Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Should a Progressive Blogger React to a Possible Death Threat?

Geolocation can help track Internet thugs

On Monday evening, Legal Schnauzer received an anonymous comment that I interpreted to be a death threat. How should a blogger handle such a situation? I'm not aware of any textbook or position paper on the subject, so there seems to be no clear-cut answer. But I can tell you what I've done, so far.

In the four-plus years that I've been producing this blog, I've received probably 50 to 75 anonymous messages that had a threatening tone. I'm guessing that 20 to 30 of those have been ugly enough to cause me some measure of alarm. I've never described any blog-related communication that I thought caused me to be in danger of bodily harm or death--until now.

What's different about this most recent message? Well, I explained that, in a general sense, with a post yesterday afternoon. Mainly, the timing of the comment--and the content of the post to which it was attached--made me think the individual behind this one might be dangerous.

But I've done a layman's investigation that adds some troubling specifics to the story. We're going to examine some of those specifics, as revealed by a few common Web tools. And we're going to ask, "Have I been the victim of a federal crime?"

In a broader sense, I would like to pose several "big picture" questions: What should a blogger do when an anonymous messenger veers from "disagreeable" or "nasty" to "menacing"? Can writing a blog, or practicing citizen journalism as we do here, truly put your life at risk? If you report such threats, will law-enforcement officials take them seriously? What kind of law governs such behavior?

I welcome comments and ideas from readers because I don't claim to have the absolute answer to all, or any, of these questions.

A good analytics service, many of which are available for free on the Web, might be your best weapon against those who spread fear via e-mail or blog comments. Google Analytics probably is the best known such service, but there are many others out there. Here is a list of the top five blog statistics trackers.

I first read the threatening message, through my Blogger comment-moderation notice, at about 9 p.m. on Monday (August 29). After deciding to publish the comment, I promptly went to my stat service to scroll back about two hours; that's because the comment was time stamped at 6:55 p.m., on a post dated Tuesday, August 23. Could I find someone who had clicked in the comment section of that post in the appropriate time frame?

The answer was yes--and there was only one visitor who proved to be a suspect. (Memo to bad guys: When you click on a post that is several days old, it is likely to have less traffic than a new post. That makes it much easier to track your activities. We never said these people were smart.)

What information did my stats service provide about this visitor? Here is the rundown:

Visitor Analysis and System Spec

Search Referral: — legal schnauzer blog

Host Name: Browser: IE 9.0

IP Address: — [Label IP Address]

Operating System: WinVista

Location: Birmingham, Alabama, United States

Resolution: 1024x768

Returning Visits: 0

Javascript: Enabled

Visit Length: Multiple visits spread over more than one day

ISP: Sbc Internet Services

What does all of this mean? Well, I'm hardly an expert, but this seems to be the key information:

* The visitor uses SBC Internet Services;

* He made multiple visits spread over more than one day;

* His location, or at least that of the server he uses, is Birmingham, Alabama;

* Most importantly, his IP address is

I took this last piece of information and did a search at an IP-address tracking site on the Web. Here is what that search yielded:

General IP Information

Decimal: 1665643021
ISP: SBC Internet Services
Organization: SBC Internet Services
Services: None detected
Type: Broadband
Assignment: Static IP

We learn that this is a static IP--probably a home user--with a decimal of 1665643021. (Not sure what this decimal number tells us, but it might mean something to a genuine technophile.)

Perhaps the most intriguing data, to me, comes under the heading of "geolocation," which is the art (or science) of matching an IP address to a physical location on the globe. Here is what we find:

Geolocation Information

Country: United States
State/Region: Alabama
City: Birmingham
Latitude: 33.4168
Longitude: -86.6801
Area Code: 205
Postal Code: 35242

Here comes the really fascinating (or creepy) part. If you key in my IP address, it produces a latitude and longitude that is identical to the one above. Does this mean my threat came from someone who lives nearby? It sure looks that way. How close might they be? I'm still trying to figure that out--but I'm guessing it is pretty darned close.

A little research on the Web turns up all sorts of caveats about the accuracy of geolocation software. The general consensus seems to be that a good service is about 80 percent accurate within a 25-mile radius.

Some layman's experimentation has me thinking the geolocation in our area is more accurate than that. I searched on an IP address that I know is about 15 miles from my house and on another that I know is about eight miles away. Both had different coordinates than those for my location.

Did my threat come from several neighborhoods over, from several streets over, from a few houses down the street, from right next door? I'm still working on that question, but I have a definite suspect or two in mind. Do I think these suspects are capable of violence? Yes, I do.

Has my "correspondent" committed a federal crime by using the Internet to send a threatening message? We will turn to that question next.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Did I Just Receive a Death Threat Via E-Mail?

At 6:55 p.m. yesterday, I received an anonymous comment on this blog that reads as follows: "Yours is coming- Don't Worry."

The comment was in response to a post I published last Tuesday (August 23), titled "Death of a Bush-Era Prosecutor Prompts Deep Thoughts On the Hereafter."

Anonymous threats, unfortunately, are not an uncommon occurrence around here. In fact, I've written several times about threats, most recently in a July 18 post that includes a roundup of the various charming messages we've received through the years.

I've always taken threats seriously, but not so much that I've ever reported one to authorities. This time, it might be different.

Two primary questions are in my head at the moment: (1) Where did this message come from; (2) Did the sender commit a crime? We will be examining those questions shortly, but first a few details.

On the surface, "Yours is coming--Don't Worry" sounds relatively tame. In fact, I've received other messages with similar wording, often misspelling the word as "comong." Why is this one more alarming than the others?

One factor is the timing. I'm convinced that quite a few of the threats I've received have been political in nature, from someone who did not appreciate my reporting on public or governmental events. I believe those messages largely were meant to threaten my wife and me in an economic sense--and in fact, we both wound up being cheated out of our jobs, me at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and her at Infinity Property and Casualty. Those thugs can't accomplish much more on the economic front; after all, we no longer have jobs, and we even have a bogus sheriff's deed on our house. What else can they do?

Second, is the nature of the blog post that prompted the threat. It was a post about death, specifically the death of a former Bush-era prosecutor in Mississippi named Dunn Lampton and the death of an unnamed neighbor who played a relatively minor role in the harassment Mrs. Schnauzer and I have experienced for 10-plus years.

When an anonymous commenter says "Yours is coming--Don't worry" on a post about death . . . well, that has a sinister sound to it--and it didn't take me long to spring into action.

I already have gathered data that provides numerous hints about the origins of the threat. And this much is clear: The same individual posted two other comments on the August 23 post. Here they are:

Anonymous said...
You are one sic individual.May you rot in Hell
August 24, 2011 6:07 PM

Anonymous said...
payback is a bitch ha ha
August 25, 2011 5:59 PM

Those came from the same IP address as the threat in question:

Anonymous said...
Yours is coming- Don't Worry
August 29, 2011 6:55 PM

Here is another intriguing clue: The IP address is from Birmingham, so that indicates the commenter was upset not with the Dunn Lampton content in the post, but with the material about the unnamed neighbor. That makes me think the commenter knows the identity of the unnamed neighbor and exactly what he did to my wife and me.

Other data suggests the threat came from someone who lives near me, maybe very close to me. And that's another reason I am taking this one with extra seriousness.

