Have Republicans finally gone too far in their use of the Justice Department for political purposes? Is it possible that going after Alabama Rep. Sue Schmitz (D-Toney), a 63-year-old retired social studies teacher, was not such a good idea? Is it possible that U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, who ramrodded the indictment of Schmitz this week, is leading the GOP into some deep doo-doo that won't be easy to rub off?
These thoughts come to mind after reading Scott Horton's insightful post on the Schmitz case at Harper's.org.
I'm wondering if the Schmitz case might finally cause average folks in Alabama, and elsewhere, to wake up and realize that the Bush Justice Department has become an ugly hammer, one that folks like Alice Martin use to brutalize people who have the audacity to serve in public office as Democrats.
When average folks read about the Don Siegelman case in Alabama, the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, or the Cyril Wecht case in Pennsylvania, their emotions might not be stirred. The defendants in those cases might have been wronged, but they perhaps don't seem sympathetic. All are high powered men--Siegelman a governor, Minor a very successful attorney, Minor's co-defendants Wes Teel and John Whitfield were judges, and Wecht is famous for his many appearances on national television shows.
Average folks might say, "Hey, those guys can handle themselves." And for some citizens, it might be fairly easy to believe that a man in a position of authority could pull a few fast ones in the rough- and-tumble world of politics.
But Sue Schmitz? She's a woman, a 63-year-old retired social-studies teacher. From all reports I've read, she is respected and loved in her community. And yet, the other day, she was dragged out of her bathroom, where she was taking a shower, put in handcuffs, and hauled off to prison.
Ms. Schmitz might be tougher than Siegelman, Minor, Teel, Whitfield, and Wecht combined. But something tells me she might make the most sympathetic defendant yet among those who appear to have been targeted by the Bush DOJ for political reasons.
Let's examine a few of the key points Horton makes about the Schmitz case:
* Horton notes that taxpayer expense for pursuing the Schmitz case will be in excess of $2 million. And for what? To show that a social-studies teacher, on the basis of sharply disputed evidence, was not putting in as many hours as she should have in teaching her classes, which were part of the Alabama two-year college system. "This has to count as one of the more absurd (if not malicious) cases I've seen in recent years," Horton writes.
* Horton notes the DOJ's varying approaches to cases of alleged "feather bedding." Sue Schmitz is indicted. But an affidavit by Missouri attorney Paul Benton Weeks alleged that current federal judge Mark Fuller (who oversaw the Don Siegelman case) was an absentee district attorney in Coffee and Pike Counties, Alabama. He drew a salary for his state job, but spent much of his time in Colorado, attending to a business he owned and operated. The affidavit was submitted to federal authorities, but nothing happened. Perhaps that's because Fuller is a Republican, a member of the "home team".
* Horton notes the central role of an investigation into the two-year college system by The Birmingham News and reporter Brett Blackledge. News' coverage has focused almost entirely on wrongdoing by Democrats. But Horton says his sources indicate possible wrongdoing is bipartisan in nature. "Mind you, there's probably no shortage of corruption in this college system, feather bedding and the like," Horton writes. "No shortage of allegations have come to me, Blackledge, and the U.S. Attorney's office concerning corruption. A great many of them involve figures connected to Governor (Bob) Riley and the GOP. But, alas, there doesn't seem to be enough ink or newsprint to allow Blackledge to write about those cases. Or perhaps there's another reason. It would be what my politico friends call 'off message.'"
* Another funny thing about Brett Blackledge's reporting. "Strange that his investigation of the two-year college system neglects to mention that Governor Riley ran it."
* And then there is this: "The last several years have seen an explosion of no-bid state contracts in Alabama in which cronies of Governor Bob Riley are involved. What happens when newspaper reporters in Montgomery submit stories about these scandals to the three Newhouse papers (Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile). . . . The stories don't run, and the reporters get chided."
At this point, we have little information about the charges against Sue Schmitz. The indictment includes four counts each for mail fraud and fraud. Her attorney says she intends to fight the charges.
Substantial evidence points to problems in the two-year college system. Rep. Bryant Melton (D-Tuscaloosa) resigned his elected position in 2006 after pleading guilty to corruption charges. More recently, prosecutors announced a plea agreement with former Chancellor Roy Johnson, who pled guilty to corruption charges and agreed to assist prosecutors in their investigation.
Schmitz might be the first official to challenge charges brought in the investigation. "Whether (the charges) are meritorious or not, Schmitz will be put to hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal expenses and is having her reputation tarnished, all courtesy of the taxpayers," Horton writes. "Whether the charges stand or fall, all of this activity has one clear-cut beneficiary: the Alabama GOP and its plans to "take control of" the state legislature. Funny, but the ballot box doesn't figure very prominently in that effort."