committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. This time, the deceased had family ties to a man who committed a most public "suicide" in March 2010.

Charles "Bubba" Major died on Monday at age 59, and his funeral will be at 3 p.m. today at Mountain Brook Baptist Church. Bubba Major was a first cousin of prominent Birmingham attorney Major Bashinsky, whose body was found floating in a golf-course pond last March and later was ruled a suicide, a finding we have reported is dubious, at best.

Bubba Major was quoted publicly as saying the story of Major Basinsky's death did not add up. Now, sources are telling Legal Schnauzer this morning that Bubba Major's death has been ruled a suicide--and that has been confirmed with today's post from goodmorningfloridakeys.com, a blog written by Sloan Bashinsky Jr., Major's older brother.

This brings to four the number of curious suicides in roughly the past year in Alabama, all involving individuals with ties to the state's conservative ruling elites? We know about Major Bashinsky and Bubba Major. The others are Ralph Stacy, an executive with the Business Council of Alabama, and Bob Caviness, an investigator in the office of former Attorney General Troy King. That list doesn't include Zoa White, a woman who worked in the Riley administration and was found beaten to death in her Mobile home. That has been ruled a homicide.

Both Major Bashinsky and Bubba Major had roundabout ties to a lawsuit brought by the estate of Sloan Bashinsky Sr. against the Birmingham firm W and H Investments. The "H" stands for William Cobb "Chip" Hazelrig, an entrepreneur with ties to the Alabama gaming community. Hazelrig is a partner in Paragon Gaming, a company headed by Robert Sigler, of Tuscaloosa. Paragon is pursuing a major gambling resort in Canada, and Rob Riley, the son of former Alabama Republican Governor Bob Riley, used to be involved in Paragon.

Bubba Major was known as one of the finest golfers in Alabama and was a long-time member of the prestigious Country Club of Birmingham. And how is this for irony? An Internet search reveals that Bubba Major worked in sales at Southline Steel, a company based in Bessemer, Alabama. Who has a prominent interest in Southline Steel? None other than Chip Hazelrig.

People with ties to the lawsuit styled Estate of Sloan Bashinsky v. W and H Investments have a curious way of turning up as suicide victims. Is that because Chip Hazelrig has ties to Alabama's Republican machine, built largely by Karl Rove in the 1990s and run by the Riley family in the 2000s? And is this ugliness driven partly because of the GOP's under-the-table ties to the gambling industry?

We know for sure that Chip Hazelrig took some curious actions last March, while Major Bashinsky was missing. Why would he show up for a visit with Sloan Bashinsky Jr. in Key West, Florida?

What about Hazelrig's ties to the Alabama GOP? Rob Riley distanced himself from Paragon Gaming only after a contribution from Hazelrig to Bob Riley's gubernatorial campaign was revealed to have come from someone with ties to gambling. Bob Riley returned the contribution, claiming that he was staunchly anti-gambling, and he went on to launch a crusade against electronic bingo in the last year of his reign as governor.

The Riley family's public stance on gambling, of course, represents breath-taking hypocrisy. Bob Riley, it has been widely reported, was elected with massive financial assistance from Mississippi Choctaw gaming interests funneled through convicted GOP felon Jack Abramoff. And it has been well documented that Rob Riley has ties to Chip Hazelrig, Robert Sigler, and their gaming interests.

Now, two people with ties to the Bashinsky family, which was seeking an accounting of $37 million invested with Chip Hazelrig's company, have turned up dead. Both have been ruled a suicide, but we have shown there are significant reasons to doubt the finding in the Major Bashinsky case. The Bubba Major story is in its early stages, but we've seen signs that he was concerned about what had happened to his cousin. Did that concern cost him his life? We would not be surprised if the answer is yes.

Consider this from a Legal Schnauzer post dated March 25, 2010: Should We Doubt a Finding of Suicide in Major Bashinsky's Death?

Authorities say Bashinsky wrapped rope around parts of his body and attached a bottle that contained a copy of the note they found in his car. He stuck a label from a Golden Flake bag in the roof of his mouth and loosely bound his mouth with duct tape and his hands with rope. He then walked into the pond and shot himself.

If he waded into the water, obviously the water was shallow. Being in Alabama in early March, the water probably was not terribly cold. This was on a public golf course where many people come and go. And yet the body remained submerged and unnoticed for roughly 12 days?

I don't pretend to be a forensic pathologist, but this seems unlikely--and officials gave no indication that the body was weighted down by any object.

In a post dated March 23, Sloan Bashinsky shined light on this issue, quoting a relative named Charles "Bubba" Major, who is a well known golfer in the Birmingham area. In an e-mail, Bubba Major wrote:

You probably did not know that I ran Highland Golf Course for 15 yrs 83-98 and thought it was ironic that they found Major’s body at Highland Golf Course, still have not heard the cause of death, but guess it will come out soon. For the record there is no way the body could have been there several days, without being seen because Hooters had golf tourney there Sat and had over 120 people going by that pond every 3 minutes.

It seems clear that Bubba Major did not buy the official story about his cousin's death. In his post today about Bubba Major's suicide, Sloan Bashinsky Jr. writes:

Tuesday brought terrible news from my oldest Bashinsky first cousin that my youngest first cousin on my mother’s side had killed himself. I wrote back that Bubba had told me he was under strain and things didn’t seem to be working out in Birmingham, but I never considered this outcome. Probably, I didn’t want to consider it.

I told my brother’s first wife yesterday that Bubba probably felt like a total failure after he didn’t make it on the pro tour. She agreed. She knew all too well the problems caused by a father living through his son’s sports achievements. She said yesterday that she felt Major’s suicide, which left so many unanswered questions, must have really affected Bubba, because he left a suicide note explaining he had been depressed and thinking of killing himself for some time.

Sloan Bashinsky Jr. has written that he accepts the suicide finding in his brother's death--and he apparently accepts, without question, the notion that Bubba Major now has killed himself.

We certainly respect Sloan's take on issues connected to his family. But I have reviewed the court file in the Estate of Sloan Bashinsky v. W and H Investments, and I have reviewed the autopsy report in the death of Major Bashinsky. I also have reported on the "suicides" of Ralph Stacy and Bob Caviness.

Taken together, I suspect something incredibly ugly is going on in Alabama--and it has ties to our corrupt, dysfunctional and pathological political system.

[Photo: Facebook]

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Casino Jack" Hits Close to Home In A State Tarnished By Abramoff's Sleaze

New Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has said that he wants to clean up the culture of Montgomery. That will be quite a task because Bentley's predecessor, fellow Republican Bob Riley, spent eight years turning our capital into one of the most toxic political environments in the country.

Thankfully, a new movie shines considerable light on how Riley and his GOP cronies turned Montgomery, Alabama, into a sleaze pit. Casino Jack, starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, was released in late December and now is playing in select cities. We hope it soon will be showing in theaters across the country. It focuses on GOP felon Jack Abramoff and is must viewing for any American who wants to understand, at least in part, how our country went off the tracks in the George W. Bush years.

The film should be of special interest here in Alabama, given Riley's documented ties to Abramoff and his fellow felon, Michael Scanlon. According to early reviews, the film portrays Scanlon as perhaps even more despicable than Abramoff. The mainstream press, curiously, seems to rarely mention that Scanlon used to work for Bob Riley.

George Hickenlooper, perhaps best know for the the documentary Hearts of Darkness, directed Casino Jack. Hickenlooper died last October, at age 47, roughly two months before his latest work was to premier. Authorities in Colorado ruled that Hickenlooper died from an accidental overdose involving a painkiller and alcohol.

We should mention that Casino Jack is not to be confused with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary by Alex Gibney that was released earlier in 2010. How did the Abramoff scandal affect the political culture in Alabama? Perhaps it is best summed up in this screen shot from the documentary. Notice in the chart superimposed over the photo that Alabama Governor Bob Rileys' name is front and center, right under that of the felon himself:

From Casino Jack and the United States of Money

In May 2010, The New York Times gave the documentary a fairly positive review, although it said Gibney was hampered by taking on such a sprawling subject:

The film begins with a perfunctory re-creation of the mob-style killing of Gus Boulis, an owner of offshore casinos, whose chain was taken over by Mr. Abramoff after his death. It is the prelude to a catalog of shady dealings that include his lobbying on behalf of sweatshop owners in the Northern Marianas Islands, where clothing manufacturers were allowed to put “Made in the U.S.A.” tags on items without violating United States labor laws.

