Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween From Legal Schnauzer

The entire Legal Schnauzer team--Mrs. Schnauzer, Baxter the Tonk, Chloe the Tonk, Chucky the Ground Squirrel, and yours truly--wishes our readers a happy and safe Halloween.

And as a public service announcement, some of our special friends remind you: It's almost time to get a flu shot.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What Are Debt Collectors Trying to Hide?

The key date in my wife's recent unlawful termination at Birmingham-based Infinity Property and Casualty Corporation appears to be September 14.

That's roughly the date when it became clear that we intended to move forward with discovery in our lawsuit against NCO Financial Services and Ingram & Associates LLC regarding their collection activities on a debt allegedly owed to American Express.

We are going to examine some rather dramatic actions that took place just before and after September 14. That should provide some insight into why my wife testified under oath in a deposition on Monday that she believes her unlawful termination was driven by individuals with connections to the debt-collection and credit-card industries.

Before we move forward, here's one other date to remember in all of this: October 30. That's today, and it's the deadline for completing discovery in our lawsuit.

Our guess is that the defendants, particularly NCO Financial Services, very much had that date in mind as the middle of September was approaching.

Counsel for NCO had sent us notification, while we were representing ourselves, that they intended to review our medical records as part of the discovery process. This was no surprise because our lawsuit claimed emotional distress and other health-related damages.

By the time the issue came up again in September, we were represented by counsel. So we figured NCO would go through the proper channel to get the records they were entitled to see.

But that is not what counsel for NCO did. Instead, they sent our attorneys a letter, with a railing tone, demanding that we sign releases that would give them unfettered access to our medical records. They also stated that they would file a motion to compel if this task was not completed in 25 hours.

Our attorneys responded with a motion stating that NCO was not entitled under federal law to blanket access to our medical records, and the deadline was arbitrary and improper. The court issued a protective order, stating that NCO could gain access only to the records to which it was entitled.

Since all of this took place, we have not been asked to sign a release for our medical records. It appears NCO never was interested in our medical records in the first place. It just wanted to intimidate us--and it failed.

Here is probably the key sentence in our motion for the protective order:

Counsel took this action after being advised that plaintiffs' counsel and plaintiffs were scheduled to meet and discuss discovery issues the following Monday.

The following Monday was September 14. And counsel for NCO had been specifically told that the meeting on that date was to discuss discovery issues. Part of the meeting was about the depositions we were scheduled to give at the opposing side's request. But it also involved discussion of information we intended to seek in discovery--through extensive interrogatories and production of documents.

What was counsel for NCO thinking at this point? Here's our guess: When plaintiffs meet with their attorneys about discovery issues on September 14--and the discovery deadline is October 30--that's a pretty clear sign that plaintiffs plan to seek substantial information about the way your client conducts business. This prospect probably made the defendants none too happy.

So what might angry--and worried--defendants do in such a situation, particularly when they knew their wrongdoing had been caught on audiotape?

Well, consider what happened to my wife on September 16, two days after the discovery meeting with our attorneys. Out of the blue, she receives a written notice that she is being placed on probation for alleged tardiness in her job at Infinity Property and Casualty.

Never mind that in late June she had been told to change her start time from 9 to 9:30 a.m. in order to help serve the company's large customer base in California, which is on a two-hour time difference from Alabama. Never mind that one of her superiors admitted she had been told to start working at 9:30. Never mind that Infinity violated its own employee handbook on multiple grounds in the handling of this matter. And never mind that no one at Infinity had said a word about my wife's alleged tardiness--until two days after the discovery meeting with our attorneys.

The alert reader will ask this question: "Schnauzer, you seem to be saying that there is a connection between Infinity Property and Casualty, where your wife worked, and the people involved in your lawsuit against debt collectors. After all, it's hard to imagine that Infinity would cheat your wife out of her job if the company did not have some connection to the opposing side in your lawsuit, right?"

To borrow a line from the late, great Ed McMahon: "You are correct, sir!" And you ask an insightful question.

We have an insightful answer, and we will be posting about it shortly.

Meanwhile, here is a copy of our response to NCO's request regarding our medical records. It shows that opposing counsel went pretty far off the deep end on this one:

NCO Medical Protective Order

Zipper Problems Continue For Southern Republicans

Southern Republicans, the ones noted for their "family values," just can't seem to stay away from zipper problems.

Roland Corning, an assistant attorney general in South Carolina, is the latest GOPer from the Deep South to be caught with his zipper in the "down and locked" position.

Corning was stopped by a police officer in Columbia, South Carolina, on suspicion of illegal activity. And who happened to be in Corning's company when his vehicle was stopped? An 18-year-old employee of the Platinum Plus Gentleman's Club.

In other words, our guy Corning was with a stripper. And a search of his vehicle proved interesting. Here's how The State newspaper reported it:

The search revealed a sex enhancement drug and some sex toys. According to the report, Corning told Wines he had a prescription for the medication and the other items were always in the car "just in case."

Uh right, just in case.

And here is this nugget about Corning's background:

Corning is perhaps best known in the House for his work on anti-abortion initiatives.

Isn't that something? Last time I checked, unprotected sex outside of marriage probably is the No. 1 cause of abortion. But this "pro life" crusader apparently was revved up for unprotected sex with an 18-year-old--who certainly was not his wife.

Corning was not charged with a crime, but he was fired from his job. And he continues in a "proud" tradition for Southern Republicans. Just off the top of our head, let's think of a few Southern "family values" types who've had problems with their zippers: Newt Gingrich (GA), Bob Livingston (LA), David Vitter (LA), Mark Sanford (SC), Paul Stanley (TN), Chip Pickering (MS), Strom Thurmond (SC).

I'm surely forgetting a number of deserving "honorees." But you get the idea. What Southern Republicans say and what they do are two entirely different matters.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Did Debt Collectors Cheat My Wife Out of Her Job?

Why would my wife state in a deposition on Monday that she thought her recent unlawful termination at Infinity Property and Casualty Corporation was driven by individuals connected to the debt-collection and credit-card industries?

Several pieces of circumstantial evidence indicate that Mrs. Schnauzer (MS) was cheated out of her job because we have filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania-based NCO Financial Services and Birmingham-based law firm Ingram & Associates LLC, both of which deal in debt collection. Both also appear to have close ties to American Express, the original creditor on the alleged debt.

Let's look first at one key piece of circumstantial evidence: MS's difficulties on her job dovetail with discovery issues in our lawsuit. In short, opposing counsel took a number of steps that apparently were designed to threaten us into submission. When it became clear that those tactics weren't working, MS suddenly became the target of fraudulent accusations at work, leading to her dismissal on September 25.

Why, perhaps, was it an urgent matter that my wife be cheated out of her job? The discovery deadline in our case is tomorrow, October 30. Our attorneys have sent a substantial number of interrogatories and requests for documents, which if answered, should shine considerable light on how American Express, NCO, and Ingram & Associates conduct their business--not only with us, but with thousands of other consumers.

Opposing counsel's behavior indicates that they want no part of answering our discovery requests. So it appears that they have engaged in a number of legal tactics that really are thinly disguised threats--designed to make us go away.

I should say that such tactics, to my knowledge, are not unlawful or improper. In fact, when you become acquainted with the justice process in the United States, you learn that litigation is little more than court-sanctioned extortion. Whether it's a plaintiff who has no case or a defendant who has no defense, glorified extortion attempts are central to the litigation game.

In our situation, the defendants appear to have no defense--and that was quite clear from Monday's depositions. So perhaps that explains the threats that have been fired our ways like flaming arrows over the past month or so.

The threats have focused on two primary areas: our depositions and our medical records.

For some time, we have received word through our attorneys that the other side was anxious to take our depositions. This was the case even though we had answered their written discovery requests and received zero discovery from them.

Most folks don't relish the idea of being deposed, and we suspect the other side thought their request would make us weak in the knees. But guess what? We really didn't mind giving our depositions. Answering questions under oath is not all that unpleasant when you are telling the truth, and we've been telling the truth all along. So scare tactic No. 1 didn't work.

Scare tactic No. 2 was an attempt to get unfettered access to our medical records. The defense is entitled to this information, up to a point, because our complaint claims emotional distress and other health-related damages. Most folks probably don't relish the idea of strangers pawing through their medical records, perhaps out of fear that personal or embarrassing information will be revealed. But guess what? We must not be easily embarrassed because we really didn't mind turning over our medical records. Our response to this request was essentially, "Have at it; we don't care." So that scare tactic didn't work either.

