|The scene yesterday at|
Hugo Black Courthouse
For about an eight-month period beginning in May 2010, security personnel tailed me every time I visited the Hugo L. Black United States Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. If I went to the clerk's office, a security officer would take up residence right outside the door or a little ways down the hallway. If I went to the restroom, an officer suddenly had to relieve himself, too.
Memories of that period came flooding back yesterday when news broke that a courthouse employee had shot and killed himself in the clerk's office. David Lee Williams, 50, was the director of building services at the courthouse. At about 9:30 a.m. yesterday, Williams walked into the office of Clerk of Court Sharon Harris, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head. He was pronounced dead about a half hour later at UAB Hospital.
How could anyone, even an employee, sneak a gun into a facility where weapons are strictly prohibited and metal detectors are present at all entrances? Did Williams regularly take a gun into the workplace or was this a one-time event? Why did Williams kill himself at work? Why did he go into Harris' office to shoot himself? Was Williams suffering from mental illness and personal problems, or did issues in the workplace contribute to his demise?
We don't have answers to those questions at this hour. But the event hit home because I've spent way more hours than I care to remember in that courthouse, all because of the various legal issues that are at the heart of this blog. This question quickly came to mind yesterday: If courthouse security had spent less time tailing me, would they have been more likely to notice that one of their co-workers actually posed a threat to public safety?
The vast majority of my time at the Hugo Black Building has been spent on the first floor, in the public area of the clerk's office to the left as you take the front entrance--with an occasional pit stop at the men's room, which is just to the right of the entrance.
I've been upstairs to various courtrooms on maybe a half dozen occasions--once when I was called to jury duty, once when I attended a trial for a discrimination claim that former medical trainee Seema Gupta had filed against UAB, and about four times when U.S. District Judge William M. Acker Jr. conducted docket hearings during my employment lawsuit against UAB.
But probably 98 percent of my time in the building has been spent in the clerk's office--filing documents in various cases involving me, Mrs. Schnauzer, or both of us; or checking records on public computers. I don't recall seeing Sharon Harris' office, site of yesterday's fatal shooting. But I'm guessing it's somewhere behind the glass-encased front counter, just a few steps from where I've conducted my business.
How did I, without even a serious traffic violation on my record, come to the attention of courthouse security? In a general sense, I suspect it's partly because I became recognized as that guy who writes the inconvenient truth about judges. But my life as a "suspicious character" has more specific origins than that.
In May 2010, U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon issued an order granting summary judgment to defendants in our case alleging unlawful actions by various debt collectors. Kallon's ruling was pure horse feces, in part because the defendants had stonewalled us on discovery, and we had notified the court that a number of discovery issues were outstanding and summary judgment could not even lawfully be considered, much less granted.
Much to my regret, we were represented at the time by a couple of con men--I mean attorneys--named Allan Armstrong and Darrell Cartwright. When Armstrong forwarded me a copy of the order, he didn't bother to give any warning about its contents; state that it was incorrect under the law; or note that we could file a Rule 59 motion to amend, seeking to have it overturned.
|David Lee Williams|
I didn't say anything threatening about Kallon or anyone else. But I did use language that was more harsh than usual because I knew that Armstrong was my lawyer, and our communication was protected by attorney-client privilege. He supposedly was representing the best interests for my wife and me, so I wanted him to know in no uncertain terms that we were extremely unhappy with this result and that we knew Kallon had cheated us.
What did Armstrong do? He proceeded to violate attorney-client privilege by forwarding my e-mail to the U.S. marshals service. A couple of guys showed up at our house later that afternoon, said they were from the U.S. marshals office, and wanted to talk with me about my e-mail.
Mrs. Schnauzer and I must have spoken to them for about an hour while standing in our front yard. They actually seemed to be nice guys and treated us in a professional manner. When I asked them how they came to be in possession of an e-mail that was protected by attorney-client privilege, they didn't have a good answer.
Under Rule 1.6(b)(1) of the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct (Confidentiality of Information), a lawyer can reveal privileged information only "to prevent the client from committing a criminal act that the lawyer believes is likely to result in imminent death or substantial bodily harm."
My e-mail contained no statements pointing remotely to a criminal act of any sort, much less one likely to result in imminent or substantial harm to Kallon or anyone else. The U.S. marshal guys seemed to acknowledge that early on in our conversation.