The film’s analysis of the mechanics of Mr. Abramoff’s systematic bilking of casino-owning American Indian tribes of millions of dollars is impressively thorough but too complicated to be easily assimilated. “Casino Jack” might have landed a stronger punch had it concentrated on that scandal alone. As a narrator, Mr. Gibney is no match for Bill Moyers, whose coverage of the Abramoff scandals on “Bill Moyers Journal” had a gravity, spareness and shape lacking in “Casino Jack.”

The feature film seems to be earning mostly favorable reviews. Here is part of what Roger Ebert, of The Chicago Sun-Times, had to say:

Political movies often play cute in drawing parallels with actual figures. They drop broad hints that a character is “really” Dick Cheney or Bill Clinton and so on. “Casino Jack” is so forthright, it is stunning. The film is “inspired by real events,” and the characters in this film have the names of the people in those real events: Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Rep. Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, Rep. Bob Ney and Sen. John McCain.

This decision to name names by the director George Hickenlooper seems based on boldness, recklessness or perhaps iron-clad legal assurances. His film uses a fictional sledgehammer to attack the cozy love triangle involving lobbyists, lawmakers and money. It stars Kevin Spacey in an exact and not entirely unsympathetic performance as Abramoff, once one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, who was convicted on charges involving the funds he stole from wealthy Indian casinos while arranging laws for their convenience on Capitol Hill. He has been released on parole and just finished a stint working in a Baltimore pizza parlor.

How might audiences react to the film? Ebert writes:

The first press screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival was witnessed in a sort of stunned silence by a capacity audience, interrupted slightly by an undercurrent of incredulous murmurs and soft laughter when Spacey, as Abramoff, in a fantasy sequence, explodes at a Senate hearing chaired by McCain. Having evoked the Fifth Amendment repeatedly, he's unable to restrain himself any longer and jumps to his feet to accuse the very members of the Senate panel of having taken campaign contributions and favors from his Indian clients and then voting in their favor. Abramoff shows some degree of honor among thieves by not pulling such a stunt.

Astonishingly, Hickenlooper intercuts real footage of the real hearing and the real John McCain with Spacey's performance. Can he get away with this? I guess so. The film's distributor, ATO Pictures, has no doubt had the film scrutinized by its attorneys. Apart from that, there's the likelihood (which lawyers may think but cannot say) that no one named in this film is very likely to sue. The Abramoff scandal was called at the time the biggest since Watergate (both were broken by the Washington Post), but in the years since his sentencing in 2006, his name has faded from everyday reference, and it's doubtful anyone desires to make it current again. With Alex Gibney's doc “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” also around, those deep waters are being sufficiently stirred.

Yes, and those waters definitely need to be stirred, especially here in Alabama. Scanlon, Bob Riley's former associate, upstages even Abramoff as a villain. Writes Ebert:

The film's story line can be briefly summarized: The lobbyist Abramoff was a dutiful family man and Republican standard bearer who defrauded Indian tribes out of millions to lobby for their casinos. That enriched him and partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) and a good many members of Congress, not all of them Republicans. Abramoff worked out every day, was an observant member of his temple and a smooth and elegant dresser. Somehow at his core, he had no principles and no honesty.

If Casino Jack puts up a good front, George Hickenlooper's film is merciless with Scanlon, a venal and vulgar man with the effrontery to flaunt his corruption. It is Spacey's performance that contains most of the movie's mystery; although Abramoff's actions left little room for justification, in Spacey's performance, there is some. Abramoff used much of the stolen money for good works, which made him appear charitable. His principal charity was himself, but there you are.

Ebert offers some important perspective on the Abramoff story, which has largely been allowed to slide out of public view:

There are scenes here that make you wonder why the Abramoff scandals (plural) didn't outshine Watergate as the day does the night. Within Abramoff there is some small instinct for simple justice, and the film's most dramatic scene comes as he snaps at that hearing, ignores his lawyer, forgets the Fifth Amendment and tells the panel members to their faces that they were happy to take his cash.

The overall message of “Casino Jack” has become familiar. Corporate and industry lobbyists are the real rulers in Washington, and their dollars are the real votes. Both parties harbor corruption, with the Republicans grabbing the breasts and thighs, and the Democrats pleased to have the drumsticks and wings. Jack Abramoff didn't invent this system. He simply gamed it until Scanlon's boldness betrayed them and another generation of lobbyists took over. Have you heard the banks are broke again?

One of our resolutions for this year is to catch both Casino Jack and Casino Jack and the United States of Money as soon as we can. We hope Legal Schnauzer readers will do the same. (The new film, to our knowledge, has not come to Alabama yet; here is a schedule of cities where the film is playing.)

Below is the official trailer for Casino Jack. As you watch it, keep in mind that the activities portrayed in this film have permeated Alabama politics for the past eight years. They had a lot to do with Bob Riley's election (in a race that almost certainly was stolen from Democrat incumbent Don Siegelman), and re-election--and they have largely driven the decision-making that has helped make Alabama one of the most corrupt states in the nation.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Rule of Law Seems to be on Life Support in Western Civilization


When you start a blog about corruption in our justice system, you know you aren't getting into the "fun and games" side of the cyber world. We try to lighten the mood with the occasional post about rock music, Scrubs, or LOL Cats. But as we approach our fourth anniversary here at Legal Schnauzer, there is no escaping the serious nature of our subject matter.

How serious is it? Based on a recent cover story in Time magazine, it might be more serious than we thought. Western civilization, it turns out, hinges to a great extent on the kind of stuff we write about. If that's the case, our little corner of the blogosphere could be seen as a sign that western civilization isn't in such great shape. And in the weeks ahead, we will present a series of posts that show things are getting worse instead of better for one of our society's fundamental pillars.

Which pillar is that? A Harvard historian lays it out in "Are America's Best Days Behind Us?" the March 14 cover story in Time. Here is how reporter Fareed Zakaria puts it:

The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who has just written a book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, puts things in historical context: "For 500 years the West patented six killer applications that set it apart. The first to download them was Japan. Over the last century, one Asian country after another has downloaded these killer apps — competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Those six things are the secret sauce of Western civilization."

We try not to take ourselves, and our blogging endeavor, too seriously. But reading that quote stopped me in my tracks. Legal Schnauzer, at its core, is about "the rule of law and private property rights," as experienced by my wife and me. After all, our journey through the cesspool of America's justice system started from our efforts to protect our private property rights against encroachment by a neighbor with a lengthy criminal history. And that evolved into a major struggle--one worthy of being chronicled in a blog--only because judges and lawyers repeatedly violated the rule of law.

In our own small way, we are showing that one of the building blocks of our society is eroding--and might be on the verge of crumbling if it isn't restored soon. Thankfully, we are not alone in our efforts to sound an alarm. Other reporters are covering similar territory, and we frequently reference their work--folks like Scott Horton, Andrew Kreig, Larisa Alexandrovna, David Fiderer, Brad Friedman, Lindsay Beyerstein, Joseph Zernik, Jason Leopold, and others. We also report on the actions of the real heroes in this, whistleblowers such as Alabamians Dana Jill Simpson and Tamarah Grimes.

We often have harsh words for lawyers. But the real villains here, in our view, are judges. Yes, judges are lawyers, but they are supposed to be the elites in the field. All lawyers are "officers of the court," but judges are public officials--the ultimate arbiters who are paid with public tax dollars and take an oath to uphold the law for all of us.

Our blog already has shown that quite a few judges fail miserably in this endeavor. In fact, we've shown that judges set the tone for a justice system that is riddled with corruption. In our view, many lawyers probably would behave honorably if they knew such behavior was expected and rewarded. Instead, they know that, in order to survive in their chosen field, they must grapple in a mud pit created by sleazy judges--with the assistance of partners at major law firms.

In a series of upcoming posts, we will show that a grim situation is worsening. In our realm, we've seen ample signs that the rule of law is in danger of flat lining. And this is not just about the legal travails that Mrs. Schnauzer and I are facing.

Yes, there are new developments on our personal legal front, and we will be reporting on those. But we will be examining the cheat jobs that other citizens have experienced in court. They will cover cases in both state and federal courts. Some are from Alabama, some involve other states. All reflect the dangers that loom when we allow judges to operate without accountability--and that's pretty much the system we have now.