When I first started receiving threats on Legal Schnauzer, I was pretty clueless in the techno department and had no real way to track them down. But I've become a little more sophisticated. I have blog analytics that can provide clues about the source of a threatening comment. And geolocation services can help trace the physical location of someone who is harassing or threatening you.

Geolocation technology is not flawlessly accurate, but the data I've gathered so far seems to have narrowed the source to a tight geographic area.

I'm guessing it came from someone whose unlawful acts have been exposed on this blog. And I'm pretty sure it's from someone who lives nearby and might wish to do me physical harm.

Has the sender committed a federal crime with his little message? My research indicates he has come close to crossing the line.

More on this threat, my investigation of it, and the applicable law is coming soon.

(To be continued)

Suicide of Former Baseball Star Prompts Questions About the Major Bashinsky Case

Mike Flanagan

Editor's Note: This post is a joint reporting effort by Lori Alexander Moore and Roger Shuler.

One of the best pitchers in the history of the Baltimore Orioles franchise died last week. Authorities quickly ruled it a suicide, stating that Mike Flanagan died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. According to news reports, Flanagan had been experiencing financial problems and might have been despondent over his ouster as an Orioles executive in 2008. The once-proud Baltimore franchise has struggled to compete against the deep-pocketed New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League East, baseball's toughest division.

A mix of personal and professional struggles, it seems, contributed to Mike Flanagan's decision to kill himself. And that caused us to think about Major Bashinsky, the prominent Alabama lawyer whose body was discovered in March 2010, floating in a golf-course water hazard.

Like Flanagan, Bashinsky died from a gunshot wound to the head. And as in the Flanagan case, authorities ruled it was self inflicted. But officials in the Flanagan case asked a question that seemingly has received little attention in the Bashinsky case: Why would this man kill himself? In fact, our research indicates the Jefferson County Medical Examiner's office concluded that Bashinsky committed suicide without even checking the criteria for making such a determination.

Gary T. Simmons, M.D., associate coroner/medical examiner for Jefferson County, concluded that Bashinsky killed himself. The following section from the autopsy report states the basis for Simmons' finding. (See the full autopsy report at the end of this post.) As we reported in a previous post, Simmons presents no forensic evidence to support a suicide finding; the conclusion is based solely on a police investigation:

The decedent was found in a golf course pond with ligatures as described. However, the ligatures were such that the decedent essentially had complete freedom of movement. As described, the decedent had a contact gunshot wound of his head consistent with causing this wound, car keys, duct tape similar to that used to bind on the decedent, and scissors being found in the ponder generally under the area where the decedent's body was found. Furthermore, the decedent was reportedly witnessed buying duct tape and rope similar to that found on the body at a hardware store with the decedent also being video taped the day he was reported missing in a coffee shop near this hardware store. At that time he was apparently dressed in the same clothes he was found in. The decedent appeared alone in this video. Taking these facts into consideration as well as the findings of the rest of the investigation it is our opinion that this was a self inflicted gunshot wound. It is therefore our opinion that the cause of death is best listed as contact gunshot wound to the head with the manner of death being suicide.

Nothing in Simmons' report, and nothing in press accounts, indicates that officials have any idea why Major Bashinsky would want to kill himself. In fact, it isn't clear that the question was asked in a serious way.

Is that how the investigation of a possible suicide is supposed to be conducted? Not according to "Current Trends: Operational Criteria for Determining Suicide," a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

The criteria for making a determination of suicide come in two broad categories. Here is the breakdown, according to the CDC:

Self-Inflicted: There is evidence that death was self-inflicted. This may be determined by pathologic (autopsy), toxicologic, investigatory, and psychologic evidence and by statements of the decedent or witnesses.

Intent: There is evidence (explicit and/or implicit) that, at the time of injury, the decedent intended to kill himself/herself or wished to die and that the decedent understood the probable consequences of his/her actions. This evidence may include:

* Explicit verbal or nonverbal expression of intent to kill self;

* Implicit or indirect evidence of intent to die, such as:

(1) preparations for death inappropriate to or unexpected in the context of the decedent's life,

(2) expression of farewell or the desire to die or an acknowledgment of impending death,

(3) expression of hopelessness,

(4) expression of great emotional or physical pain or distress,

(5) effort to procure or learn about means of death or to rehearse fatal behavior, precautions to avoid rescue,

(6) evidence that decedent recognized high potential lethality of means of death, previous suicide attempt, previous suicide threat,

(7) stressful events or significant losses (actual or threatened), or serious depression or mental disorder.
We have seen no signs--from either the medical-examiner's report or from news accounts--that any of these factors were present in Major Bashinsky's case. In fact, we've seen little to indicate that a serious inquiry was made into any of these factors.

Major Bashinsky

Sloan Bashinsky Jr., Major's older brother, has theorized on his blog that Major was bisexual and feared being outed. Sloan Bashinsky Jr., however, has offered little or no evidence to support a claim that his brother was bisexual. Even if this is assumed to be true, one must ask some obvious questions: "If Major Bashinsky had lived with this issue for 63 years, why did he suddenly decide to end his life over it? If someone had threatened to out Major Bashinsky as bisexual, whether it was true or not, that could amount to extortion under state or federal law; why has no investigation seemingly been launched? If Sloan Bashinsky Jr. is on target about his theory, why has he apparently never been interviewed by authorities?"

For that matter, why is there little sign that anyone close to Major Bashinsky was interviewed about his state of mind?

Certainly many suicide cases conclude with no clear answer as to why the decedent took his own life. But Major Bashinsky was well known, from one of Alabama's most prominent business families, and his death occurred in a highly public fashion. In such circumstances, as the Mike Flanagan case shows, it is common to look at what might have driven a person to suicide.

Those kinds of questions certainly have not been answered in the Major Bashinsky case. And it's not clear that they even have been asked.

Gary Simmons, the Jefferson County medical examiner, serves on the School of Medicine faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Reporter Lori Alexander Moore has requested an interview with Simmons about the Bashinsky case. He has not responded to voice messages left at his office.

Officials in Maryland followed the professional guidelines for making a determination of suicide in the Mike Flanagan case. Why were the same guidelines apparently not followed in the Alabama case of Major Bashinsky?

Bashinsky Autopsy

Monday, August 29, 2011

On Bingo, Siegelman, Rick Perry, and the Deaths of Scoundrels

Peter B. Collins long has been one of the sharpest progressive voices in radio, going back to his days on Chicago's WLS-FM in the 1970s. Peter B. sank his teeth into the Watergate story, and he continues to shake up the establishment from his current base near San Francisco.

Collins touts his show as "News and Politics from the Left Coast," but he deals with national and international issues. I am proud to say that I have become, in a sense, Peter B.'s Southern correspondent, making regular visits on his show and focusing on justice-related corruption in the Heart of Dixie.

My latest visit came last week, and Peter B. and I had lots to talk about. Our discussion touched on the Alabama electronic-bingo trial; Rick Perry, Don Siegelman, and political donors; and the deaths of various SOBs, including a Bush-era prosecutor.

We even touched on the recent murder of Alabama lawyer Robert Blake Lazenby, which appears to be a case of someone snapping in the course of a contentious--and perhaps unlawfully conducted--divorce case.

