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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Did Alabama Lawyer Jennifer Paige Clark Die Because She Refused To Sell Out Her Own Clients?

Jennifer Paige Clark

The Alabama State Bar harassed one of its member lawyers to death, probably because she refused to sell out her own clients, a Legal Schnauzer investigation shows.

The lawyer in question was Jennifer Paige Clark, who was found dead at her Mobile home last May 26, nine days after the state bar had suspended her license on charges that our research shows were unfounded. The clients were Ms. Clark's parents, Larry and Hilda Clark of Flowery Branch, Georgia.

At least three major oddities about the Jennifer Paige Clark case strongly suggest that bar officials knew they had no legitimate grounds for investigating her, much less imposing discipline. So why did they do it? It's almost certainly because Ms. Clark was doing exactly what lawyers are supposed to do--she was providing her clients with zealous representation, and certain judges did not welcome that.

Our investigation shows Ms. Clark uncovered facts that made powerful interests uncomfortable in two states. When politically connected judges could not force her off the trail, they apparently sicced the Alabama State Bar on her. The bar responded by charging Ms. Clark with rules violations that she clearly did not commit--and by conducting a disciplinary trial that, public documents show, make a kangaroo court look dignified by comparison.

What politically connected judges are we talking about? No. 1 on the list is Georgia Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, the son of the state's Republican governor, Nathan Deal. Public records suggest that Judge Deal did not appreciate an Alabama lawyer aggressively pursuing a case against a Georgia municipality and took steps to get Ms. Clark removed from the case. Did that include voicing his displeasure to the Alabama State Bar, leading to a baseless investigation? The answer appears to be yes. (See Judge Deal's order revoking Ms. Clark's admission to practice in Georgia, at the end of this post.)

Even the Alabama State Bar seemed to acknowledge that its original charges against Jennifer Paige Clark were bogus. How do we know? In suspending Ms. Clark's license and seeking her disbarment, the bar made almost no mention of the original charges. Rather, it cited Ms. Clark's conduct during the discipline hearing as the primary grounds for suspension.

Our review of the hearing transcript shows that Ms. Clark did not engage in inappropriate conduct--unless you consider it inappropriate to express irritation at being forced to defend yourself against trumped-up charges. Ms. Clark's main response was to repeatedly, and correctly, state that she could not violate attorney-client privilege by discussing inside information about the case. The Alabama State Bar decided such "misconduct" merited sanctions that essentially would ruin Ms. Clark's career.

Nine days after those sanctions were announced, Ms. Clark was found dead. An official cause of death still has not been announced.

Jennifer Paige Clark's story provides a tragic twist to one of many ugly truths in our dysfunctional justice system. As we have shown in several posts, your own attorney often can prove to be your worst enemy in any court battle. Why does this happen? We will provide more details in a moment, but here is the short answer: The outcomes of many legal battles, in both state and federal courts, have little to do with the relevant facts and law; rather, they often are decided by compromised judges who play favors for certain parties or attorneys.

Published reports indicate Jennifer Paige Clark did not play along with that game. Consider this section from Ms. Clark's obituary, featuring comments from Mobile County District Judge Charles N. McKnight:

Jennifer Clark could be "the sweetest person," according to Mobile County District Court Charles McKnight, and was well liked. "But get her in a courtroom and you could get something completely different,""said McKnight. "She was a very hard worker. She was tenacious to a fault. She vigorously represented all her clients regardless of their station in life. I admired her willingness to represent the lowest of the low."

If Jennifer Clark provided vigorous representation for "the lowest of the low," imagine how hard she would fight for her parents? Ms. Clark represented her parents in a pair of property-related cases, using aggressive discovery tactics--and documents in the cases indicate the Clarks uncovered misconduct involving powerful forces in two Southern locales.

One is Hall County, Georgia, which perhaps is best known to sports fans for hosting the Atlanta Falcons NFL training camp at Flowery Branch. Gainesville, the county seat, is where former Congressman and current Georgia Governor Nathan Deal built his political base.

The other hot spot is in Baldwin County, along Alabama's Gulf Coast and home to a burgeoning real-estate market where beachfront condominiums can yield massive profits for certain developers.

What about the three oddities that raise serious questions about the Alabama State Bar's motives and actions in the Jennifer Paige Clark case? Here they are:

* The Alabama State Bar initiated the investigation on its own--The bar can do this under Rule 3(c) of the Alabama Rules of Disciplinary Procedure. But I know from personal experience, and based on information provided by other citizens, that the state bar routinely declines to investigate cases where evidence of attorney wrongdoing is clear and irrefutable. That suggests it is rare for the bar to launch an investigation on its own.

* There was no client complaint against Jennifer Paige Clark--Our research indicates the vast majority of bar investigations are launched by a client complaint. But there was no such complaint against Ms. Clark; by all accounts, her parents were pleased with her representation.

* The investigation was launched based on information that Jennifer Paige Clark provided to the bar--You heard that correctly: The Alabama State Bar launched an investigation because of information that Ms. Clark herself sent to them. That strongly indicates Ms. Clark did not have a "guilty mindset." Would she have copied the bar on correspondence that she thought contained a violation of bar rules? Of course not. Ms. Clark clearly did not think she was violating any rules, and our research indicates she was correct about that.

Why do so many lawyers turn against their own clients? For many, it's a matter of survival in a profession where the pursuit of power and billable hours has become far more important than the pursuit of justice.

In far too many cases, corrupt judges decide that one party or attorney is going to receive a favorable judgment--or at least will not suffer the kind of damages that might be inflicted in an honest court. That leaves the other attorney to convince his client that it's best not to push too hard--that justice really is being done, even though it might not look that way.

Experience has taught me that the stronger your case, the more likely you are to be the victim of such a con game. That tells me that Hilda and Larry Clark probably had very strong cases--both in Hall County, Georgia, and in Baldwin County, Alabama.

Many lawyers, under pressure from corrupt judges, would have convinced the Clarks to either give up on their cases or accept offers that amounted to a fraction of what the cases were worth. If that didn't work, many lawyers would have withdrawn from the cases, keeping the Clarks' money and leaving them to seek other counsel or fend for themselves.

Jennifer Paige Clark apparently did not treat her clients that way. And she certainly was not going to treat her parents that way.

By refusing to go along with the game that many lawyers are expected to play, did Jennifer pay with her career--and her life. We think the answer is yes.


(To be continued)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Vanguard Group's Portfolio Includes Holdings In Pistols, Petroleum, Poisons, And Pornography

Jack Bogle

Vanguard Group, the nation's largest mutual-fund company, received unwanted attention after the Sandy Hook massacre in December when reports showed that it was a major financial supporter of gun manufacturers. Based in the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern, Pennsylvania, Vanguard is the No. 1 holder of Smith &  Wesson stock and a top-five investor in Sturm Ruger.

John C. "Jack" Bogle, founder of Vanguard Group, said in a radio interview just days after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that the investments simply were part of the firm's strategy to "hold the market" via index funds. (See video at the end of this post.)

Bogle's message, in so many words, was that Vanguard can't be held to any standards of ethical investing because gun manufacturers are in the market, and his firm is committed to "holding the market." If gun makers' products wind up being used to slaughter school children . . . well, Vanguard really can't do much about that, Bogle seemed to be saying.

One wonders, then, how Bogle explains Vanguard's holdings in pornography. Is it strategically imperative to "hold that market"? The answer must be yes because public records show that Vanguard is a prominent holder in at least three companies that deal directly in porn. Vanguard's holdings in companies with indirect ties to porn--cable broadcasters, hotel chains, Internet providers, etc.--clearly are vast.

