News is breaking today that one prominent prosecutor in the Northern District of Alabama has resigned and another has been transferred out of the public-corruption unit.
Is Joyce White Vance, the new U.S. attorney for the Northern District, taking steps to clean up some of the prosecutorial sleaze she inherited from Alice Martin? Could a bigger story be brewing in Vance's office, with more changes to come?
We are hearing the answer to both questions is yes.
William Athanas, a key member of the prosecution team for the upcoming trial of Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford, has resigned. Matt Hart asked to be transferred out of the public-corruption unit.
Athanas perhaps is best known for his lead role in the prosecution of former Alabama representative Sue Schmitz. The government somehow got a conviction in the Schmitz case, but as we reported here at Legal Schnauzer, the charges against Schmitz were flimsy at best.
Was Athanas' resignation connected to possible misconduct in the Schmitz prosecution? Could it signal that Schmitz might receive a new trial--or have her conviction overturned? The answers to those questions remain unclear.
As for Matt Hart, he also was playing a lead role in the Langford case. And he was perhaps best known for his part in the investigation of Alabama Attorney General Troy King.
I had a brief encounter with Mr. Hart a few years ago, and I came away unimpressed. I called him in an effort to let him know about criminal conduct I had witnessed from Republican judges and lawyers in Shelby County, Alabama. Hart made it clear that investigating Republicans was not a high priority in the Alice Martin era. Here's how I described the experience with Hart, as part of my effort to alert the FBI and other law-enforcement officials of GOP sleaze in Shelby County:
Somehow, I came up with an e-mail address for Matt Hart, director of the white-collar crime unit. I sent him an e-mail and never received a reply. I decided to take a shot at calling his office, and by some miracle, managed to get him on the phone. First, Hart told me I didn't have a clue about the applicable law--honest services mail fraud. When I made it clear that I certainly did know about both the statutory and case law behind honest services mail fraud, Hart changed his tune. Whether I had been the victim of a crime or not, Hart was "kicking" my case. "I kick cases all the time," he said. I found it interesting that he could "kick" a case he hadn't even looked at yet.
Hart sounded real interested in GOP public corruption, didn't he?
We haven't heard what might become of another controversial prosecutor, the esteemed David Estes. He is best known for his role in the Alex Latifi case in Huntsville, where he allegedly told defense attorneys, "We don't care if Latifi is innocent. Our goal is to put him out of business."
We had a mixed reaction to Joyce White Vance's appointment as U.S. attorney, mainly because her husband is Alabama Circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr. I've had a matter before Judge Vance and seen him intentionally rule unlawfully in order to benefit his buddies in the Alabama legal community. With those kind of personal ties to Birmingham's establishment, I have doubts if Joyce Vance is the kind of aggressive and principled U.S. attorney we need.
I doubt that I will ever be a fan of Robert Vance Jr. In fact, I have more critical coverage of him coming soon. But maybe I was wrong about his wife. Today's news is a rare encouraging sign in the Alabama justice system. Let's hope Joyce White Vance has more encouraging news to come.