Here's the kicker, though: The opposing side's actions indicate they weren't interested in our medical records at all. They sought blanket access to our health provider's records and imposed an arbitrary 25-hour deadline on answering their request. Our attorneys opposed this action, and the court issued an order allowing defendants access only to records to which they are entitled under law.

To my knowledge, the defendants have not wound up seeking our medical records. Certainly nothing was presented at Monday's deposition to indicate that they had.

How does all of this connect to my wife's unlawful termination? Let's follow this timeline:

* September 10--NCO's attorneys send a letter seeking immediate and complete access to our medical records, contrary to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This letter comes after NCO representatives had been informed that we were meeting with our attorneys on September 14 about discovery and other issues.

* September 11--Our attorneys respond with a motion, stating that NCO is not entitled under the law to such access and such a deadline. The court grants this protective order.

* September 14--We meet with our attorneys about discovery and other issues. We tell them, in so many words, that we aren't bothered about providing medical records and depositions--as allowed under the law.

* September 16--I send an e-mail to our attorneys letting them know of dates in October that we are available for depositions. This information is forwarded to opposing counsel, indicating that we are not afraid to be questioned under oath.

Also on September 16, Mrs. Schnauzer receives a written warning at work, fraudulently accusing her of tardiness--even though she had been told to change her work shift from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in order to help serve the company's large California customer base. This was the first disciplinary action she had received after working at Infinity for almost three years and leads to her dismissal on September 25.

The bottom line? As each of opposing counsel's scare tactics failed, my wife began to face bogus charges at work. Was my wife cheated out of her job because we are standing up to the debt- collection and credit-card industries? Other evidence indicates the answer is yes, and we will be reporting on that in upcoming posts.

Meanwhile, you can get a feel for the tactics NCO is using by checking out their letter regarding our medical records. We will be publishing our response to this letter, showing that it is grounded in intimidation, not the law:

NCO Medical Records

Larry Langford Is Found Guilty, But Where Was Mary Buckelew?

Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford was found guilty yesterday on all criminal counts in a federal case that stemmed from his time as president of the Jefferson County Commission.

But here is perhaps the most intriguing question that rises in the wake of the Langford prosecution: Where was Mary Buckelew?

Buckelew, who served with Langford on the Jefferson County Commission, was supposed to be one of the prosecution's star witnesses. She pleaded guilty last September to an obstruction of justice charge because she lied to a federal grand jury about receiving $4,000 worth of gifts from an investment banker whose firm received millions of dollars in sewer-bond and swap transactions.

The investment banker was Bill Blount, the same fellow whose gifts to Langford were central to the government's case.

At the heart of Buckelew's plea agreement was her commitment to cooperate fully with the government. Prosecutors said Buckelew's cooperation was "essential" to their case. Buckelew was expected to testify against Langford, and prosecutors asked that her sentencing be delayed until November 12--after the Langford case was over.

So what happened? According to press reports, Buckelew never testified at the Langford trial.

That's a little like acquiring Albert Pujols in a trade just before the World Series and then leaving perhaps the best hitter in baseball history on the bench.

Birmingham attorney and video blogger Eric Guster addressed Buckelew's central role in the Langford case in a recent post at YouTube. Our guess is that Guster is asking the same question that we are asking today: Where in the heck was Mary?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Now My Wife Has Been Cheated Out Of Her Job, Too

Regular readers know that a central event in our Legal Schnauzer story came when I was unlawfully terminated at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in May 2008. Now my wife has been cheated out of her job, too.

Overwhelming evidence indicates that I was canned because individuals in Alabama's right-wing power structure did not like the content of my blog, which has helped expose corruption among Alabama judges and lawyers. I have audiotaped evidence that suggests I was fired because of my reporting on the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

Mrs. Schnauzer, as we have come to call her here, might have become a target of the same political forces. But she does not think that's the case. She thinks her unlawful termination can be traced to unscrupulous debt collectors, who we are suing under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA). In fact, she testified under oath to that effect in a deposition on Monday.

Until about a month ago, September 25 to be exact, Mrs. Schnauzer (MS) worked at Infinity Property and Casualty Corporation, a Birmingham-based insurance company. Here is how Infinity's Web site describes the core business:

Infinity Property & Casualty Corporation (NASDAQ: IPCC) is a leading nonstandard personal auto insurer. Nonstandard auto insurance provides coverage to drivers who, due to their driving record, age or vehicle type, represent higher than normal risks and pay higher rates for comparable coverage.

In other words, if you are a really crappy driver, you might need to know about Infinity. Given the number of really crappy drivers on the road, the company's business has been strong, even during the Bush recession.

One reason Infinity's performance has been pretty good in hard times is that my wife worked her butt off for the company. What was her reward? A bogus pink slip.

I've made a couple of references in recent posts (here and here) to unethical conduct against us involving Infinity Property and Casualty. And I tied it to our FDCPA lawsuit against NCO Financial Services, a Pennsylvania-based debt-collection company, and Birmingham law firm Ingram & Associates. Those earlier references were to this career "hit job" on my wife.

MS worked in a variety of administrative positions at Infinity over almost three full years. Her most recent position was in Salvage, which deals with financial transactions involving wrecked autos that adjusters have deemed "totaled."

Infinity is based in Alabama, but it does relatively little business in the state. Its largest numbers of insured motorists are in California, Florida, and Texas.

Why do I say that MS was cheated out of her job? Numerous factors point in that direction, but let's consider this for starters: Her designated start time for several months had been 9 a.m. But beginning in June of this year, various superiors asked her on at least a half dozen occasions if she would be willing to move her start time to 9:30 in order to help better serve the company's large customer base in California, which has a two-hour time difference from Alabama.

Each time the subject was raised, MS said she would be glad to start at 9:30. Several coworkers told her they also had been approached about the change but could not do it because of child-care issues.

MS's primary supervisors, Greg Kees and Tobin Lunsford, finally announced in a staff meeting on June 26 that she had "graciously agreed" to start working at 9:30 to help cover the California customer base, the company's largest and most profitable. Roughly a dozen people were present at the meeting.

MS started arriving at work around 9:15 or 9:20, always in plenty of time for her new shift. On September 16, Greg Kees called her into his office and told her she was receiving a written warning and being placed on probation. The reason? Kees alleged that she had been tardy some 35 times, all since the June 26 meeting.

As most rational people probably would be in such a situation, MS was dumbfounded. "But you told me, in front of the whole group, that I was to start working a 9:30 shift to help with our California customers. You said that all of the changes announced that day were to take effect immediately. I did what you told me to do."

Kees did not deny making that statement. But get this: He said she was showing up as tardy in the company's eTime system. That, of course, is because he had failed to make the change in the system, which was his responsibility. In other words, MS was being placed on probation because of her supervisor's incompetence.

But that's not the only example of insanity here. The second of two "grounds" for the probation was an allegation that MS had an excessive number of unscheduled absences, implying that she had made it a habit to call in sick on Mondays. MS pointed out that every Monday she had taken off was a scheduled and approved vacation day. In fact, she had taken zero sick days during the time referenced. Kees refused to change the written warning.

MS, of course, told me about this when she got home that night. And she went to her previous supervisor, Mickeye Barfield, and told her what was going on. Barfield said Kees was violating company policy on multiple grounds and recommended that MS go speak to Pam Jenkins, Infinity's vice president for human resources.

Kees, however, made several statements that MS took as threats not to go to HR. At one point, he called her into his office and said "you are fine," and "it's in my drawer," indicating that he was keeping the warning and had not turned it in to HR. In other words, he implied that there was no "official" warning at all.

Fearful of retaliation if she complained--and knowing that her husband had been fired at UAB roughly three weeks after complaining about age discrimination--MS stayed quiet.

On September 25, she was fired.

As MS was being escorted out of the building, Lunsford admitted that she had been told to start working a 9:30 shift to help with California customers. The bottom line? My wife had agreed to make a change that others had refused to make, in order to help serve the company's largest and most important customer base. She was being flexible, accommodating, a team player--all of the things modern American workers are told they are supposed to be.

The result? She was fired.

