Sunday, September 7, 2008

Is The Birmingham News Up to Trickery?

We've had two recent reports about The Birmingham News' cozy relationship with federal prosecutors. And I've had a personal experience in the past month or so that makes me wonder what Alabama's largest newspaper is up to--and who it might be consorting with.

Glynn Wilson, of Locust Fork World News & Journal, wrote about former News reporter Brett Blackledge and the possibility that he obtained secret grand-jury information from federal prosecutors regarding the Alabama two-year colleges story.

David Fiderer, of Huffington Post, showed how the News' coverage of the Sue Schmitz trial seems geared to present a view that is favorable as possible to U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, even though Martin apparently has brought an exceedingly weak case.

What about my experience with The News? Regular readers know that we rarely have anything positive to say about The News' and its coverage, or lack thereof, of the Bush Justice Department scandal. So I was surprised to receive an e-mail from reporter Hannah Wolfson several weeks ago, saying she was interested in a story about my termination at UAB.

Here's how the e-mail, dated July 21, read:

From: hannah wolfson

Date: Jul 21, 2008 5:09 PM

Subject: Your story


I've recently started covering UAB for The Birmingham News and a friend just alerted me to your firing. I'd love to talk to you about it. I just left a voicemail but am not sure I called the right number. Can you give me a call when you get a chance? I'll be in my office most of tomorrow: 325-2454. Thanks, and I'm looking forward to speaking with you.


Hannah Wolfson

Staff Writer

The Birmingham News

I called Ms. Wolfson several times at her office in the following days and could never reach her. I left messages with her, and we did manage to talk briefly one afternoon when she caught me on my cell phone. I wasn't in a place where I could talk for long, so we planned for me to call her office at about 10 the next day. I did, but couldn't reach her and didn't receive a reply to the voice message I left. On August 6, I received an e-mail response from her, saying the story idea still was on her list. But I've received no responses to three e-mails I've sent her since that date.

What's going on? A few things come to my mind:

* I have no reason to think that Ms. Wolfson is anything other than a legitimate, professional journalist. My No. 1 guess is that she was genuinely interested in the story, but when word got to editors up the line, someone nixed it.

* Here's another theory: On the evening of July 21, the day Ms. Wolfson first contacted me via e-mail, I put up this post. It was about a conversation I'd had with UAB Employee Relations Director Anita Bonasera in which she pretty much confirmed that I was placed on administrative leave (and later fired) because I write a blog that deals with the Don Siegelman case. I included an audiotape of that conversation on the blog, showing that I was able and willing to tape record certain phone conversations. This might have told someone at the News that I would tape record any interview I had with Ms. Wolfson--they are right about that--and perhaps it would be best for them to avoid the story altogether. Why would they be concerned about me tape recording the interview? They would only be concerned, it seems to me, if they intended to doctor quotes and reshape information in order to make me look bad. I can't imagine the News doing that unless someone external to the interview--perhaps someone in the U.S. attorney's office or at UAB--wanted to see me discredited. Again, I have no reason to think that Ms. Wolfson would be involved in such doctoring. I've spent many years working at newspapers myself, and I know this kind of thing could be accomplished by editors up the line, beyond a reporter's control.

This all raises another question: Could someone at The Birmingham News have been involved in my termination at UAB, perhaps in conjunction with Alice Martin's office? I've been a heavy critic of the newspaper, and I've reported on professional wrongdoing (perhaps criminal conduct) by Ms. Martin, so the two might share a goal of wanting to silence a troublesome blogger.

The News, for example, could threaten to conduct an investigation of certain unsavory activity at UAB. Some highly unsavory activity has gone at UAB--and probably still is going on--over the past six to eight years--and Alice Martin knows exactly what it is. She could give the newspaper the details, with the idea that an investigation would ensue unless a certain employee who happens to write a blog--on his own time, with non-university resources--was given the heave-ho.

Actually, I doubt that The Birmingham News was involved in my termination. I suspect Alice Martin, or people close to her, were able to pull it off without assistance from the newspaper. The U.S. attorney's office has plenty of dirt on UAB, and I suspect the threat to reopen a certain can of worms was all it took to convince UAB's leaders that I needed to go.

Here's the irony for Hannah Wolfson and The Birmingham News. If they really were interested in big-time journalism, I know of at least three major stories they could write about wrongdoing at UAB--or wrongdoing by people directly connected to the university. Those stories are:

(1) My termination, which violates university policy, federal law, and illustrates the willingness of UAB's leaders to be unlawfully swayed by partisan political pressure.

(2) Massive fraud in UAB's research enterprise. This story supposedly was "put to bed" with a settlement that was announced in 2005. But an investigation can be reopened by the federal government at any time, and public documents indicate the scope of the fraud was far more vast than has been reported. Does the lingering fraud story have something to do with a number of mysterious retirements and resignations in the UAB Medical Center in recent years, not to mention a steady flow of top scientists toward the exits? My guess is yes.

(3) One or two members of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, which oversees UAB, have business interests that have attracted the attention of federal law-enforcement officials. One board member has business interests in an industry that has become a breeding ground for multimillion-dollar fraud schemes. It's an industry that most Americans have never heard of, but over the past 20 years or so, it has become the subject of several major Enron-like investigations. One of those investigations a few years ago resulted in a major conviction--and that case has powerful connections to Alabama. Those connections run right to the doorstep of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees.

For good measure, a member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees--and the chancellor of the University of Alabama--serve, or have served, on the Business Council of Alabama. This is the outfit run by Bill Canary, to whom whistleblower Jill Simpson attributed the famous "my girls will take care of Don Siegelman" quote. Canary's girls, of course, were U.S. attorneys Alice Martin and Leura Canary. Powerful evidence suggests that people close to Alice Martin are behind my termination.

You aren't likely to read about any of these stories in The Birmingham News--or any other mainstream media outlets in Alabama. But you will be reading about them at Legal Schnauzer.

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