"Too many people go into court and do not get justice, the deck is stacked against them from the beginning," I said. "The Siegelman case, on the criminal side, is one example. Probably the worst area where I've seen it happen is in domestic-relations cases--divorce cases and child-custody cases. Judges have so much discretion in those areas of the law. . . It gets down to the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection. Are we getting what we are supposed to get under the Constitution . . . ?

"Whether you live in Alabama or California, a lot of people go into court and get the raw end of the stick. . . . Does our system push people too far some times? Their financial well being is at stake, their home can be at stake, their children can be at stake, your ability to earn a living can be at stake. People can be under enormous amounts of stress in these legal cases.

"To those on the outside, these may look like a theoretical exercise. But when you are in the middle of one--and I can tell you from firsthand experience--your life, in a lot of ways, is on the line. It's a dangerous thing to mess around with people in that kind of high-impact environment."

I've told Peter B. on several occasions that I wish he could set up a base in Alabama and give our radio waves a much needed progressive voice. That isn't likely to happen, but thanks to the miracle of the InterWebs, you can catch up with Peter B., no matter where you. We hope you will pay him a visit.

You can check out my most recent discussion with Peter B. at the following link. My segment begins at the 36:07 mark on the podcast, introduced with a rockin' version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."

Peter B. Collins Show, August 24, 2011

You Want Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients? Why Stop There?

Alvin Holmes

Republican legislators in Alabama are working on bills that would require drug testing for individuals receiving welfare payments. The bills will be patterned after those that became law in Florida earlier this summer.

At least one Alabama Democrat, showing that some Southern liberals actually have a pair, vows he will tack on an amendment to any Republican bill. Alvin Holmes, a state representative from Montgomery, says his amendment would require state legislators to take drug tests. In fact, Holmes would require all those who receive federal funds through Alabama to take drug tests.

Reports Sebastian Kitchen, of The Montgomery Advertiser:

Holmes said he would pro­pose an amendment that would require state legislators to take a drug test and require others who receive federal funds through the state, including those who receive funding for not farming all of their agricul­tural land, to be tested.

"It wouldn't be fair to just pick out one group of welfare recipients because they are re­ceiving federal funds and re­quire them to take drug tests," Holmes said.

He has an interesting pro­posal for his colleagues.

"I'm going to volunteer to take one (a drug test) to set an example for the other mem­bers of the Legislature," Holmes said. "I guarantee you that I am going to pass it. If not, I will turn my resignation in to the secretary of state, which would make a lot of peo­ple in the state of Alabama happy."

I like the way Alvin Holmes is thinking. And I don't think we should stop there. Consider others who receive federal funds in our state:

* Federal judges--We already know of one federal judge in Georgia who got nailed for trying to buy drugs with his stripper friend. How many others are high as a kite when they don their robes?

* Lawyers--Attorneys practice in courts that are funded by taxpayers, both federal and state. Attorneys are "officers of the court," making mighty fine livings off facilities and systems that you and I fund. Don't you think they need to pee into a cup?

* CEOs--How many corporate types benefit from tax breaks and other forms of federal largesse? How many of them receive taxpayer-funded bailouts and the like? Shouldn't they be standing in line with welfare recipients, ready to take a pee and prove they are clean? I'm hearing persistent reports that one CEO, a fellow we have written about here recently, would have a real tough time passing a drug test. Let's have him drop his drawers--for the sake of our democracy.

* University administrators--State universities rake in millions of federal dollars, and one of the biggest cash cows is at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The fine folks on Birmingham's Southside are alleged to have committed some $600 million worth of Medicare and research fraud. They barely received a slap on the wrist from the Bush Justice Department, and one top administrator was rewarded with the presidency of the University of Kentucky. Don't folks like UAB President Carol Garrison and University of Alabama Trustee Paul Bryant Jr. need to be subjected to tox screens?

Let's break out the specimen jars! I think Alvin Holmes is onto something big.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

University of Miami Sports Scandal Reaches Deep Into the Heart of Alabama

Nevin Shapiro (right) and former Miami
star Kellen Winslow

The evolving athletics scandal at the University of Miami has ties to Alabama--in more ways than one.

The most obvious connection involves the University of Alabama's football coaching staff, which includes former Miami assistants Jeff Stoutland and Joe Pannuzio. Reporters Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports broke the Miami story, and their investigation implicates Stoutland and Pannuzio in the wrongdoing.

But the Alabama connections, in a sense, go way beyond the coaching staff. At the heart of the Miami scandal is a renegade booster named Nevin Shapiro, who is incarcerated for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme. Shapiro told Yahoo! Sports he provided thousands of impermissible benefits to at least 72 UM athletes from 2002 through 2010.

Alabama, it turns out, has a booster who probably can match Shapiro step for step in the rogue category. In fact, Paul W. Bryant Jr.'s connections to Alabama are way more powerful than those Shapiro enjoyed at Miami. After all, Bryant's father, the late Paul "Bear" Bryant, was the Crimson Tide's Hall of Fame coach for many years. And Bryant Jr. is more than just an enthusiastic fan; he is part of the university's leadership team, serving on its board of trustees.

Like Shapiro, Bryant has a history of shady business practices. Unlike Shapiro, Bryant managed to escape serious scrutiny from federal prosecutors. But how long will that last? If the NCAA is going to examine the actions of a rogue booster in Miami, shouldn't it also be taking a look at a questionable character in Tuscaloosa? If Shapiro is incarcerated for his role in a $930-million Ponzi scheme, why are Paul Bryant Jr. and his associates in Greene Group Inc. enjoying freedom?

As we have reported in more than a dozen posts, one of Bryant's companies has clear ties to insurance fraud. Public documents show that Alabama Reassurance was implicated in a $15-million scheme that netted a 15-year prison sentence for a Pennsylvania man named Allen W. Stewart in the late 1990s. An investigation of Alabama Re was called off, apparently because Bryant had friends in the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Alabama.

G. Douglas Jones, now a lawyer at the Birmingham firm of Haskell Slaughter, had just become U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama when the Alabama Re investigation was called off. Multiple sources tell Legal Schnauzer that Jones has ties to Bryant and has done legal work for him. I twice have asked Jones if he called off the Alabama Re investigation, and he has refused to answer the question. In fact, Jones has refused to answer any questions from me--including questions about his work with Rob Riley, son of former Governor Bob Riley, on a federal HealthSouth lawsuit that netted millions of dollars for plaintiffs' lawyers. Jones' refusal to answer questions from me is odd, given that he regularly is quoted in various media outlets. He becomes mute when the subjects of Paul Bryant Jr. and Rob Riley are raised.

Paul Bryant Jr. and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions

Public documents indicate that Bryant, in a curious move, planned to liquidate Alabama Reassurance, even though the company had admitted assets of $238 million in 2006. The company essentially was replaced by a new entity called Alabama Life Reinsurance Company, which like its predecessor, is under Bryant's Greene Group Inc.

The Yahoo! Sports investigation shows that Shapiro got into hot water largely because he mixed his business interests with his passion for University of Miami sports. The Miami story also involves both federal crimes and apparent NCAA violations. Reports Charles Robinson:

Some of Shapiro’s allegations were outlined in multiple recorded interviews with federal prosecutors – brought on by charges he misappropriated nearly $83 million in investor funds with a fraudulent grocery distribution business. And it was Shapiro’s cooperation in his Ponzi case – which encompassed both fraud and money laundering – which opened the door to his conduct at Miami.

