Sunday, March 2, 2008

Deconstructing Eddie Curran, Part II

After running one episode of "Eddie Curran Raw," Montgomery Independent editor Bob Martin evidently decided it would be a good idea to put some kind of filter on the Mobile Press-Register's acclaimed attack dog.

That filter turns out to be Harper's legal-affairs contributor Scott Horton, the target in part two of Curran's two-part op-ed piece on the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

"This piece, Part II of Curran's writings, is so overly critical of Mr. Horton, we have asked Mr. Horton to respond, which he has done," Martin writes in an editor's note. "His response is in all capital letters to distinguish from Eddie Curran's words. Most quotes are in italic."

Reading this piece reminds me of the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali bouts of the 1970s. Curran is like Frazier, snorting and snarling and firing left hooks and wild haymakers at every turn. Horton is like Ali, deftly dancing around the ring, firing jabs, and expertly fending off his attacker. At times, you can almost hear Horton (as Ali), saying, "Is that all you've got?"

That would be a good question for Curran. Another would be, "What are you trying to accomplish here?"

My Frazier-Ali analogy only goes so far. Those bouts were all close. Curran vs. Horton proves to be a one-sided decision for Horton. You get the feeling Horton could have landed a knockout blow at any point. But he lets it go the distance, curious to see what Curran will try next--and content to win handily on the judges' cards.

The punch that Curran throws repeatedly might be called the "Mark Fuller Special." Swinging from the heels, Curran lets it fly time after time, attacking Horton's accounts of U.S. Judge Mark Fuller and his curious legal/business dealings.

But Curran never comes close to landing his big blow. Perhaps that's because he violates one of the first laws of boxing: Know your opponent.

Curran contends that Horton says Fuller received government contracts as a result of bribes or payoffs. But, as Horton correctly states, that is not the point of his pieces. Rather, Horton's work shows, time after time, that Fuller does not come close to meeting the "appearance of impartiality" requirement of federal law, mainly because a significant chunk of his income, way beyond what he earns as a judge, is derived from government contracts--and the U.S. government is one of the party's in the Siegelman case.

Horton particularly draws Curran's ire with this passage from a January 8, 2008, post: "It seems that Fuller's business runs almost entirely from shadowy contracts awarded by the U.S. Government, prominently including the Department of Justice--that's right, the highly politicized agency which was prosecuting the Siegelman case in his court. And many of the other contracts came from the Department of Defense."

Curran goes into a swinging frenzy at this. "Can Horton or Harper's identify a single contract, such as through production of a single piece of paper, showing that either Doss Aviation or Doss of Alabama has even on contract . . . with the Department of Justice?"

You can almost hear Horton shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "Dude, I've already done that--and you would know it if you had bothered to read my work closely."

First, Curran alleges that Horton's piece says Doss' contracts are "primarily" with the Justice Department. Actually, the story says the contracts are "prominently" with Justice. Big difference.

And Horton cites two documents--a defense counsel's motion for recusal and an article in the Enterprise Ledger--that support his passages about Doss' contracts with the Justice Department. The Enterprise newspaper article specifically states that FBI agents are among the professionals all over the world who wear products made by a Doss company.

Curran is so intent on defending Fuller's honor that you would think they were twin brothers. At one point, Curran quotes former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley as saying, "Judge Fuller is one of the fairest judges I have ever known." Gee, this is a big surprise, and Martin gets to the point with this editor's note: "I know many lawyers, and it is rare that you find one who will not speak with lavish praise in public about a judge before whom he regularly practices."

In fact, as Jill Simpson stated in her Congressional testimony, Alabama lawyers can get in deep doo-doo for questioning the integrity of a judge--no matter how corrupt said judge might be. (Rule 8.2, Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct.)

Perhaps Curran should have consulted David G. Bronner, head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) and widely considered one of the sharpest minds in the state. In fact, Curran wouldn't have needed to consult Bronner. The RSA chief has made his feelings about Fuller very clear--in print--saying that Fuller had tried to help a buddy "rip off" RSA.

Curran also might have wanted to consult Missouri attorney Paul Benton Weeks, who after extensive investigation of Fuller's activities, filed an affidavit with the Justice Department outlining actions by Fuller that are certainly improper and probably criminal. Weeks is a graduate of the University of Missouri and the University of Virginia School of Law, and his affidavit can be read here.