Have the good folks at Infinity lost their minds or is something else afoot here? MS thinks an off-site "engineer" is driving this train wreck. And she has uncovered evidence to support that theory.

While I was the victim of a political hit job, was my wife the victim of a corporate hit? Mrs. Schnauzer says the answer is yes. And she testified to exactly that under oath on Monday.

(To be continued)

Schnauzer Prepares to Square Off Against Debt Collector's Pit Bull

Question: What's the only thing slimier than an unethical debt collector?

Answer: An unethical debt collector's lawyer.

That probably was the main lesson gleaned from our depositions yesterday in a lawsuit my wife and I have brought against NCO Financial Services, a debt-collection company based in Horsham, Pennsylvania, and Ingram & Associates, a Birmingham law firm.

We have written several times about the seamy side of the debt-collection industry. You can check out posts here, here, and here. Yesterday's deposition, showed us in an up close and personal way, just how low these dirtbags will go.

The chief villain this time was a lawyer from the Metairie, Louisiana, office of Sessions Fishman Nathan & Israel, a firm representing NCO Financial Services. The guy's name is Bryan C. Shartle, and we will have more on him in a minute.

The deposition itself--which lasted about six hours, including breaks--was rather uneventful. I suspect that's because the facts, as we know them so far, clearly show violations of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) and one or more state-law torts. But the real fireworks came afterwards.

As I noted yesterday, I suspect the deposition was scheduled--and captured on videotape--mostly for intimidation purposes. Our complaint, and the audiotapes we captured of our conversations with debt collectors, pretty much tell the story. There wasn't a whole lot of relevant information to be added from depositions.

That was apparent from some of the questions that came from Wayne Morse, a lawyer with Waldrep Stewart & Kendrick of Birmingham, representing Ingram & Associates. The depositions were conducted at his office.

Morse went over the complaint with both of us, apparently searching for any inaccuracies--however slight. He asked me to read one line that said we live in Birmingham.

"Do you actually reside in Birmingham?" he said.

"Well, our house is located in unincorporated Shelby County," I said.

"So, that statement is not accurate, is it?"

"Uh, well, our mailing address is Birmingham, AL 35242."

I don't know Morse's hourly fee, but I'm guessing he was hauling in $300 to $400 an hour to come up with penetrating questions like that.

At another point, Morse handed me a copy of the bio from my blog and asked me to read it to see if there was anything inaccurate in it.

I wanted to say: "Well, I don't listen to Three Dog Night as much as I used to, but I still think they were one of the great bands of the late '60s and early '70s. Is there a problem with that?"

Then I thought: "Does he think there is something subversive about the fact I liked the movie Brokeback Mountain?"

Morse did try to raise one serious-sounding issue that, under the law, isn't serious at all.

We currently are represented by attorneys, but we filed the complaint ourselves, acting pro se. The front page of the complaint lists Mrs. Schnauzer and me as plaintiffs. But Morse, in his best "gotcha" voice, pointed out that my wife had not signed the complaint. Morse took that to mean that I had been trying to "represent" her, which I cannot do and I knew all along I could not do.

"Do you know what unauthorized practice of the law means?" Morse said, implying that I had committed what I believe is a crime.

"Yes, I do," I replied, "and I wasn't doing that. We worked together on the complaint, and my wife simply forgot to sign it. It was a clerical mistake."

My wife confirmed that I never had any intentions of representing her, that I did not "prepare the document for her," and that the lack of her signature was an oversight.

Morse implied that this could have dire consequences. But what does the law say about it? Rule 11(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that every pleading, motion, and other paper--and Rule 8(a) says an original claim is a pleading--shall be signed by at least one attorney, or if the party is not represented by an attorney, shall be signed by the party. The last sentence of Rule 11(a) states:

An unsigned paper shall be stricken unless omission of the signature is corrected promptly after being called to the attention of the attorney or party.

This was called to our attention yesterday, and I've already asked our attorneys to correct it--hopefully today. Doesn't sound like such a big deal, does it? But hey, Wayne Morse had to do something to earn big bucks.

Perhaps the most noteworthy item about the deposition involved who was not there. Five lawyers were in the room, but none of them represented NCO Financial Services. Hmmm.

Our guy, Bryan C. Shartle, and his associate, Dayle Van Hoose of Tampa, were on speaker phone. Laura Nettles, who represents NCO and is with the Birmingham firm Lloyd Gray & Whitehead, was in parts unknown. Nettles has written a motion for summary judgment on NCO's behalf in the case, and her office is only about three miles from the site of the deposition. You would think she might be interested in our testimony. But she was nowhere to be found. Strange.

Actually, my wife and I suspect there is a good reason why none of NCO's representatives wanted to be in the same room with us yesterday. Consider this paragraph from a recent post on debt collectors:

Here is what's really interesting: It appears that entities from outside the lawsuit have been enlisted to help apply pressure to us. We are talking specifically about Infinity Property & Casualty Corporation, a Birmingham-based insurance company that has taken some highly irregular and unethical steps in our direction.

What are these highly irregular and unethical steps regarding Infinity Property & Casualty? They were addressed in yesterday's depositions, and we will be reporting on them in detail soon.

It appears that NCO's crackerjack legal team knows we are on to their lowball tactics. And that's probably why they did not want to have to face us in the flesh--and look us in the eyes.

Instead, they decided to lob bombs from the safety of their speakerphones. Which brings us back to Bryan C. Shartle. When the depositions were over, Shartle asked to speak to one of our attorneys privately, via cell phone, and asked if the court reporter could keep her equipment in place for a few minutes.

Our attorney seemed surprised by the request, and Wayne Morse seemed none too happy about it at all. Apparently such things normally aren't done in the legal world. When a deposition is over, that's generally all she wrote for that day.

What did Shartle need to say in such an urgent manner? According to our attorney, Shartle said that our complaint was the weakest FDCPA case he had ever seen, he intended to seek costs against me under the fee-shifting provisions of the FDCPA, and if I was unable to pay the costs, I would be incarcerated under federal law.

You probably will not be surprised to learn that I did not react to Shartle's message in a kindly fashion. In fact, I instructed our attorney to tell Shartle--in so many words--he could take his bogus threats and jam them in a certain orifice.

We will be shining considerable light on the facts and law of the case--and on the underhanded tactics someone took regarding this lawsuit--and I think that will show why Bryan Shartle was in a desperate frame of mind yesterday.

We also will be examining the curious dance that appears to be taking place between NCO Financial Services and Ingram & Associates. The issue seems to be: Who's ultimately responsible in this case for violating federal and state law and trying to screw us over?

In other words, the two snakes appear to be coiled up and hissing at each other. Who is the meaner, nastier snake of the two, the one really responsible for unlawful activity against us--and perhaps many other consumers? I think I know the answer to that question after yesterday's proceedings.

In closing, we have a word of advice for Mr. Shartle. My research indicates you don't know the law as well as you think you do. You also don't seem to know schnauzers very well.

We are one of the most trustworthy, good-natured, dependable breeds around. We are not as big as pit bulls, but you cross us at your peril. When you mess with us, when you treat us with disrespect, we can become intelligent, fierce, and effective fighters.

Mr. Shartle, here is one thing you and your friends at NCO can take to the bank about a Legal Schnauzer: You screw with us, and we will bite back hard--and we will get you in a place where it hurts.

Mobile Mansion is at the Heart of a Peculiar Alabama Prosecution

The strange federal prosecution of noted Alabama outdoorsman Edmond H. "Eddie" Smith seems to have its genesis in the disputed ownership of one of Mobile's most storied pieces of property.

The Sonneborn House on Fowl River was built by the man who is credited with turning McDonald's hamburgers into a national brand. Eddie Smith came to live in the Sonneborn House in late 2005, and Smith says that is why he now finds himself in the Mobile County Jail on federal ammunition charges that state documents indicate he did not commit.

Smith says several individuals in Mobile want to turn the Sonneborn property into a commercial and residential development, and that's why they wanted Smith out of the house and into a jail cell.

How did Smith come to reside at the Sonneborn House? The house went up for sale in 2005, and a complicated set of circumstances ensued, capped off by what the Mobile Press-Register called a "closing from hell."

Ownership of the house wound up in dispute. The Press-Register says a Mobile man named Evan Wolfe owns the property. Smith says it belongs to a nonprofit organization he started called the Great Southern Outdoors Foundation and Institute.