Our reporting will show that judicial corruption is not just about political ideology. It involves judges who were elected or appointed as Republicans and those who rose to the bench as Democrats. This is not so much a story of right vs. left as it is elite vs. mainstream. In every case that we've seen, those with money and power have received unlawfully favorable treatment in court. The victims, in some cases, are men--and in many, they are women. Among those who have been caused to suffer are children.

Who are the most despicable among us? When you have finished reading our upcoming posts, I think you will decide it is those powerful parties, lawyers, and judges who--because of their greed and lust for "victory"--have caused significant harm to children.

While judicial corruption is a bipartisan issue, we can't let this matter pass without pointing out the particularly ugly damage being inflicted on our society by the right wing. We can see this by examining all six of Western civilization's "killer apps," as outlined by Harvard's Niall Ferguson. In what kind of shape do we find them?


* Competition--From the theft of elections to the attempts to bust unions, the right wing seems to be doing its darnedest to stamp out competition.

* Modern Science--The climate-change deniers are leading an ongoing right-wing assault on science.

* The Rule of Law and Private Property Rights--We've already shown that this one is in trouble.

* Modern Medicine--The right wing long has been trying to keep women from receiving a full range of medical care. And remember George Bush's efforts to hinder stem-cell research? Who knows how much that has set back the effort to develop new treatments for major illnesses?

* The Consumer Society--Best I can tell, most Americans are more than happy to spend--especially the American I'm married to. But with the income gap exploding, what kind of spending power does the middle class have?

* Work Ethic--Productivity figures indicate Americans still have a collectively powerful work ethic; we are among the most productive people on the planet. But as the Scott Walkers of the world continue to chip away at worker rights--and as Mrs. Schnauzer and I can tell you, most of us already had little protection in the workplace--how long will that work ethic hold up? How long will Americans continue to bust their fannies only to see the vast majority of income growth go to the wealthiest among us?

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, I would say all six of our "killer apps" are showing signs of needing upgrades. The "rule of law and private property rights," as we will be showing soon, might already be on the endangered list.


[Image: politifake.org]

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Know How Wisconsin Professor Feels as a Target of GOP Thugs

William Cronon

Would Republican henchmen try to damage the career of a university employee because of something he had written? We know the answer is yes, thanks to the experience of William Cronon, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Republican Party is seeking e-mails from Cronon's university account in reaction to a critical article he wrote about GOP Governor Scott Walker and his efforts to weaken unions. The Cronon story gained considerable traction last week, bringing to national attention the notion of Republican operatives attacking a public employee for political reasons.

That notion is not new here at Legal Schnauzer. It's been almost three years now since I was fired as an editor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), after 19 years on the job, in apparent retaliation for critical posts I had written on this blog about Republicans in our state. For good measure, my wife was "fired" under mysterious circumstances at an insurance company, Infinity Property and Casualty, and we both remain out of work during the Great Bush Recession.

Do Mrs. Schnauzer and I understand what Prof. Cronon is going through? I think we do. Are we surprised that it's happening? No, we are not. Alabama tends to be thought of as a backward state. But when it comes to negative social trends, our state often is ahead of the curve. Long before Scott Walker became a national figure, we saw signs of Alabama Republican attacking university employees, and their loved ones, for expressing progressive or pro-labor views. And it goes beyond just our little household.

Glenn Feldman, a professor of business at UAB, endured a grotesque harassment and discrimination campaign, apparently because his academic specialties of labor economics, labor history, and macroeconomics made him "too pro-union" for the university's taste. Like Cronon, Feldman was a full professor with tenure, but UAB tried to unlawfully fire him on multiple occasions--and he wound up having to fight back via a lawsuit. Court records show that Feldman's case recently was settled. Terms of the settlement are not public, but UAB's online directory shows that he now teaches in the College of Arts and Sciences.

How did Cronon offend Republican sensibilities? He wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, showing the Walker is breaking with the state's history of sensible bipartisanship. Perhaps most alarming to the GOP was a piece Cronon wrote on his blog titled "Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here.)"

Why are Republicans suddenly attacking public-employee unions around the country? Cronon probably got way too close to the truth when he wrote this:

The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1,000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)

If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.

Cronon probably pinpointed the low-profile group that is behind the most recent virulent strain of pathological conservatism. For that sin, the GOP has decided, he must pay. It apparently hopes to extract revenge by finding embarrassing tidbits in Cronon's e-mails, perhaps showing that he violated state laws regarding the use of public equipment for partisan political activities.

In a post titled "A Tactic I Hope Republicans Will Rethink: Using the Open Records Law to Intimidate Critics," Cronon summarizes the issue at hand. Why did Stephan Thompson, of the Wisconsin GOP, target Cronon? The professor provides insight:

It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs.

I confess that I’m surprised to find myself in this strange position, since (as I said in my earlier blog post) my professional interest as a historian has always been to research and understand the full spectrum of American political opinion. I often spend as much time defending Republican and conservative points of view to my liberal friends as vice versa. (For what it’s worth, I have never belonged to either party.) But Mr. Thompson obviously read my blog post as an all-out attack on the interests of his party, and his open records request seems designed to give him what he hopes will be ammunition he can use to embarrass, undermine, and ultimately silence me.

One obvious conclusion I draw is that my study guide about the role of ALEC in Wisconsin politics must come pretty close to hitting a bull’s-eye. Why else would the Republican Party of Wisconsin feel the need to single out a lone university professor for such uncomfortable attention?

A similar question could be asked about my situation at UAB, where I was harassed for six months and then fired in spring 2008, long before the current uprising in Wisconsin began. Actually, I don't have to guess why I was terminated. Anita Bonasera, UAB's director of employee relations, admitted to me in a phone conversation (which I tape recorded) that I was targeted because of my blog content about the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. You can hear the audio at the link below, and Bonasera spills the beans at about the 1:40 to 2:00 mark:

Audio: UAB and the Cost of Blogging About the Siegelman Case

Is there any good news in all of this? Well, I've discovered that Republicans aren't real smart thugs. In my case, they left a "digital paper trail" via anonymous threats to my blog, as I outlined in a recent post:

On a post dated February 18, 2008, I received the following anonymous comment:

Anonymous said...
Nut case yours is comong (sic)
February 18, 2008 3:06 PM

That was on a post about the ties of GOP political consultant Dax Swatek to former Bush U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, so you can pretty quickly narrow down the folks who might have sent the threat.

On a post dated April 14, 2008, I received the following anonymous comment:

Anonymous said...
Schnauzer does your employer UAB know you blog at work.Maybe they need to find out.
April 15, 2008 6:18 PM

That was in reference to an item I had posted on a Monday, which I had taken as a scheduled vacation day. The time stamp on the post made it look like I was posting on normal work hours. But I was nowhere near work that day. And I never wrote the first word, of that post or any other, on work equipment or time. UAB's own investigation, as outlined at my grievance hearing, showed that.

A simple search of Google records should reveal who sent those e-mails--and they probably came from key figures behind my unlawful termination. Will I ever learn the identities of these people? Well, I have filed a federal lawsuit, which is pending, and you can rest assured that will be part of my discovery requests.

Meanwhile, I suspect the GOP won't manage to harm Prof. Cronon. He is protected by tenure, and as president-elect of the American Historical Association, is a highly respected figure in academia. Plus, it sounds like he hasn't done anything wrong. From the professor's blog:

So let me quickly say that my outrage at Mr. Thompson’s request does not derive from fear—though I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous about the prospect of having the Republican Party and its allies combing through my private and professional life in an effort to hurt or discredit me. I am, after all, a chaired, tenured professor at one of the greatest research universities in the world—an institution that has a proud tradition of defending academic freedom from precisely the kinds of attacks that Mr. Thompson is trying to launch. . . .

But there’s a much more important reason I feel far less fear than anger at Mr. Thompson’s open records request, which is simply this: I haven’t actually done anything wrong.

Ever since moving to Wisconsin from Yale in the early 1990s, I have been careful to maintain a separation between my public @wisc.edu email address and my personal email address. I use the latter for all communications with family members and friends, and I use it too for any activities of mine that might be construed as political rather than scholarly (though the boundaries between these two categories is harder to draw for a scholar of the modern United States than non-scholars might imagine). I have always owned my own computers, because I haven’t wanted to worry about whether my personal and professional emails are mingling on a state-owned machine in ways that would violate Wisconsin’s rules about using state property for personal or political communication.

