Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How Deep Will Special Prosecutor's Inquiry Go?

Nora Dannehy, the special prosecutor appointed yesterday to investigate the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, is receiving high marks in the press for her integrity and objectivity.

But will Dannehy be allowed to get to the bottom of the criminal activities that permeate the Bush Justice Department?

In a report from Associated Press, even attorneys who have gone against Dannehy have high praise for her approach to criminal investigations. Dannehy helped convict former Connecticut Governor John Rowland, a Republican, and Rowland's defense attorney calls her "the soul of integrity."

Dannehy went after another Republican, former state treasurer Paul Silvester.

"No one will outwork her. No one is going to be smarter than her," said Mike Clark, a retired FBI agent who investigated former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland. "No one will conduct the investigation with more integrity than her."

Wrote the AP:

Dannehy prosecuted Rowland, a once popular three-term governor, after a wide-ranging investigation into contract steering and bribery in his administration. Rowland spent 10 months in prison.

Rowland had nominated Dannehy's brother, Michael, to the Superior Court in 2000.

Dannehy also was the lead prosecutor in the investigation into a bribery and kickback scheme involving former state Treasurer Paul Silvester. He pleaded guilty to his role in the caper, and his testimony was key to other convictions and pleas from associates.

"She won't let the politics get in her way of conducting an investigation," Clark said. "She doesn't care what political party anyone is or where their power base may be coming from."

Dannehy appears to be a solid choice for special prosecutor. But what about this question: How far will her investigation go?

Problems with the Bush Justice Department go way beyond the nine U.S. attorneys who were fired. Several cases point to corruption by Bush DOJ prosecutors who were not fired, particularly Alice Martin and Leura Canary in the Don Siegelman case in Alabama and Dunn Lampton in the Paul Minor case in Mississippi.

Will Dannehy's inquiry include a serious look at these prosecutors? Could someone else wind up handling that aspect of the investigation? Could this aspect of the case be ignored?

Speaking of Siegelman, news comes today that oral arguments in his appeal are expected to be heard in December before the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Is GOP Electoral Scheme About to be Unmasked?

Evidence has been mounting in recent days that Republican schemes that resulted in stolen presidential elections in 2000 and 2004--and have been planned for 2008--might soon be unearthed.

Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane report at Raw Story that high-level Republican consultant Mike Connell has been subpoenaed in a lawsuit alleging tampering with Ohio election results in 2004.

Connell has refused to testify or produce documents and is seeking to quash the subpoena. The case had been stayed, but it recently received new momentum with the testimony of whistleblower Stephen Spoonamore, a Republican information-technology expert. Attorneys in Ohio who brought the lawsuit are attempting to move forward to ensure the integrity of the 2008 election.

Connell is associated with a firm called GovTech, which was hired by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to set up an official 2004 election Web site at election.sos.state.oh.us.

The plot thickens from there, Raw Story reports:

Connell is a long-time GOP operative, whose New Media Communications provided web services for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Republican National Committee and many Republican candidates. This in itself might have raised questions about his involvement in creating Ohio's official state election website.

However, the alternative media group ePlubibus Media further discovered in November 2006 that election.sos.state.oh.us was hosted on the servers of a company in Chattanooga, TN called SmarTech, which also provided hosting for a long list of Republican Internet domains.

"Since early this decade, top Internet 'gurus' in Ohio have been coordinating web services with their GOP counterparts in Chattanooga, wiring up a major hub that in 2004, first served as a conduit for Ohio's live election night results," researchers at ePluribus Media wrote.

A few months after this revelation, when a scandal erupted surrounding the firing of US Attorneys for reasons of White House policy, other researchers found that the gwb43 domain used by members of the White House staff to evade freedom of information laws by sending emails outside of official White House channels was hosted on those same SmarTech servers.

Given that the Bush White House used SmarTech servers to send and receive email, the use of one of those servers in tabulating Ohio's election returns has raised eyebrows. Ohio gave Bush the decisive margin in the Electoral College to secure his reelection in 2004.

Spoonamore provides insight into possible problems with the SmarTech servers:

IT expert Stephen Spoonamore says the SmartTech server could have functioned as a routing point for malicious activity and remains a weakness in electronic voting tabulation.

According to Spoonamore's Sept. 17 affidavit, the "computer placement, in the middle of the network, is a defined type of attack." Spoonamore describes this as a "Man in the Middle Attack" or MIM.

"It is a common problem in the banking settlement space," he writes. "A criminal gang will introduce a computer into the outgoing electronic systems of a major retail mall, or smaller branch office of a bank. They will capture the legitimate transactions and then add fraudulent charges to the system for their benefit."

"Any time all information is directed to a single computer for consolidation, it is possible, and in fact likely, that single computer will exploit the information for some purpose," he adds. "In the case of Ohio 2004, the only purpose I can conceive for sending all county vote tabulations to a GOP managed Man-in-the-Middle site in Chattanooga before sending the results onward to the Sec. of State, would be to hack the vote at the MIM."

Mark Crispin Miller, a national elections-security expert, reports on an extensive interview with Spoonamore at Velvet Revolution.

How important is this interview? Spoonamore reveals that Republican hackers have plans to ensure that John McCain gets 51.2 percent of the vote and a three electoral-vote victory in November.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Will Special Prosecutor Get to the Bottom of Bush DOJ Sewer?

Is Nora Dannehy the woman to unearth all the sludge that has collected in the cesspool of the Bush Justice Department?

Her appointment today as special prosecutor to pursue possible criminal charges in the controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys appears to be a step in the right direction. And a look at her background gives us reason to be hopeful.

Dannehy is a career prosecutor from Connecticut, and her appointment comes after today's release of the U.S. Inspector General's report on the U.S. attorneys firings. Dannehy has a history of going after wrongdoers on both sides of the political aisle.

Glynn Wilson, of Locust Fork World News & Journal, has an excellent overview of today's events.

Wilson includes this nugget about the role of Karl Rove in the U.S. attorneys purge:

According to the report, and in contrast to what Karl Rove told has said in public while defying a Congressional subpoena to testify under oath, he and other White House officials were involved with the Justice Department investigations and played an active role in crafting the release of information on the firings to the public.

In a March 2007 meeting mentioned on page 84 of the report, called by Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley and attended by Karl Rove, Sampson, Paul McNulty, and others:

According to several witnesses, Rove came in to the meeting for only a few minutes and then left. Battle said Rove spoke at the meeting but he could not recall what he said. McNulty said that he could not specifically recall either, but thought Rove said something to the effect that Moschella’s testimony should explain why the U.S. Attorneys were removed. None of the witnesses said they could recall specifically what Rove said at the meeting, although all agree that the discussion generally centered on what Moschella should say about the reasons for each U.S. Attorney’s removal.

This clearly shows involvement by the Rove in crafting public relations messages at the Justice Department in direct contradiction to what he has said in public for the past year since he abruptly resigned his White House position last August.

Particularly interesting is this section about Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee:

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat, responded to the report by repeating a warning he has been making publicly since last summer.

“Since last summer, my committee has warned that the Bush administration fired US attorneys for political reasons and tried to cover it up by misleading Congress, and today’s report confirms our very worst suspicions,” Conyers said. “This scheme — which the report makes clear was hatched in the White House — was a fundamental betrayal of the American people and the men and women of the Department of Justice and it will be a long time before we can fully repair the damage.”

The report also makes clear, he said, that a number of central questions remain unanswered, “largely because of White House stonewalling.”

“So it is all the more important that we continue our effort to obtain White House documents and testimony,” he said.

As for Dannehy, she was appointed by Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a Bush appointee who has mostly stonewalled the Justice Department investigation. That might lead one to conclude that Dannehy will be a political puppet, more interested in covering up than exposing wrongdoing.

But an article in the Waterbury (CT) Observer indicates it might be too soon to come to that conclusion. Dannehy led the prosecution of former Connecticut Governor John Rowland, whom George W. Bush once called "the future of the Republican Party."

The Great Unanswered Question About McCain and Gambling

For all of the excellent investigative reporting that went into The New York Times' piece on John McCain and gambling, a major question on the subject remains unanswered.

Why did McCain hide an e-mail that proved Alabama Governor Bob Riley had direct connections to Jack Abramoff's influence-peddling scheme and what does that say about a potential McCain presidency?

While we are at it, let's consider another question: How did McCain's actions affect Alabama politics over the past six years or so?

The McCain/Riley question arose back in February, thanks to some serious digging by Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein.