This is undisputed: Smith was living in the house when law-enforcement officials arrived with a search warrant and found ammunition in the home. Smith was charged under a federal statute that requires a felony conviction in an underlying case.

But a certified copy of a document from the Alabama Judicial Data Center in Mobile County--titled "Transcript of Record: Conviction Report"--shows that Smith pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the predicate case. Based on that, he should not have been prosecuted for, much less found guilty on, the federal charges.

Does Smith have a point when he says he was arrested and prosecuted in order to get him out of the Sonneborn house?

Sure looks like it from here.

(To be continued)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Debt Collectors, Depositions, and Videotape

For all of my legal experiences over the past 10 years or so--most of them unpleasant--today will mark a first.

I, the Legal Schnauzer, will raise my right paw, swear to tell the truth, and give a deposition.

It's part of a lawsuit Mrs. Schnauzer and I have brought against NCO Financial Services, a large debt-collection outfit based in Horsham, Pennsylvania, and Ingram & Associates, a Birmingham-based debt-collection law firm.

The lawsuit alleges multiple violations of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) regarding a debt that allegedly was owed to American Express. Also involved are several state-law torts--fraud, invasion of privacy, defamation, and reckless and wanton training and supervision.

This is part of the fallout from our encounter with corrupt state judges in Alabama. Before our troublesome neighbor, Mike McGarity, filed a bogus lawsuit against me--and Shelby County circuit judges J. Michael Joiner and G. Dan Reeves made numerous unlawful rulings that caused it to drag on for years--we were fortunate to enjoy excellent credit. In fact, I don't recall ever being late on paying a bill.

But when you are forced to shell out probably $30,000 to $40,000 in unexpected legal expenses--and when your wife loses out mysteriously on numerous jobs over a three-year period while the litigation is going on--it can cause your finances to go south in a hurry. Did these judges, unhappy that I had portrayed them in court documents as the criminals that they are, cause someone to track our phone communications and cost my wife numerous jobs? Corrupt judges have the means to easily pull such sleazy tricks, and that's exactly what we think happened--and it's a key reason we wound up receiving calls from debt collectors.

Here's the lesson I want to impart for Legal Schnauzer readers: If you use a credit card, there is a chance that you someday might be hearing from a debt collector, a third-party debt buyer, or a debt-collection law firm--no matter how good your credit might be today. And it's important to understand how the debt-collection game is played.

There's nothing wrong with debt collectors trying to collect money that is owed, but they have to operate within FDCPA guidelines. And they are notoriously bad about ignoring the FDCPA, and its weak sanctions, altogether.

In our case, the violations are clear cut. I tape recorded several conversations with representatives from Ingram & Associates, and the violations are right there for anyone who cares to listen. This isn't a he said-she said case. We have hard, cold evidence.

So what do attorneys for the defendants expect to accomplish by deposing me today? I suspect this is an exercise in damage control and intimidation. Perhaps they hope to trip me up or get me ticked off. As for intimidation, that probably explains why the deposition will be videotaped, which I'm told is usually done only where the deponent is not expected to be available for trial.
There seems to be no legitimate reason for videotaping the deposition, other than trying to make me uncomfortable.

Actually, the other side's only strategy, so far, seems to involve trying to intimidate us. For example, they filed a motion seeking pretty much full access to our medical records. I'm guessing they thought we would be horrified by that notion, but we didn't really care--there's nothing embarrassing or particularly interesting about our medical records.

Our lawyers pointed out that they were entitled to see only certain portions of our records under the law, but once it became clear that this request didn't shake us up, the other side seemed to lose interest in our medical records. I, at least, haven't heard anything new on that front.

On the subject of intimidation, someone took a really low-ball act against Mrs. Schnauzer and me about a month ago. I haven't written about it yet, but I will be providing details in the days ahead. Suffice to say, it was a despicable act--and quite a bit of evidence points to it being related to this lawsuit against debt collectors.

It will be interesting to see if that subject comes up today.

Here is a thought that I hope might help any readers who are feeling sluggish and out of sorts at the beginning of a new week. No matter how bad your Monday is going, consider this: I will be locked up probably all day in a room with at least six lawyers, with a camera and bright lights pointed in my direction.

Unless you are undergoing brain surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, or a prostatectomy--or worse yet, you are having to watch Glenn Beck reruns all day--I probably would be happy to trade places with you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Georgia E-Mail Provides Explosive Evidence of Political Prosecution

An e-mail from the federal corruption case of former Georgia senate majority leader Charles Walker should send chills down the spine of every American. More importantly, it should spark a widespread Congressional investigation into alleged political prosecutions, including those of Don Siegelman (Alabama), Paul Minor (Mississippi), and Cyril Wecht (Pennsylvania).

Scott Horton, legal-affairs contributor at Harper's, reports on efforts by Walker's attorneys to show that his prosecution was a political hit job. That included unearthing e-mails from a U.S. attorney's office in Georgia. One e-mail is particularly ugly. Writes Horton:

In one email, Morgan Perry, the director of the Senate Republican Caucus, notes that Walker is the target of research by Republican campaign organizations trying to link him to criminal conduct, and says that “it’s up to us to take him out.”

This is shocking stuff. And Horton puts it in context:

The email creates the inescapable impression that the U.S. Attorney’s investigation of Walker was being coordinated with Republican political operatives and was done in the interests of giving the party an advantage in upcoming elections.

A reasonable person could conclude that similar e-mails probably exist regarding the Siegelman, Minor, and Wecht cases. Where is the effort to unearth electronic communications in the U.S. attorney offices that handled those cases? How about communications involving Republican political operatives, to and from those offices? How about communications from national GOP figures--Karl Rove and people affiliated with him--to those offices.

In a lengthy feature at Huffington Post, Horton reports that all is not stagnant on the political-prosecution front. He notes that a recently released Congressional report and a followup from the U.S. Justice Department indicate that charges of political prosecutions are well grounded.

Now it is time--way past time--for the appropriate governmental bodies to act.

Wile E. Coyote Finally Catches The Roadrunner

We need a good belly laugh around here every now and then, and a reader provided one the other day.

It came in the form of a video that raises this ancient question: What happens when you've accomplished the great goal of your life? What happens when your mission in life is complete? What comes next?

I've often pondered this question about the anti-abortion rights crowd--the so-called pro-lifers. What if Roe v. Wade was overturned tomorrow. I suspect many pro-lifers would be miserable. They wouldn't know what to do with themselves--although after a lull, I suspect they would try to outlaw contraception.

Enough of that. Let's enjoy this little clip that asks one of life's great questions.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Alabama's High Court Screws Citizens Again

The Alabama Supreme Court apparently was not content to cheat the public with the outrageous ExxonMobil ruling. It pulled pretty much the same fraudulent stunt again the other day, with a few slight variations.

In late 2007, the Alabama Supremes stunned many observers by overturning most of a $3.6 billion jury verdict in a fraud case against oil giant ExxonMobil. That decision robbed state coffers of badly needed funds at the outset of the Bush recession.

The high court was at it again recently, overturning a $274 million verdict in a fraud case against three pharmaceutical companies. The Supreme Court found that AstraZeneca, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline did not defraud the state in pricing Medicaid prescription drugs.

This issue goes well beyond Alabama. Similar lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies are pending in other states, including Mississippi, South Carolina, Utah, Hawaii, and Alaska.

How did the Alabama Supreme Court come to its conclusion? The key issue was "reliance," one of four elements in a fraud case. Essentially, the high court found that the pharmaceutical companies tried to cheat the Alabama Medicaid Agency (AMA), but AMA did not "rely" on the misrepresentations, so a fraud did not occur.

That is like saying: "I tried to steal $500 out of your wallet, and I had my hand on the cash and was pulling it out, but you caught me--so I didn't do anything wrong."

If you think there is something wrong with that reasoning, join the crowd. It's almost exactly the same reasoning the Alabama Supreme Court used to justify the ExxonMobil ruling and its predecessor, Hunt Petroleum Corp. v. State (2004). In fact, the Supremes proudly cite Hunt Petroleum in their decision on the pharmaceutical case.