The irony goes deeper still. As any careful reader of my blog about ALEC will probably have noticed—though I get the feeling that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues may not be such careful readers—I did not raise the questions I did about ALEC from a partisan point of view. Quite the contrary. I tried to write with real respect about the history of the conservative movement in the United States, because I genuinely do respect that movement and believe it has made many important contributions to our political life. Although I do have serious criticisms of the role ALEC has played in our politics, my concerns have to do with threats to core American notions of due process and transparent governance. I worked hard to avoid partisan criticism, enough so that I’m pretty sure many readers to my left thought that I wasn’t nearly critical enough in what I wrote.

My situation is filled with irony, too. Like Cronon, I am not a member of, or an activist for, either party. My political leanings have been progressive over the past 18-20 years, but I have voted for members of both parties. My blog primarily is about corruption in our justice system, not politics--and I've criticized lawyers and judges from both political persuasions.

There is at least one major difference in my situation and that of Prof. Cronon. UAB currently has a corrupt and inept administration, and it appears GOP operatives successfully lobbied weak-kneed officials to fire me. The University of Wisconsin, thankfully, appears to actually be run by ethical people. We've seen no signs that Republicans will get very far in trying to harm Prof. Cronon's career.

In fact, all the Wisconsin GOP has managed to do so far is to bring its under-handed tactics to national attention. Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, tackles the story in a Sunday op-ed piece titled "American Thought Police." Krugman said the effort to go after Cronon's e-mails is the latest example of what has become a common GOP tactic:

If this action strikes you as no big deal, you’re missing the point. The hard right — which these days is more or less synonymous with the Republican Party — has a modus operandi when it comes to scholars expressing views it dislikes: never mind the substance, go for the smear. And that demand for copies of e-mails is obviously motivated by no more than a hope that it will provide something, anything, that can be used to subject Mr. Cronon to the usual treatment.

The Cronon affair, then, is one more indicator of just how reflexively vindictive, how un-American, one of our two great political parties has become.

I'm pleased to see Krugman use the term "un-American," because that's exactly how many modern conservatives behave--even though they are quick to wave the flag and employ patriotic rhetoric.

Like me, Krugman expects Prof. Cronon to survive this skirmish in good shape. But, Krugman says, there is a larger point to be made:

Someone like Mr. Cronon can stand up to the pressure. But less eminent and established researchers won’t just become reluctant to act as concerned citizens, weighing in on current debates; they’ll be deterred from even doing research on topics that might get them in trouble.

What’s at stake here, in other words, is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them, and to contribute to public understanding. Republicans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, are trying to shut that kind of discourse down. It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.

We can start by paying attention. The GOP targeting of public employees has been going on in Alabama for at least three years, and now it has landed in Wisconsin. Don't be surprised if it comes soon to a workplace near you. Take it from someone who knows: Being in the cross hairs of the GOP slime machine is not pleasant.

Prof. Cronon probably is learning something I've known for a while. When the GOP targets you, it has almost nothing to do with facts, ethics, or common sense. If you have written something that causes them to think you are a threat, they will try to harm or ruin your career.

The fact this kind of retaliation is blatantly unlawful is not likely to slow them down one bit.

Would Bill Help Clean Up Domestic-Relations Courts in Alabama?


Experience has taught us that Alabama courts--at both the state and federal levels--are riddled with corruption. The worst area for misconduct, we've found, might be domestic-relations court.

We have written one post that referred to domestic-relations court in Jefferson County as a cesspool. We've seen evidence that the situation is just as bad in Shelby County. And we've written about a shadowy hunting club, where judges and lawyers from certain firms apparently gather to cook domestic-relations cases.

We soon will be writing much more about all of these topics. But for now, we have learned about a bill in the Alabama Senate that might be a sign of hope for much-needed reform in our state's divorce and child-custody courts.

Why are domestic-relations courts prone to official abuse? We think it's partly because judges have too much discretion, allowing them to rule based on whim rather than law or fact. We also think that lawyers at certain firms have figured out that domestic-relations cases, with the help of crooked judges, are an easy way to bring home money. In other words, unethical judges and lawyers feed off the suffering of men, women, and children in splintering families.

Sound ugly? That's because it is. But Alabama Senate Bill 196 proposes to change the equation. Would it make divorce courts less corrupt and more supportive of families in crisis? Supporters say the answer is yes, mainly by reducing the power of judges and lawyers and leveling the playing field for parents.

In the case of two fit parents, supporters say, the bill would require courts to address child-custody issues from a 50-50 standpoint. From SB 196:

Under existing law, there is a presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child when each parent requests it in a divorce or other proceeding involving child custody, but as a matter of practice, each parent may not share equally in the rearing of the child when joint custody of a child is ordered by a court.

This bill would state the intent of the Legislature to make Alabama law regarding child custody and support consistent with current social science data and federal welfare reform laws, to safeguard due process, equal protection, and liberty interest rights found in the U.S. Constitution and the Alabama Constitution, and to ensure that Alabama children have freedom of association with each of the two fit parents.

What about specifics? From the bill:

This bill would require a parenting plan in every case involving the custody of a child. This bill would require the plan to contain certain provisions including a designation of which parent may exercise primary authority in making childrearing decisions regarding custody of a child at designated times.

This bill would require the court to order equal parenting time with each of the two fit parents unless one or both parents is determined to be unfit, or absent a fair agreement between the parents not to adopt an equal parenting time arrangement.

This bill would require a finding by a court that a parent is unfit to be made in writing and supported by clear and convincing evidence.

Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) is sponsor of the bill, and all of the co-sponsors are white, male Republicans. Critics are likely to charge that the bill favors men over women in the custody setting. I have spoken with at least one female supporter of the bill who says it would make courts more fair for both mothers and fathers, reducing the corrupting influence of judges and lawyers.

A public hearing on SB 196 is set for 9 a.m., Wednesday (March 30) in room 609-A of the Alabama State House, which is at:

11 South Union Street
Montgomery, AL 36130

General Information: (334) 242-7800


Below is the full text of SB 196:


Alabama Senate Bill 196

Friday, March 25, 2011

ABC News Exposes Debt Collectors and Their Ugly Tactics

Elisabeth Leamy of ABC News

Sleazy debt collectors are back in the national spotlight, thanks to a recent investigative report from ABC World News Tonight.


Complaints against debt collectors have increased 17 percent over the past year. And reporter Elisabeth Leamy shines light on some of the industry's most shocking tactics, such as use of obscene and racist language and threats to have alleged debtors arrested.

The ABC story certainly grabs the viewer's attention, focusing on collectors that probably are on the fringe of the industry. (See link to video below.) But we would like to see Leamy follow up with a piece about the slightly more subtle tactics that some mainstream collectors use. These tactics might not immediately shock the viewer, but they, too, are illegal and probably are highly effective for collectors, helping them turn handsome profits in a time of economic hardship for many Americans.

We also would like to see ABC News focus on the role of debt-collection lawyers, such as Derrick McGavic of Eugene, Oregon, who recently was forced to give up his law license and close his practice after a barrage of consumer complaints.

As regular readers know, Mrs. Schnauzer and I have encountered mainstream collectors, such as Pennsylvania-based NCO, and their lawyers, such as Angie Ingram of Ingram and Associates in Birmingham. Like the sleazy outfits spotlighted by ABC News, NCO and Ingram treat the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) as barely a bump in the road, something that doesn't even slow them down in their underhanded pursuit of profit.

Do NCO and Ingram representatives scream obscenities or resort to racist language? We have not experienced that, although they did insult us a number of times. But they do make unlawful threats, of a slightly more subtle variety than the "we're going to have you arrested" standby. And like some of the alleged debtors featured on ABC, we captured these moments on audiotape. We soon will be sharing this audio with Legal Schnauzer readers so you can get a feel for how these outfits operate.