“He agreed to cooperate with the government,” said Shapiro’s attorney, Maria Elena-Perez. “He had to be 100-percent truthful. And it has never been the government’s position that he lied about his conduct or the conduct of others in his discussions with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“Once Miami was on the table, it opened up everything in that realm. And his cooperation with the NCAA was another level of him coming clean about conduct that wasn’t above board with investor funds – specifically things he was doing with everyone in the UM athletic program.”

Want a neat summary of the Miami story? Robinson provides it:

Ultimately, what documents show is a booster who broke NCAA rules while simultaneously making tens of thousands of dollars in annual contributions to Miami’s athletic program.

Paul Bryant Jr. seems to have quite a bit in common with Nevin Shapiro. Bryant has donated significant dollars to the Alabama athletic program, and he has clear ties to financial skulduggery.

Do the comparisons go even farther? Federal prosecutors, and the NCAA, should be looking into that question.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do Investors Care About Anything Other Than Money?

Ted and Michele Rollins

I read an article yesterday that was written by a financial reporter and intended for investors. When I finished reading, my immediate thought was, "Do these people think only about ways to make money--and nothing else?"

The answer seems to be yes, that's exactly how they think. That's certainly the impression a reasonable person could take from the article, a report at The Wall Street Transcript (TWST) about Campus Crest Communities and its CEO, Ted W. Rollins.

Rollins is a hot topic on Wall Street because his company completed a $380-million IPO last year. Those kinds of numbers will get investors' attention. Tampa-based Raymond James Financial put together the deal.

We have written a number of posts about Campus Crest and its leader--and we have presented substantial evidence to indicate that Rollins operates on a shaky set of ethics. Was there a hint of that in the TWST article? Not a peep.

Do the investors who read TWST care about such things? Apparently not. Maybe that's why investors seem to get taken in so many scams these days.

The Wall Street Transcript is a subscriber site, but you can read an excerpt from the article here. What appears to be the full version of the interview is available at Yahoo! Finance.

I've tried to interview Ted Rollins twice, about matters connected to his company and about the peculiar divorce case he somehow had moved from South Carolina to Alabama--even though jurisdiction already had been established when Sherry Carroll Rollins filed for divorce in Greenville, South Carolina, where the couple lived. So far, Ted Rollins has refused to answer my questions, claiming that he would be glad to respond if I sent him questions in writing, through his PR firm. That, of course, would not be an interview; it probably would be an exercise in corporate damage control, with responses filtered through lawyers and such. When I pointed out that his ex wife had granted multiple interviews, with no strings attached, Ted Rollins was not swayed. He still wanted to be protected by his PR/legal team.

Since Ted Rollins seems afraid to answer questions directly from Legal Schnauzer, I found it curious that he apparently was more than willing to sit down with The Wall Street Transcript. What kind of probing questions were put to Ted Rollins? Here is a sampling:

TWST: Please give us a brief history of Campus Crest Communities and an overview of the company and its operations today.

Mr. Rollins: We started about seven years ago. We basically looked at the student housing market, and it was apparent that there was a real need for our product - not only in primary markets, but even more so in secondary markets, which is our main focus. If you think about it in terms of any given state, you'll have a flagship campus--for example, in North Carolina, where we're based, UNC Chapel Hill is the flagship--but you'll also have a lot of great schools like UNC Wilmington, UNC Charlotte, UNC Asheville, these are all schools that need additional beds to continue to grow or to replace some obsolescent beds on campus. That really has been our primary target. We've spent seven years working on these markets, such as UNC secondary schools, or in states such as Texas, where we have a large number of properties. If you look at the industry as a whole, there are two general comments that you can make.

One is that there is a limited supply. It's constrained because of the lack of capital available, and it's constrained with state budgetary cuts over the last few years. But at the same time, there is a growing demand. There are more kids going to college. They're staying longer. And although the Baby Boom's children, the Echo Boom, growth is dipping slightly over the next few years, this attendance is still at record levels. In addition to that, if you look at total enrollment, growth is continuing because the graduation rate at high schools is up. And of these graduates, a higher percentage are electing to attend college full time. In addition, foreign enrollment is on the rise. So those components are pretty compelling.

That is, indeed, pretty compelling stuff. But what about "the rest of the story" with Ted Rollins and Campus Crest Communities? Legal Schnauzer readers are learning about it. Consider some of our storylines:

* Ted Rollins and his company do not treat women and minorities so well;

* Public records indicate Ted Rollins, perhaps with help from his lawyer buddies at the Birmingham firm of Bradley Arant has used the justice system in an abusive fashion;

* Public documents indicate that Ted Rollins used his connections to help administer a colossal cheat job to his ex wife, Sherry Carroll Rollins, and their two daughters;

* Ted Rollins is from one of the nation's wealthiest Republican families, a clan that apparently does not mind throwing its weight around in a courtroom;

* Michele Rollins, Ted's stepmother, ran as a Republican in a 2010 Delaware Congressional race. She has close ties to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas;

* Campus Crest has almost 30 student-housing developments across the country, including plans for one at Auburn University. Ted Rollins essentially is selling an image to college students and their parents. He presents himself as a CEO who is concerned about providing wholesome, healthful living environments for young people--to promote their academic and personal growth. But public documents indicate that young people under Ted Rollins' care--his two biological children with Sherry Carroll Rollins, plus his two stepsons from her previous marriage--do not fare so well.

Do investors care about such matters of fundamental right and wrong? Maybe they should. Maybe they should spend more time reading Legal Schnauzer and less time reading The Wall Street Transcript.

While they are at it, investors might want to take a look at the following document. It's a child-support affidavit from Ted Rollins' divorce case in Alabama. Rollins states, under oath, that he makes approximately $50,000 a year. Investors might want to look at Ted Rollins' background--including the multiple private planes at his disposal--and ask themselves, "Did this guy tell the truth, in a sworn document, about his earnings? If not, what does that say about how he might run a company?"

Vivek "Vick" Seth, managing partner at Raymond James, helped put together Campus Crest's $380-million  IPO. Investors who have sunk money into the deal might want to direct some tough questions toward Mr. Seth--especially since Ted Rollins doesn't want to answer tough questions from me.

Rollins CS-41 Form

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Death of a Bush-Era Prosecutor Prompts Deep Thoughts On the Hereafter

Dunn Lampton

If you are like me and grew up in a mainstream Christian home, you probably learned that it's important to feel sorrow upon learning that someone you know (or know of) has died. Along those lines, you also probably learned that one should never "speak ill of the dead."

A couple of recent events have caused me to rethink those notions and ask this question: Is it OK to be glad when a sorry human being--a real son of a bitch--dies? The answer, I've decided, is yes. This blog, more than anything else, is about honesty--about exposing SOBs and the harm they cause to others. So why should we drum up false sorrow when such an individual is no longer among the living? I don't think we should, even if it conflicts with what I was taught as a child.

