Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Legal Schnauzer Is In the Spotlight at OpEd News

As a journalist with 30-plus years of professional experience, I am used to asking questions.

Having questions put to me is a little different experience. But it's one I enjoyed as part of a recent article by OpEd News' Joan Brunwasser, spotlighting Legal Schnauzer.

I have cross posted much of my work at OpEd News, and it is a pleasure to be part of a grassroots news organization with broad national reach. And I know firsthand that OEN has a highly educated audience. I can tell from checking my blog statistics that many readers who find Legal Schnauzer through OEN come from colleges and universities.

Part I of Brunwasser's interview focuses on the events that led me to start a blog about justice-related issues. And it shows how my difficulties with a troublesome neighbor connected me to a larger justice story that led to the doorstep of the Bush White House:

RS: The neighbor hired a lawyer with strong family ties to Alabama's Republican Party. And the judge in the civil case was a Republican. So the case was not dismissed, and it wound up costing us more than $40,000.

I came to see that my experience had connections to a much bigger story.

I started the blog in June 2007, just a few months after the U.S. attorney firings became a national story. The [former Democratic Governor] Don Siegelman case in Alabama became the best known example of an apparent political prosecution. And my little experience, believe or not, had connections to the Siegelman case.

JB: In what way?

RS: My neighbor's lawyer was a man named William E. Swatek. Swatek's son, Dax Swatek, is a GOP "consultant" in Alabama, and one of his primary mentors has been a man named Bill Canary. According to the sworn testimony of Alabama lawyer Jill Simpson, Bill Canary was at the heart of a conspiracy to initiate a bogus prosecution to "take care of" Don Siegelman. And Canary, according to Simpson, worked this out with a longtime associate, Bush White House strategist Karl Rove.

We also discussed the possible pitfalls that can await any crime victim in state courts. That's because of a "disfavored tort" called malicious prosecution, which allows a defendant who is found not guilty to turn around and sue his victim:

JB: Did you go into the criminal complaint against the neighbor assuming it would be a piece of cake?

RS: No. No one wants to file a criminal complaint, particularly against someone who lives nearby. But we had exhausted all other remedies. We had multiple eye witnesses to his trespassing, so we had not only probable cause but "actual cause," so a malicious prosecution lawsuit should not have been a concern.

But that's in theory. The reality is that our justice system is populated with a fair number of corrupt lawyers and judges, and we encountered those. Bill Swatek has a bar card, and he filed a malicious prosecution claim even though he was in court and heard his client confess to the crime. Because of his son's ties to the Alabama Republican Party, Swatek gets all kinds of favorable treatment from GOP judges in Shelby County, where we live. I've always been respectful of authority figures. Like many Americans, I assumed that people who wear robes and are called "your honor" are, in fact, honorable people. It's sobering when you realize that is not the case.

Perhaps my biggest surprise was how blatant the corruption was. In my case, neither the corrupt judges nor lawyers did anything to hide what they were doing. Our courts are so packed with cases that the bad guys apparently have little fear of being caught. I strongly encourage anyone involved in a legal case to educate themselves at a nearby law library. Don't rely on what a lawyer (yours or the other person's) says. And certainly don't assume that the judge is ruling correctly.

I decided to fight back by starting a blog to expose the wrongdoing. But as Brunwasser shows, being a whistleblower comes with risk. The content of my blog made me a target in my job as an editor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where I had worked for 19 years:

RS: In the fall of 2007, Harper's Scott Horton referenced my reporting on the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, which has many similarities to the Siegelman case. Also that fall, my reporting was referenced in documents submitted at the U.S. House Judiciary Committee's hearing on selective prosecution.

Apparently, that made me a target at work. Strange events started happening on the job in December 2007 and got so bad that I filed a formal grievance against my supervisor. Roughly three weeks after filing that grievance, I was fired.

I have tape recorded evidence that indicates I was targeted because of my blog and its content about the Siegelman case.

It has been almost a year since my unlawful termination. I have filed a complaint with the EEOC regarding age discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.

Part II of the interview focuses on my reporting about the Don Siegelman and Paul Minor cases and my thoughts about how the Obama administration can restore a badly broken justice system:

JB: Tell us about your involvement in the Siegelman case, Roger. Are you at all hopeful about the Obama administration taking up the case and doing right by Siegelman?

RS: My interest in the Siegelman case was a matter of location, timing, and connections.

I live in Siegelman's home state and was following the case closely for several years before I ever started a blog. The political angle of the Siegelman prosecution was becoming a national story just as I started Legal Schnauzer.

A lot of my work on the Siegelman case, so far, has been interpretive. The national leader on the story has been Scott Horton, of Harper's, an Alabama native. Without him, I doubt that the story ever would have gained legs. Glynn Wilson, at Locust Fork News, has done critical original reporting, particularly on the role of whistleblower Jill Simpson. And Larisa Alexandrovna, at Raw Story, has done splendid investigative work, providing critical detail and context to the overall story.

My role has been to take their work and bring it home to a local level. I've shown how the Siegelman case connects to my case in Alabama state courts and what it means when a state has fundamentally corrupt state courts. I've tried to show how national justice issues can filter down to affect regular folks.

JB: What do you think of the new administration?

RS: I've been disappointed so far. Obama's statement about "looking forward, not backward" is poorly thought out and could come back to haunt his presidency. Turning a blind eye to corruption is not the kind of "change" many people voted for.

It's not Obama's place to sweep Bush wrongdoing under the carpet.

I think Obama certainly can clean up the Justice Department, to a great degree. But we also must determine exactly what happened under Bush and hold people accountable for wrongdoing.

It's critical that people understand: We have political prisoners in the United States in 2009. I know of at least three--Paul Minor [one of the biggest donors to Mississippi Democrats] and his two codefendants. And Don Siegelman might be headed back to prison. This is the kind of stuff that happened in Stalin's Soviet Union.

If Obama tries to move forward while obstructing the truth of the past eight years, I think it will cost him large chunks of his progressive base, the people who put him in office.

1 comment:

Matt Osborne said...

Well-deserved attention!