Here is the status of current fraud law in Alabama--at least as it relates to Big Oil and Big Pharma: The victim of a fraud cannot prevail unless he falls for the fraud totally and completely, from start to finish. Of course, if the victim falls totally for the fraud, he never knows he's been defrauded--and cannot possibly bring a case.

Under that interpretation of the "reliance" element, big business cannot commit fraud in Alabama. It is essentially open season on Alabama citizens.

We should point out a few oddities about the Big Pharma case. Justice Tom Parker, who wrote the bogus ExxonMobil decision, was the only justice to dissent on Big Pharma. And Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, the court's only Democrat and the only dissenting vote in the ExxonMobil case, concurred with the Big Pharma result--although she said the court used the wrong legal grounds to get the correct result.

Cobb either must be tired of fighting the business interests all by herself--or maybe they have bought her off, too, by now.

How wretched was the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling in the Big Pharma case? The trial was overseen by Charles Price, presiding judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit in Montgomery. Price did not mince words when he upheld the trial verdict against AstraZeneca. Reported the Associated Press:

In his eight-page ruling, Price said the evidence during the trial showed that AstraZeneca's actions in overcharging Alabama's Medicaid program were "reprehensible.''

"The state introduced evidence to establish that the defendants fraudulently diverted Medicaid funds intended to benefit the state's poor, elderly and infirm citizens,'' Price wrote. "The state established that defendants' wrongful conduct deprived the state of limited funds available for the state's Medicaid recipients.''

The trial judge found Big Pharma's actions "reprehensible." But the Alabama Supreme Court says it was A-OK. That's what we get when we blindly vote for Republicans on our statewide courts, folks.

Price was not the only one blasting the behavior of Big Pharma in Alabama. Jere Beasley, one of the lawyers for the state, issued a scathing public statement about the drug companies--and the Alabama Supreme Court. Here is a portion of that statement:

The opinion of the Alabama Supreme Court is most difficult to understand when you consider that:

* Committing fraud against the Medicaid program hurts the elderly, the disabled, the young, and the poor as well as every Alabama taxpayer;

*AstraZeneca--one of the companies--entered a guilty plea to a charge of criminal fraud in federal court involving state Medicaid reimbursement;

*AstraZeneca paid a criminal fine of $570 million relating to that criminal guilty plea;

* AstraZeneca settled state Medicaid fraud cases involving reimbursement for $355 Million;

* A top official at AstraZeneca prepared an internal pricing document containing a virtual roadmap for cheating state Medicaid agencies;

* AstraZeneca as a part of the settlements mentioned above--agreed to submit true prices to state Medicaid agencies;

* AARP--a national group with 500,000 Alabama members--has fully supported Alabama in its lawsuit against the drug companies and in the appeal;

* 13 state Attorneys General have supported Alabama's position and each filed a brief on Alabama's behalf;

* Since the Alabama case was tried--and after the case was appealed in July 2008 to the Alabama Supreme Court--a Federal Appeals Court heard a separate appeal in a case where AstraZeneca was found guilty in Federal Court of fraudulent conduct in a Medicaid reimbursement case--in a strong opinion and affirmed the trial court;

* The Federal Appeals Court found that AstraZeneca was guilty of extremely bad conduct;

* Yesterday, a Kentucky jury, after hearing the same evidence Alabama lawyers developed and presented in the Alabama case, delivered a verdict against the drug manufacturer in the amount of $14.72 million; and

Taking all of the above into consideration, and knowing the facts of this case, it is extremely difficult to see how the Alabama Supreme Court could side with the drug companies and against the citizens of Alabama who are in the Medicaid program and against all Alabamians who pay taxes that support the Medicaid program. These folks are the losers today and politically powerful drug companies declared winners by the Alabama Supreme Court. This is a sad day for the Alabama Medicaid Program and all Alabama taxpayers.

Beasley says lawyers for the state will ask the high court to reconsider its decision. Good luck with that. Alabamians wanted a conservative court. They've got one.

Bob Riley's Nose Is Growing--Again

Someone should have given Alabama Governor Bob Riley the nickname "Pinocchio" a long time ago.

You could almost hear Riley's nose growing the other day as he told the Alabama press that he intended to sign a multimillion-dollar computer contract with Paragon Source LLC, a Virginia company that has no headquarters, no business phone listing, and no Web site.

And get this: Riley says the no-bid contract is justified because Paragon Source is a sole-source vendor, meaning it is the only company qualified to do the specified work.

While you try to hold back guffaws, consider that Paragon Source does not deal in nuclear-waste cleanup or some such unusual specialty. It's being hired to overhaul the state computer system that is used for financial functions. One can only imagine how many hundreds, probably thousands, of companies do that sort of work.

But here is Riley's explanation for signing the contract:

"Why wouldn't I?" Riley said. "I know of no reason why I should not sign the contract. This is a sole source vendor, a vendor who was recommended to the finance department by the comptroller, by the finance committee, by a group that came in and said this is going to be a sole source contract and a sole source contract can't be bid."

Uh, right. The governor does not mention that the finance department, comptroller etc. are appointed by . . . the governor himself. He also does not mention that, in its existing state contract, Paragon Source paid large sums to other companies.

In other words, Paragon Source farms out much of its "sole-source" contract. That doesn't sound like highly specialized work.

On the same day that he said he would sign the Paragon Source contract, Riley announced that he is going to push for ethics reform in Alabama.

We're not making this up, folks. Riley truly has "big brass ones" when it comes to hypocrisy. But the whole Riley clan seems to be that way, whether its son Rob Riley and his shady business dealings or son-in-law Robert Campbell and the big bucks his law firm has raked in during the Riley administration.

The Paragon Source deal is just the latest example of the Rileys' arrogance. And our guess is that, in the year-plus remaining for the administration, friends and cronies will be treating state coffers like their personal piggy bank--the Bank of Bob, if you will.

What does this say about the Rileys as human beings? Multiple sources have told Legal Schnauzer that Rob Riley is an overgrown spoiled brat. Our sources say that when Junior doesn't get his way, he is noted for essentially saying, "My daddy's the governor, and I can pick up the phone and call so-and-so to make sure things turn out the way I want them to." That can mean costing some troublesome person his job. That can mean applying the screws to an insurance company to make sure one of Riley's fly-by-night businesses gets a favorable deal--one it doesn't deserve. Other sources say Little Rob learned this sort of childish, and unlawful, behavior from Big Bob himself, who reportedly has pulled such stunts for years.

But here is an interesting question: Will one or more of the Rileys eventually step in doo-doo they can't get out of it? Will the Rileys someday screw with the wrong person or persons?

The Rileys seem to think they are untouchable. Could they be in for a big surprise?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Does Discrimination Case Put UAB's Federal Funding At Risk?

A federal jury has found that the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) discriminated against a medical resident from India based on her Hindu religion. But the implications of that finding could go way beyond Dr. Seema Gupta and her lawsuit.

Academic medical centers, including UAB, receive $100,000 per resident per year for graduate medical education (GME). That money comes from Medicare, and it represents a huge chunk of federal dollars flowing into Alabama. But here is the kicker: The funding is predicated on abiding by federal anti-discrimination laws.

A federal jury has found that UAB did not abide by federal law in its treatment of Seema Gupta. And she is only one of five international medical residents who left UAB's Huntsville program, claiming they were the victims of discrimination. So here is the bigger question: Has UAB put its federal funding at risk by treating international medical residents in a shabby fashion?

R.L. Kureel, a former member of Parliament and deputy leader of Lok Sabha in the Republic of India, was getting at that issue when he wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) in May 2006, seeking help about discriminatory treatment of international medical graduates at UAB. Kureel is Dr. Seema Gupta's father. (See Kureel's complete letter to Shelby below.)

Shelby apparently ignored Kureel's request, but the legislator from India made it clear he understood the issues involved:

As a fellow legislator and senator from the state in question, I request you to take personal interest to investigate the facts of this case. As an attorney, I am well aware of the state sovereignty issues in this case. However, (Dr. Gupta's) training program is dependent and run by Medicare funding.

Does Kureel hold certain individuals at UAB in low regard? Sure sounds like it:

I am aware that laws for acts of discrimination currently exist and are enforced in the United States, and my daughter intends to seek justice. However, in a state-funded university (such as UAB), the particular individuals in question are typically not affected as Office of the Counsel of the university handles these cases. As a result, these renegade individuals continue to function, ignoring the laws in place, knowing their universities' legal procedures would protect them.