What brought this issue to mind? First, came the death--unexpected, as far as I know--of a relatively minor character in our Legal Schnauzer story. This guy was minor enough that I have not mentioned his name or written about his actions on this blog. But he lived a few doors over from us and took it upon himself to act like a major horse's ass toward Mrs. Schnauzer and me. I would call him a "neighbor," but that term suggests some level of good will, and this guy showed nothing but ill will toward us--over issues that did not even involve him. I will refer to him as The Jackass Who Lived Nearby (JWLN).

This guy twice acted in a threatening manner toward my wife, both times while she simply was trying to walk Murphy, the beloved miniature schnauzer for whom this blog is named. And he did this even though Murphy, Mrs. Schnauzer, and I had never wronged him in any way--or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, Mrs. Schnauzer and I had never even spoken to the guy--and for the record, neither had Murphy. But he saw fit to twice act like such a bully toward my wife that she thought seriously about calling the police. Those acts earned JWLN my eternal hatred, which brings up another old Christian saying: "It's wrong to hate anyone." My response is, "Why?" If someone has earned your hatred, I say go ahead and hate them. It doesn't have to consume your life, but holding a genuine hatred probably is more healthy than pretending all is well.

The second event was the death last week of Dunn Lampton, the former Bush-appointed U.S. attorney who instigated the Paul Minor case in Mississippi. I probably have written more about the Minor case than any human on earth, and our blog has shown beyond any doubt that the prosecution was bogus, driven by the fact that Paul Minor was a highly successful trial attorney who generously supported Democratic causes and candidates. We also have shown that the case was unlawfully handled and wrongly decided, causing Minor and codefendants Wes Teel and John Whitfield (former state judges in Mississippi) to be imprisoned for "crimes" that do not exist under the actual law.

Oliver Diaz, a former state supreme court justice, twice was prosecuted in connection to the Minor case and was acquitted both times.

How evil were the Minor prosecutions? Paul Minor, who clearly committed no crime, was in prison when his wife died and his son got married. Paul Minor was not allowed to attend either the funeral or the wedding.

Dunn Lampton, to a great extent, was responsible for true wickedness being heaped upon fellow human beings. Are we supposed to be sorry that he's gone?

Lampton was only 60 years old when he died, pretty young by today's standards. He had been in poor health for several years and apparently died of natural causes. Here is part of what the Jackson Clarion-Ledger wrote about him:

Lampton, of McComb, was in office when then- state Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz and his wife were indicted in 2003 along with millionaire lawyer Paul Minor of the Gulf Coast and two former lower court judges on federal bribery allegations. Oliver Diaz was cleared of the bribery charges in 2005. Minor and the other judges are in prison.

The Jackson newspaper made an effort to "balance the scales" on Lampton:

Lampton, appointed to the post on Sept. 14, 2001, also was the chief federal prosecutor for the Southern District when two dormant civil rights-era cases were successfully prosecuted. Reputed Ku Klux Klansmen Ernest Avants and James Ford Seale were convicted. A slew of Hurricane Katrina fraud prosecutions also occurred during Lampton’s administration.

Perhaps Dunn Lampton accomplished some good on this earth. But what is his final legacy? He caused three innocent people to be imprisoned for purely political reasons--and he had to know it. For that,  Dunn Lampton should be roasting over a red-hot fire in the pit of Hell.

What about JWLN? He was only 56 when he died of a heart attack, and I've been debating whether to identify him and describe his actions toward Mrs. Schnauzer and me. Since his death, I've read an obituary that described him as a loving family man. I've also read a piece on his church blog that described him as a devout, caring Christian. Well, that's not the JWLN we saw.

Unlike Dunn Lampton, JWLN was not a public figure, so for now, I've decided to let his sorry soul rest in peace. But in the interest of exposing gross hypocrisy, I'm tempted to unmask him.

Am I glad that Dunn Lampton and JWLN are dead? It's probably going too far to say that. If I hadn't stumbled upon news of their deaths, I might have never noticed they were gone. In my immediate world, they didn't matter enough for me to waste psychic energy on them.

Do I feel sorrow because they are gone? I sure as heck do not--and I have patriotic reasons for feeling that way. Our country, in my view, is in trouble largely because we have too few honorable people and too many dishonorable people. From what I know of Dunn Lampton and JWLN, they were wretched SOBs--individuals who acted with dishonor toward the ideals upon which America supposedly stands. Our country is better off without people like that. So I say, "Good riddance."

Here is the big, cosmic issue with Lampton, JWLN, and others like them: It's one thing to make a mistake, or even commit an intentional act, that causes harm to someone else; it's another thing to not recognize that you have done wrong, to fail to be accountable, to fail to apologize and try to make it right. In the months and years before they died, Lampton and JWLN had plenty of opportunities to acknowledge the harm they had caused to others and seek redemption. The best I can tell, they did nothing.

Is there any justice in all of this? Maybe so. Consider this line from the Clarion-Ledger article about Dunn Lampton's death:

Lampton retired in 2009, about two years after he suffered a severe spinal injury in an accident on his farm near Summit.

Hmmm, the accident would have been in 2007, not long after the bogus verdicts in the Minor case. Maybe there is a loving God who cares about justice. Maybe payback really is a bitch.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Will Rick Perry Be Targeted for a Federal Prosecution?

Rick Perry

Hundreds of Rick Perry's biggest financial backers have benefited from actions he took in his official capacity as governor of Texas, according to a new article in The New York Times. Does that mean Perry, now a leading Republican candidate for president, will be targeted by federal prosecutors on bribery and fraud charges?

If the case of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman establishes legal precedent, the answer is yes.

The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Siegelman jury was free to "infer" that an unlawful quid pro quo existed between Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy. Never mind that this is contrary to U.S. Supreme Court precedent, established in McCormick v. United States, 500 U.S. 257 (1991), that an "explicit agreement" is required for bribery cases in the context of a campaign contribution.

The trial court in the Siegelman case, and the Eleventh Circuit, essentially thumbed their noses at the standard established by the nation's highest court. And the Obama Justice Department--with the handiwork of former solicitor general and current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan--joined in by arguing that the Siegelman case was correctly decided.

Under those circumstances, couldn't a jury "infer" that Rick Perry engaged in unlawful actions with his Texas donors? It certainly could, based on the work of The New York Times. From reporters Nicholas Confessore and Michael Luo:

Two years ago, John McHale, an entrepreneur from Austin, Tex., who has given millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and causes, did something very unusual for him: he wrote a $50,000 check to a Republican candidate, Rick Perry, then seeking a third full term as governor of Texas. In September 2010, he did it again, catapulting himself into the top ranks of Mr. Perry’s donors.

Mr. McHale, a Perry spokesman said after the initial donation, “understands Governor Perry’s leadership has made Texas a good place to do business.”

Including, it turned out, for Mr. McHale’s business interests and partners. In May 2010 an economic development fund administered by the governor’s office handed $3 million to G-Con, a pharmaceutical start-up that Mr. McHale helped get off the ground. At least two other executives with connections to the firm had also given Mr. Perry tens of thousands of dollars.

McHale hardly is alone. Reports The Times:

Over three terms in office, Mr. Perry’s administration has doled out grants, tax breaks, contracts and appointments to hundreds of his most generous supporters and their businesses. And they have helped Mr. Perry raise more money than any politician in Texas history, donations that have periodically raised eyebrows but, thanks to loose campaign finance laws and a business-friendly political culture dominated in recent years by Republicans, have only fueled Mr. Perry’s ascent.