Our problems started from a debt I allegedly had on an American Express card. Millions of Americans have cards from AMEX, MasterCard, VISA and other well-known national companies. NCO and Ingram are the types of firms that often wind up trying to collect for those companies--and you can expect them to bend, or flat out break, the law. Based on our experiences, here are a few things you can look for:

* Failure to provide written notice of debtor rights--This so-called "mini Miranda" warning is required by the FDCPA, and neither NCO nor Ingram provided it before launching a phone campaign in our direction. Why is that? The mini Miranda is designed to alert the alleged debtor of a potential problem and educate them about their rights under the law. That works against collectors. We suspect they much prefer to catch individuals cold via the phone, in an effort to strong-arm money out of them that they might not even owe--or that the collectors almost certainly cannot prove they owe.

* False statements about who they represent--Ingram reps told us repeatedly that they worked for American Express, that they had been hired by American Express, that Angie Ingram was American Express' lawyer. That was a blatant lie, which amounts under the law to fraud. Discovery in our ongoing lawsuit shows that Ingram was hired by NCO and, in fact, is a member of the NCO Attorney Network. Ingram admitted in discovery that it had no documents from American Express even showing that I had a card, much less that I owed a debt on one. Why the lies? Our guess is that the Ingram reps know it is more effective to say they work for a national credit-card company than to tell the truth--that they work for a debt collector that the listener probably has never heard of.

* Threats to sell our house "on the courthouse steps"--In our view, this tactic is more lowdown than the use of obscene or racist language. What is one of the greatest fears for many Americans? Losing their home, having nowhere to live. Ingram reps repeatedly told us that they were going to sell our house, the whole thing, "on the courthouse steps" Never mind that they can't do that under the law, especially for an alleged debt, in a relatively small amount, that was only in my name--while my wife and I jointly own our house. In fact, an Ingram rep told Mrs. Schnauzer that they were going to sell her house, moments after admitting that the alleged debt did not involve her. Why use of the term "on the courthouse steps"? That makes it a form of public humiliation for the alleged debtor. Again, we suspect this kind of threat is extraordinarily effective in getting targets to cough up money they might not even owe. It also is grossly unlawful.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the ABC News report came from Fred Williams, a Buffalo News reporter who spent three months working undercover as a debt collector. Williams also has written for Kiplinger's, Personal Finance, and USA Today and probably has done more than any other American journalist to expose unethical debt collectors. You can check out Williams' reports here:

Fred Williams: Fight Back Against Unfair Debt Collection Practices

Buffalo News: Unlawful Debt-Collection Practices Work

Kiplinger's: Confessions of a Debt Collector

What was perhaps the most eye-opening information that Williams learned while working undercover? That debt collectors violate the law intentionally, that they train their people to use abusive and unlawful tactics.

We suspect that is the case with NCO and Ingram. We have been repeatedly stonewalled in our efforts, through the discovery process, to get information about their training materials. U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon has repeatedly violated clear federal law by allowing the debt collectors to withhold information.

Perhaps that should not be a surprise. Before being appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, Kallon worked for the Birmingham firm of Bradley Arant, a notoriously right-wing, pro-business outfit. While at Bradley Arant, Kallon specialized in defending businesses that discriminate against employees. He even helped "investigate" the rampant sex and race discrimination that is alleged in multiple lawsuits against Campus Crest Communities and CEO Ted Rollins, a topic we have covered at Legal Schnauzer.

Even though we have NCO/Ingram violations on audiotape, Kallon has found a number of creative ways to let them off the hook, so far. What a guy! And what a "great choice" by Obama to be a federal judge. Another example of a Democratic administration's dreadful performance on justice issues.

We have much more coming on the actions of NCO and Ingram--and Judge Abdul Kallon's efforts to let them get away with rampant violations of state and federal laws. It's an ugly story, but we hope it will help educate other consumers who someday are likely to get calls from the "bottom feeders" of the debt-collection industry.

We are pleased to see that Fred Williams and reporters from ABC News already are on the story.


ABC News: The Shocking Tactics of Debt Collectors


[Image: abcnews.com]

A Schnauzer Correction Regarding George Soros

George Soros

We would like to correct some information in our post titled "International Gambling Operations Have Roots in Alabama," from March 22, 2011.

A source tells Legal Schnauzer that the post misstated the role of financier George Soros in the sale of a U.S. company to Chinese concerns. The post, in part, stated:

In 1995, Magnequench, with the approval of the Clinton administration and what WMR was told was a financial boost from George Soros, was sold to a consortium that included two Chinese companies, San Huan New Materials and Hi-Tech Inc., partly owned by the Chinese government's Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and China National Nonferrous Metals Import and Export Corporation (CNIEC). In fact, both companies were owned by in-laws of Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping, who, WMR previously reported, maintained close ties to Joe Biden who helped arrange with Deng the transfer of lost US electronic intercept stations from Iran, after the fall of the Shah, to western China.

Magnequench's owner, Archibald Cox, Jr., the son of the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Sr., who was fired by President Richard Nixon, permitted the firm's headquarters being moved from Indiana to Singapore. Magnequench's minority stakeholder was Sextant Group, Inc. of New York, an international investment group founded by Cox, Jr. and which fronted the sale of Magnequench from GM to China. WMR has learned from informed sources that Sextant's investment money was linked to the Bush family and Soros.

Archibald Cox, Jr., the post stated, is a key player in a plan to develop a major gaming resort in Vancouver, British Columbia. Paragon Gaming, which has roots in Alabama, is behind the Vancouver development.

Our source, however, says George Soros got out of the deal that sent Magnequench to China, before it was completed. "Other interests bought out Mr. Soros because they knew he would never agree to their ultimate plans," our source says.

[Photo: Getty Images]

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Something Ugly Is Going On With the Police Department in Mountain Brook, Alabama

English Village in Mountain Brook

The Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook frequently is cited as one of the 10 wealthiest communities in America. But two recent events, one well publicized and the other not covered at all, lead us to suspect something nasty is going on in the city's police department.

Mountain Brook is known in these parts as "The Tiny Kingdom." Folks who don't live in the kingdom, and might be a tad bit jealous, are fond of telling "Brookie" jokes. A sample: How many Brookies does it take to change a flat tire? Four--one to call daddy and three to mix drinks.

That one never fails to get a laugh at middle-class social gatherings in the Birmingham area. But there is nothing funny about recent actions of the Mountain Brook PD.

The first involves the death of a jogger who was struck and killed by an off-duty Mountain Brook police officer. The other involves a woman who seems to be the target of a curious harassment campaign by Mountain Brook officers. What is this woman's "crime"? Through no fault of her own, she seems to have gotten cross ways with one of Birmingham's elite law firms--and one of the firm's high-profile clients.

Does the Mountain Brook PD have the time, and the inclination, to intentionally harass a woman on behalf of a powerful law firm? How can this woman, who spends much of her time taking her two teen-aged daughters to school, band practice, ballet lessons, etc., incur the wrath of Birmingham's suburban elites?

We will address those questions in a moment. But first, let's consider the sad story of Sundeep Caplash, 38, who was struck and killed while jogging in Mountain Brook on the morning of January 31. An off-duty Mountain Brook police officer, who has yet to be named, was driving the vehicle that struck Caplash.

Law enforcement officers announced on Tuesday that Caplash was at fault in the death. Who handled the investigation? The Mountain Brook PD itself, with assistance from the Alabama State Troopers. Reports The Birmingham News:

Cpl. Steve Smith of the Alabama State Troopers, who assisted Mountain Brook police with the investigation, said Caplash was at fault for running with traffic rather than against, not wearing reflective clothing, and running in the street when a sidewalk was available.

It does sound like Caplash contributed to the incident. But was he the only one at fault? Consider this information from an article about the incident in the print edition of The Birmingham News on February 1, 2011. (I have not been able to find this version of the story in an online search or in the archives at al.com.)

(Caplash) and one of his training partners, 42-year-old Jackie Breland, were running eastbound on Montevallo Road just after 6 a.m.

They were near Canterbury Road when a motorist traveling in the same direction, who police haven't publicly identified, struck Caplash from behind.

The impact catapulted Caplash past Breland, who was running in front of him.

"It must have been a pretty hard hit," said Breland's husband, Ben Breland. "It knocked him well past her."

Sundeep Caplash



The driver was identified the next day as an unnamed Mountain Brook police officer. And here are a couple of obvious questions:

* How fast was the vehicle moving in order to catapult an adult male well past his running companion?

* Was the officer distracted by something that caused him not to see the joggers?