UAB, however, could pay a steep price for failing to keep its renegades in check. A former medical resident from Germany has a lawsuit pending. A former resident from Pakistan has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The issue goes beyond medical training. UAB has a number of pending discrimination cases from veteran employees in the general university environment. Our research indicates that UAB is required to conduct all of its affairs in a non-discriminatory manner--if it intends to accept federal dollars. Could those cases, too, put UAB's federal funding at risk?

We are talking about huge dollars here. UAB receives more than $400 million a year in federal research funding, for example.

Consider the money at stake just in GME: As we noted above, UAB receives $100,000 per resident per year. It has 36 residents each year at Huntsville, so that means the university receives $3.6 million for that program. But our research indicates UAB has close to 1,000 medical residents total--most of them in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. If our math is correct, that means UAB receives about $100 million a year for GME.

We should keep this in mind: UAB already has been found to have committed health-care fraud related to Medicare. As we have reported here at Legal Schnauzer, UAB paid a judgment of $3.4 million to settle a federal whistleblower case in 2005. One of the whistleblowers, a forensic accountant who was UAB's research-compliance officer at the time, estimated the total fraud at $600 million. So even though UAB admitted to defrauding the government in that case, it got off with not even a wrist slap--less than 1 percent of the total fraud.

Is UAB a serial offender when it comes to federal laws? Sure looks that way.

Will the university pay a heavy price someday? Well, UAB clearly has protectors in the federal government, including Richard Shelby. And there might be loopholes in the federal law that a big university can slip through.

We are researching those issues and will examine them more closely in future posts. But the record is clear: UAB has a history of violating federal anti-discrimination and anit-fraud law--and so far, it has pretty much gotten away with it.

India Letters to Richard Shelby

Bush Influence Lives On In the U.S. Department of Justice

Is the George W. Bush era over in the U.S. Department of Justice? Is the corrupting influence of Karl Rove a thing of the past? Not by a long shot.

Consider the corruption trial of Birmingham mayor Larry Langford, which started this week in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The prosecution team consists of four lawyers--George Martin, Lloyd Peeples, Scarlett Singleton, and Tamarra Matthews Johnson. All of them were hired by Alice Martin, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and a Bush appointee.

Is that a problem? Not if you ignore the fact that Martin faces allegations of criminal misconduct from her time in office. Not if you ignore the words of Scott Horton, legal-affairs contributor for Harper's and a law professor at Columbia University, who called Martin perhaps the most corrupt and crooked public official in the country.

For good measure, the judge in the Langford case is Bush-appointee J. Scott Coogler.

A Birmingham News profile of the Langford prosecutors inadvertently puts its finger on one of the many problems in Alice Martin's former kingdom. Regarding prosecutor Lloyd Peeples, the News tells us:

A case prosecuted by Peeples recently resulted in a $1.44 million civil settlement against a Shelby County business and prison time for the owners in a Medicare fraud case.

That would be the case of William and Marie King, who operated a health-care consulting company called King & Associates. The Kings apparently have little political clout in conservative circles, so they got nailed for their transgressions.
But here's what The Birmingham News doesn't tell you: Alice Martin & Co. were not always so tough on health-care fraudsters. Just consider two other cases that we've covered at Legal Schnauzer:

* The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) was involved in a massive health-care fraud scheme that was alleged to total some $600 million over at least 10 years. There is every reason to believe the problem still exists, under current UAB President Carol Garrison. But UAB, run by the business honchos of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, has political clout. So it got off with a $3.4 million civil settlement--way less than 1 percent of the total fraud. Under the treble-damages provision of the relevant federal law, UAB could have been on the hook for roughly $1.5 billion. But Alice Martin let them off easy, and our sources say her minions never seriously investigated the charges.

* According to a whistleblower lawsuit filed in federal court, Birmingham-based Performance Group LLC has engaged in widespread health-care fraud.

Did Alice Martin bring down the hammer on that rogue outfit? Not exactly. You see, one of the owners of Performance Group is Homewood lawyer Rob Riley, the son of Alabama Governor Bob Riley. Other owners, including Dr. Thomas Spurlock and Dr. Francois Blaudeau, are affiliated with UAB. So Alice Martin chose not to intervene in the case, leaving the whistleblower to fend for herself. Riley and his gang are not in the clear; the case could be refiled. But if the governor's son ever faces justice, it won't be because of Alice Martin.

Compelling evidence suggests that Alice Martin played political favorites throughout her time as U.S. attorney. It seems reasonable to assume that the folks she hired, her proteges, would do the same thing.

All of that leaves us with a a couple of questions:

Is Larry Langford guilty? It's certainly possible. Many of us who have lived in the Birmingham area for awhile have long been concerned about Langford's tendency to play fast and loose with a buck.

Will Langford get a fair trial, given the smelly environment that Bush, Rove, and Martin left behind?

I doubt it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Alabama Shooting--With Political Overtones--Mirrors the Steve McNair Case

News continues to break in the shooting death of former National Football League star Steve McNair, with the release yesterday of text messages between McNair and the girlfriend who shot him.

Before that, the McNair case took a turn that reminds us of an ugly Alabama incident--one that has indirect ties to Republican Party politics and our Legal Schnauzer story. That's because, like many of the ugly incidents we write about here, the Alabama case involves corrupt Pelham attorney William E. Swatek.

As regular Legal Schnauzer readers know, Bill Swatek has family ties to GOP royalty, including former Bush strategist Karl Rove. Both the McNair case and the Alabama case drive home this key message: It's unlawful for a convicted felon to possess a firearm, and there's a good reason for that.

McNair was shot and killed in early July in Nashville, Tennessee, where he had once starred for the Tennessee Titans. Investigators determined that McNair's mistress, 20-year-old Sahel Kazemi, shot him four times before killing herself with a single gunshot to the head.

About two weeks after the death, authorities charged Adrian J. Gilliam Jr., of La Vergne, Tennessee, with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. A criminal complaint said Gilliam confessed to selling the gun to Kazemi. Gilliam recently pleaded guilty in federal court in Nashville, and sentencing is set for December 18.

How does this connect to our Legal Schnauzer story? Well, as we have reported in numerous posts, Alabama lawyer William E. Swatek is largely responsible for the legal headaches my wife and I have endured. Not only is Swatek the father of Alabama GOP consultant Dax Swatek (a protege of Karl Rove confidante Bill Canary), he has a 30-year history of unethical behavior in the legal profession. We have outlined Bill Swatek's legacy of sleaze here and here.

Until Adrian Gilliam's role in Steve McNair's shooting death came to light, we had pretty much forgotten about a particularly ugly episode from Bill Swatek's sordid past. Now seems like a good time to bring it to light. The case is not only revealing about Bill Swatek, it says a lot about a justice system that appears to protect rogue lawyers like him.

In December 1995, 42-year-old Lawrence Weems was shot 11 times outside his home in Trussville, Alabama. The gunman was a private detective named Don Weiffenbach, who had been hired by Beverly Weems and her attorney for a divorce case against her husband, Larry Weems.

Who was Beverly Weems' attorney? Bill Swatek. And what did Don Weiffenbach have in his background? A felony conviction, from Arizona. So how was he in possession of a firearm?

Larry Weems alleged in a lawsuit that Swatek helped Weiffenbach obtain a pistol permit in Shelby County after he had been denied in Jefferson County because of the felony conviction.

What exactly happened that evening in Trussville? The details are murky. Weiffenbach said Beverly Weems had asked him to come to the Weems residence to check for an outside tap on the phone line, and Larry Weems confronted him. Weems said he was called to the residence and walked into an ambush.

According to public documents, Weiffenbach was shot twice, and Weems was shot 11 times. Weems was hospitalized in critical condition, but he survived.

This much appears to be clear. Weiffenbach was unlawfully in possession of a firearm. And it's a miracle someone was not killed.

What happened in the aftermath of the shooting? Larry Weems filed lawsuits against Shelby County and the City of Trussville. His lawsuit for negligent hiring and supervision against Swatek and Beverly Weems generated enough documents to fill several large folders at the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Larry Weems says that depositions in the case present compelling evidence that Swatek was at least partly responsible for Weiffenbach obtaining a pistol permit in Shelby County. Not long after the shooting, Swatek sold his house to his wife and put it in her name, according to Shelby County probate records.