Vanguard's questionable ethics is not limited to the world of weapons and porn. It is the No. 1 investor in Campus Crest Communities, a developer of student housing near college campuses around the country. Ted Rollins, the company's CEO, has a criminal record that includes a conviction for assault on his 16-year-old stepson in Franklin County, North Carolina. Rollins also was the subject of a social-services investigation, based on a citizen complaint, for possible child sexual abuse involving the same stepson.

The assault met the definition for child abuse under North Carolina law, even though Rollins was prosecuted only for a "simple assault." Does it bother Vanguard Group that it supports a CEO with a documented history as a child abuser? The answer apparently is no.

Part of the reason might be that Vanguard has a long history of supporting various Rollins-family enterprises. It is a major holder in Atlanta-based Rollins Inc., the umbrella company for Orkin Pest Control. It also is a prime investor in RPC Inc., a Rollins company that offers a number of services related to oil exploration and drilling.

Vanguard manages more than $2 trillion in assets, so its fingers are in many financial pies. But the firm clearly has solid interests in what we might call "pistols, petroleum, poisons, and porn."

That last one might come as a bit of a surprise to big-money investors who consider themselves "conservative." But it's right there in the public record.

Most porn companies are private operations, but Vanguard has investments with at least three that are publicly traded:

* Private Media (PRVT)--Based in Spain, Private Media is a worldwide distributor of pornographic films. According to records at rocketfinancial.com Vanguard is the company's No. 5 investor.

* FriendFinder Networks (FFN)--Based in Boca Raton, Florida, FriendFinder Networks is a holding company for numerous Internet firms that deal in adult content. Penthouse Media Group in 2007 bought Various Inc., the parent company of FriendFinder, and renamed itself FriendFinder Networks. Vanguard Group is the No. 6 holder of FFN stock.

* LodgeNet Interactive (LNET)--Based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, LodgeNet is a major provider of pornographic films for the hotel industry. The company has been struggling financially, but Vanguard holds almost 629,000 shares.

Why does Vanguard, with its huge array of assets, need to be involved in porn? Perhaps the answer can be found in Jack Bogle's statements, made just days after the Sandy Hook shootings, about his company's involvement with gun manufacturers:

We are the largest holder (in Smith & Wesson), and we probably own about 5 percent of every corporation in America. The reason we do is that our strategy is one of hold the market. Smith & Wesson is in the market, so we will be holding that. 
Should we speak up? The answer is yes. Should we get out of the stock? I think that is pretty debatable because if your whole strategy is to hold the whole market, you end up making a whole lot of judgments that are never quite as clear as one might hope. 
It's something we ought to be thinking about, but we couldn’t go to Smith & Wesson  management and say, "Get out of the gun business." That’s their business. . . . If we got out of that stock, the company wouldn’t even know it; somebody else would own it. You don’t have the kind of clout you would think that a 5 percent or so owner would have.

Does this attitude explain Vanguard's cozy relationship with Ted Rollins, even though he has a record as a child abuser? It probably does. Does it explain Vanguard's connections to porn? Apparently so.

Should Americans casually accept such an explanation from a company that carries massive financial clout? Perhaps it's time we all started asking ourselves that question.

Here is an interview with Bogle on the Radio Times program at radio station WHYY in Philadelphia, from December 2012, just days after the Sandy Hook shootings:




Tuesday, January 29, 2013

University of Alabama Is Stonewalling Victims' Families In Lawsuit Over Amy Bishop Shootings

Amy Bishop

Here is a maxim I've learned in roughly 12 years of fighting corruption in our broken justice system: If a party in a lawsuit drags its feet on turning over documents in the discovery process, you can almost bet that party is trying to hide proof of its wrongdoing.

A classic example comes in a recent report that lawyers for the University of Alabama System are not cooperating with discovery requests in a wrongful-death case stemming from the Amy Bishop shootings in February 2010.

Bishop, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, entered a guilty plea last September of killing three of her fellow faculty members in the biology department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). The shootings came after Bishop had been denied tenured, and her appeal dismissed.

The families of two of the victims--Dr. Maria Ragland Davis and Dr. Adriel Johnson--sued Bishop, her husband, and UAH Provost Dr. Vistasp Karbhari. The lawsuit alleges that Karbhari knew Bishop was deeply upset about the tenure decision, and he did not follow university procedures for dealing with distraught staff members.

You might think the UA System would have the decency to at least cooperate with victims' families in the Bishop case. But you would be wrong. And that is zero surprise to me.

As regular readers know, I've had the "pleasure" of suing the UA System. That came from my wrongful termination in May 2008 after almost 20 years as an editor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). We've presented indisputable evidence, in the form of a tape-recorded phone conversation with a UAB human-resources official, that I was targeted because of my reporting on this blog about the prosecution of former governor Don Siegelman.

First Amendment violations can't come in a more blatant fashion than that. But did I win my lawsuit on an issue that could be proven beyond a doubt? Nope, and that's because U.S. District Judge William M. Acker Jr., an 84-year-old Reagan appointee, corruptly granted the university summary judgment.

This surely will not make the families of the UAH victims feel any better, but at least they are getting to conduct discovery in their case. That doesn't always happen when you go up against the University of Alabama--and I know from personal experience.

Clear procedural and case law states that summary judgment cannot be considered, much less granted, when the opposing party has not been able to conduct adequate discovery. That simple standard is perhaps best described in a case styled Snook v. Trust Company of Georgia, 859 F. 2d 865 (11th Cir., 1988). Acker ignored the law and granted summary judgment without giving me the chance to conduct any discovery, adequate or otherwise.

Lisa Huggins, one of UA's chief lawyers on the Birmingham campus, has to know that my case was unlawfully dismissed. And she almost certainly knows that's because discovery would have yielded mounds of evidence that I was, in fact, cheated out of my job because certain legal and political elites did not like the content of my blog.

But does Huggins care that my due process rights were trashed beyond comprehension? Is Huggins going to stand up and acknowledge that a judge who probably borders on senility violated his oath to uphold the law? Of course not--and that's because she and her taxpayer-funded client benefited from the bogus rulings.

Anyone who doubts that UA acted with utter disdain for the law in my case, should check out the university's behavior in the Amy Bishop case. And this involves three families who are trying to recover from the violent deaths of loved ones on UA property, under UA "management."

According to a report at al.com, the families had to file a motion to compel, seeking to force UA to turn over discoverable documents. The university responded by claiming the documents would cost millions of dollars to retrieve.

Is there anything out of the ordinary about the families discovery requests? The answer is no, according to these words from reporter Brian Lawson:

The plaintiffs asked Circuit Judge Ruth Ann Hall to order the defendants comply with discovery and subpoena requests in a "reasonable and cost-effective manner." The plaintiffs are seeking phone records for numbers assigned to Karbhari, former UAH President Dr. David Williams and several UAH employees and "security detail information" for Karbhari, Williams and Shelbie King Hall, the UAH administration building. 
They are also seeking "correspondence and communications transmitted by and to Dr. Vistasp Karbhari regarding Amy Bishop via University email accounts."

Phone and e-mail records? That is standard information to seek in a lawsuit. It's exactly what I would have sought if I had been allowed to conduct discovery in my case.

How does UA react to such reasonable and lawful discovery requests? In my case, someone connected to the university commits a federal crime--obstruction of justice--by communicating to a corrupt judge that discovery needs to be short-circuited. (By the way, that's not just a guess on my part; Judge Acker's own words in open court, captured on a transcript, point to such unlawful ex parte communication.)