The mainstream media has mostly ignored the question of why McCain would protect one of his stalwart Republican buddies. And the Times' piece, unfortunately, did not address the Riley question either.

But the Times might have indirectly shined some light on the subject. In investigating the Abramoff affair while head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, McCain appears to have turned the inquiry into a personal vendetta, the Times reports. Republicans such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, whom McCain partially blamed for costing him the South Carolina primary in 2000, took serious heat from the committee. Riley, who has been a consistent McCain supporter, had his questionable connections swept under the table.

That kind of vindictiveness and "selective prosecution" indicates a John McCain presidency might be just as bad as the George W. Bush presidency has been.

And imagine the impact McCain's coverup has had on Alabama politics. If Riley's ties to Abramoff had been reported prior to the 2002 Riley/Don Siegelman gubernatorial race, Riley's chances of winning would have been hampered. And that almost certainly would have thrown a wrench into GOP plans to target Siegelman for a federal prosecution.

As for the broader issue of McCain and gambling, the Democratic National Committee plans to take full advantage of the Times' expose. The following DNC ad will be hitting the airwaves today:

Will the McCain-Riley story develop legs? It certainly would make a strong followup by The New York Times. Perhaps Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC will tackle the subject. They have addressed it once before, starting at the 3:18 mark on the following video clip:

A Tale of Two Bloggers: A Postmortem

We recently noted that writing a progressive blog while working at a public university in Alabama can be hazardous to your career health.

Regular readers know it already has been damaging to my career; I was fired at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) on May 19, not because of any misconduct or violations of UAB policy but because I write a blog that apparently upset someone in Alabama's conservative hierarchy.

And as noted in our previous post, I was not the first progressive blogger in my office to encounter tierra infirma while working at UAB. Doug Gillett, my friend and former coworker, had a blog-related problem with university administrators back in 2004.

We have shown numerous differences between Doug's case and my situation, particularly in UAB's handling of the two matters.

Let's recap the Doug Gillett case and see what we learn from it:

* UAB exhibits an astonishing double standard when it comes to dealing with employees on blog-related matters. Doug is a good guy and a friend, and I wholeheartedly supported the decision that allowed him to keep his job. But he clearly violated UAB policy and probably violated state law. I didn't come close to violating anything. Doug still works at UAB; I got fired.

* UAB displays an appalling fondness for age discrimination. Doug was 25ish when his issue arose; I was 51. Doug received unspecified discipline; I got fired.

* The Birmingham News, not surprisingly, exhibits horrendous news judgment in Doug's case. It devotes two stories and an editorial to what most rational people would consider a non-story. This is more coverage than the News gave to a story about blatant research fraud at UAB. In fact, we will soon show you the research-fraud coverage and allow you to compare it to coverage of the Gillett case.

* Alabama's largest newspaper considers it more important that a UAB employee writes a few blog posts and comments on work time than that state judges are blatantly violating their oaths to uphold the law and costing taxpayers millions in the process. Is it little wonder that many Americans consider our state a backwater?

* The Birmingham News reports an interesting statement from Jim Sumner, head of the Alabama Ethics Commission:

Sumner said it would be unenforceable and undesirable to squelch all political speech among state employees during work hours.

"We have to strike a balance," Sumner said. "If it is on a limited basis, that is one thing."

It would be undesirable to squelch all political speech among state employees during work hours? Someone sure forgot to tell UAB President Carol Garrison. UAB's own investigation showed I had not engaged in political speech or activity on work hours, and I still got fired. And audiotaped statements by a UAB HR representative show that I clearly was fired because I write a blog dealing with the Don Siegelman case--even though I did it on my own time. What kind of balance is UAB trying to strike?

In the end, why does Doug Gillett still work at UAB and I do not? It's pretty simple, I think:

* Doug was in his mid 20s at the time his non-issue arose, and under our supervisor Pam Powell, that is a favored age class. I was 51 when my non-issue arose, and that made me expendable in Pam Powell World. Powell's preference for younger people has been obvious for most of my 12 years in the UAB Publications Office, and Powell's superiors have let it go on. In fact, they evidently have encouraged it.

* Doug wrote mainly about his opinions on his blog, and elsewhere. I wrote a lot about new facts, true citizen journalism. It's one thing to criticize Republican poo-bahs in Alabama; it's quite another to expose them for the slimeballs they are. When you do the latter, as I have done, they will try to shut you up--even if they have to break the law to do it.

How very Rovian.

And isn't it interesting that UAB, and the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, have placed themselves square in the middle of what someday should be known as the worst political scandal in American history?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

John McCain's Troubling Ties to the Gambling Industry

The modern Republican party has built its electoral strategy, to a significant extent, on appeals to "Christian" voters who supposedly oppose all forms of gambling.

So imagine the rich irony in today's New York Times article about GOP presidential nominee John McCain and his long personal and professional associations with the gaming industry.

This is another chapter in the evolving story about Republican hypocrisy on gambling. It's a story we are intimately familiar with in the Deep South, particularly here in Alabama.

The Times reporters do not go into this, but Republican corruption in the South is drenched in gambling connections. The prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, the best known case of politics driving a criminal investigation, has gambling at its core.

Republicans opposed Siegelman's education lottery out of fear it would provide competition for Indian gaming operations in Mississippi. And Jack Abramoff helped funnel some $13 million to Siegelman's opponent, Bob Riley.

And who went out of their way to hide an e-mail showing Riley's direct ties to the Abramoff operation? Why, none other than John McCain.

Those of us in Alabama already know about Republicans and their sleazy ties to gambling. But what do we learn specifically about McCain from today's Times piece and the investigative work of reporters Jo Becker and Don Van Natta Jr.?

* He has gambled at least once a month for most of his adult life, and weekend betting marathons in Las Vegas have been regular events;

* Only six members of Congress have received more financial support from the gaming industry than McCain--and five of those are from the gambling-rich states of Nevada and New Jersey;

* Mr. "Fiscal Responsibility" McCain, has voted twice for casino tax breaks that have cost the government $326 million over 12 years;

* Sig Rogich, a Las Vegas GOP kingmaker, raised some $2 million for McCain;

* Several McCain associates benefited financially from the Abramoff investigation. John Weaver, McCain's chief political strategist, made $100,000 over four months in 2005 for serving as a consultant to a tribe caught in the inquiry.

All of this does not come as a surprise to us here at Legal Schnauzer. The marriage between Republican greed and big gaming dollars has infected Alabama politics for years.

In fact, as I have researched events behind my unlawful termination at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), I have come across a number of people with ties to gaming and the Alabama Republican Party.

Evidence is building that people with connections to gambling had something to do with my firing at UAB.

We will be presenting that evidence over the next few weeks here at Legal Schnauzer.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

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

An objective reader might take issue with the two posts we've written in recent days showing that former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman was wrongly convicted. You can check out the two posts here:

Here's Proof Don Siegelman Was Wrongly Convicted

How Did Siegelman Bribery Charge Ever Get To Court?

A constructive critic might say: "Hey, you draw entirely from the Siegelman appeal, but you do not include information from the prosecution's response."

That's a point well taken. And there are two reasons for the lack of response from the prosecution side. One, I don't have a copy of their response. But more importantly, I don't think I would trust it if I did have a copy.

I've seen the Bush Justice Department at work enough to know that even career prosecutors seem to be more interested in pushing a political agenda than in seeing to it that justice is done.

In the Siegelman case, for example, we know that U.S. Attorney Leura Canary had multiple conflicts of interest, but prosecutors who answer to her continued to handle the case. And there is no clear evidence that Canary ever actually recused herself.

I have not seen a transcript from the Siegelman case. But I have seen a transcript from the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, and that gives me reason to question prosecutors who serve in the Bush Justice Department.

Throughout the Minor transcript, you can see prosecutors arguing points regarding bribery, honest-services mail fraud, and expert testimony that they almost have to know are not grounded in the law.

I don't have the first day of law school, but I was able to gain a reasonable grasp of federal law on the two primary issues in the Minor case--bribery and honest-services mail fraud. I summarized the law in the following posts:

Bribery: A Primer

Mail Fraud: A Primer

In both offenses, an essential element is that the defendant must have acted in a corrupt manner. On bribery, federal law says an official must be induced to "violate his or her lawful duty." (U.S. v. Mariano, 983 F. 2d 1150.) On mail fraud, federal law requires that conduct "actually deprives the public" of an official's honest services. (U.S. v. Walker, 400 F. 3d 1282.)

In other words, the decisions that state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield made in underlying cases involving Paul Minor's clients were crucial. If those decisions were supported by the facts and the law, then Teel and Whitfield did not act corruptly and Minor had no corrupt intent in providing loan guarantees to the judges, which were allowed by state law.