“Texas politics does have this amazing pay-to-play culture,” said Harold Cook, a Democratic political consultant.

Alabama also has been accused of having a "pay-to-play culture," and that supposedly is why the feds went after Siegelman--and still are pursuing an electronic-bingo prosecution. But transcripts in the Siegelman case show that the former governor, in fact, violated no law when he accepted a campaign donation from Scrushy and then appointed him to a state hospital board--one the former HealthSouth CEO had served on under three previous governors. After all, no "explicit agreement" instruction was given to the jury, and no evidence was presented that such an agreement existed.

If the point of the Siegelman prosecution was to discourage interactions between governors and donors, it failed. The message certainly did not get through to Rick Perry:

Mr. Perry is not the first governor to have taken contributions from contractors or appointees to state commissions and boards, which oversee many of the agencies that in other states are controlled directly by the governor.

But because he has been in office more than a decade, he has had greater opportunity than any of his predecessors to stock the government with loyalists — he has appointed roughly 4,000 people to state posts — while enacting policies that have benefited allies and contributors.

And Mr. Perry has been much more aggressive than any past governor in soliciting money from them. According to a study last year by Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog organization, Mr. Perry has raised at least $17 million from more than 900 appointees or their spouses, roughly one dollar out of every five that he has raised as governor.

Let us be clear: Under the actual law established in McCormick, that an "explicit agreement" must be present to constitute bribery, Perry probably has broken no laws. But Siegelman did not break any laws either--and he already has spent time in federal prison and could be headed back there.

Why is one legal standard applied to Rick Perry and another to Don Siegelman? For that matter, why is one legal standard applied to George W. Bush (and an almost endless list of other GOP governors) and another to Don Siegelman?

Those questions are at the very heart of the political-prosecution era that the Bush DOJ ushered into our political environment.

A Perry spokesman responded to The Times article by saying the interactions with donors did not constitute bribery:

Mark Miner, a spokesman for Mr. Perry, said there was no connection between Mr. McHale’s contributions and the grant to G-Con. He said that the purpose of the state money was to create jobs and that it was appropriate for Mr. Perry to appoint people who support his vision and policies to state oversight posts.

Under the real law, established in McCormick, Miner probably is correct. But under the law used in Siegelman, which the Eleventh Circuit has unlawfully upheld, a jury could "infer" that Perry was being bribed.

Given that Elena Kagan argued the Siegelman case was correctly decided, we have this obvious question: Why is the Obama DOJ not going after Rick Perry?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mississippi Choctaws Were Hemorrhaging Money at the Time of Riley's Raids in Alabama

Mississippi Choctaw gaming facilities had fallen on financial hard times when former Alabama Governor Bob Riley launched a crusade last year to close gaming facilities in his state. That is one of several revelations in recent days from Mississippi, including news that the Choctaws' money woes are ongoing.

A major outside auditing firm no longer is providing its services to the Choctaws after a federal raid at gaming facilities in July. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), a big-four accounting firm that has audited Pearl River Resort for more than a decade, has stepped down from that role, according to a report in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Reporter Jerry Mitchell also shows that the federal probe is focusing on Doug Pattison, head of Atlanta-based Mercury Gaming Group.

The Choctaw story is of profound interest in Alabama because former Governor Riley reportedly received at least $13 million in support from Mississippi gaming interests, funneled through GOP felon Jack Abramoff. Those funds apparently were designed to protect Choctaw market share from Alabama gaming entities. Riley responded, it appears, by launching a crusade to shut down electronic bingo facilities in Alabama. And that led to a federal investigation and trial that ended last week with no convictions--and now is scheduled for a retrial in October.

What caused Choctaw finances to take a turn for the worse? The answer remains unclear, but the problems seemed to start when former tribal chief Phillip Martin left office in 2007. Reports Mitchell:

Records obtained by the FBI show that when Martin left office in 2007, the casinos were earning more than $120 million in cash. By the end of 2010, that amount was only half of what it had been.

Was Riley pressured to launch his Alabama crusade in order to help his Choctaw benefactors? Have the people of Alabama been caused to suffer because the Choctaws could not properly manage their finances? It's starting to look that way.

Mitchell's report indicates that Choctaw finances are not getting any better:

Two days after the July 12 raid, Moody's Investors Service downgraded $200 million in securities borrowed by the Choctaw Resort Development Enterprise to junk bond status.

The FBI's investigation may "indicate potential internal control weaknesses and could affect Choctaw's casino operations in the future," Moody's report said.

PWC officials clearly did not like what they were seeing, but they refused to comment on the reasons for their exit. Mitchell puts the decision in context:

The firm's decision came at the same time FBI agents subpoenaed records from Beasley Denson, the tribe's chief, who in recent days has been kicking off his re-election campaign in various Choctaw communities. His office would not comment.

The FBI already has seized hard drives and documents from the tribe's casinos at the Pearl River Resort near Philadelphia.

Denson told The Clarion-Ledger last month that the FBI warrants from that July 12 raid named both the Atlanta-based Mercury Gaming Group and its marketing arm, the Titan Agency.

Mercury is run by Doug Pattison, who was hired in December 1999 as CEO of the Silver Star Casino. Securities and Exchange documents show the tribe gave him a five-year contract, paying him $400,000 a year, a $40,000 relocation fee and benefits, including the free use of a car.

Financial arrangements between Pattison and tribal chief Beasley Denson are murky--and seemingly of serious interest from the FBI:

During his tenure, Pattison has said he brought the casino more than $250 million in revenue. Two years later, the tribe fired him, giving him nearly $1 million in severance pay, bonuses and vacation money, according to SEC documents.

Those documents list no reason for his firing, but one witness told the FBI that when tribal officials told Pattison to leave, he vowed to return and "bleed the casinos dry."

After Denson was elected chief in 2007, one of his first acts was hiring back Pattison, who heads the Mercury Gaming Group.

In February, Denson raised Pattison's pay from $60,000 a month to more than $200,000 a month. Denson told The Clarion-Ledger the raise took place because Pattison was helping the tribe with its new Bok Homa Casino.

The Choctaws will elect a new tribal leader on September 6, with Denson, Phyliss Anderson, and Shirley Berg in the race. Berg was a surprise late entry, and she seems to sense that the tribe is in deep trouble:

Asked what made her decide to run, Berg replied, "Different reasons," but did not specify.

She later released a statement, saying recent events have brought into question "the stability of our tribal government and, more specifically, the tribe's financial status. ... There is a need for a leader who is trustworthy and has integrity to lead the tribe into the future. ... My vision is to empower the tribe's legacy of self-determination, bringing the voice of the people back into tribal government."

Anderson says when she takes office, she will cancel tribe contracts with Mercury and Titan.

The last few months "have been difficult for our tribal people," she said in a statement. "With an overturned election, FBI raid and downgrade of the tribe's bonds, we have some serious challenges to overcome, no doubt."

She blamed what has happened on "the failed leadership of the current administration."

Did Bob Riley take directions from that failed administration? Alabamians should demand answers to that troubling question.