In the Bishop case, the university wants victims' families to shell out millions of dollars for information to which they clearly are entitled under the law.

Why are UA lawyers behaving in such an unconscionable fashion? I think the answer is simple. In fact, I pretty much predicted the current discovery impasse in a post titled "Lawsuits Are Piling Up Over Mass Shooting In Alabama," dated February 17, 2011:

Playing legal hardball with families who have seen loved ones killed or injured on UA property could turn into a public-relations nightmare. 
Worse for the university, perhaps, is the thought that any of the lawsuits could advance to the discovery stage. If that happens, the public could wind up finding out what happened with Amy Bishop's tenure process in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting. As we reported previously, evidence strongly suggests that Bishop, while she had a prickly personality, met the criteria for tenure: 
"Reports about Bishop's teaching ability are a mixed bag. Some students rated her highly, finding her to be insightful, effective, and caring. Others complained, saying she lectured mostly from the textbook, gave unfair tests, and had a distant manner. 
But Bishop's record as a researcher, alone, indicates that she probably met the criteria for tenure. UAH recently received an Area Research Enhancement Award (AREA) from the National Institues of Health, a grant designed to promote research at universities that have not traditionally received much NIH support. Who brought home that major grant? Amy Bishop."

Our review of the public record leaves little doubt that Amy Bishop met the criteria for tenure, but her bid was denied because certain individuals did not like her--or perhaps were jealous of her. An anonymous colleague reportedly deemed Bishop "crazy" during the tenure-review process, even though the faculty member apparently had no expertise in mental-health issues. From our post titled "What Role Did 'Crazy' Comment Play in Shootings at UAH?"

If the anonymous professor had legitimate grounds for thinking Amy Bishop might be a threat to herself or others, there were other avenues to take. He could have contacted human resources, the legal office, campus police--the list goes on. 
My understanding about the tenure process, and I worked in higher education for a long time, is that it's supposed to be about a junior faculty member's capabilities in three areas--teaching, research, and service. In many instances, I'm told, service carries almost no weight, teaching carries some weight, and research carries a whole lot of weight. Research, which is particularly important in the sciences, was Amy Bishop's strong suit--and that leads us to believe that she almost certainly met the criteria for tenure. 
I've seen no indication that the tenure process is supposed to be an opportunity for uninformed and unqualified individuals to question a candidate's mental health. And it certainly is not a time for administrators to allow such individuals to sway life-changing decisions.

So why is UA now stonewalling on discovery in a wrongful-death lawsuit? As someone who worked in the UA System for almost 20 years and has seen how the university conducts itself in litigation, I have no doubt about the answer: Amy Bishop should have been granted tenure, but her application was denied for improper reasons--and discovery would show that Provost Vistasp Karbhari hardly was alone in handling the process badly.

My guess is that at least a dozen administrators and faculty members played key roles in botching the Bishop tenure-review process and should be held accountable in the wrongful-death lawsuits.

UA is withholding discovery documents in an effort to provide cover for those individuals--and to ensure that the public never learns what really happened with the Amy Bishop shootings in Huntsville.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wall Street Analyst Paula Poskon Tries To Retract Her Honest Comments About CEO Ted Rollins

Paula Poskon

How far will Wall Street types go to protect the criminals in their midst? The answer is pretty darned far, even when the crime in question is documented child abuse.

That's the take-home lesson from my recent conversation with Paula Poskon, of Robert W. Baird and Company. Baird is an underwriter for the $380-million IPO that Campus Crest Communities and CEO Ted Rollins completed in late 2010. In her role as an analyst, Poskon covers the Campus Crest stock, so I sought her out for comment about the ugliness in Ted Rollins' past, which includes a conviction for assault on his 16-year-old stepson and a social-services investigation, based on a citizen complaint about possible sexual abuse of the same stepson.

My primary question was this: How do investors react when they learn that a CEO has a criminal history, especially involving abuse of a child? Poskon apparently made the mistake of giving an honest answer. She first responded by saying, "Oh, my God, I was not aware of any of that." She vowed to research the matter and said investors would find the issue "very concerning," especially since Campus Crest's market, as a builder of student housing near college campuses, is young people.

Poskon's research apparently did not get very far before someone tried to strong arm her into backing off what she had said. In a followup conversation with me, Poskon went to rather extraordinary lengths in an effort to get me to not use her comments--especially when you consider that she regularly is quoted in the press, including such prominent publications as The Wall Street Journal. (See video at the end of this post.) Here is one of our exchanges:

Paula Poskon (PP): I don’t want you to quote me in any of your articles on this particular situation because I’m not equipped to say anything meaningful. It’s sort of like a blank chalk board. I just don’t know. 
Roger Shuler (RS): I can’t go there. We did an interview, and I want to use your quotes.

And then we had this:

PP: You haven’t even told me in what capacity you want to quote me. . . . I’m trying to be as open and factual as I can be, but I would like that same respect in return. I’m not equipped to be quoted on this situation because I'm not knowledgeable enough about it. 
I'm quoted in The Wall Street Journal, and the normal course of action is they will send me the quote they intend to use and ask if it accurately reflects our discussion or if there is something that needs to be changed. 
RS: We had an on-the-record interview and I’m going to use the quotes. I did say I would hold off while you researched this, but it sounds like your research is pretty much finished.

Poskon must have been desperate to have her quotes canned because she was resorting to utter nonsense here. I told her in my initial e-mail who I was and where I was based, that I was a journalist writing at a blog and several national Web sites, and I was interested in Campus Crest Communities--in part because it has a number of projects in Alabama, including a brand new one at Auburn University.

The capacity in which I wanted to quote her should have been clear. If it wasn't clear, she had plenty of time between the scheduling of the interview and our actual conversation to do a Google search on my work or ask me directly about any questions she had.

Poskon also is misinformed about the "normal course of action" regarding journalists and the use of quotes. If The Wall Street Journal runs quotes by her for approval, that's fine, but it hardly is standard practice in journalism--and I've been in the field for 30-plus years. Also, Poskon wasn't seeking to verify the accuracy of her quotes; she was seeking to have them scrapped. There never has been any dispute that the quotes I gathered were accurate.

Eventually, we returned to the subject of research on Ted Rollins' past--and it appears that was "research" Poskon never intended to conduct. She also misconstrued the nature of my interview request. I never asked her to verify the information about Ted Rollins' criminal history; I already had that. I asked for her views on how the investment world views such information. She gave me an honest reply, but that must have made someone in her chain-of-command uncomfortable, especially given the clout that the Rollins family has on Wall Street:

PP: Will I keep trying to learn about it and find out what I can? Of course. But I'm not in a position to comment on this specific situation without doing my own research. And I’m not in the position of putting a finite timeline around having that happen.
RS: I didn’t expect you to comment on specifics or do an investigation because I already know . . .  
PP: But I’m not in a position to comment on what you know. . . . To quote me specifically  about Mr. Rollins or Campus Crest, in the context of his personal life . . . I don’t know. I can’t comment on something when I don’t know about it. 
RS: You did comment, though, on how investors might see this. We talked about the fact it involved young people, and that’s relevant. It was on the record, and I’m going to use it.

Is Poskon being disingenuous when she claims that she can't comment on wrongdoing that she knows nothing about? Yes, she is. I told her that I had written extensively about Ted Rollins and offered to send her links to several key posts. She encouraged me to do that, and the material included embedded public documents that prove Ted Rollins' criminal history in black and white. Poskon acknowledged that she had read the posts, but then proceeded to claim she knew nothing about the matters at hand.