Was Swatek concerned about a possible major judgment against him? His actions indicate the answer is yes.

Weems' lawsuit dragged on for years before eventually losing steam and being dismissed--for reasons that are hard to determine from viewing the case file.

Was the lawsuit dismissed mainly because Weems had a member of the Birmingham legal community in the crosshairs? Did the "justice" community rally to dismiss Weems' lawsuit, not based on the facts and law, but based on the need to protect one of its own?

Consider this: Weems says he filed a criminal complaint with the Birmingham office of the FBI, and nothing was done about it. He filed a complaint against Swatek with the Alabama State Bar, and it was not investigated--even though Swatek had been disciplined three times previously by the state bar, including a suspension of his license.

Don Weiffenbach moved to Florida and died a few years ago. Larry Weems remains convinced that Bill Swatek was responsible for a shooting that nearly claimed his life.

Did Bill Swatek help a convicted felon unlawfully obtain a firearm? The Alabama legal and law-enforcement community apparently want to make sure the public never knows the answer to that question.

Unmasking the Crooks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

These are not the "glory days" for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And that should be good news for U.S. citizens.

First, came reports that a number of urban chambers and prominent companies are distancing themselves from the "mother ship" because of its right-wing stance on policy issues.

Then came word that the progressive advocacy group Velvet Revolution had launched a campaign called The folks at VR mince no words, calling the U.S. Chamber exactly what it is--a criminal front group.

It hasn't always been that way. Our guess is that the national chamber, and its many local affiliates, once played an important role in promoting business interests--and responsible business practices. But that was before Tom Donohue came along. Writes VR:

The Chamber of Commerce, under the leadership of Tom Donohue, has gone from a well respected trade organization to an extremist political organization dedicated to corrupting American democracy by elevating the profits of big corporations over the well being of the citizens they serve. The most recent example of this corrupt behavior is the Chamber's announcement that it is spending more than $100 million to defeat initiatives to protect the environment and provide affordable health care to everyone.

The Chamber is the biggest lobbying operation in the United States, spending billions of dollars on behalf of big business over the past decade to corrupt the political system. Polluters like Big Coal, Big Asbestos, and Big Oil only need call the Chamber to stop any accountability for their toxic destruction. Wall Street banks and CEOs need only make sure that they have paid their Chamber dues to ensure that they can continue to rip off the taxpayers. And killers like Big Tobacco need only form a partnership with the Chamber to ensure that they will be given immunity from lawsuits that seek accountability for the death and sickness of millions of Americans.

As a resident of Alabama, I've seen firsthand the corrupting influence the U.S. Chamber can have. With the help of Karl Rove, the U.S. Chamber turned our state courts into a Republican playground. Those corporate-protectionist judges overturned most of a $3.6 billion fraud verdict for the state of Alabama and against oil giant ExxonMobil. That money certainly would helped the state deal with the ravages of the Bush recession. But big business must be protected.

VR says a criminal investigation should be launched into the U.S. chamber's electoral activities:

The Chamber was found to have committed fraud and campaign finance violations in Ohio by creating a front group called Citizens for a Strong Ohio and funneling millions of dollars through it to defeat Supreme Court Justice Alice Resnick because she could not be bought. This Chamber practice is widespread and was also used against Karl Rove targeted Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz, and in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Michigan, West Virginia, and Arkansas. We are asking the Department of Justice to investigate these illegal practices under RICO and to review whether the Chamber is actually a political action committee rather than a trade association.

Eliot Spitzer, former attorney general of New York, cut to the chase about Donohue and his corporate buddies:

''Tom Donohue has never once found a crime that he couldn't justify, as long as it was committed by one of his dues-paying members."

Some good news has surfaced about the U.S. Chamber. Mother Jones reports that its influence, and membership, appear to be dwindling.

Will Congress and the U.S. Justice Department look into the chamber's unsavory side? Velvet Revolution is pushing for just that.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Larry Langford, Paul Bryant Jr., and "Justice" in Alabama

Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford goes to trial today on federal corruption charges. But a behind-the-scenes story might say more about our justice system than the Langford trial ever could.

Here's the gist of the backstory: If you are Larry Langford--a black Democrat, who grew up in a housing project--you almost certainly will pay for your alleged wrongs. If you are Paul W. Bryant Jr.--a white conservative businessman and a child of wealth and privilege (his father was University of Alabama football icon Paul "Bear" Bryant)--you can avoid scrutiny of your fishy finances.

How does Bryant Jr., president of Greene Group Inc. and a member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, have connections to the Langford trial?

Langford's defense attorney is Mike Rasmussen, who spent almost 30 years as a federal prosecutor before going into private practice. In 1997, Rasmussen was a lead prosecutor in Pennsylvania on one of the biggest insurance-fraud cases in U.S. history. The case ended with a conviction and 15-year federal prison sentence for a Philadelphia lawyer named Allen W. Stewart.

Why was Rasmussen, based in Alabama at the time, working on a case in Pennsylvania? It's because a central player in Allen W. Stewart's fraudulent scheme was a company called Alabama Reassurance. In fact, Alabama Re was implicated in at least eight of the 135 counts on which Stewart was convicted--for racketeering, money laundering, wire and mail fraud.

Alabama Re just happens to be one of Paul Bryant Jr.'s companies, part of the Greene Group. When the Stewart trial started, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama was Caryl Privett, now a Jefferson County circuit judge.

Sources tell Legal Schnauzer that Privett's message to prosecutors and investigators on the Stewart case was this: If you go to Pennsylvania and come back with a conviction, you can move forward with a heightened investigation of Alabama Re. In other words, Paul Bryant Jr. & Co. had stepped in some serious doo-doo.

By the time the Stewart case was completed, however, Privett no longer was in office. And when investigators attempted to build on the ugly information they already had uncovered about Alabama Re, someone in a position of authority called off the dogs.

That meant that Bryant's company, which was implicated in criminal activity in Pennsylvania, would face no further scrutiny in Alabama.

Larry Langford should be so lucky.

Mike Rasmussen undoubtedly will have a number of microphones and cameras thrust into his face in the coming days. Wouldn't it be interesting if some enterprising reporter asked this question: "You were a lead prosecutor on a Pennsylvania case in which Alabama Reassurance was implicated in the late 1990s. You were authorized to pursue a heightened investigation of Alabama Re once Allen W. Stewart was convicted in Philadelphia, but someone pulled the plug. Who brought that investigation to a halt? Who took steps to make sure that Paul Bryant Jr. and his company would be protected?"

And here is perhaps a bigger question for Mike Rasmussen: "Does it bother you that your current client--a product of a Birmingham housing project--faces the full weight of the United States government today, while Paul Bryant Jr.--the product of wealth and privilege--escaped scrutiny even though his company already had been implicated in criminal activity?"

Those questions probably would cause Mike Rasmussen to "hmm" and "haw" quite a bit. Not that he did anything wrong back in the late 1990s. Our sources say Rasmussen was gung ho to go after Alabama Re--and almost certainly would have nailed them--until someone over his head put a stop to the investigation.

Our point is not that Larry Langford should be given a free pass. If it is proven that he accepted bribes in exchange for steering government-bond business to certain investment bankers, he should pay the price.

But the same should hold true for Paul Bryant Jr. and anyone else who might have been associated with wrongdoing at Alabama Re. Heck, the company only has two employees--Scott M. Phelps, president and director, and W. Rodney Windham, vice president and actuary. Bryant is chairman of the board and Tuscaloosa veterinarian A. Wayne May, a longtime associate of Bryant's, is a director.

The statute of limitations probably has passed on the financial fraud involved in the Allen W. Stewart case. But how does Alabama Re conduct its business now? Did it change its ways once it received a "Get Out of Jail Free" card back in the late 1990s?

It would not be hard to answer that question. The company and its two employees are located in the Bryant Bank building at 1550 McFarland Blvd. in Tuscaloosa.

In his "Message From the Chairman," Bryant says:

In times of economic uncertainty, it’s natural and prudent to carefully examine the strength of those financial institutions to which you entrust your hard-earned resources.

That’s why I would like to take this opportunity to reassure you that we are always working to make certain our bank is a safe place for your money. . . .