Federal prosecutors, however, argued just the opposite.

The defense sought to enter testimony from two expert witnesses who would show that Teel and Whitfield had ruled correctly based on the law and facts before them. But federal prosecutors argued for excluding the expert testimony. Here is how prosecutor David Fulcher put it:

"Starting point, your Honor, is this witness' testimony is irrelevant . . . for a variety of reasons. The first and foremost is that the rightness or wrongness of a particular judge's decision based on the law is irrelevant."

You can almost imagine Minor defense attorney Brad Pigott throwing up his hands in exasperation:

"If Mr. Fulcher's version . . . were the law, then no criminal defendant in any case in which state of mind is an issue could put on any circumstantial evidence of having a noncriminal state of mind and might as well not show up for trial."

Pigott even went on to state that the court's jury instructions when the case was tried in 2005--and ended with an acquittal for Oliver Diaz and no unanimous verdicts for Minor, Teel, and Whitfield--ran counter to Fulcher's assertions.

"The court's position on that occasion is our position now," Pigott said. "It is circumstantial evidence of the state of mind, whether or not there was a criminal state of mind of the judge. And of course, it's relevant to our client (Paul Minor) because if the judge did not have a criminal state of mind in ruling on these Minor Law Firm cases, then that's probative that nobody was seeking a criminal state of mind. The logic is obvious, and it was set forth in detail by this court."

U.S. Judge Henry Wingate, however, changed his earlier ruling and went along with Fulcher. Essentially, the Minor defendants were not allowed to put on a defense. Wingate, a Ronald Reagan appointee, is the very embodiment of corruption in the Age of Rove.

Folks who claim that Siegelman and the Minor defendants were correctly convicted often cite the fact that career prosecutors played key roles in the cases. The point seems to be that these nonpolitical appointees must be playing it straight, that they have no political agenda.

But career prosecutors answer to political appointees--Leura Canary in the Middle District of Alabama and Dunn Lampton in the Southern District of Mississippi. And if career prosecutors want to keep their careers on track, it stands to reason that they need to please their bosses.

David Fulcher, by arguing for a jury instruction that he had to know was unlawful, apparently was more interested in career advancement than in the cause of justice.

And that is just one of many examples throughout the Minor transcript of career prosecutors making arguments that clearly are not based in the law. And I can only assume that they knew their arguments were unlawful.

As for the Siegelman appeal, we have shown the following:

* U.S. Judge Mark Fuller, who would rival Henry Wingate in the corruption category, gave an unlawful jury instruction on bribery;

* Evidence clearly did not show a specific quid pro quo, meaning Siegelman should be granted a judgment in his favor, not just a new trial;

* The honest-services mail fraud convictions cannot possibly stand because codefendant Richard Scrushy was qualified to serve on a health-care board, one he had served on under three previous governors. That means the public could not have been deprived of Siegelman's honest services;

* Perhaps most alarmingly, the alleged bribery offenses fell outside the five-year statute of limitations and never should have gone to court in the first place.

Americans are rightly concerned about our unfolding financial crisis. But those concerns should not cause us to lose sight of what has taken place in our justice system over the past eight years.

Our federal judges and U.S. attorneys are appointed through political processes, and that means our justice system is vulnerable to corruption. Don Siegelman has said that Karl Rove figured out that if you control U.S. attorneys and the majority of federal judges, you can wreak all kinds of havoc in the lives of your political opponents.

Siegelman was right on target about that, and we have seen that scenario unfold over the past eight years.

Our goal at Legal Schnauzer has been to show you details on how that has happened: judges improperly excluding expert witnesses; prosecutors making arguments that are not supported in law; judges giving bogus jury instructions.

Those are the "tools of the trade" in a justice system that loyal Bushies have torn asunder.

Our "Long Road Out of Eden"

As the George W. Bush administration winds to a merciful conclusion, I've been searching for a cultural touchstone to mark the era (or perhaps "error" is a better word).

Movies about 9/11 and the Iraq War already have been made, and Oliver Stone's W will be released soon. A number of excellent nonfiction books have been produced about various aspects of the Bush administration, and many more surely will be on the way. Even a work of fiction, Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, was recently released to strong reviews.

But I was looking for something that captures the "feel" of the entire nation during these past eight years. And for that, I turned to music.

Folks who lived through the '60s and '70s can testify to music's unique ability to capture a time and place. And a current double CD captures the Bush era in a compelling and memorable way--almost like an oral history with a rock-and-roll beat.

The CD is not produced by what you might call a "current" band. In fact, these four guys are best known for their work from the '70s. But Long Road Out of Eden proves that the Eagles are still relevant, some 28 years after they released their previous studio album.

All four of the Eagles--Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmitt--are at or very near 60. But at the risk of sounding like an old fart from the '70s--which is exactly what I am, come to think of it--I'm not aware of any "modern" act that can touch them.

From 1971 to 1980 the Eagles released six seminal studio albums, including Hotel California, which ranks in the top 10 on most any list of all-time great records. They took a 28-year "vacation" from the studio before releasing Long Road Out of Eden late last year. It missed the deadline for last year's Grammys, but should be a nominee for Album of the Year this time around.

Through 20 songs on two disks, the Eagles are in fine form. You probably won't hear many songs from the CD on the radio, but large chunks of Eden rank with the best work the Eagles have ever done--and that's saying something. Releasing an album of this quality, some 36 years after their debut (featuring the classic Take It Easy), cements a special place in rock-and-roll history for the Eagles. Only the Rolling Stones, I believe, can claim to have made relevant pop/rock music for such a long period of time.

Here's what has always impressed me about the Eagles. All four current members--Frey and Henley are the remaining originals--are "triple threats." They play instruments, sing lead, and write. The same can be said of the three former members--Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon, and Don Felder. Meisner and Leadon helped solidify the band's country-rock sound in the early days. And Felder's edgy guitar work helped launch the band to super-group status. Felder might be the least known Eagle. And yet, he wrote the basic track to Hotel California, featuring one of the most memorable guitar intros in music history.

If you are heavily into vocals, no one does harmonies like the Eagles. Eden is filled with lush harmonies, particularly on the more pop-oriented disk one. The guys turn serious on disk two, and that's where they begin to capture the Age of Rove.

The centerpiece of the CD is the title track, which opens disk two. Henley is the band's chief lyricist, and he has done some of his best work on this album. Waiting in the Weeds, from disk one, is a Henley classic about the need for patience and deliberation in a hurry-up world.

The title track is an epic 10-minute piece that brilliantly creates a sense of place:

Moon shining down through the palms
Shadows moving on the sand
Somebody whispering the 23rd Psalm
Dusty rifle in his trembling hands

The scene shifts "over the ocean" to an America that is "far away and fast asleep." While some Americans put their lives on the line in faraway places, the rest of us are "having lunch at the Petroleum Club," filling our consumptive needs with "barbecued brisket" and "pecan pie."

This world features "freeways flickering, cell phones chiming a tune." And it is run by "captains of the old order, clinging to the reins, assuring us these aches inside are only growing pains."

In the third scene, Henley appraises modern America--and it isn't a pretty picture:

Weaving down the American highway
Through the litter and the wreckage and the cultural junk
Bloated with entitlement, loaded on propaganda
Now we're driving dazed and drunk

In the end, Henley decides, we are awash in information, but we don't know what to do with it:

Behold the bitten apple
The power of the tools
But all the knowledge in the world
Is of no use to fools

This passage, with its reference to the Mac logo that symbolizes our supposed ingenuity, is painful to read--and devastatingly on target.

The complete lyrics to Long Road out of Eden are available here. The CD is splendid from start to finish, and we will take a look at other tracks that examine the social and political undercurrents of the past eight years.

Here is a video of the entire 10-minute title track. Below that is a video from a live performance at Madison Square Garden. The performance video is not the greatest, and it does not include the entire song. But it gives a feel for how Eden is presented in the live setting:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Sarah Palin-Alice Martin Matrix

The more we learn about Sarah Palin, the more she reminds me of Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

Both women, not surprisingly, are in the news today.

Here in Birmingham, Martin announced that former Jefferson County Commissioner Mary Buckelew agreed to plead guilty to an obstruction of justice charge connected to county sewer-bond deals. Buckelew admitted to lying to a special grand jury about receiving $4,000 worth of gifts--designer shoes, a purse, and a spa treatment--from an investment banker whose firm received millions of dollars in fees from sewer-bond deals.