Clearly, Paula Poskon did know about the matters at hand. She just did not want to be quoted honestly and accurately about them.



Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Public Records on Vanguard Group Investments Reveal That CEO Ted Rollins Is No Horatio Alger

Ted Rollins (right) at an event
for the Horatio Alger Association

Ted Rollins, CEO of Campus Crest Communities, is an active member in the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, a non-profit organization that extols the virtues of perseverance and hard work. The association is named for the 19th century author of dime novels about "rags to riches" stories, of people who pulled themselves up from nothing to become successful.

Rollins' support of the association is ironic because he is anything but a Horatio Alger story. In fact, he is mostly a "riches to riches" story. Given what we know about his leading role in the Rollins v. Rollins divorce case here in Alabama, Ted Rollins also does not embody the kind of honesty and integrity that often is associated with Horatio Alger.

How do we know that Ted Rollins hardly fits the Horatio Alger mold? Well, public records related to investments from the Philadelphia-based Vanguard Group tell the story. In fact, those records remind us of an unforgettable quote from the late Ann Richards about George H. W. Bush:

"George was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

Given the massive wealth of the Rollins family--the folks behind Orkin Pest Control and other profitable enterprises--Ted Rollins was born somewhere between third base and home plate. But he still touts the virtues of self-reliance--even though Rollins himself has relied mostly on his family connections to get ahead.

How do we know that? Well, the No. 1 investor in Campus Crest Communities is the Vanguard Group, the nation's largest mutual-fund company. Vanguard played a prominent role in helping Ted Rollins' company secure a $380-million IPO on Wall Street in late 2010.

We've already shown that Ted Rollins has a documented history as a child abuser. He was convicted for assaulting his 16-year-old stepson in 1995. And two years before that, he was the target of a social-services investigation for child sexual abuse of the same stepson, based on a citizen complaint.

Why would Vanguard financially support a CEO with so much ugliness in his background? Is it because Ted Rollins has demonstrated extraordinary abilities as a businessman? Well, given that he helped take American Textile Services, of Louisburg, North Carolina, into bankruptcy in the 1990s, that seems unlikely.

Nope, it appears that Ted Rollins "earned" the support of Vanguard's millions the old-fashioned way--by relying on his family's connections.

Does Vanguard Group support the various Rollins family businesses? Was it deeply invested in RollinsWorld, long before Ted Rollins and Campus Crest Communities came along? You might say that. Here is a brief summary:

Rollins Inc. (stock symbol ROL)

Vanguard is the No. 4 institutional investor (No. 6 overall) in Atlanta-based Rollins Inc., which is the umbrella company for Orkin Pest Control. According to rocketfinancial.com, Vanguard holds almost 3.5 million shares of ROL stock, with a value of almost $81 million.


RPC Inc. (RES)

RPC Inc. used to be known as Rollins Energy Services, hence the RES stock symbol, and encompasses a number of oil- and energy-related businesses. Vanguard is the No. 3 institutional investor (No. 5 overall) in RPC, with almost $3.5 million shares worth more than $41 million.


Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment (DDE)

This Delaware-based firm is a major player in the hotel, casino and horse-racing industries along the East Coast. Vanguard is the No. 9 institutional investor (No. 15 overall), with more than 663,000 shares worth more than $1.6 million.


The bottom line? Vanguard Group has at least a $120-million stake in various Rollins family businesses. Did that help Ted Rollins gain Vanguard's support when it came time to take Campus Crest public? Did it cause Vanguard to overlook any "indiscretions" in Ted Rollins' background? The answer to both questions appears to be yes.

Speaking of irony, consider this press release from the Horatio Alger Association about its annual State of Our Nation's Youth Survey. It includes this quote from association director Terrence J. Giroux:

“It’s the mission of the association to continually invest in our nation’s youth. This survey supports our goal to better understand today’s young people and the most influential changes affecting them."

How has Ted Rollins help further that mission? Let's count the ways:

(1) In 1993, he was investigated for child sexual abuse of his stepson, based on a citizen complaint in Franklin County, North Carolina.

(2) In 1995, he was convicted for assaulting his stepson in Franklin County, North Carolina. The beating was so vicious that emergency-medical personnel administered oxygen because the boy's blood loss put him at risk of going into shock.

(3) In 2005, Rollins filed a false child-support affidavit in his Alabama divorce case. (A case, by the way, that he had unlawfully transferred from South Carolina, where it had been initiated by his wife, Sherry Carroll Rollins, and litigated for three years.) The false affidavit allowed Rollins to cheat his daughters, Birmingham residents Sarah and Emma Rollins, out of hundreds of thousands of dollars of child support.

Ted Rollins representing the virtues of Horatio Alger? Jokes don't get more ugly or cruel than that.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A President's Shame: Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide And Don Siegelman Is In Prison On Obama's Watch

Aaron Swartz

We mark the birthday of civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. today, along with the re-inauguration of President Barack Obama. Sadly, the recent suicide of cyberactivist Aaron Swartz hangs over both events, a grim reminder that the justice for which King fought has been allowed to veer badly off track by our nation's first black president.

To be sure, Obama inherited a dysfunctional justice department from George W. Bush, one marked by historic abuses of prosecutorial powers. But Obama has done precious little to clean up the mess, and now the Aaron Swartz tragedy rests at his doorstep.

The death of Swartz, at age 26, makes you sad upon first reading about it. As you begin to learn more about the circumstances behind his suicide, you become angry. As you realize how much he had to offer, and how easily his death could have been avoided, you begin to seethe. I'm past seething to the point of wanting to see Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her assistant thugs run over by a bus.

Why the visceral reaction on my part? Perhaps it's because, as a resident of Alabama, I became intimately familiar with bogus federal charges against our former Democratic governor, Don Siegelman, during the Bush years. That case has become known as perhaps the most notorious political prosecution in American history. The Swartz case was tinged with politics of a different sort; it seems to have had little to do with Swartz's politics, but Ortiz apparently saw the case as one that might advance her cause for higher office.

Instead, it might make her go down as one of the most loathed Democrats ever. An online petition calls for her ouster, and the U.S. House Oversight Committee has launched an investigation of her. In many ways, Ortiz seems like a cross between Leura Canary and Alice Martin, the Bush-era duo who went after Siegelman here in Alabama.

In fact, the Swartz case raises all sorts of ugly reminders about the Siegelman debacle. Let's take a look at a few of them:

* Both Swartz and Siegelman faced financial ruination--We don't know for sure how much Siegelman was forced to spend on his legal defense, but it almost certainly ranged well into the seven figures. Sources tell Legal Schnauzer that the former governor's second defense lawyer, Haskell Slaughter's G. Douglas Jones, charged him $300,000--and Jones did not even take the case to trial.

Swartz also was looking at being financially destroyed. A Boston Globe article quotes John Summers, a friend of Swartz and the editor of The Baffler magazine:

Swartz never profited from the material he downloaded, was “financially ruined’’ by the federal case, and still needed $100,000 for his defense, said Summers. 
“He was looking at entering federal prison and being branded a felon, which would change his life for doing something that is at best the equivalent of trespassing,” he said.

* Neither Swartz nor Siegelman sought to benefit financially--It long has been established that Don Siegelman did not benefit financially from the transaction that landed him in federal prison. The contribution went to a campaign to establish an education lottery in Alabama.