Kallon happens to be black, having grown up in the African nation of Sierra Leone, and I suspect the marshals were dispensed to our home mainly to determine if it housed a couple of racists. Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog should know that is preposterous. In fact, one of my first statements to the marshals was that, if I seemed particularly angry toward Kallon, it's because my wife and I had voted for Barack Obama, the Democratic president who had nominated him. "We expect to get screwed by a judge who was appointed by a Republican," I told them. "But we voted for Obama, and we expect better than this from someone appointed by a Democrat."
The marshals seemed to be taken aback by our confession that we were white, suburbanites in Alabama who had voted for Barack Obama. They gathered themselves to point at two or three lines in the e-mail and say, "What does this mean?"
I said, "It means exactly what it says. It says Kallon butchered the ruling, he probably did it intentionally to protect corporate interests, and I'm highly pissed off about it--especially when you consider that I voted for, and encouraged other people to vote for, the man who appointed him."
The marshals pondered that a moment, and I said, "Do you see a threat in there?" They shrugged their shoulders. "Is there something unlawful about voicing your displeasure, to your own lawyer, when a judge rules in a way that is contrary to law?" They shrugged their shoulders again.
Once we established that they had no real reason to be at our house, we had a pleasant conversation with them before saying our goodbyes. They left by giving us the impression that neither of us was seen as a threat to national security.
But that wasn't the end of it. Every time I visited the federal courthouse for about the next eight months, I would notice a security type following me everywhere I went. Given that I didn't go anywhere other than the clerk's office or the restroom, it was not a strenuous task.
At first, I decided to take the "I'll just ignore it" approach. But once or twice, Mrs. Schnauzer went with me to the courthouse, and they followed her, too. Given that we were only there because we could not find a lawyer to be trusted with our cases, and thus had to represent ourselves, I decided I'd had enough.
I called one of the marshals who had visited our home and told him about what we were experiencing. "When you were at our house, you indicated there was no reason for us to be seen as security risks, so we are getting tired of having someone shadow us every time we set foot in the federal courthouse."
He expressed surprise this was happening and promised to look into it. Apparently he did because the people stopped following us shortly after that. For quite some time now, I've been able to visit the courthouse, conduct my business, and leave, without feeling I was seen as some sort of shadowy figure.
As for yesterday's shooting, I'm thankful that only one person was physically harmed, and I feel bad about whatever demons drove David Lee Williams to take his own life. But I had to guffaw at the headline on one al.com article about the incident. Written by Kyle Whitmire, it was titled "Inside the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse, Justice Rolls On." The general theme was, "Hey, an employee suicide isn't going to stop us from the noble cause of dispensing justice."
Mr. Whitmire needs to remove his rose-colored journalist's glasses and realize his piece is an utter crock. For the most part, justice hasn't even started in that courthouse, so it certainly isn't going to "roll on." Experience has taught me that the corruption often starts in the clerk's office, where the notion that judges receive cases on random assignment is a joke.
When I filed my lawsuit against UAB, the woman in the clerk's office read a significant portion of the complaint, checked a white folder multiple times, and ultimately took 10 to 15 minutes before stamping it as being with Judge Acker. That is random assignment? I don't think so. Her actions indicate she assigned it to Judge Acker for a specific reason.
I later discovered a whistleblower case that a woman named Ingrid Awtrey Law had filed against Performance Group LLC, a physical therapy company owned in part by Homewood attorney Rob Riley, the son of former Governor Bob Riley. The case alleged rampant Medicare fraud in the company, and it also wound up with Acker.
There is no doubt that my unlawful termination at UAB was driven by the Riley family; loads of evidence points in that direction. Ingrid Law's complaint provides page after page of details about fraud on Rob Riley's watch.
What happened in both cases? Both wound up with Acker, an 84-year-old Reagan appointee, and he violated simple procedural law to dismiss both of them, without prejudice.
Is William Acker the designated protector for the Riley family and their buddies at big downtown law firms such as Bradley Arant and Haskell Slaughter? The answer, in my mind, is undoubtedly yes.
Was David Lee Williams aware that he worked in a fundamentally corrupt environment, and that much of the sleaze flows from the clerk's office? Did that contribute, in perhaps a slight way, to the mental distress that caused him to take his own life--in, ironically, the clerk's office?
I probably will never know the answer to that question. But the Hugo Black Courthouse is filled with people who have shaky ethics and priorities that are badly out of alignment. Most of the ugliness stays under wraps, with the public unaware of how its tax dollars are misspent.
In an indirect, tragic way, David Lee Williams shined a little light on the scene yesterday--for those who are willing to pay attention.