Speed limits in the area where the accident occurred tend to be very low, in the 20 to 40 mph range. Was the officer speeding? If he was, then Caplash was not totally at fault.

From personal experience, I know what it's like to come upon joggers who are running in the wrong direction, with traffic instead of against it. It can be aggravating because you know someone is putting themselves in danger. But I've found that if you are driving at a safe speed, and paying attention, you aren't likely to hit the jogger. I've not come close to hitting anyone in such circumstances, and I hope it stays that way.

So why was Sundeep Caplash, in spite of mistakes he might have made, hit hard enough to cause fatal injuries?

It appears we aren't the only ones who have questions about the investigative findings. Consider this paragraph in The Birmingham News story:

Caplash's father, Dr. Vijay Caplash, on Monday said he needed to speak with his lawyer before commenting.

That sounds like the Caplash family is not satisfied with what they are learning about the investigation. We suspect those concerns are well grounded.

What about the woman who is being harassed by Mountain Brook police? She will remain unnamed for now, but her problems seem connected to litigation with a client of the Birmingham law firm Bradley Arant. The client, Ted Rollins, is CEO of Campus Crest Communities, which recently issued a $380-million IPO on Wall Street and is the defendant in multiple discrimination lawsuits. Rollins happens to be a member of one of America's wealthiest families, the folks behind Orkin Pest Control and other enterprises.

Mountain Brook police repeatedly have stopped the woman in recent months for driving with an expired tag. She recently received notice from Mountain Brook Municipal Court that there was a warrant for her arrest and her driver's license had been suspended.

Why is all of this curious? The woman, during this time, has been driving a vehicle that she is allowed to use but does not own. Who does own it? Paperwork in her possession indicates the vehicle belongs to the Bradley Arant firm, a woman named Holly Rollins (Ted Rollins' wife), or both. When the woman tried to renew the tag at the Jefferson County Courthouse, after being stopped several times, she was told she couldn't do it--only Holly Rollins or someone from Bradley Arant could do it.

When the woman sought assistance from Bradley Arant lawyer Dawn Helms Sharff and the firm's client, Ted Rollins, her requests were ignored. The woman finally received a new tag, roughly five months late. By then she had received citations regarding a tag that she could not renew on her own. And now she has notice about an arrest warrant.

Motor vehicle and traffic laws are covered under Code of Alabama, Title 32. I don't claim to be an expert on this section, but my research has not turned up a provision that holds someone accountable for failure to renew a tag on a vehicle they do not own. In fact, it appears that a person cannot lawfully renew a tag on such a vehicle. So why is a Mountain Brook resident being threatened with arrest over a vehicle that appears to belong to the Bradley Arant law firm--and for which the law firm apparently had responsibility for tag renewal?

Shouldn't the Mountain Brook PD be seeking the arrest of Dawn Helms Sharff, Walter Sears, or some of the other fine attorneys at Bradley Arant?

These questions, plus the curious findings in the death of Sundeep Caplash, make it appear that the Mountain Brook Police Department is an organization with something to hide.

[Photos: city-data.com; al.com]

Watchdog Group Seeks Documents on DOJ's Investigation of Tom DeLay

Tom DeLay

A Washington-based watchdog group has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking information about the feds' failure to prosecute former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX).

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. CREW says the DOJ failed to release FBI records related to investigations of DeLay, convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and others. CREW says it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to determine why the federal government never pursued a prosecution against DeLay.

Could this be a first step toward learning why the Obama Justice Department has taken a nonsensical "look forward, not backwards" approach to apparent crimes under the George W. Bush administration? Based on a press release from CREW, the answer appears to be yes.

Texas authorities convicted DeLay on state charges for a scheme in which he illegally helped funnel corporate contributions to Republican Texas legislative candidates. He was sentenced in January to three years in prison, but remains free pending his appeal. The federal government, however, never pursued charges against DeLay--and CREW wants to know why. From the CREW press release:

“Rep. Tom DeLay spent years turning the House of Representatives into his personal casino, and yet shockingly was never federally prosecuted. The American people deserve to know why,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan.

Why is the Justice Department stonewalling on providing records about its actions--and inactions--in the DeLay case? Allan Lengel, at ticklethewire.com, provides insight:

CREW said in a press release that the Justice Department denied the FOIA request because the release of records would interfere with open law enforcement proceedings.

“Yet DOJ told Rep. DeLay in August 2010 it had closed its investigation of him. In addition, the FBI argued releasing records would violate Rep. DeLay’s privacy, failing to take into account that he was a government official and there has been significant public interest in his conduct, the investigation, and DOJ’s decision not to prosecute,” the release said.

CREW's interest goes beyond DeLay. From its press release:

CREW has filed similar requests for records of DOJ’s closed investigations of Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and Don Young (R-AK), former Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), the late Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), and Senator John Ensign (R-NV).

“The DeLay case is just one in a string of troubling instances where the Department of Justice has declined to prosecute blatantly corrupt politicians,” said Ms. Sloan. “The department doesn’t even want the public to know why it didn’t prosecute. If Rep. DeLay’s actions really were not criminal, shouldn’t DOJ be happy to turn over its records and prove that? Why all the secrecy?”

So far, CREW seems to be focusing on the DOJ's failure to prosecute public-corruption cases. But what about cases during the Bush years when the DOJ brought apparently bogus corruption cases, largely against Democrats?

Could CREW wind up seeking documents about political prosecutions, such as those involving former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and Mississippi attorney Paul Minor? The answer to that question remains unclear. But it's encouraging to see that someone is seeking transparency from an Obama DOJ that has been shrouded in secrecy.

Here is a link to the CREW complaint against DOJ:


CREW lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice


[Photo: obama.net]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Bush-Era Political Prosecution Is Back in the Lap of a Corrupt Judge

Paul Minor and John Whitfield

How perverse is the U.S. "justice" system? Consider this: When an appellate court finds an error at the trial-court level, it returns the case to the same judge who likely is responsible for the screw up in the first place.

That scenario is playing out now in the case of Mississippi lawyer Paul Minor--probably the second best-known political prosecution of the George W. Bush era, after the Don Siegelman case in Alabama.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, who is directly responsible for three innocent men being imprisoned in the Minor case, is expected to rule shortly on a motion to vacate the convictions. Will Wingate finally get something right, in a case he has butchered from Biloxi to Holly Springs? He might, given that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered resentencing after throwing out the convictions on bribery. And convictions on honest-services fraud appear to be teetering in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling--in a case involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling--that significantly narrowed the definition of the crime.

Sadly, the Minor case never should have come down to appellate rulings and new interpretations of established federal statutes. The government never had a case against Minor, a prominent trial lawyer and generous donor to Democratic candidates, and former state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield. But a Bush-appointed prosecutor pursued the case through hung juries and multiple trials and finally got convictions--with the help of numerous unlawful rulings from Wingate, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.

Want a nice summary of the Minor case? Consider the words of Minor defense lawyer David Debold in a report from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:

Debold said he knows it's not easy for a judge to reverse a case this late but it's the right thing to do in the wake of the high court decision limiting the honest services statute.

That ruling, he said, "creates real doubts whether Mr. Minor and the judges were convicted on something that is not a crime."

We've shown through probably 100-plus posts here at Legal Schnauzer that Minor, Teel, and Whitfield indeed were convicted for actions that are not criminal--and it was not even a close call, just as in the Siegelman case in Alabama. What was the gist of the charges? Minor had provided loan guarantees to the state judges, which was legal under Mississippi law. The judges later made rulings that were favorable to Minor's clients, and the government contended that was proof of corrupt acts--that Minor received the rulings in exchange for the loan guarantees.

There were several problems, however, with the government's case. One, there was no testimony or evidence that a quid pro quo agreement existed between Minor and the judges. Second, a review of the cases in question show clearly that the judges ruled correctly, based on the facts and law before them. In other words, Minor's clients prevailed because they deserved to prevail--not because of any hanky panky behind the scenes. Expert witnesses were prepared to testify to this effect at trial, but Wingate did not allow it. In essence, the Minor defendants were not allowed to put on a defense, and Wingate's jury instructions simply were concocted from the bench, having little to do with actual relevant law.