Even Carmen Ortiz, in a statement after Swartz's death, acknowledged that he did not seek to experience financial gain:

On Wednesday night, the U.S. Attorney's office in Massachusetts broke its silence over the Swartz case. A statement from U.S. Atty. Carmen M. Ortiz extended "heartfelt sympathy" to Swartz's family and supporters but held firm on the office's stance that Swartz should serve at least six months in prison. Her prosecutors handling the case, she said, had acted "reasonably." 
"The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct -- while a violation of the law -- did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the sentencing guidelines in appropriate cases," Ortiz said in the statement.

* Both Swartz and Siegelman were targeted for actions that many legal experts do not consider crimes--In the Siegelman case, he was charged with federal-funds bribery under a statute that is virtually indecipherable. In the context of a campaign contribution, as in the Siegelman case, one has to look to case law to have any grasp of the fine line between an illegal "quid pro quo" and standard political activity. More than 100 former state attorneys general have stated that the alleged actions in the Siegelman case did not constitute a crime.

Don Siegelman
Similar confusion exists in the Swartz case, where he was alleged to have entered a closet at MIT to download academic articles that were offered for a charge at the online site JSTOR. Swartz felt the articles, which had been written based on publicly funded research, should be free to the public. As John Summers noted above, this might have been, at most, an act of criminal trespass--and that is a state violation and not even a misdemeanor in many jurisdictions. So why was this treated as a federal crime?

Writing at The Atlantic, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig said any wrongdoing on Swartz's part amounted to violation of a terms of service agreement:

Aaron's alleged "crime" was that he used MIT's network to access a database of academic journal articles (JSTOR) and download millions of those articles to his laptop computer. He didn't "hack" the network to secure those downloads: MIT is a famously open network. He didn't crack any special password system to get behind JSTOR's digital walls. He simply figured out how JSTOR was filing the articles that he wanted, and wrote a simple script to quickly gather those articles and then copy them to his machine.

Perhaps Swartz violated his contract with JSTOR, Lessig writes, but that normally does not lead to felony charges under American law:

The "terms of service" (TOS) of any website are basically a contract. They constitute an agreement about what you can and can't do, and what the provider can and can't do. Not everything on a website is governed by contract alone: Copyright and privacy law can impose property-like obligations independent of a TOS. But the rules Aaron were said to have violated purported to limit the amount of JSTOR that any user was permitted to download. They were rules of contract. Aaron exceeded those limits, the government charged. He therefore breached the implied contract he had with JSTOR. And therefore, the government insists, he was a felon. 
It's that last step that is so odd within the tradition of American law. Contracts are important. Their breach must be remedied. But American law does not typically make the breach of a contract a felony. Instead, contract law typically requires the complaining party to prove that it was actually harmed. No harm, no foul. And in this case, JSTOR -- the only plausible entity "harmed" by Aaron's acts -- pled "no foul." JSTOR did not want Swartz prosecuted. It settled any possible civil claims against Swartz with the simple promise that he return what he had downloaded. Swartz did. JSTOR went away.

The Obama Justice Department, however, would not go away. It insisted that Swartz be punished with prison time, a guilty plea to a felony, and a bankrupting fine--or he would have to prove his innocence in a bankrupting trial. Writes Lessig:

We have built a system of criminal law that depends upon our trusting the government. Few civil libertarians from either the right or the left, though, will be surprised that it turns out that the bureaucrats manning the battle stations cannot be trusted.

It seems clear that we cannot trust individual prosecutors to exercise their discretion in a reasonable fashion. It also seems clear that we cannot trust Main Justice to exercise oversight over the rogues in its ranks. Tim Wu, of The New Yorker, makes that point in a piece titled "How the Legal System failed Aaron-Swartz--and Us."

Yes, most of the time prosecutors do chase actual wrongdoers, but today our criminal laws are so expansive that most people of any vigor and spirit can be found to violate them in some way. Basically, under American law, anyone interesting is a felon. The prosecutors, not the law, decide who deserves punishment.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Federal Judge William M. Acker Jr. Proves That Lifetime Appointments Help Breed Corruption

U.S. Judge William Acker (right)

Anyone who thinks it is a good idea for federal judgeships to come with lifetime appointments, and almost no accountability, might want to examine the career of U.S. District Judge William M. Acker Jr. in the Northern District of Alabama.

We've already shown, in a case involving workplace discrimination and First Amendment issues, that Acker tends to rule with utter disregard for the rule of law. And we are about to show, in a case involving allegations of Medicare fraud, that Acker butchers civil procedure in order to protect his conservative brethren--even those who appear to be stealing from taxpayers.

Now we discover that a bipartisan watchdog group has anointed Acker a "judicial misfit." The group, which bills itself as The Committee To Expose Dishonest and Incompetent Judges, Attorneys, and Public Officials, has a Web site at noethics.net.

We were delighted to learn that the folks at noethics.net have exposed William M. Acker Jr. as a "misfit." Our only concern is that such a designation will give misfits a bad name; "crook" might be the more appropriate term for Acker.

What drew the watchdog's attention to Acker? Well, it involves the judge's acts of breath-taking arrogance, dating back to the late 1980s. We will take a look at that in a moment, but first let's examine what we already know about William M. Acker Jr.

Consider his actions in my employment lawsuit against the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), granting summary judgment to defendants without giving the plaintiff (me) a chance to conduct any discovery and violating black-letter procedural law. We've presented powerful evidence that, in the process of denying my fundamental due-process rights, Acker might have engaged in a criminal conspiracy.

We soon will present evidence that Acker committed similar unlawful acts in dismissing a whistleblower complaint brought by Alabama resident Ingrid Awtrey Law under the U.S. False Claims Act. Law's complaint alleges rampant Medicare fraud and other misconduct against Performance Group LLC, a physical-therapy company partly owned by Homewood attorney Rob Riley, the son of former Republican Governor Bob Riley. Acker found some creative, and unlawful ways, to dismiss the complaint, protecting Rob Riley and his company from scrutiny.

That's curious because our research indicates Rob Riley, or someone connected to him, almost certainly was responsible for my unlawful termination at UAB. We have words directly from a university official's mouth, proving I was targeted because of my reporting on this blog about the political prosecution of former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman. Given that Siegelman was Bob Riley's primary political rival, and my reporting helped show the prosecution was riddled with irregularities, it's easy to see why the Riley family might have wanted to shut me up.

The bottom line? Discovery in my lawsuit against UAB almost certainly would have unearthed damaging information about the Rileys, especially Rob Riley. And a genuine investigation into Ingrid Law's whistleblower complaint probably would have revealed criminal activity associated with one of Rob Riley's business enterprises. Both cases just happened to wind up with Judge Acker, and he acted contrary to simple procedural law in dismissing them both.

Is William Acker, an 85-year-old Reagan appointee, the designated protector for the Rileys and other GOP elites? It certainly looks that way from here.

None of us should be surprised at Acker's flagrant misconduct from the bench. As noethics.net reports, he has been exhibiting stunning arrogance for years--essentially claiming that the law does not apply to him. The Web site spells it out in a post titled "U.S. Judge William Acker of Alabama; tax scofflaw."

Jefferson County enacted an occupational tax in 1987, and Acker and fellow U.S. Judge U.W. Clemon decided they shouldn't have to pay it. The case, styled Jefferson County v. Acker, made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the judges lost on a 5-4 ruling in 1999.