The Buckelew story is filled with intrigue and irony:

* Buckelew is a Republican. But something tells me her relationship with Martin must have been frosty. Just about everyone on the commission has come under scrutiny during Martin's reign except for commission president Bettye Fine Collins, a known Martin ally. Hmmm.

* Several Democrats on the commission had kind things to say about Buckelew. That adds to the evidence that Martin would not see Buckelew as part of the Bush "home team."

* Not to excuse Buckelew's behavior, but isn't $4,000 an awfully small amount for which to sell your influence? Is it possible that Buckelew mainly is being strong-armed in order to get her testimony against someone else?

* Could that someone be Larry Langford, Birmingham's black and Democratic mayor. Langford, by the way, called Buckelew an "exceptionally good person" in today's paper. I wonder how much longer the mayor will hold that view.

* Even Martin seems to admit that the Buckelew plea is part of a larger picture. "The important thing is to move on to the bigger target," Martin said. Hmmm, again.

* Regular readers, of course, will detect the rich irony in Alice Martin charging anyone with lying under oath. It's well established that Martin herself lied under oath in an employment-related case involving former assistant U.S. attorney Deirdra Brown Fleming. The Bush Justice Department has let Martin get away with this little crime we call perjury.

As for Palin, she just seems like a Northern Exposure version of our gal Alice.

The Public Record Web site remains one of the go-to sources for information on Palin, John McCain's surprise choice as a running mate. Reporter Jason Leopold notes that Palin has portrayed herself as a reformer who believes no one is above the law. (Shades of Alice Martin.)

But Leopold reports that investigators have solid evidence showing that members of the Palin camp might have violated the law by trying to deny state trooper Mike Wooten worker's compensation benefits due to a back injury.

Leopold also reports that Palin's husband, Todd, could be looking at an arrest on contempt charges after the first of the year, stemming from his refusal to testify in the Troopergate investigation.

An earlier Public Record investigative piece shows that Sarah Palin, Todd Palin, and senior aides collaborated in an effort to deny worker's compensation benefits for Wooten.

Finally, we have one other disturbing similarity between Alice Martin and Sarah Palin. It is well established that Martin has a history of using racial politics in the investigations she chooses to pursue.

Now we have a report that Palin allegedly said she would not hire blacks in her cabinet or for her staff.

Ah, Sarah and Alice. Just the kind of leadership we need for America's future.

Should Citizens Look in the Mirror Over Bailout Mess?

Fingers have been pointed at many targets in recent days as the Bush Economy's implosion came into focus.

Blame has been placed at the feet of greedy investors, clueless politicians, hapless regulators, and even bamboozled home buyers.

But one entity has generally avoided sharing the blame. And maybe that should change.

We are talking about citizens themselves, the great American masses.

Syndicated columnist Froma Harrop says the public should shoulder a major portion of the blame and should take the time for a hard look in the mirror.

Harrop compares the American public to a convenience store owner who left the cash register open while he went outside for a smoke. A bad guy comes in, sees bills hanging out of the register, helps himself, and leaves. Certainly the bad guy has committed a crime. But the store owner was in some way a party to it.

"And so are you, the voters of America," Harrop writes. "You did not demand the proper monitoring of the markets and the plunder that inevitably followed. The Bush administration's $700 billion bailout of bad debt is proof that, all along, the American cash register had been left open."

Kevin Phillips, author, of the recently released Bad Money, has seen this coming for quite some time. But many Americans apparently are too busy to pay attention to what Phillips says.

In an excellent post titled "Economic Bloodbath Foretold," our friends at WriteChic include a Bill Moyers interview with Phillips.

Here is a question to ponder: Is citizen cluelessness going to be the death of our nation yet? I could not help but wonder after reading about "Maxed Out Moms" in the current issue of Time magazine.

Maxed-Out Moms, also known as "Wal-Mart Moms," are defined as white women, between the ages of 45 to 64, with no college education. Supposedly they could decide the upcoming presidential election. And based on the Time article, that is one scary thought.

Time describes one Maxed-Out Mom:

* Her husband can barely afford the gas it takes to get back and forth from the job he is in danger of losing;

* She sometimes puts her utility bill on her Visa;

* She often does the family laundry at 11 p.m.

Sounds like this mom is prospering in the Age of Bush, doesn't it?

But according to a Time poll, John McCain leads Barack Obama 59 to 41 percent among Maxed-Out Moms.

My thought? If Maxed-Out Moms don't have the time to educate themselves or think with some clarity, they should do us all a favor and stay home on election day.

Meanwhile, there is some good news on the polling front. A Washington Post/ABC News poll has Obama leading McCain, 52 to 43 percent, with the lead driven largely by economic concerns.

Perhaps the public is starting to pull its collective head out of some deep, dark crevice. Let's hope the Maxed-Out Moms join us between now and November 4.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How Did Siegelman Bribery Charge Ever Get to Court?

We presented proof in a previous post that former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman was wrongly convicted on bribery and honest-services mail fraud charges.

But here is an amazing thing we learn from a close review of the Siegelman appeal: The bribery charge never should have made it to court for a simple technical reason--the statute of limitations had run out before the charge was made.

Like many folks who have followed the Siegelman case, I was aware the defense raised limitations questions about the bribery charge. But until I had read the appeal closely, I did not realize just how powerful the defense argument is on this matter.

Here are the basic law and facts related to the statute-of-limitations question:

* The federal statute of limitations is five years. 18 U.S. Code 3282;

* The initial indictment came down on May 17, 2005;

* Five years before that date would have been May 17, 2000;

* The statute of limitations begins to run when each element of an alleged offense has occurred;

* Richard Scrushy was appointed to the CON board on July 26, 1999, and the prosecution's evidence showed the first check from Scrushy was received in that same time frame;

* The check was in an amount greater than $5,000, the level required under the sec. 666 bribery statute;

* This means all of the elements of the alleged crime were in place by the summer of 1999.

* To fall within the five-year statute of limitations, the alleged criminal events would have had to taken place after May 17, 2000. But they took place some 10 months prior to that.

The record shows that the prosecution brought its case too late.

The prosecution apparently tried to get around this little problem in several ways. One, it crafted the indictment in such vague terms that it was unclear exactly when the alleged crime took place. Siegelman's team moved for a Bill of Particulars, seeking specifics about when the alleged crimes took place. But U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller denied the motion, forcing Siegelman to defend himself against allegations that were so vague the prosecution could not even put a date on them.

Second, the prosecution argued that Siegelman could not raise the issue for the first time at a post-trial Rule 29 meeting. Siegelman's team, however, points out that the prosecution seemed to be confusing criminal procedure with civil procedure.

In the civil rules, a statute-of-limitations defense must be raised in the answer to a complaint. But no such requirement is present in the criminal rules.

In fact, Rule 29(c)(3) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states: "A defendant is not required to move for a judgment of acquittal before the court submits the case to the jury as a prerequisite for making such a motion after jury discharge."

So the bribery charge against Siegelman failed the fundamental test of timeliness. And yet, it still managed to go to court, to a jury, and result in a conviction.

That can only happen when you have a corrupt judge in charge of a trial. And that clearly was the case with Fuller in the Siegelman/Scrushy case. Fuller, of course, is a George W. Bush appointee.

If the prosecution fails on the bribery and honest-services mail fraud counts, that leaves only the obstruction of justice charge. And the Siegelman team makes a compelling argument that the prosecution fails on two essential prongs of that charge. Obstruction of justice, like conspiracy, tends to be a "piggyback" charge, one that requires another offense to be present. The obstruction charge, based on my understanding of the law, would not hold up without the presence of the bribery and mail fraud charges. And we've already shown that Siegelman was wrongly convicted on those.

Several thoughts come to mind after a close reading of the Siegelman appeal:

* How does a bribery count even make it to court when it clearly was brought well after the statute of limitations had run?

* How are unlawful jury instructions presented to a jury?

* How did Judge Mark Fuller ever get put in charge of this case, and what repercussions should he face for blatantly violating his oath to uphold the law?

A Tale of Two Progressive Bloggers

Writing a progressive blog while working at an Alabama university can be dangerous business. It can be particularly dangerous if your blog ventures beyond the realm of opinion and into the world of citizen journalism

Legal Schnauzer has dared to wade deeply in the citizen-journalism waters, and that probably explains why I no longer am employed at UAB and one of my former coworker is.