Curran's piece makes no mention of Weeks' insights. Perhaps he should contact the Missouri attorney to get information from someone who really knows what Mark Fuller is all about.

If I were Weeks though, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Curran's call. Our intrepid reporter evidently won't countenance any less-than-flattering words about Judge Fuller. Curran really gets riled when he notes Horton's criticism of Fuller's memorandum opinion explaining his decision to deny Siegelman bail pending appeal.

Horton said Fuller's opinion was "farcical" and reflected the work of a "third-rate legal mind." Horton was absolutely right; in fact, he was being kind to Fuller. I don't have the first day of law school, and even I could show that Fuller's opinion did not come close to reaching the standard required to deny Siegelman bond.

Curran does catch Horton with one glancing blow. In an article in the March 2008 issue of Harper's, "Vote Machine: How Republicans Hacked the Justice Department," Horton writes one sentence that could have been phrased more clearly. He writes, in reference to Siegelman co-defendant Richard Scrushy: "And finally, according to his own uncontradicted testimony, Scrushy didn't even want the appointment." As Horton writes in his response to Curran, it was the testimony of Alabama Power CEO Elmer Harris, on behalf of Scrushy. In legal terms, that makes it Scrushy's testimony, but Horton acknowledges the sentence should have been written with more clarity.

While Curran expends considerable energy trying to prove a "gotcha" on Horton, he is not so careful about his own writings. Curran claims that Horton, in the March 2008 Harper's story, says "Scrushy supported Riley over Siegelman in the 1998 election." This is ridiculous, of course, because Siegelman ran against Fob James, not Riley, in 1998. Curran seems to think he has scored major points with this. But he misquotes Horton's story. The story merely says Scrushy backed Riley, which is true, when Riley ran in 2002. The sentence says nothing about 1998.

Perhaps Curran's most awkward punch comes near the end--in the 15th round, you might say--when he tries to land a haymaker about William Horton, a Birmingham attorney who used to work at HealthSouth and now is at the Birmingham firm of Haskell Slaughter. Our guy Eddie puts on his sleuth hat and discovers that Republican whistleblower Jill Simpson is a Haskell Slaughter client and--hold onto your hats--William Horton is Scott Horton's second cousin!

Sweet Jezebel, what a scoop! But what is it supposed to mean? That the two Hortons and Jill Simpson have designed some sort of conspiracy to concoct testimony and free Don Siegelman?

Curran seems to be convinced of it, even though both Hortons state they are not in close or frequent contact. In fact, Bill Horton says he only recently learned that Scott Horton wrote for Harper's.

In the end, my Frazier-Ali analogy probably is not the right one. This bout was more like the 1982 match between Randall "Tex" Cobb and heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Many have called it the most one-sided title fight in heavyweight history. Sportscaster Howard Cosell was so repulsed by the sight of Cobb's face being used as a punching bag for 15 rounds that he retired from boxing coverage.

So what did Curran hope to accomplish? Beats me. Anyone who has ever taken a reporting course in a journalism or communications curriculum knows that one of the first things you learn is: Don't make yourself part of the story. And at all costs, do your darnedest to maintain your objectivity--or at least the appearance of being objective.

Eddie Curran must have skipped class the days those lessons were taught. And so, apparently, did his bosses at the Mobile Press-Register. How the editors of that paper could allow one of their reporters to go off on a such a wild, one-sided, nonsensical, unprofessional rant is beyond me.

Eddie Curran should be sitting back and letting his reporting of the Siegelman story speak for itself. Or better yet, he should be taking a hard look at the flip side of the prosecution--the mounting evidence that the prosecution was politically motivated and legally unjust. And he should not be working on a book about the Siegelman prosecution until it is over--and given that a transcript has not even been prepared for the appeal, it certainly is not over.

If anything is crystal clear in Eddie Curran's writings, it is this: He desperately wants the Siegelman conviction to stand. And he is bitter that Scott Horton and Jill Simpson have caused serious questions to be raised about the case--and now those questions have been raised before a huge national audience by 60 Minutes.

With every wild punch he throws at Scott Horton, you can almost hear Curran thinking, "Dammit, you are ruining the market for my book, and I'm not going to let you get away with it."
What Curran should be saying is: "Great Murrow's Ghost, this Horton fellow is raising some interesting questions about the Siegelman case. And this Simpson woman is going out on a shaky limb for some reason. Better check it out."

That's how real journalists behave. But Eddie Curran evidently is not interested in real journalism--at least not now.

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