Here are two posts that provide a summary of the rampant wrongdoing in the Minor case:

An Inside Look at the Dirty Work of Federal Prosecutors in the Age of Bush

Josef Stalin's Spirit Lives On Through the Paul Minor Case in Mississippi

Some semblance of justice might finally be achieved in the Minor case. But the three defendants have lost years of their lives that they will never get back. They also have lost huge chunks of money in legal fees, and one can only wonder if they will be able to recover some of that through civil actions against individuals who drove the bogus prosecution from the outset.

For now, the case remains in the hand of a district judge who has unquestionably acted in a corrupt manner. And thanks to the concept known as judicial immunity, Wingate probably will never be held accountable.

If the Obama Department of Justice had a spine, it almost certainly could show that Henry Wingate and prosecutors engaged in criminal activity. But that would involve "looking backwards," and we know the Obama DOJ mustn't do that.

Richard Shelby Feeds Off the Carcass of Brain-Dead America

Richard Shelby

How does a reptile like Richard Shelby (R-AL) keep getting elected? This seems to be the key: He has the audacity to talk to his constituents like they are imbeciles--and a solid majority of them, at election time, prove that he is right.

Want the latest example of Richard Shelby playing Alabamians for fools? It comes from his stunning explanation of the national debt, plus his two-faced take on the current air strikes against the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

At a town-hall meeting in Fairhope, Alabama, Shelby used a large chart to show--hold onto your hats--that the national debt started exploding in 1980. Shelby went on to question whether President Barack Obama has determined an "end game" in Libya.

Did it occur to anyone in the audience that Shelby's explanation regarding the national debt coincided with the rise to power of Republican icon Ronald Reagan? Did anyone notice that it coincided with the rise of Shelby himself, who has become a notorious pork-barrel spender since being elected to Congress in 1978? Apparently not.

Richard Shelby is concerned, all of a sudden, about the national debt? That's like David Berkowitz speaking out for gun control.

Consider the following paragraphs, which Mobile Press-Register reporter Russ Henderson apparently wrote with a straight face:

Shelby talked principally about the national debt. A large chart showing bar graphs, held up by one of Shelby’s staff members, illustrated the rapid expansion of the federal government’s debt from 1980 to the present.

"It took us 200 years to get to here," Shelby said, pointing to the shortest bar on the left end of the graphic — signifying the nation’s $909 billion debt in 1980.

"It’s taken us just a few decades to get here," Shelby said, pointing to the huge bar on the far right side of the graphic, signifying the nation’s $13.5 trillion debt today.

So, the national debt has grown by roughly 14 fold on Richard Shelby's watch, but we are supposed to look to him for answers? Do Alabamians detect any irony in that?

Shelby also has a furrowed brow when he talks about Libya:

Some audience members asked how the United States will extract itself from Libya after air strikes began Saturday against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in support of a popular uprising there.

Shelby said it was unclear whether President Barack Obama has any "end game" in mind at all. "If we get rid of Gadhafi, what will it be? I think they are just hoping things will turn out for the good," Shelby said. He acknowledged that he voted in favor of the Iraq war in 2003, but didn’t elaborate further.

"These are tribal countries. If you need to go to one, don’t stay long," Shelby said. "When the shah was overthrown in Iran, we said ‘Great, now they can have a democracy.’ We all know how that turned out."

As the article points out, this is the same Shelby who supported George W. Bush's clueless and reckless intervention in Iraq. Gee, we all "know how that turned out." Isn't it interesting that Shelby did not want to go into details about his support for the Iraq war?

I must confess that Richard Shelby once had me snookered, too. Here's what I wrote last spring in a post titled "Richard Shelby is a Reptile!"

Before I became a somewhat enlightened progressive, I was what you might call a "clueless moderate." I bounced back and forth between the parties, voting for who I perceived to be the "best candidate." That brilliant strategy caused me to cast votes for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, essentially endorsing their efforts to ruin our nation's finances for generations to come.

During this time--what I call my "wilderness period"--I was having lunch one day with a liberal coworker when Richard Shelby's name came up. I opined that our U.S. senator, then a Democrat, seemed like an OK guy. My lunch companion reacted as if he had been struck with a red-hot poker.

"Oh God," he said. "Richard Shelby is a reptile!"

Looking back, I'm not sure I've ever personally witnessed truer words being spoken.

I'm thankful the scales finally fell from my eyes. Let's hope other Alabamians eventually will have a similar experience.

[Photo: huffingtonpost.com]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

International Gambling Operations Have Roots in Alabama

The planned casino resort in Vancouver

For a state that supposedly is "anti gambling," Alabama sure has a tendency to export gaming ventures to other states--and even other countries.

A plan to start a Russian lottery was developed in Alabama, under a group called Global Trust Partners. That effort faltered and spawned a number of lawsuits, including a major one now unfolding in New York. (More on that in a moment.) But that has not stopped Alabamians from becoming engaged in international gaming activities.

The latest such effort comes in Canada. A mega gaming resort is planned for Vancouver, British Columbia, and many local citizens want no part of the operation. The opponents have solid grounds for concern, reports investigative journalist Wayne Madsen, because the facility has ties to some shadowy figures in Alabama. Such operations, Madsen writes, have connections to unlawful transactions involving big oil and defense contractors.

From a recent article titled "Grand Casino North America" at Wayne Madsen Reports (WMR):

North America--the United States and Canada--is being turned into one huge casino, where politicians receive kickbacks from criminal syndicates and illegal business deals involving American and Canadian companies. The secretive deals involve defense contractors that are intent on exporting jobs and sensitive rare earth mineral defense technology overseas and are laundering foreign pay-offs to U.S. and Canadian firms through North American gambling operations with impunity. That's the take by a former top-level Republican Party source who has witnessed the backroom deals personally.

The "casino-ization" of North America involves top politicians in Alabama, including former Republican Governor Bob Riley, a rumored 2012 presidential candidate; his son Rob's business operations; the leadership of British Columbia and the city of Vancouver; Texas oil interests; and casinos in Macau in which the family of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has a major stake.

How does it all tie together? WMR explains:

In 2000, Valparaiso, Indiana-based UGIMAG, which produced defense technology-related rare earth neodymium-iron-boron and samarium-cobalt alloy miniaturized super-magnets, was sold to Magnequench International, Inc., a Delaware-registered company that was originally part of General Motors Delphi Automotive Systems Energy and Engine Management Systems division before it was spun off. UGIMAG became Magnequench UG. Insight magazine reported that Magnequench had a contract with SL Montevideo Technology of Montevideo, Minnesota, a division of SL Industries of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, to supply it with super-magnets for a Defense Department contract to produce servo motors for the precision-guided JDAM missile.

In 1995, Magnequench, with the approval of the Clinton administration and what WMR was told was a financial boost from George Soros, was sold to a consortium that included two Chinese companies, San Huan New Materials and Hi-Tech Inc., partly owned by the Chinese government's Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and China National Nonferrous Metals Import and Export Corporation (CNIEC). In fact, both companies were owned by in-laws of Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping, who, WMR previously reported, maintained close ties to Joe Biden who helped arrange with Deng the transfer of lost US electronic intercept stations from Iran, after the fall of the Shah, to western China.

Magnequench's owner, Archibald Cox, Jr., the son of the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Sr., who was fired by President Richard Nixon, permitted the firm's headquarters being moved from Indiana to Singapore. Magnequench's minority stakeholder was Sextant Group, Inc. of New York, an international investment group founded by Cox, Jr. and which fronted the sale of Magnequench from GM to China. WMR has learned from informed sources that Sextant's investment money was linked to the Bush family and Soros.

What does all of this have to do with Alabama and Canada? A source tells Legal Schnauzer that Archibald Cox Jr. appears to be a key player in the Vancouver resort deal. And while Canadian news outlets state that Paragon Gaming is based in Las Vegas, it's real roots are in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home to Robert Sigler, who operates a dozen or more companies under the Crimsonica banner. Sigler was at the heart of Global Trust Partners, which launched the Russian-lottery plan. Reports WMR:

Magnequench maintained a factory in Anderson, Indiana and another facility in Huntsville, Alabama and Alabama is where the story about Magnequench begins to involve top-level corruption by senior Republicans in the state. Magnequench's factory operations were eventually transferred to China with the approval of the Bush administration. WMR has learned that individuals closely linked to Alabama Governor Bob Riley, as well as to US Judge Mark Fuller, the judge who sent former Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman to prison for corruption, were closely linked to the transfer of the magnet technology to China from where it was re-exported for use in Iran's, Pakistan's, and North Korea's uranium enrichment programs."