What made the judges think a tax that applied to other citizens did not apply to them? The watchdogs at noethics.net address that question, at least in terms of Acker:

The state of Alabama presented William Marsh Acker, Jr. with a law license in 1952 after he graduated from Yale University Law School. 
Former President Ronald Reagan was duped into nominating William Acker, Jr. as a District Court Judge for the Northern District of Alabama in 1982 when he was 53-years-old (DOB 1927). 
For at least 14 years (ca. 1987-2001) Acker refused to pay the Jefferson County, Alabama,  occupation tax. In refusing to pay the tax, Acker had the chutzpah to claim that the judiciary should be exempt from a tax that he believed was an effort to regulate judges.

Signs of Acker's arrogance can be seen throughout the occupational-tax case--and elsewhere. From the noethics.net report:

Acker’s asinine argument doesn’t pass the involuntary laugh test. Clearly, Acker missed his calling as a standup comedian. Eventually, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the tax wasn’t unconstitutional as Acker had laughingly claimed it was in a lawsuit filed by Jefferson County to collect the taxes that Arrogant Acker owed. 
After losing in the Court of Appeals, Acker the Comic filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which resulted in the Court upholding the ruling by the 11th Circuit. Put simply, the Supreme Court told Acker to take a hike. 
After serving less than 14 years as a District Court judge, Acker assumed senior status. Senior status allowed Acker to work a mere 10 hours a week while collecting a full salary of $174,000 as of 2012. Is that a sweet deal or not?

So William Acker is paid $174,000 to work 10 hours a week--and he still can't get simple procedural matters correct from the bench. Is this a wise use of our tax dollars? Are lifetime appointments for federal judges a good idea? The folks at noethics.net have a blunt answer:

As we speak (ca. March 2012) Acker remains on the bench in Birmingham even though he’s 85-years-old. The only way Acker’s significant snout is going to be removed from the public trough is when he’s removed from the bench donning a wooden robe.

For Ingrid Law, myself, and others who have served as Acker's victims, that "wooden robe" cannot be applied quickly enough.

Vanguard Deflects Attention From Smith & Wesson; What About Its Support for a Child-Abusing CEO?

Jack Bogle of Vanguard Group

President Obama's sweeping proposals on gun control grabbed the nation's attention yesterday, and they even showed the kind of political courage that has been all too lacking in his administration--at least in the view of many of us on the left. We applaud the president's actions in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, but we suspect the public already has largely forgotten about the investment firms that fuel America's gun culture.

That might be because one of those firms, Vanguard Group of Malvern, Pennsylvania, has done a masterful job of deflecting attention from its support for some of our nation's top gun manufacturers. And that might be because Vanguard Group, led by founder John C. "Jack" Bogle, has a lot of practice at covering up its questionable actions as America's largest mutual-fund company.

For example, most citizens probably have no idea that Vanguard Group is one of the primary supporters of private prisons, which are riddled with corruption. On a smaller scale, Vanguard is the No. 1 investor in Campus Crest Communities, the Charlotte-based company that has become a major player in the effort to privatize student housing at publicly funded universities. Never mind that CEO Ted Rollins has a documented history as a child abuser, including a conviction for assault on his 16-year-old stepson and an investigation based on a citizen complaint of suspected child sexual abuse involving the same stepson.

Some investment groups tried to distance themselves from gun manufacturers in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, but not Vanguard. Company spokesman Doug Hoffman said Vanguard pegs investments toward certain stock index funds, so it often is a passive rather than an active investor.

Published reports show that Vanguard is the No. 1 investor in Smith & Wesson and one of the top investors in Sturm Ruger--and such companies help create weapons that have led to a string of mass killings across the country. But Vanguard's position is to more or less shrug its shoulders and say, "It's all in a day's work for those of us in big-time finance. We can't be held accountable for negative outcomes from our investment decisions."

Perhaps we should excuse Hoffman's nonchalant response to the Newtown massacre because it seems to accurately reflect the view of Vanguard's founder. Jack Bogle appeared on a Philly news-talk program after the Newtown shooting and deflected responsibility as if he were a goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers, the city's NHL hockey team. Here is pretty much the take-home lesson from the Bogle interview:

If we don't invest in gun companies, someone else is going to do it. Besides, we are in no position to tell Smith & Wesson what business it should be in. Are mass shootings bad? Oh yes, but we can't do anything about them.

So much for "socially responsible" investing. Bogle is a bottom-line guy, and you have to give him credit for not pretending to be something else.

Bogle is mostly retired these days, but he remains one of the more talkative types at Vanguard. In upcoming posts, we will take a look at some of Vanguard's other decision makers. We might even give them a chance to explain their financial support for Ted Rollins, despite his history as a child abuser.

Perhaps they will say that Campus Crest Communities, like Smith & Wesson, provides a solid return on investment--and that's all the world of high finance cares about.

Meanwhile, we welcome President Obama's common-sense proposals to control the distribution of deadly weapons. We hope, in time, the president might help shine light on the investment houses that keep the gun industry churning.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Transcripts Reveal That Rogue Debt Collectors Have Utter Disregard For Federal Laws (Part 2)


Are debt collectors likely to violate certain provisions of federal law more than others? Based on my experience, the answer is yes.

We identified those provisions in a previous post. If you ever hear from a debt collector, you might want to be on alert for these unlawful tactics. Using transcripts from my conversations with collectors, we will give you a "blow by blow" account of how consumers' rights can be trampled. (See transcripts at the end of this post.)

My advice is to tape record any conversation you have with a debt collector. We heard from what you might call "high-end collectors," representing a company called NCO that is owned by JPMorgan Chase, the nation's largest bank. If collectors representing one of the largest private corporations in the world act like thugs, you can rest assured that those from the lower end of the "profession" will behave the same way.

Here are three provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) that are perhaps most likely to be violated. The language of the statute can get somewhat highfalutin, but we will spell it out in everyday terms, with citations to the actual law. Then we will pull quotes from the transcripts to show exactly how collectors violated the law:

Collectors cannot communicate with anyone other than you about an alleged debt, except to seek information about your location (15 U.S.C. 1692b and 15 U.S.C. 1692c).

In our case, it was undisputed that the alleged debt to American Express was in my name only, so my wife, Carol, was a third party, under the law. The collectors, Tracy Mize and Jann Blalock of the Birmingham law firm Ingram and Associates, could talk to her only to seek information about my whereabouts. Instead, they talked to her for more than an hour, gathering 14 pages of notes about our personal financial situation. All of this was unlawful, as the transcripts spell out. Here is one example, from Transcript No. 1:

Tracy Mize: Yeah. We just want to know if you’re willing to make payment arrangements and I discussed with Carol some of those options, but she was too shaky and I didn’t feel confident that she was—okay, I gave her some information on if she felt you needed to refinance the house. . . .

Why might my wife have been "shaky"? Oh, I don't know, maybe it was because Mize told her that Ingram was going to sell her house "on the courthouse steps," over an alleged debt that did not involve her. That would make me shaky.

Here's another example from Transcript No. 3:

Jann Blalock: I probably have 14 pages of notes on your account right now at this time. Okay, the first time that I got involved with it was last night when your wife went absolutely hysterical. When she called in and said you were cutting the grass, and we need to know what was going to be done and said this, that and the other.

First, my wife did not call them, they called her; their own records show that. Second, if the Ingram firm offers any training at all to its employees, Mize and Blalock had to know these "14 pages of notes" were unlawfully obtained from a third party to the alleged debt. Did that stop them? Nope.


Collectors cannot lie to you in an effort to collect a debt (15 U.S.C. 1692e).