I raised this issue in a recent post about my former UAB Periodicals colleague Doug Gillett, who got into some blog-related hot water back in 2004 and received no more than a warning. I, unlike Doug, did not violate UAB policy and was fired. As you probably have guessed, I detect a slight injustice at work here. (The injustice being that I was fired, or disciplined at all for that matter, not that Doug was retained. Doug is a great guy, and I wholeheartedly supported UAB's decision to keep him on board.)

Anyway, I mentioned in the earlier post on this subject that The Birmingham News articles about Doug Gillett's blog-related problems at UAB evidently are not online.

But in a Legal Schnauzer exclusive, we have those stories--and you will see that the News and its right-wing honchos did a splendid job of turning a non-story into quite an event. The News' stories were picked up by Associated Press and run in God only knows how many newspapers around the country.

Before we get into the actual stories, let's consider the news judgment of The Birmingham News. For about five or six years, News editor Tom Scarritt has had access to information that shows irrefutable corruption among Republican judges in Alabama state courts. This includes judges on appellate courts that have jurisdiction over every person in the state. Scarritt has fastidiously ignored that story.

But a 25-ish UAB employee, who happens to be a Democrat and John Kerry supporter, writes a few blog posts and politically oriented e-mails on his work computer? By golly, that merits two stories and an editorial from our friends at the News. No one disputes that Doug was technically in the wrong here. But is that really a news story in comparison to the gross judicial corruption the mainstream media consistently ignores?

Anyway, on to the stories. First, we have the initial story, "broken" by reporter Thomas

News staff writer

Doug Gillett, an editor with UAB's creative services department, is passionate about his politics. He has his own Internet blog, titled "George W. Bush, Will You Please Go Now?!," and is the third-most prolific--and one of the most passionate--contributors to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Politics 101 blog.

By noon Thursday, Gillett had generated and posted to the Internet more than 800 words of commentary, pictures and links to articles on his own blog and contributed almost 700 words to the running arguments on Politics 101.

The problem is that he was at work at the time. He's a state employee and was using a UAB computer, and his activities could run him afoul of state elections and ethics laws.

Election law prohibits public employees from using "state, county or city funds, property or time, for any political activities." The state ethics law has a similar prohibition.
Gillett said Thursday that he didn't realize his activities might violate the law.
"Sorry. I did not," Gillett said. "I apologize."
University of Alabama at Birmingham spokeswoman Dale Turnbough said Thursday Gillett will face disciplinary action. "UAB has clear policies against using university time and resources for partisan politics or non-university business and takes violation of those policies seriously," Turnbough said. "We began to look into this matter as soon as it was brought to our attention today, and we will follow up with appropriate disciplinary action in a timely fashion as soon as we conclude our review."

Blogs, short for Web logs, resemble electronic diaries, usually informal in tone but souped up with photos and Web links. Increasingly popular, blogs have been used by war correspondents, political reporters, and ordinary citizens with something to say about any sort of subject.
Jim Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said the commission hasn't received any complaints about on-the-job blogs, but questions are bound to arise as what was once water cooler conversation is overtaken by email and Internet communication.

Sumner said it would be unenforceable and undesirable to squelch all political speech among state employees during work hours.

"We have to strike a balance," Sumner said. "If it is on a limited basis, that is one thing."
Gillett's postings are voluminous, partisan, well-informed, sometimes funny, and sometimes strident. He's been at it since last July. Thursday, Gillett posted three times to the AJC site before noon, sparring with rival conservative poster "vikter," discussing nuclear inspections and Catholic communion. On his own blog between 8 a.m. and 11:27 a.m., Gillett skewered Republicans President Bush and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and praised Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards.

Gillett's blog can be found at georgemustgo.blogspot.com.


Now we have the News' editorial on the subject. Yep, you heard that right, this story merited an opinion from the high-minded types at our local rag:



A cover-to-cover reading of the Code of Alabama shouldn't be required for government workers to know it's wrong to use taxpayer resources to engage in a side job, a hobby or a political campaign.
Sure, there are laws pertaining to abuse of public property. But it's so obviously improper that all public employees ought to know better even if they never read the specific prohibitions.
Consider the case of Doug Gillett.

Gillett, an editor with UAB's creative services department, got into a jam this past week when it was disclosed that he'd been heavily involved in on-the-job politicking.

The fact that his political activities were postings on the Internet shouldn't matter. It's also beside the point that Gillett's blogging strongly criticized President George Bush. What matters is that Gillett was using a UAB computer--and his work time--to engage in his political rants.

Gillett says he was unaware that state election laws and ethics laws prohibit government funds, property and time from being used for political activity. But his denials and apologies ring hollow.

For one thing, UAB, like virtually every business, has clear policies barring workers from using equipment or work time for outside activities. Many companies have specific policies addressing the Internet and e-mail. It's hard to imagine a modern-day worker who hasn't gotten a memo about it.
But for the sake of argument, say Gillett was an exception. You'd think he'd still be aware that somebody was paying him to do a job and that he was provided a computer so he could do that job--not so he could update his Web log and sound off on other blogs.
As scandals go, Gillett's isn't the worst to befall Alabama by far. But what Gillett did is the type of misconduct that carries big consequences.
These little affronts don't go unnoticed by taxpayers--and they're certainly not forgotten when some government type comes around asking for more money. Alabamians might not remember the details, but they'll remember that they provided resources for someone to do a job, and that those resources were squandered.

It doesn't take a lawbook to figure that out.


Finally, we have the story about UAB administering unspecified discipline in the Gillett case:


A volunteer spokesman for John Kerry's presidential campaign in Alabama will be disciplined for using a computer at his workplace--the University of Alabama at Birmingham--to post Internet messages critical of President Bush.

Doug Gillett, an editor in UAB's creative services department, also is in charge of communications for the Democratic candidate in Alabama. He said he didn't realize he could be violating the law with his online messages. "I apologize," Gillett told The Birmingham News, which first reported his online postings Friday.
University spokeswoman Dale Turnbough said Gillett will face disciplinary action for politicking while on school time. But the fact that Gillett's messages were critical of Bush was not a factor, she said.

"UAB has clear policies against using university time and resources for partisan politics or non-university business and takes violation of those policies seriously," Turnbough said. Gillett's punishment won't be made public, she said, and Gillett declined comment on whether he already had been disciplined.
Gillett has been posting items on the Internet for several months. His electronic Web log, or blog, is titled "George W. Bush, Will You Please Go Now?!" He also is the third-most prolific contributor to an online discussion board affiliated with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Politics 101.
By noon Thursday, Gillett had generated and posted to the Internet more than 800 words of commentary, pictures and links to articles on his own blog and contributed almost 700 words to the running arguments on Politics 101, the News said.
The problem is that Gillett has posted items from work. He's a state employee and was using a UAB computer, and his activities could run him afoul of state elections and ethics laws which bars public employees from using "state, county or city funds, property or time, for any political activities." The state ethics law has a similar prohibition.
Jim Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said the commission hasn't received any complaints about on-the-job Web postings. Sumner said it would be unenforceable and undesirable to squelch all political speech among state employees during work hours.

"We have to strike a balance," Sumner said. "If it is on a limited basis, that is one thing."

As the stories make clear, Doug caused a bit of a brouhaha--and some embarrassment, I would guess--for UAB. And technically, he did violate university policy and possibly state law.

I, on the other hand, didn't violate policy or law or anything else--and UAB's own "investigation" showed that. But I'm out of a job after 19 years of service.

As they say in the blogosphere, WTF.
(To be continued)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Plot Thickens in Mississippi Senate Race

Evidence continues to mount that the Bush Justice Department plans to issue an indictment that is timed to influence the tight Mississippi U.S. Senate race between Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Roger Wicker.

The Augusta (GA) Chronicle reported on Sunday that former Georgia legislator Robin Williams helped set up a meeting between Georgia businessman Robert Moultrie and Musgrove, who was governor of Mississippi at the time.

That information, reporter Johnny Edwards writes, might explain why Williams and fellow legislator-turned-prisoner Charles Walker recently were moved from a federal facility in Estill, South Carolina, to a county jail near Oxford, Mississippi.

Moultrie is among three Georgia businessmen who entered guilty pleas in the Mississippi Beef Processors case. Musgrove faces no charges at the moment and has denied wrongdoing in the Beef Processors case.

But sources have told Legal Schnauzer that the move of Williams and Walker under a federal writ probably is tied to a possible indictment against Musgrove.

Polls show Musgrove running neck and neck with Wicker for Trent Lott's old seat. A Musgrove win would mark the first time Mississippi has sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 25 years.

An indictment against Musgrove, which could come between now and the November 4 election, probably would secure a victory for Wicker. It also would raise questions about a number of criminal investigations by the Bush DOJ that appear to be politically time and motivated.