Speaking of Robert Sigler and Global Trust Partners, their failed Russian lottery plan left at least one investor holding the bag--and wanting his money back. Bipinchandra Shah filed a lawsuit in New York, seeking an unpaid $5.8-million court judgment for a defaulted loan. Shah, won the judgment in 2008 from the London Court of International Arbitration against a global investment partnership and a Russian bank.

From an article at The Distressed Debt Report (DBR):

Shah loaned RLI Partners of Gibraltar and affiliate Investment Lottery of Moscow a $3 million short-term bridge facility in 2005. The loan was to have been replaced by a $60 million facility from Alabama-based Global Trust Partners to jointly pursue the All Russian Electronic Lottery System project. Global Trust wasn't named as a party in the lawsuit.

RLI and Investment Lottery had obtained an exclusive license from the Russian government in 2004 to develop the lottery, according to court documents.

The Mobile Register reported in 2005 that Global Trust had intended to ultimately raise $300 million for the project, which involved the installation of 50,000 electronic terminals throughout Russia. After becoming fully operational within a few years, it was to have been the largest lottery system in the world, according to the report.

What went wrong? DBR reports:

Global Trust bailed out of the financing, however, causing RLI and Investment Lottery to default on the bridge loan. A person close to the situation said that Global Trust ultimately found the project too risky and considered the business plan presented by RLI and Investment Lottery to be inadequate. The person said that Global Trust's investors lost millions of dollars of their own on the project. They are trying to recoup their losses through the Alabama state securities commission and lawyers in Russia.

Failures to obtain financing caused RLI to disband a company it created in Gibraltar and Moscow specifically to develop a Russian lottery.

RLI and Investment Lottery's license with the Russian government has since expired, according to people familiar with the situation.

We will continue to follow the Shah lawsuit and the Vancouver-resort story. We are not opposed to legalized and regulated gaming, but gambling operations with roots in Alabama have tended to be of a dubious nature. Questionable activities at the intersection of gambling and government have torn at Alabama's social fabric and probably contributed to the massive corruption that plagues our state.

We suspect opponents of the planned resort in Vancouver are wise to be asking tough questions.

Debt-Collection Lawyer Is Forced to Close Up His Sleazy Shop


A prominent debt-collection attorney has been forced to give up his license and close his practice after an investigation sparked by complaints from more than 100 consumers.

Derrick McGavic, of Eugene, Oregon, also had to pay $70,000 to cover the investigative costs for the state attorney general's office. McGavic and Finney was one of the most high volume debt-collection law firms in Oregon and was known for representing national third-party debt collectors, who buy large amounts of defaulted consumer debt for pennies on the dollar and then try to collect.

The debt-collection industry is notorious for shady outfits, but press reports tend to focus on the individuals who sit in cubicles and place one call after another. The McGavic case is significant because it unmasks a big fish, a lawyer who routinely violated the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA).

This story hits close to home here at Legal Schnauzer because my wife and I have encountered a law firm that sounds an awful lot like the McGavic outfit. Ingram and Associates, of Birmingham, was hired by NCO, a large national debt collector based in Pennsylvania, to sue me over a debt I allegedly owed to American Express. The Ingram firm, headed by attorney Angie Ingram, committed numerous FDCPA violations--not to mention fraud and other state-law claims--and we filed a lawsuit that is pending in U.S. district court.

We see at least one major difference between our experience and what happened in Oregon. The Birmingham legal community, including federal judges, has gone to extraordinary and unlawful lengths to protect Angie Ingram. Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, on the other hand, was not afraid to go after a corrupt lawyer, on behalf of consumers. A major hat tip to Mr. Kroger, and may we someday find more public officials like him.

How did the McGavic firm step in deep doo-doo? The Eugene Register-Guard reports:

The state found a pattern of falsifying fee affidavits in motions for default by claiming services McGavic did not perform.

McGavic also is alleged to have arbitrarily increased fees based on the amount of money claimed or where the claim was filed.

Another allegation is that McGavic purposely misidentified or confused the identity of creditors to delay payment and thereby increase the fees and interest he could charge. He was accused of repeatedly calling debtors who had exercised a right not to be contacted further and did not provide specific information about the debts when it was requested.

Boy, that sounds familiar, especially the last paragraph. Let's consider just a few of the unlawful actions Mrs. Schnauzer and I have witnessed from Ingram and NCO:

* Failure to provide written notification regarding a debt--Under the FDCPA, debt collectors are required to give written notice of an alleged debtor's rights under the law. This is called a "mini Miranda" notice in the debt-collection world. The McGavic firm apparently made it a practice to ignore this requirement. Based on our experience, the Ingram firm does the same thing. We never received a "mini Miranda" notice and were completely caught off guard when Ingram representatives started calling us on the phone. Collectors, of course, like it when their targets are caught off guard, and that probably explains why written notification often is not sent. Angie Ingram stated under oath in our lawsuit that her firm sent the notice two days before calling us. But Mrs. Schnauzer testified under oath that one of Ingram's representatives admitted in a phone conversation that the firm had not prepared or sent written notice. In my conversations with two Ingram reps, which I tape recorded, neither ever mentioned a written notification or their obligation to send one.

* Confusing the identity of creditors--This apparently was a favorite of the McGavic firm, and we experienced a similar tactic from Ingram. Ingram did not try to confuse us regarding creditors, but it did lie to us about who the firm represented. Ingram reps repeatedly told us that they had been hired by American Express, that Angie Ingram was American Express' lawyer. Discovery in our lawsuit has shown that was a blatant lie and clearly meets the legal definition of fraud. In fact, Ingram was hired by NCO, and the firm admitted it had no documents from American Express to prove I even had an AMEX card, much less that I owed a debt on one. Obviously, it's an effective tactic for a debt-collection law firm to say it has been hired by a well-known national credit-card company--as opposed to being hired by NCO, which an alleged debtor probably has never heard of. This violates federal and state laws, but debt collectors want money--whether they can prove it's actually owed or not--and they'll do most anything to get it.

* Threatening to sell our house--Ingram reps told us on multiple occasions that they could sell our house "on the courthouse steps." Never mind that the alleged debt was in my name only, and my wife and I jointly own our house. In fact, an Ingram rep told my wife they were going to sell her house, not long after admitting Mrs. S. had nothing to do with the alleged debt. I've yet to see a statute that says a jointly owned house can be sold in its entirety--on the courthouse steps, or anywhere else--to satisfy an alleged credit-card debt.

McGavic's law practice did not collapse overnight; his fall was years in the making. Williamette Week, in the Portland area, reported three years ago about numerous federal lawsuits the firm had settled. McGavic apparently treated the settlements as the cost of doing business and went about his unlawful way. The misconduct finally became so blatant that the state attorney general and state bar stepped in, shutting down the firm.

God only knows how many debt-collection law firms around the country need to meet a similar fate. Williamette Week provided insight on the ugly incentives that lead so many debt collectors to violate the law:

To understand why a lawyer might cross the line in his efforts to collect, it helps to know a bit about how America’s billion-dollar debt-collection industry works.

Credit-card companies sell their uncollected debts to debt-purchasing companies, who buy them by the thousands for up to 20 cents on the dollar.

Many of those debts are past time to collect. Others have been discharged under bankruptcy. But if the companies play hardball, they can collect enough to turn a profit. So they hire collection agencies and lawyers like McGavic, who can win a court order to raid bank accounts and garnish wages to pay off the debt. But there’s risk for the lawyers as well. They get paid only 25 to 30 percent of what they collect—if they turn up nothing, there’s no paycheck.

The lawyers file dozens of boilerplate lawsuits at a time, hoping a few pan out. Some debtors won’t respond at all. Then the lawyer wins a default judgment and the right to collect—though the deadbeats, if they can be located, often have nothing left to take.

Even some lawyers are turned off by the ugliness in the debt-collection racket:

Portland debt lawyer David Schumacher says the work is typically a lawyer’s last resort. “It’s the necessary evil,” he says. “If you do it right, you’ll be successful at it. I’m just amazed at the rules that are broken out there. It just blows me away.”

[Image: bizjournals.com]