The discovery process in our lawsuit showed that the Ingram law firm was hired by NCO. Gregory R. Stevens, an NCO vice president, admitted that in an affidavit. Angie Ingram herself admitted that in an affidavit. And yet, Ingram's employees repeatedly told us they had been hired by American Express. That is the kind of "false and misleading" representation that is prohibited under the FDCPA. But Ingram employees tried it over and over again. Here is one example, from Transcript No. 2:

Jann Blalock: There's not anything that we can do, we have a fiduciary relationship with American Express. We represent them . . .  
Sir, all we have to do with you is that we have been retained by American Express to collect a debt.
Was that true? No. Was it unlawful to make a false statement to an alleged debtor? Yes.


Collectors cannot insult you in an effort to collect a debt (15 U.S.C. 1692d).

The Ingram collectors made regular use of insults. They claimed I was conducting a "witch hunt" by pointing to misconduct by lawyers that had tarnished our financial standing. They also said I was "playing schemes," by pointing out that Angie Ingram, under the ethics rules of her profession, had a duty to report misconduct by fellow members of the bar. Tracy Mize acknowledged that her boss had such an obligation, but said she was not going to fulfill it. (See Transcript No. 1.) Here is an example of one insult, from Transcript No. 2:

Roger Shuler: Well, I've been called a witch hunt, and I've been called everything else, and I'm getting sick of it. Do not call me at work. 
Jann Blalock: Okay, you need to find a different horse to ride, sir. This one is not going to work with us, okay?

Here is another example, from Transcript No. 2:

Roger Shuler: Well, you need to quit calling me at work and you need to quit calling me at home if you are going to act this way. I've-- 
Jann Blalock: I'll call you about a debt? I'm not interested in playing any schemes, okay?

If you possess a credit card, or ever buy anything on credit, you probably will hear someday from a debt collector. You might not owe the debt, and they almost certainly will not be able to prove you owe the debt. But they are likely to use unlawful tactics in an effort to milk it out of you anyway.

The tactics are on grim display in the following transcripts:

Ingram NCO Transcript1
Ingram NCO Transcript2
Ingram NCO Transcript3

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Citizens Call For Probe Of Georgia Judge Jason Deal In Connection With Curious Deaths Of Two Lawyers

Georgia Judge Jason Deal

(Updated at 6:05 p.m., CST, on 1/15/13. See update the end of this post.)

A Georgia couple is calling for an investigation of a judge in connection with the unexplained deaths of two lawyers, one of which occurred in Alabama.

Hilda and Larry Clark, of Flowery Branch, Georgia, are the parents of Jennifer Paige Clark, a Mobile lawyer who died last May, nine days after the Alabama State Bar suspended her license. In a letter to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the Clarks say Superior Court Judge Jason Deal played a major role in launching an investigation against their daughter. They go on to say that Deal has apparent ties to the death in December of John G. Wilbanks Jr., who supervised the district attorney's office in Dawson County, Georgia.

Wilbanks' body was found in Jacksonville, Florida, on December 13. That was one day after a report that he no longer worked in the Dawson County DA's office and was the subject of an investigation that a superior court judge had requested. In their letter to John Bankhead, director of public affairs at the GBI, the Clarks say Jason Deal probably was the judge who requested the Wilbanks investigation. They also suggest that Deal, the son of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, had dark motives for targeting both Wilbanks and their daughter. (The full letter can be read at the end of this post.)

Jason Deal presided over a case, styled Clark v. Flowery Branch, 2003-CV-2830, in which Jennifer Paige Clark represented her parents. The Clarks alleged that they incurred damage to their property when the city caused water to be diverted onto private land. Jennifer Clark's aggressive representation on her parents' behalf met with resistance from Deal and apparently led the Alabama State Bar to investigate her--even though our research indicates she did not commit the primary violation alleged against her.

An official cause of death has not been released in either the John Wilbanks case or the Jennifer Paige Clark case. But Hilda and Larry Clark make it clear in their letter to the GBI that they believe an investigation will lead to Jason Deal's doorstep. From the letter:

You should conduct an investigation on Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal and the Hall County District Attorney's Office. We believe Judge Jason Deal now has the mark of two deaths--this year--that we are aware of: Jennifer Paige Clark and John Wilbanks Jr., both attorneys who died premature, tragic deaths because of the actions of Judge Jason Deal. 
I read the article in the Gainesville Times concerning the unfortunate death of Mr. John Wilbanks Jr., who was the supervising attorney in the Hall-Dawson District Attorney's Office. Let me make it clear, I did not know Mr. Wilbanks, nor any of his family; this letter is written only from my own observation. According to the article, an investigation on Mr. Wilbanks began at the request of an unnamed superior court judge, but within the community, it's pretty common knowledge this was at the request of Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal.

According to the Gainesville Times, Wilbanks was involved in a fight last November 19 at a Dairy Queen in Dawson County. Officers responded to reports that Wilbanks had been assaulted, and a Jasper, Georgia, man named William Lee Evans was charged with disorderly conduct in the case. The Clarks address that incident and other issues in their letter to the GBI:

[The request for an investigation of Mr. Wilbanks] appears to be far more complicated than is reported in the paper, and I doubt seriously if it had anything to do with the 'Dairy Queen episode'; but rather, [it was] an opportunity to damage and destroy Mr. Wilbanks and his reputation. Within the scope of Mr. Wilbanks' position at the Hall-Dawson District Attorney's Office, did he witness, discover or file a report on some type of dishonest or   illegal activity within the department? Or on activities of previous DAs? One thing stands out very clear from this article--it's apparent that Mr. Wilbanks had some powerful enemies.

Media coverage on the Wilbanks investigation, and his subsequent death, has been limited and curious. The Gainesville Times, in a December 12 article titled "Dawson Assistant DA No Longer With Office,"  reported on Wilbanks' abrupt exit at work. From the article, by reporter Jeff Gill:

The Dawson County office of the Hall-Dawson District Attorney’s Office no longer has its supervising assistant district attorney. 
John Wilbanks “will not be returning (to) the district attorney’s office,” District Attorney Lee Darragh said Wednesday afternoon. 
Darragh would not elaborate on Wilbanks’ departure. 
“Presently, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further,” Darragh said. “I may issue a press release at a later time, but for now, one would be premature.”

The next day, December 13, Gill reported on Wilbanks' death, in a piece titled, "Dawson Assistant DA Found Dead."  From the article:

The supervising attorney in the Hall-Dawson District Attorney’s Dawson County office has been found dead. 
The District 4 Florida Medical Examiner’s Office in Jacksonville confirmed Thursday that it has the body of John G. Wilbanks Jr. 
Wilbanks was being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, with the cooperation of District Attorney Lee Darragh’s office. 
The scope of the investigation wasn’t immediately known, but GBI spokesman John Bankhead said the death, which he couldn’t confirm, would close any investigation. 
An official with the Fernandina Beach Police Department has said the earliest any incident reports about the death could be released is today.

What does the article tell us about Wilbanks' death? Not much. We know that the death closes the book on the investigation. And an incident report was to be released shortly, but that's about it. And our research turns up no published accounts about the incident report.

Let's consider just a few of many unanswered questions:

* Where was John Wilbanks' body found?

* Who found it, and under what circumstances?

* What was the cause and manner of death?

* What was Mr. Wilbanks doing in Jacksonville, Florida, and how did he get there?

Hilda and Larry Clark raise more questions in their letter to the GBI. They note that the Deal family surely enjoyed the holidays in the governor's mansion, surrounded by staff and all the fine things that taxpayer dollars can buy. The scene was different for the Clark family. "To honor the holiday season," they write, "we put a wreath and flowers on our beautiful daughter's grave."

