Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Hazards of Having Corrupt Federal Prosecutors

About once a week since Barack Obama was elected president, The Birmingham News has run some sort of piece about the importance of continuing prosecutions initiated by Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

The most recent entreaty came from columnist John Archibald, who virtually got on his knees and begged Obama (or someone close to him) to make sure that Martin's handiwork proceeds into 2009 and beyond.

Archibald and his colleagues, in their pieces about Alabama justice in the Age of Obama, have conveniently neglected a key point: There is a downside to having ethically challenged federal prosecutors, such as Martin and fellow Bush appointee Leura Canary (Middle District of Alabama).

Both Martin and Canary have been accused of abusing their power for political purposes, and news reports indicate that both are under investigation by multiple federal agencies. These investigations probably have been whitewashes under the Bush Justice Department. But a number of sources indicate they could get serious when Obama appointees take over.

Archibald & Co. probably do not want to consider this question, but we will raise it here at Legal Schnauzer: What if the charges against Martin and Canary are true? In fact, what if investigations reveal that the truth about Martin and Canary is even worse than some of their critics allege? What if Martin and Canary wind up facing professional sanctions, such as disbarment? What if Martin and Canary are found to have participated in criminal conspiracies?

The Birmingham News seems desperate to see Martin's prosecutions proceed against certain high-profile Democrats. These defendants include Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford and codefendants William Blount and Al LaPierre; Langford associate John Katapodis; Alabama Representative Sue Schmitz; Alabama Senator E.B. McClain; and more. The News appears to have a particularly strong bloodlust for Langford.

As for Canary, she is leading an effort to prosecute Montgomery insurance executive John Goff in a case that seems driven by the concerns/fears/desires of folks associated with Governor Bob Riley. The Goff prosecution started only after Goff had filed a lawsuit claiming that Riley and others had conspired to ruin one of his businesses.

What are some possible downsides of these cases moving forward? For simplicity's sake, let's consider the Langford case in Birmingham and the Goff case in Montgomery.

Langford, a black Democrat, was arrested in early December on corruption-related charges. It's hard to say how strong the government's case is against Langford. But given Martin's history of bringing questionable cases against Democrats and minorities, a reasonable person might wonder if political motivations are present. Scott Horton, Columbia University law professor and legal-affairs contributor for Harper's magazine, has called Martin one of the most corrupt and crooked public officials in the country.

Goff, a former Riley supporter, has been charged with fraud and embezzlement based on a set of facts that appeared to have already been settled in an administrative-law case. The indictment of Goff seems to be payback for a lawsuit he brought against Gov. Riley.

Let's assume the government has moderately strong cases against Langford and Goff. And let's assume that both are found guilty in federal trials. What happens if subsequent investigations show that the prosecutors who initiated both cases were corrupt, that they targeted subjects for political reasons, that they violated professional standards and perhaps criminal laws?

Does that not give Langford and Goff overwhelming grounds for appeal? Couldn't that mean that any convictions would be overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct? Could taxpayer dollars spent on the two trials be wasted because the prosecutors were found to have acted corruptly?

Regular readers know that I am not an attorney. And I don't pretend to be an expert on federal criminal procedure. But when Obama appointees are in place in the Justice Department, it seems they will need to ask themselves this question: Should we move forward with cases in Alabama, and elsewhere, that might have already been tainted by prosecutorial misconduct?

Put another way: Should we run the risk of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars trying to get convictions on cases that are likely to be overturned on appeal?

John Archibald and The Birmingham News crowd don't want to acknowledge it, but these are the kinds of hard questions the corrupt Bush Justice Department is leaving behind.


Matt Osborne said...


Martin not only leaves behind a record of questionable prosecutions, but also some very questionable decisions NOT to prosecute. Here's an example of one (PDF).

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks for sending this link. I hope LS readers will check this out. Doesn't Alice Martin live in Florence? This sounds like a possible whistleblower case, and I'm assuming she ignored it? I'm getting ready to report on another whistleblower case in which she appears to be protecting someone very close to Bob Riley. I'm guessing the mainstream press in Shoals area has not written about the case you mention. Thanks for touching base, and I've added you to our famed LS blog roll. Look forward to following your work.

Matt Osborne said...

She does, in fact, live in Florence. And last time I heard, the FBI office here (3 agents) has been, um, "investigating" the Florence Gas Department since 2005.