A Single-Payer Health System Is the Answer to Our Debt Woes

Political news has been dominated in recent months by debate about a "debt crisis" in the United States. Two leading newspapers now say the solution to our debt issues is apparent and relatively simple. But do the American people, and our leaders, have the will to see it through?

The answer, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an editorial dated August 10, is a single-payer health system. The Charleston Gazette, in the capital city of West Virginia, followed up with a similar editorial on August 16.

If the editorial boards of two newspapers get it, why can't we say the same for leaders of our two political parties? The Post-Dispatch hints at the answer to that question:

If America truly is serious about dealing with its deficit problems, there's a fairly simple solution. But you're probably not going to like it: Enact a single-payer health care plan. See, we told you that you weren't going to like it.

Why does the P-D assume that people aren't going to like it? Probably because it knows that conservatives will portray single payer as a "big-government solution," and Democrats don't have the stomach to counter that narrative. Also, understanding the need for single payer requires coming to grips with some facts. And many Americans are too lazy to do that. The P-D lays it out in clear terms:

Everyone who has studied the deficit problem has agreed that it's actually a health care problem — more specifically, the cost of providing Medicare benefits to an aging and longer-living population. The bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform reported last December: "The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects if we continue on our current course, deficits will remain high throughout the rest of this decade and beyond, and debt will spiral ever higher, reaching 90 percent of GDP in 2020.

"Over the long run, as the baby boomers retire and health care costs continue to grow, the situation will become far worse. By 2025 revenue will be able to finance only interest payments, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Every other federal government activity — from national defense and homeland security to transportation and energy — will have to be paid for with borrowed money."

What to do? The P-D lays out the options--and they aren't all that hard to understand:

That being the case — and nobody argues that it isn't — there are two broad ways for the government to address its spiraling health care costs. One, shift more of those costs to recipients, by trimming benefits and/or extending eligibility ages and indexing eligibility to personal income. This is politically unpalatable, particularly to most Democrats, President Barack Obama being a conspicuous exception.

The second way for government to address its health costs is not to shift them, but to reduce them. This is what a single-payer health care system would do, largely by taking the for-profit players (insurance companies for the most part) out of the loop.

Removing the for-profit players, of course, will bring howls of protest from their lobbyists. And that means we will continue to be held hostage by Big Insurance:

The advocacy group Physicians for a National Health Program estimates that "private insurance bureaucracy and paperwork consume one-third (31 percent) of every health care dollar. Streamlining payment through a single nonprofit payer would save more than $400 billion per year, enough to provide comprehensive, high-quality coverage for all Americans."

Once everyone is covered, the government would have the clout to bring discipline into the wild west of health care spending. It could insist that providers be paid for quality of service, not quantity. Health facilities and equipment could be managed by regional boards. Medical services could be "bundled" — rather than paying hospitals and doctors and laboratories separately, there would be fixed prices for treatments. And so on.

The Charleston Gazette notes that the Obama health-reform law is facing court challenges--and that could prove to be a good thing:

Some federal courts are ruling that America's breakthrough 2010 medical reform is kaput because government cannot force people to pay for health insurance. (Governments force people to buy car insurance. What's the difference?)

If the historic reform eventually is killed, we hope it leads to a better alternative. We hope America finally joins other advanced democracies by adopting a government-run "single-payer" universal health plan covering every citizen.

The Gazette provides additional insights into the causes of our debt problems:

America's federal debt nightmare has three obvious causes: (1) The gigantic U.S. military and foreign invasions that gobble $1 trillion per year. (2) Huge Republican tax giveaways to the high-bracket elite. (3) Snowballing Medicare and Medicaid expense as America's population ages.

Regarding the latter, enormous savings could be gained if America switched to a single-payer system. It would eliminate waste by commercial insurance firms, whose large staffs try to avoid paying medical bills. It also would extend medical insurance to millions of "working poor" families who lack it.

ObamaCare certainly is a step in the right direction. But the Gazette says it doesn't go far enough:

President Obama's 2010 reform compromised with many special interests and did a halfway job, extending coverage to 33 million more Americans. A complete single-payer plan would finish the crusade.

Oddly, conservatives who scream loudest about federal deficits also vow to destroy the 2010 U.S. medical reform. They would dump the 33 million Americans into jeopardy.

Most modern democracies have decided that health care is a human right, available to all. America should join them -- and save $400 billion a year in the process.

It will take an informed public, and leaders with spine, to get it done. Sadly, those qualities seem to be in short supply these days.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Did Someone Gun Down This Alabama Lawyer?

Blake Lazenby

An Alabama lawyer was embroiled in his own contentious divorce case at the time he was murdered three weeks ago.

Robert Blake Lazenby, in fact, was involved in several hot-button legal cases when he died from multiple gunshot wounds. Did one of those cases contribute to his death?  A review of public documents indicates the answer probably is yes.

The divorce case jumps out because records hint that at least two state judges were ruling in a biased fashion, favoring a lawyer over his wife--and multiple other lawyers had to know about it. That raises this question: Did our state's corrupt legal cartel finally push the wrong person too far, leading to the violent death of a party in a lawsuit? We would not be surprised if the answer is yes.

If our guess is on target, which case might have sparked deadly emotions? That remains unclear, but this much seems clear: Someone was very unhappy with Blake Lazenby--and Lazenby's life was not nearly as tidy as his legal colleagues would have you believe.

Lazenby, 54, was a partner in Thornton, Carpenter, O'Brien, Lazenby and Lawrence, one of the most prestigious firms in Talladega. A Web search indicates its a general-practice firm, with a focus on Real Estate, Probate, Trusts and Estates, Corporate, Banking, Municipal Law, Personal Injury, Insurance Law, Workers Compensation, Family Law, Employment Law, Medical Malpractice Defense, and Products Liability.

A prominent figure on the statewide legal scene, Lazenby had been a member of the Alabama State Bar's Board of Bar Commissioners in the 1990s. He joined the bar's disciplinary commission in 2000 and served as its chairman in 2003.

The Lazenbys had one child, a daughter named Madeline, and it appears that custody was not a major issue in the divorce case. Blake Lazenby's obituary lists his mother and daughter as survivors, with no mention of his wife--even though the divorce was not final.

The Lazenby murder case began to unfold on July 27 when law-enforcement officials discovered a burning vehicle in Tarrant, a working-class suburb of Birmingham. Tarrant authorities ran a check on the vehicle's license number and then contacted the police department in Sylacauga, where Lazenby lived. Officers went to Lazenby's home and found his body in the dining room. From the Talladega Daily Home:

Talladega County Coroner Shaddix Murphy said he received a call around 11:15 p.m. (on July 27). He arrived at the scene and pronounced Lazenby dead at approximately 11:45 p.m.

Murphy said multiple gunshot wounds appeared to be the cause of death. He also said it appeared the weapon used was a handgun, which was not found at the scene. . . .

Lazenby was reportedly last seen dropping off friends in Alexander City around 4 p.m., and then at a gas station on Alabama 21 in Sylacauga around 5:30 p.m.

Murphy said they found Lazenby in his dining room, wearing a suit and tie. No one else was home when he was found.

The Talladega newspaper reported six days ago that an investigation is ongoing and no new details have been released.