So, call us at any of the convenient locations listed on this site. Or, better yet, come see us.

I wonder if that invitation applies to federal investigators.

The Horrible Costs of Distracted Driving

We have written several times about the dangers of distracted driving. (You can check out posts here and here.) But a new video, making the rounds on the Web, makes the point far more powerfully than we ever could.

Research studies and government reports should not be necessary to tell us that distracted driving is a bad idea. Common sense should tell us that it's dangerous to talk on a cell phone or fiddle with a text message while trying to maneuver a vehicle.

But alas, we live in an era when common sense is in short supply. And many of us apparently are all too easily addicted to anything--including electrical devices.

Consider an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who's had her own misadventures with distracted driving. Writes Dowd:

As John Ratey, the Harvard professor of psychiatry who specializes in the science of attention, told The Times’s Matt Richtel for his chilling series, “Driven to Distraction,” using digital devices gives you “a dopamine squirt.”

That explains the Pavlovian impulse of people who are out with friends or dates to ignore them and check their BlackBerrys and cellphones, even if 99 out of 100 messages are uninteresting. They’re truffle-hunting for that scintillating one.

So, we become distracted behind the wheel because it gives us a thrill. And the corporatists who run the country--and the legislators they buy off--encourage it because they make a ton of cash off electronic gadgets:

Americans woke up one day to find that they were don’t-miss-a-moment addicts who feel compelled to respond to all messages immediately.

The tech industry is our drug dealer, feeding the intense social and economic pressure to stay constantly in touch with employers, colleagues, friends and family.

Corporate chieftains certainly are not going to save us from distracted driving. And don't look for government types to do it anytime soon. We are going to have to save ourselves--from ourselves.

Perhaps the best way to do that is through widespread viewing of a new public-service video. I'm not sure about the origins of the video, but it appears to come from a Web site called, which I believe is based in Russia.

Wherever it came from, it sends an important message. It's graphic, gory, and disturbing--and it should be watched by everyone who drives.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Obama Justice Department Hangs Siegelman Whistleblower Out to Dry

Has President Barack Obama improved the U.S. Department of Justice since inheriting a dysfunctional mess from George W. Bush almost 10 months ago?

If you were to pose that question to Tamarah Grimes, a former paralegal in the DOJ's Middle District of Alabama, she almost certainly would reply, "Heck, no!"

Grimes blew the whistle on prosecutorial misconduct in the case of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, which took place under the Bush regime. But much of the abuse Grimes has suffered as a result has happened on Obama's watch.

Joan Brunwasser shines unflattering light on the Obama DOJ in a compelling two-part interview with Grimes at OpEd News. You can check out the full interview here and here.

What conclusions can we draw from Brunwasser's splendid piece? Failure to address abuses in the justice system is the great shame of the Obama presidency. And if the situation does not improve quickly--if Obama does not show some Alan Grayson-like guts on the matter--his presidency might be at risk.

As Grimes and Brunwasser make clear, it no longer is a matter of "looking back" at abuses under the Bush administration. The abuses are happening right now--under Obama. And there is little sign that they are going to be addressed anytime soon.

How long are progressives, who put Obama in the White House, going to tolerate an administration that turns a blind eye to grotesque abuses in the justice system.

How grotesque are the abuses? Consider that Grimes wrote a letter on June 1, 2009, to Eric Holder--Obama's attorney general--and eight days later, she was fired from her job. (See the complete letter to Holder below.)

It's hard to imagine a more clearcut case of unlawful retaliation. But the Obama Justice Department now is trying to ensure that Grimes does not receive unemployment benefits, and she has been denied health-care insurance--and she has a special-needs child! A hearing regarding Grimes' benefits was held on October 7, and a final decision has not been reached.

Is that change we can believe in? Is this the administration that is pushing for health-care reform? Sheez. Here is Grimes, from Brunwasser's story:

My honesty and integrity have been called into question, which has rendered me virtually unemployable in my field. I am not employed. My family has no income. I was without insurance for a few weeks while the government processed the conversion to COBRA benefits. In July, I applied for and received unemployment benefits. The Department of Justice has appealed on the premise that my termination was the result of misconduct connected with my employment.

If I lose unemployment benefits, I will be forced to repay the benefits I have received. This month I am unable to pay my mortgage. If I am unable to find a job in the very near future, foreclosure of our home is imminent. All of this pain and heartache is the result of my decision to speak out, to tell the truth, to perform my duty as a federal employee and defend the Constitution of the United States.

This is how the Obama administration rewards whistleblowers. And this comes after the Middle District of Alabama, led by Bush appointee Leura Canary (who still is on the job), had heaped abuse on Grimes:

I know firsthand how selective prosecutions are engineered in the Middle District of Alabama because it almost happened to me. When Leura Canary learned of my complaints, she summoned me to her office to attempt to threaten and intimidate me. According to her own sworn statement, on November 1, 2007, Canary socialized for several hours at the bar in the Embassy Suites Hotel with her cousin and colleagues from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys in Washington DC.

During that time, the group discussed my complaints and began to speculate on what I might have done, or could have done. The next day, on the basis of nothing more than this baseless speculation, I was referred for criminal investigation. After two unsuccessful attempts to subject me to selective criminal prosecution in the Middle District of Georgia, I was terminated for my denials that I had done what I was accused of. According to DOJ, my continued assignment posed an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to operational security. I was escorted from the building by security and told not to return.

Did this make a lick of sense? Nope:

I waited three long weeks to learn why. The answer is equally stunning. I was no longer "afforded the opportunity to gain access, to Secret and/or Confidential NSI (National Security Information) or grand jury information." My job in the civil division did not involve Secret or Confidential National Security Information and, as a civil employee, I am precluded by statute from accessing grand jury information. In other words, my employment was terminated because I could no longer access material that I am neither required nor legally entitled to access as part of my job!

Then Grimes had to watch the DOJ's Office of Special Counsel, reporting to Obama, issue a report stating her allegations were "unsubstantiated." Never mind that she had presented e-mails that proved Canary had not recused herself from the Siegelman case as she had claimed:

In reading the Office of Special Counsel report [that dismissed Grimes's claims of prosecutorial misconduct], I am reminded of the famous children's fable The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. Like the prime minister in the story, Interim Special Counsel William E. Reukauf would have you believe that the actions of the Department of Justice are irrefutable--even in the face of e-mail communications which clearly contradict its position--so much so that only the incompetent and unreasonable fail to recognize its merits.

Like the emperor, I feel duped by the Office of Special Counsel. Federal employees have access to the Office of Special Counsel's whistleblower's website which prominently features its whistleblower duties. Relying upon the information I obtained from the Office of Special Counsel website, I placed my trust, my career, my entire life and the lives of my family in the hands of the Office of Special Counsel on the premise that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation by federal law. Based upon my personal experience, nothing can be further from the truth.

Grimes also has had to endure insults from federal prosecutors, who now theoretically answer to Holder and Obama, claiming she had not made her allegations under oath. What is the truth about that matter?

I have been called a "coward" and a liar by federal prosecutors Louis Franklin, Steve Feaga and J.B. Perrine because I have not given testimony under oath. As these career prosecutors well know, I am prohibited by statute (18 USC 207) from giving testimony under oath to any court or federal official on behalf of any party other than the United States in any matter in which I had substantial participation. This is a lifetime prohibition. I can only surmise that calling me names for not testifying under oath was an attempt to provoke me into breaking the law so that they could attempt a third criminal prosecution against me.

Are these the actions of honest and ethical federal prosecutor who hold themselves to a higher standard as representatives of the Department of Justice--or are these representative of the less-than-honorable conduct these prosecutors have exhibited all along?

Why is madness still going on in the Middle District of Alabama? Why has Team Obama been so reluctant to clean up the cesspool? Grimes offers a possible answer. And it points a finger directly at U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL):

I think the appointment of Sen. Sessions to chair the Judiciary [Committee] is a key factor in the holdovers, especially Leura Canary, who is a Sessions protegé. Sen. Sessions wields a great deal of influence with the Republican minority. The Obama Administration favors diplomacy and appears somewhat hesitant to follow through on some key issues. The Administration certainly has a clear majority to pursue its agenda without Republican support should it choose to do so. I suspect that there have been some concessions made on some issue which allow the holdovers to remain in office.

Grimes Letter to Holder