The scene undoubtedly was equally grim for the Wilbanks family. According to his obituary, John George Wilbanks Jr., 57, had been married for 28 years and had two sons and one daughter. He earned his law degree at the University of Georgia and was a career prosecutor.

In the final paragraph of their letter to John Bankhead, the Clarks raise the possibility of political considerations providing cover for Judge Jason Deal:

One final question: Why would the GBI not reveal the name of the judge that requested the investigation of Mr. Wilbanks? Was it because it was Judge Jason Deal, the Governor's son?

UPDATE: According to a report at accessnorthga.com (12/14/12), the death of John G. Wilbanks Jr. has been ruled a suicide. The police department at Fernandina Beach, Florida, released an incident report the day after Wilbanks' body was found, but it does not appear at the Web site of the Gainesville Times, the primary newspaper in Wilbanks' home area. From the acessnorthga.com article:

The report said that police found the body of John Wilbanks, 57, of Gainesville on the beach at 2410 South Fletcher in Fernandina Beach. Wilbanks had taken his own life Thursday morning, according to the report. 
The report said the Wilbanks family owned a beach house nearby. 
Wilbanks, who was the supervising Assistant District Attorney in Dawson County, had been fired from his job Monday, according to the police report. Police said Wilbanks' wife had shared that information with them, and she also told them her husband had been depressed.

Meanwhile, Hilda Clark reports that she has received a letter from the GBI stating that it will not  investigate any role that Judge Jason Deal might have played in the deaths of John Wilbanks and Jennifer Paige Clark.

The death of another political figure in Georgia remains a mystery, and it is drawing international attention. The body of Glynn County Commissioner Tom Sublett was found on December 11 at a marina on St. Simons, Island. Sublett was shot in the head, but authorities have not determined if it was murder. Sublett, the married father of four who had worked in real estate, was a popular figure in the area, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that residents in Glynn County are perplexed about the mysterious death of an individual who was not known to have any enemies.

We have found no connections between John Wilbanks and Tom Sublett, but we have found some oddities regarding the two cases. Sublett's body was found on December 11, and Wilbanks' body was found on December 13. Wilbanks' body was found at Fernandina Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville, and Sublett's body was found at St. Simons Island, which is just north of Jacksonville.

The Sublett case has drawn international attention from the UK Daily Mail. Reporter Meghan Keneally has an article titled, "Death of beloved town official and married father-of-four found shot and drowned with his hands tied still a mystery a month later."


Monday, January 14, 2013

Chilton County Resident Bonnie Wyatt Is Out Of Jail, But Now She Is Being Forced To Sell Her Home

Bonnie Wyatt

A central Alabama woman who was unlawfully incarcerated for almost five months now is on the verge of being thrown from her home.

Bonnie Wyatt, of Clanton, was released from the Chilton County Jail on December 18, but her freedom came with a major caveat. Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds issued an order on that date, giving Ms. Wyatt 30 days to be out of her home so it could be sold to satisfy an alleged debt from her divorce case.

That means Ms. Wyatt must exit the premises by this Thursday, January 17, so that it can be shown by Amber Darnell, an agent with RealtySouth in Clanton.

Are the fine folks at RealtySouth aware that Judge Reynolds' order is unlawful? Are they aware of how many ways it is unlawful? Do they care about the rule of law or only about the nice commission a court-ordered sale will bring?

We already have shown in a series of posts that Ms. Wyatt's incarceration--ostensibly because of her failure to pay former husband Harold Wyatt $165,000 for his equity in the marital residence--was contrary to law. That is readily apparent from reading an Alabama case styled Dolberry v. Dolberry, 920 So. 2d 573 (Ala. Civ. App., 2005), which makes it unlawful for a judge to subject a party to contempt and incarceration because of a property-related debt from the dissolution of a marriage.

Law doesn't get much more clear-cut than the Dolberry case, but Judge Reynolds ordered Bonnie Wyatt's arrest anyway. A reasonable person might conclude that Reynolds acted with an ulterior motive that had little, if anything, to do with Harold Wyatt's financial picture.

After all, Bonnie and Harold Wyatt lived together as husband and wife for only about 10 months, and she owned the house in question before the marriage. We have found nothing in the court file that proves Harold Wyatt spent roughly $165,000 on the residence during the time he lived with Bonnie Wyatt. And we certainly have found nothing that indicates Bonnie Wyatt authorized such expenditures.

So why is Ms. Wyatt being forced out of a home that she owned from the outset--one that was in the process of being rebuilt after it was destroyed in a fire that was investigated as a case of arson?

Judge Reynolds' orders in the Bonnie Wyatt matter clearly are not being driven by the rule of law. So what is driving them? Our research strongly suggests that Ms. Wyatt somehow came to be seen as a threat to powerful corporate and legal interests in Chilton and Shelby counties. Those issues probably originated with her protracted divorce from Bobby Knox, the wealthy and connected president of Shelby Concrete.

The Knox divorce case started in 2002, and court documents show that Bobby Knox, at one point, threatened to burn his wife's house to the ground. The case was resolved in 2005, and just weeks after that, the house was destroyed in a fire. (Issues associated with the Knox divorce continue to crop up, as recently as 2012, but the basic settlement was reached in 2005.) The house caught fire overnight, with seven people inside--Bonnie Knox, her four children, and two of the kids' friends. Somehow, everyone escaped without injury, but the house was a total loss.

Bobby Knox was not the only nasty character connected to the Knox v. Knox divorce case. Shelby County lawyer William E. Swatek represented Bonnie Knox, and we have shown in a series of posts that he has a 30-year history of ethical violations. Swatek engaged in serious misconduct at some point in the Knox matter, a source tells Legal Schnauzer. Does that mean Swatek, along with Bobby Knox, might somehow benefit from seeing Bonnie Wyatt unlawfully jailed and thrown from her home? We suspect the answer is yes.

Regardless of what is driving it, the forced sale of Bonnie Wyatt's house is every bit as unlawful as her earlier incarceration. Consider the following:

* The so-called settlement agreement in Wyatt v. Wyatt was reached via an unlawful mediation. Multiple sources have told Legal Schnauzer that Judge Reynolds, about an hour into the mediation, summoned the parties to his courtroom and engaged in the proceedings that led to settlement. That clearly is contrary to Alabama law, and it gives Bonnie Wyatt powerful grounds for having the settlement agreement set aside.

* Even if the settlement is considered valid--and we see clear signs that it is not--any agreement the parties reached regarding the marital residence almost certainly is invalid. A fundamental concept of contract law is this: Any agreement generally is considered void if it is reached while one party is under duress. Judge Reynolds' order of December 18 states that "by agreement of the parties," the marital residence would go up for sale, and Ms. Wyatt would be out of the house by January 17. Consider the conditions under which Bonnie Wyatt supposedly agreed to that: She unlawfully was in jail and was looking at returning to jail if she did not agree to sell the house; she was looking at spending the Christmas and New Year's holidays in jail if she did not agree to sell the house. If that does not qualify as duress, then it's hard to imagine what would--short of coming to an "agreement" at gun point.

* Angie Avery Collins, Ms. Wyatt's current attorney, appears to have several conflicts of interest--and we will be addressing those in upcoming posts. Are those conflicts the reason that Ms. Collins does not seem to be objecting to the unlawful forced sale of her client's home?

We recently named the story of Bonnie Wyatt's release from jail as our No. 1 post of 2012. But we knew at the time that the story was a long way from over. And now we know for sure that injustice in Chilton County has not gone away--it simply has changed to a new format.