Most prominent among those cases is the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

Here's Proof That Siegelman Was Wrongly Convicted

News came late last week that Nick Bailey, a key prosecution witness against former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, has been released from federal prison and moved to a halfway house in Birmingham.

That prompted your humble correspondent to take a close look at the Siegelman appeal, and what did we find? Strong indications that, as we suspected, Siegelman was wrongly convicted.

First, I should say this: The Siegelman document is not the kind of reading you would take to the beach. It's 86 pages long and filled with legal lingo that can make the head begin to nod. I'm a Legal Schnauzer, not a lawyer. And I don't have the prosecution's response to the Siegelman document.

But key sections of the appeal are drawn straight from the trial record. And those sections alone tend to show that Siegelman's conviction was not correct under the law.

We addressed the Siegelman appeal in a post a few weeks back that drew on the fine work of the Tuscaloosa News' Tommy Stevenson. In addition to an excellent overview of key points in the Siegelman appeal, Stevenson provided a link to the appellate document itself.

After girding our loins upon checking out this formidable piece of legal work, we decided to take the plunge. And it proved to be a rewarding endeavor, convincing us that Siegelman and codefendant Richard Scrushy were wrongly convicted for several reasons.

First, we were not surprised to learn that U.S. Judge Mark Fuller gave improper jury instructions, mirroring the actions of his fellow Republican appointee Henry Wingate in the Paul Minor case next door in Mississippi.

Citing McCormick v. U.S., 500 U.S. 257 (1991), Siegelman's attorneys show that federal law requires proof of an explicit quid pro quo for conviction in a public-corruption case. In short, an explicit "agreement" or "promise" of favorable action is unlawful, but an "expectation" of such a result is not.

Fuller's jury instruction did not make that distinction. On page 48 of the appeal, Siegelman's team states: "The District Court advised jurors that they could convict Gov. Siegelman upon finding that [he] intended to alter [his] official actions as a result of the receipt of campaign contributions or other benefits."

This, however, is not what the law says. The Siegelman team correctly points out that the instructions did not require an agreement or promise at all, much less an explicit one. "They allowed for conviction based on attribution of a state of mind to Gov. Siegelman."

Based on the error in jury instructions, Siegelman should receive a new trial, his team states. But it goes on to show that evidence at the trial was insufficient, meaning the former governor is due a judgment in his favor.

Talk of evidence brings us back to Nick Bailey. Siegelman's attorneys recite the key conversation between Bailey and Siegelman after the former governor had met with Scrushy:

Bailey: What is Scrushy "going to want for that [campaign contribution]?"

Siegelman: "The CON Board."

Bailey: "I wouldn't think that would be a problem would it?"

Siegelman: "I wouldn't think so."

This shows that Siegelman thought Scrushy wanted a CON Board appointment, and that Siegelman didn't think that would be a problem. But it does not show an explicit quid pro quo.

"Evidence from Bailey shows that there was at best a tentative expectation about what would happen in the future . . . ," the Siegelman team states. "That is what Bailey's testimony shows: future possibility at best. It does not show that there was a promise made to Scrushy."

A close look at the appeal drives home a point we have made before. The public tends to think the Siegelman trial was primarily about bribery. But in terms of numbers, it was about honest-services mail fraud. Roughly two-thirds of the charges, and five of the seven counts upon which Siegelman was convicted, involved honest-services mail fraud.

We noted in a previous post that the honest-services mail fraud convictions could not stand. That's because federal law requires that the conduct "actually deprive the public" of an official's honest services. (U.S. v. Walker, 400 F. 3d 1282.) And that did not occur because Scrushy clearly was qualified to serve on the CON board and had served on the board under three previous governors.

In terms of public opinion, the conviction on a single bribery count might have been most damaging to Siegelman. Many citizens probably could not begin to define honest-services mail fraud. But folks have a pretty good idea of what bribery means.

Here is something else we learn from a close look at the appeal: The bribery charge almost certainly should not have gone to the jury--or before the court at all, for that matter.

So how did it happen? Scott Horton, legal affairs contributor at Harper's magazine, has written numerous posts about Judge Fuller's myriad conflicts in the case. Those conflicts appear to have come to life in the form of a judge who clearly favored the prosecution.

We've already seen that the Siegelman conviction was built on a shaky foundation. Now we learn that the most important count, bribery, was even shakier than we thought.

(To be continued.)

Does Race Still Permeate Alabama Politics? You Betcha

We are a little more than six weeks from the presidential election, and a new poll makes it painfully clear how big a role race still plays in Alabama politics.

A new poll from the Capital Survey Research Center shows that Democratic candidate Barack Obama has the support of only 16 percent of whites in Alabama.

Republican John McCain has 73 percent of the white vote, giving him a 55 to 35 percent lead overall.

These numbers come as McCain is trying to follow a Republican president who has presided over one of the worst and most corrupt administrations in history.

It's enough to make any rational person scratch his head. But William H. Stewart, University of Alabama professor emeritus of political science, says no one should be surprised by the numbers. Many white Alabamians identify with the Republican "brand" in presidential elections. But that brand seems to be built largely on race.

"Alabama's intense racism has played a significant role in the state's history, and racism is still part of our fabric as a state, not as pronounced as it once was, thank goodness, but it still exists and it will play a role in the election," Stewart said.

The Birmingham News noted that even former House majority leader Dick Armey earlier this month recognized the "Bubba vote."

"The Bubba vote is there, and it's very real, and it is everywhere," the former Republican congressman from Texas said. "There's an awful lot of people in America, bless their heart, who simply are not emotionally prepared to vote for a black man."

Is there hope for Alabama? If there is, it probably is best embodied by Rep. James Fields, who is black and defeated a white Republican in overwhelmingly white Cullman County for a seat in the Alabama Legislature. Some called that win a miracle. Fields does not

"Could I have won 10 years ago? Twenty years ago? Maybe not. But today isn't 10 years ago," Fields said. "I'm not from somewhere else. I'm an Alabamian. I've worked side-by-side with whites, gone to school with whites, roomed with whites, preached to and prayed with whites. People know who I am, what I stand for and they don't have to depend on labels alone like Democrat or black guy."

Fields said Obama likely won't win in Alabama.

"He will lose first because he's a Democrat running in a state in a presidential election year that hasn't seen Alabamians vote for a Democrat in 32 years," Fields said. "Second, he won't lose because he's just black, he's black with an Islamic-sounding name. If he was Charles Smith, his race wouldn't matter as much. But in Southern Baptist Alabama, the name is a problem."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Greed and the Real-Estate Appraisal Scam

Greed is in the news a lot these days. And the news, like greed, isn't good.

Commentators are noting that greed plays a starring role in what is now being called our nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The crisis, so far, has focused on the mortgage, investment, and banking industries. But a recent story shined a spotlight on another industry where greed has reigned. And this industry, like the others connected to the evolving Great Bush Disaster, also has ties to our homes.

Who are these "professionals?" Real-estate appraisers. And they are another example of greed run amok in the Age of Bush.

Anyone who has ever shopped for a house on a middle-class income knows how frustrating the experience can be.

My wife and I bought our house in 1990, and we still get chills thinking about some of the wretched properties we saw--with price tags that would make us swoon like Scarlett O'Hara in the Deep South humidity.

We loved the lingo our real-estate agent dropped on us to make these "deals" seem palatable. "Isn't this one cozy," she would say. (Translation: It's tiny.) "This has so much potential." (Translation: It's currently a wreck.) "Look at this old-world charm." (Translation: It was built during the U.S. Grant administration.) "Wow, what a handyman special." (Translation: It's dilapidated.) "It's zoned to good schools." (Translation: Predominantly "white" schools, and your imaginary kids will need to be there 24/7 because the roof on this house leaks like Monica Lewinsky.)

Real-estate prices in "good neighborhoods" within a 10- to 12-mile radius of downtown Birmingham are godawful, which is why we landed in North Shelby County, about 15 miles from downtown and ruled by the kind of corrupt public officials you would expect to find in Nicaragua.
People who live in places like Maryland and Virginia have told us that home prices in Birmingham actually are wonderful compared to other parts of the country. We're supposed to feel good about that, I guess.

Anyway, Mrs. Schnauzer and I have long wondered what drives outrageous real-estate prices. We've attributed it to 3-4 things:

* Seller arrogance

* Buyer desperation

* Societal and familial pressures

* And that old standby, supply and demand

Thanks to a recent investigative report from Associated Press, we know that another factor has helped drive soaring home prices: Fraud by real-estate appraisers, often in concert with unscrupulous real-estate agents and mortgage brokers.

Given that our nightmarish experience with Alabama's justice system began with a funky real-estate deal, this report drew more than casual interest in the Schnauzer household.

Writes AP's Mitch Weiss:

After the nation's last major banking disaster, Congress set up a system to catch rogue appraisers. Their game: inflating the value of homes at the direction of equally unscrupulous real estate agents and mortgage brokers, whose commissions are determined by the size of the deals.

But a six-month investigation by the Associated Press found that the system is crippled by both the bumbling of its policemen and their inability to effectively punish those caught committing fraud.

And despite ample evidence appraisers are pressured into inflating home values — sometimes to prices in support of loans that are more than buyers can afford — the federal regulators charged with protecting consumers have thus far made a conscious choice not to act.

"The system is completely broken," Marc Weinberg, the former acting director at the federal agency charged with monitoring the appraisal industry, said before he retired earlier this year. "It's amazing that the system ever worked at all."

Boy, those are encouraging words. And what impact have rogue real-estate appraisers had on our economy?

To be sure, there are many causes of the housing crisis — lenders who allowed people with spotty credit to buy homes with little or no money down, mortgage brokers who focused on selling loans without regard to the borrowers' ability to repay, investment bankers who bought and sold risky mortgage-backed securities. A few of the worst offenders — appraisers included — have been put behind bars.

But experts and industry insiders, including appraisers who feel betrayed by colleagues who don't follow the rules, believe the failure to effectively monitor the real estate appraisal industry contributed to housing's collapse.

What about our own experience with a funky real-estate deal? I wrote about it in a post dated November 27, 2007. I have no indication that fraud of any kind took place in the deal that caused us to wind up with Mike McGarity, and his extensive criminal record, for a next-door neighbor. But the more we learned about the deal, the stranger it seemed.

Normally, I wouldn't care what took place when a nearby house was sold. But McGarity's presence unleashed a series of events that culminated with the unlawful "auction" of our house and the loss of my job at UAB under mysterious and unlawful circumstances. So you can understand why we've been more than a little curious about how McGarity came to buy the house from our previous next-door neighbor--Fred Yancey, the football coach and dean of students at Briarwood Christian School.

Here's a brief overview of what happened when Fred Yancey sold his house to Mike McGarity:

* There was never a for-sale sign in the yard;

* There was never an ad in the local newspaper or in our main area "shopper" publication;

* The house was never listed with the local Multiple Listing Service (MLS), according to an appraiser I consulted;

* Even though the house was never listed, a real-estate agent named Phyllis Tinsley was involved in the deal. At the time, Tinsley worked for Prudential Realty, but she now has her own real-estate company. Her husband, Roye Tinsley, is a real-estate appraiser.

* Phyllis Tinsley told my wife that she happened to see a for-sale-by-owner sign at McGarity's house in Cahaba Heights and stopped to talk with him. That, Tinsley said, is how she found a prospective buyer. And how did she find a prospective seller? She happened to be in our neighborhood and knocked on Fred Yancey's door. Lo and behold, he was looking to sell his house!

Maybe real-estate agents sell houses this way all the time. But it sure seems like a strange way to do it to me--awfully inefficient.

Did Ms. Tinsley just stumble upon Mike McGarity, without anyone telling her he was interested in buying, and then stumble upon Fred Yancey, without anyone telling her he was interested in selling?

Well, snip my pickle and call me Shlomo, that was a real-estate match made in heaven.

It's caused my wife and me to go through hell, but I doubt that Phyllis Tinsley, Fred Yancey, or any of the fine Christians at Briarwood School really care about that.

Oh, and here's something interesting about Phyllis Tinsley. I called her one evening a couple of years back to ask her about the funky real-estate deal that landed Mike McGarity next door to us. She didn't seem terribly anxious to discuss it, but she did pretty much repeat the story she had told my wife--that she had just happened upon a seller and a buyer, almost as if God was making this deal happen!

We had a fairly pleasant chat, and I tape recorded things for posterity's sake. When I played back the tape, something interesting happened. I could hear what I said, but when Ms. Tinsley spoke, her voice was scrambled or somehow blocked.

I have no idea how or why that happened. Just another chapter in a real-estate transaction that gets curiouser and curiouser.

The Original Legal Schnauzer, Part V

This is Murphy and her "mom" at Oak Mountain State Park, and it's probably my all-time favorite photo.

Why? Well, as I've written several times, my wife and I were "nuts" about Murphy. And now, I'll probably convince some of you that we are just nuts in general.

Anyway, after having Murphy in our lives for 11 years, we developed this notion that maybe she could connect with God in a way that we could not. Why did we think about this? While our daily lives were wracked with fear and worry and uncertainty, Murphy never seemed to experience those feelings. More than once, Mrs. Schnauzer or I have said something along the lines of, "Why are we even here? Is it just to be tormented by unethical lawyers and corrupt judges?"

These kinds of thoughts never seemed to enter Murphy's mind. She seemed to understand exactly what her mission was, and she wasn't going to be distracted from it. Her mission, as best we could tell, was to help keep us relatively sane during a horrible time in our lives. She took great delight in her mission, and we are eternally grateful that she not only helped keep us functional, but even brought a sense of joy and hopefulness to our home--at a time when it felt like it was under siege.

Perhaps that's why, when we view this picture, we see Murphy looking up to her Creator and saying, "Big Guy, I'm doing my best to help these people. What do you want me to try next?"

Before you dismiss us as fruitcakes, consider this: We know that dogs can smell in ways that we can't smell and hear in ways that we can't hear. Is it possible that they can connect with God in ways that we cannot?

We are in touch with reality enough to realize that Murphy probably was looking at a squirrel in a pine tree in this photo. But we believe in a loving God, and we wonder if he presents himself on earth in mysterious and unknown ways--perhaps in the form of a beloved pet.

Human activity these days does not present much evidence in favor of a loving God. We seem to spend much of our time inflicting harm upon others, and the planet. So perhaps it's the "least of these," our animal friends, who truly embody a loving God.

That's how Murphy seemed to us. We like the idea that she could connect with God in an intimate way that we could not imagine. And we take comfort in knowing that she is with Him now.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

John McCain's Buddy Got Us Into This Mess

Does anyone seriously think John McCain is the man to lead our country out of financial crisis?

That would be like hiring Bob Guccione to clean up the porn industry.

In fact, one of McCain's best buds is largely responsible for our current mess. Consider the words of syndicated columnist Froma Harrop. She lays much of the blame for the U.S. financial meltdown at the feet of former McCain economic advisor and ex-Texas Sen. Phil Gramm:

On Dec. 15, 2000, hours before Congress was to leave for Christmas recess, Gramm had a 262-page amendment slipped into the appropriations bill. It forbade federal agencies to regulate the financial derivatives that greased the skids for passing along risky mortgage-backed securities to investors.

And that, my friends, is why everything's falling apart.

So the woes of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers? All set up by Phil Gramm.

The wily Texan recently lost his title of economic adviser after making his fabled remark about this being "a nation of whiners." But he still is the architect of McCain's economic plan--the one that is supposed to lead us out of the very jam that Phil Gramm helped create.

Would you want Evel Knievel to teach your children about health and safety practices? If that sounds like a good idea, by all means vote for John McCain to handle a fiscal crisis that seems to get worse with each passing day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Evidence Grows That Bush DOJ Plans a Mississippi Surprise

Is the Bush Justice Department planning an indictment in hopes of having an impact on the U.S. Senate race in Mississippi between Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Roger Wicker?

We raised that question in a post last week. And Johnny Edwards, a reporter with the Augusta (GA) Chronicle, adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests the answer is "yes."

Edwards reports today that former Georgia legislators Charles Walker and Robin Williams have been returned to federal prison in Estill, South Carolina. Edwards earlier had reported that Walker and Williams had been transferred to another facility under a federal writ, meaning they were to testify in a criminal case.

That prompted our report that the Justice Department probably was using their testimony to help prepare an indictment against Musgrove related to the Mississippi Beef Processors case. That case has produced three guilty pleas from Georgia businessmen who had donated to Musgrove's failed 2003 campaign for governor against Republican Haley Barbour.

The Musgrove-Wicker race reportedly is tight, and a Musgrove victory would send a Mississippi Democrat to the U.S. Senate for the first time in 25 years. Our sources tell us that the Bush Justice Department wants to ensure that does not happen by bringing a politically timed and motivated criminal case against Musgrove between now and the November 4 election.

Will that, in fact, happen? Did the mysterious Walker/Williams transfer have anything to do with Musgrove?

Well, Edwards reports that Walker and Williams were held from July 28 to September at the Lafayette County Jail in . . . Oxford, Mississippi. And Oxford just happens to be the site of the Mississippi Beef Processors case. The Lafayette County Jail holds federal inmates during trials.


Oxford-based U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee is heading the Mississippi Beef Processors case, and a spokesman for his office would not comment on the reasons for the Walker/Williams transfer.

Walker and Williams have been back at Estill, South Carolina since last Friday.

Will the Dominoes Start to Tumble in Abramoff Case?

Jack Abramoff is one of the most notorious figures in American political history. And a mountain of evidence indicates he had a profound impact on the electoral process in Alabama.

But here in deep-red Alabama, many citizens don't seem to care that the Abramoff machine apparently poisoned our government. You don't get the feeling that Alabamians are demanding accountability in the Abramoff affair. In fact, it seems that folks in our state would just as soon forget Captain Jack and his sleazy sidekicks.

But the editors of the Anniston Star are not among those folks. In the wake of Abramoff's sentencing last week, a Star editorial noted that the affair is far from over and a laundry list of wrongdoers need to be held accountable.

The Star notes that more than a dozen politicians and lobbyists have pleaded guilty to charges associated with the Abramoff case. And former House Republicans Tom DeLay and John Doolittle remain on the hot seat. But the newspaper correctly points out that the trail hardly ends there, and it cuts a wide swath through the Heart of Dixie:

Closer to home, Abramoff was connected to corruption allegations surrounding Alabama's 1999 vote on a statewide lottery and other initiatives to introduce gambling into the state. The most famous case involved former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. He was convicted for allegedly selling influence in order to secure funds to campaign for the lottery. A reasonable person might conclude the money was nothing more than a campaign contribution from a deep-pocketed citizen looking to curry favor. In other words, it appears to be the same sort of transaction that happens when donors give to presidential candidates in hopes of landing an ambassadorial appointment to, say, Luxemburg.

Siegelman got seven years, three years more than Abramoff.

The Star goes on to outline Abramoff's efforts to scuttle regulated gaming in Alabama out of fear that it would provide competition for his clients, the Mississippi Choctaws.

The result was that gambling initiatives failed, in part, because social conservatives in Alabama used casino dollars from a neighboring state to fight the lottery election.

This sordid episode had many losers. The credibility of (Ralph) Reed and his religious-right friends in Alabama was mortally wounded. Americans for Tax Reform, which is a lynchpin for the conservative movement, should have been deeply embarrassed by having its name associated with this kind of deception.

In the two years since the Senate released a comprehensive report on Abramoff's dealings, what hasn't happened is anyone connected to this money laundering and deception facing charges of wrongdoing.

The Star doesn't mention Alabama Governor Bob Riley, and the ample evidence that he received about $13 million of Mississippi Choctaw money for his 2002 election--all of it freshly laundered by Captain Jack Abramoff. The Star also does not mention that Republican presidential nominee John McCain knew about Riley's connections to Abramoff and kept them out of a Senate report on the scandal.

With Abramoff's sentencing now behind us, the Star seems to be saying, now is a good time to truly check the foundation of the ugly House That Jack Built.

If someone ever does the checking, they will find a number of snakes inside. And they will have "Alabama" written all over them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Alabama Lawsuit Might Shine Light on Abramoff, Siegelman Cases

An ongoing lawsuit in Montgomery, Alabama, might pull back the curtain on Republican corruption in the Deep South, providing insights on the Jack Abramoff money trail and activities that led to the Don Siegelman prosecution.

Insurance executive John Goff filed a lawsuit in March 2007 against Gov. Bob Riley, former Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, Insurance Commissioner Walter Bell, and others, alleging they conspired to destroy Goff's workers compensation business.

The Montgomery Independent reports that depositions have been scheduled over the past two weeks, through today.

Perhaps the most interesting name on the deposition list is Bill Canary, director of the Business Council of Alabama and husband of Leura Canary, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. Leura Canary oversaw the Siegelman prosecution, and according to Republican whistleblower Jill Simpson, Bill Canary told associates on a telephone conference call that "his girls" (Leura Canary and fellow U.S. attorney Alice Martin) would "take care of Don Siegelman."

As regular readers know, I am not an attorney. But my understanding is that the rules governing depositions in most states [Rule 30(c), Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure] allow for a wide-ranging inquiry. Questions that draw an objection from a defending attorney generally still must be answered.

That means the depositions were likely to produce information that goes beyond the Goff case to associated matters--including the Abramoff and Siegelman cases.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Truman M. Hobbs Jr. on June 24 dismissed claims against all defendants except for one count of fraudulent misrepresentation against Bell. Hobbs ruled that the two-year statute of limitations had run on a number of the claims.

In a surprise move, Bell resigned his position in Riley's cabinet at the end of August and became chairman of Swiss Re America Holding Corp. When asked if Bell's resignation was connected to the Goff case, spokesman Ragan Ingram said, "Not at all."

Goff once was a Riley supporter, helping to raise about $500,000 for the 2002 campaign--which Riley won in a bitterly fought contest over Siegelman--and allowing the use of his company airplane.

But Goff claims in his lawsuit that two of Windom's associates, Jim Tait and Don Price, visited his office in August 2003 and said they could help Goff retain an important account if he split the commission with them. The men, Goff alleges, said the Riley administration would make sure Goff lost the account if he did not give in to their demands.

"In my 30 years in the insurance business in dealing with the state, I have never experienced such an open attempt at extorting money from me," Goff said.

Thomas Gallion, Goff's attorney, reported the incident to the Alabama Insurance Department. Rather than investigate a possible criminal act, Commissioner Bell initiated a series of events that led to Goff Group Inc. going into bankruptcy, the lawsuit alleges.

Two months before filing his lawsuit in March of last year, Goff wrote a letter to Riley. Goff said an audit related to his company's bankruptcy revealed irregularities regarding the use of his airplane. According to Alabama Secretary of State records, Goff said, Riley had not reported the "in kind" contribution based on his use of the plane.

Because the contribution was not reported for campaign purposes, Goff said, he had to assume that Riley used the airplane on two trips to Washington, D.C., for personal reasons. "I knew that you were going to use this plane to campaign in the state of Alabama," Goff wrote, "but I did not know that you used my plane on March 12, 2002, and May 14, 2002, to go to Washington, D.C."

Goff enclosed an invoice for $25,000 to cover the cost of the two trips to Washington. The Riley Campaign, after balking initially, paid the amount. But it apparently bristled because of another issue Goff raised in his letter: the activities of disgraced GOP lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, and their connections to Bob Riley.

"It puzzles me as to why you did not report (this in-kind contribution), and I am very much concerned that it could be related to your handling of the Indian casino money that has been recently described in the news media," Goff said. "I have read that the two people you dealt with were a Mr. Abramoff and a Mr. Scanlon (your former congressional aide) who were indicted and plead guilty to illegal funneling of these Indiana gambling-related monies to various political croniees. The article clearly describes that you were the recipient of millions of dollars of this money and through your use of my airplane in your campaign; I need assurance that you did not use my plane to pick up these monies on the two above described trips to Washington, D.C.

"I need for you to respond to this letter in that I have had enough problems with your administration and certainly don't want to get innocently involved in this Indian casino gambling scandal that I understand is still ongoing."

How did the Riley administration react to Goff's concerns? Not well.

It apparently encouraged U.S. Attorney Leura Canary to investigate and indict Goff on criminal fraud, conspiracy, and embezzlement charges. Goff is scheduled for trial in federal court on January 5, 2009.

These charges came even though the subject controversy already had been settled in an administrative-law case. Gallion says the criminal charges amount to double jeopardy. Goff says they are retaliation for his lawsuit.

With most of its claims dismissed, the Goff lawsuit appears to be foundering. But that might not remain the case. Gallion has filed a motion to reconsider, asking that Judge Hobbs reinstate a number of charges against Windom and Bell. The motion, for now, does not ask that Governor Riley and his son, Rob Riley, be reinstated as defendants. But that could come once depositions are completed today.

Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, the Goff lawsuit appears to have led to one major event-- Bell's resignation.

"It seems to me to be more than coincidence," Gallion told the Montgomery Independent. "My sources tell me that after Bell received the deposition notice, there was a meeting in Gov. Riley's office with Windom and Bell, and that's when Bell resigned. The appearance of it is rather peculiar."