Friends and professional colleagues described Lazenby as a nice guy and top-notch lawyer:

Mike O’Brien, who worked alongside Lazenby for 30 years, described him as a great person and attorney. He said Lazenby was probably the nicest person he had ever met.

“If you needed anything, and he could help you with it, then he would do it for you,” O’Brien said. “Our profession is such an adversarial profession at times; it is just the nature of the business. But even in those situations, he was always nice to the opposing parties and a gentleman.”

Public documents, however, show that Lazenby's life had an element of disarray. He had about 10 speeding tickets on his record and twice was arrested for driving under the influence and driving with an open container. At the time of his death, Lazenby's most recent DUI was due to be heard in court on August 2.

Lazenby was serving as lead counsel for the City of Sylacauga in a lawsuit against REEF Environmental LLC. The complaint alleges that foul-smelling emissions are coming from the company's wastewater treatment facility.

Perhaps the most contentious and personal matter on Lazenby's plate, however, was a divorce case filed by his wife, Geanne Elder Lazenby. The complaint is dated October 24, 2008, and public records indicate the case had become rancorous in recent months.

At least four judges had been involved in the matter, and Geanne Lazenby had gone through a "Who's Who" of divorce lawyers from the Birmingham area. Plaintiffs' lawyers at various times included Mavanee Bear, Charles Gorham, Bruce Gordon, Gregory Yaghmi, and Kristel N. Reed. Documents indicate that several of Geanne Lazenby's lawyers quit or were fired. I've had experience with that kind of thing, and while it can be a sign of a difficult client, it also can mean the client is tough and smart enough to know she is being screwed--and the lawyers are unable, or unwilling, to fight the legal cartel.

Blake Lazenby, the defendant, also was pulling out the heavy artillery, including his law partner William W. Lawrence and A. Joe Peddy, of the Birmingham firm Smith Spires and Peddy. The Smith firm's Web site indicates it does not practice family law, and Peddy's individual page does not list divorce cases among his areas of interest. Why, then, was Peddy involved in the Lazenby case?

Based on our research, it is standard practice for a judge to recuse himself from a divorce case involving a lawyer who regularly appears before the court. It's clear that Blake Lazenby regularly appeared before the Talladega County Court, and his firm practices family law, presumably before Talladega judges. That means lawyers from Lazenby's firms routinely were before local judges on divorce matters. One can see why Geanne Elder Lazenby was concerned about receiving fair treatment in court.

District Judge Jeb Fannin almost certainly was required by law to step down from the Lazenby case. So why did he not do it? In 2011 alone, lawyers for Geanne Lazenby had filed two motions to recuse. Fannin, however, remained on the case at the time of Blake Lazenby's death.

What exactly was going on in Lazenby v. Lazenby over recent months? We will examine that question closely in upcoming posts. But a few key issues are clear:

* Settlement Dispute--Blake Lazenby was trying to enforce a settlement agreement that his wife claimed was invalid.

* Subpoena Power--Blake Lazenby's attorneys, specifically A. Joe Peddy, filed subpoenas seeking documents that seemed only tangential, at best, to issues in the divorce case. One of the subpoenas sought information about an individual who, on paper, appeared to have nothing to do with divorce matters. What was the purpose of these subpoenas?

* Recusal Rift--This was a dominant theme in the case. Based on the facts and law in the case, Judge Fannin almost certainly should have recused himself without being asked. Multiple lawyers for the plaintiff filed motions asking Fannin to step down and ask the Alabama Supreme Court to appoint a judge from outside Talladega County.

The Lazenby v. Lazenby file is filled with examples of curious timing. Consider this one: One of Fannin's most recent rulings involved three plaintiff motions, including a motion to recuse. Fannin denied all three motions, indicating that he intended to stay on the case for the foreseeable future--no matter what recusal law says.

Fannin's order was dated July 21, 2011. Six days later, Blake Lazenby was found dead.

(To be continued)

Below is a recusal motion filed by one of Geanne Lazenby's attorneys in January of this year.

Blake Lazenby Case--Motion to Recuse

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Obama Justice Department Wants a Second Dose of Humiliation in Alabama Bingo Trial

Teresa Tolbert

Federal prosecutors apparently intend to retry the Alabama bingo case, even though a juror in the first trial said the panel voted overwhelmingly to acquit across the board.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson yesterday set the second trial for October 3. Prosecutors are proposing three separate trials this time, even though they opposed defense requests for separate trials earlier. The first trial ended last week with full acquittals for two defendants and a mix of not guilty and no decision for the other seven defendants.

What to make of all this? A leading legal commentator says GOP felon Jack Abramoff maintains an ugly grip on Alabama politics. And in a twisted piece of irony, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) seems to be supporting Abramoff-style skulduggery.

A reasonable person might expect federal prosecutors to be dissuaded by the fact that jurors in the first trial voted 8 to 4 for across-the-board acquittals. But that reasonable person would be wrong. One can only wonder what Obama attorney general Eric Holder is thinking--or if he is thinking at all.

One round of humiliation apparently is not enough for the Obama Justice Department. They want more. An expensive second federal trial, on charges that clearly are driven by Republican politics, would come as the president is being attacked for excessive spending . . . by Republicans.

Raise your hand if the DOJ's actions make zero sense to you. Raise your hand if you hope that a genuine progressive runs a primary campaign against the incredible shrinking Democrat in the White House. (Both of my hands are up.)

Scott Horton, legal-affairs contributor at Harper's, says the Alabama bingo case is the DOJ's "highest-profile political litigation since its botched prosecution of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens." How bad does the Obama DOJ look in all of this? Horton lays it out in a piece titled "Justice Department Rolls Snake Eyes in Alabama Gambling Trial." Writes Horton:

The prosecution showed Justice to be firmly aligned with Alabama’s then-governor, Republican Bob Riley, who had leveled the initial vote-buying accusations during a heated election-time political debate over gambling issues. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer touted the case against the Alabama politicians as “astonishing” when he announced the arrests. The jury, however, turned out to be quite unimpressed with the evidence offered.

How unimpressed were the jurors? Teresa Tolbert, a rural mail carrier who spent 10 weeks serving on the bingo jury, said it would have been hard for jurors to be more unimpressed:

In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Teresa Tolbert said she was among those favoring acquittal on all charges. She said federal prosecutor Justin Shur told the jury in his opening statement that wiretapped phone calls and secretly recorded meetings would tell a story of greed and corruption at the Alabama Legislature, but the tapes never lived up to his billing.

"From the very beginning when we were listening to the tapes, I was like, 'Surely this can't be all they have.' I kept waiting and waiting," she said.

Prosecution witnesses were almost as ineffective as the tapes, Tolbert said, and she predicted it would be difficult to get a conviction in a retrial:

(Tolbert) said three people who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution -- Country Crossing casino developer Ronnie Gilley and his lobbyists, Jarrod Massey and Jennifer Pouncy -- lacked credibility. Gilley and Massey came across as arrogant rather than repentant about their admitted law breaking, she said.

She recalled one moment in Gilley's testimony that damaged his credibility.

"One of the jaw-dropping moments in his testimony was when he said some powerful Democrats wanted him to run for governor, but he couldn't remember who," she said.

Three Republican legislators who assisted the FBI did not fare any better, in Tolbert's eyes:

Tollbert said three Republican legislators who helped the FBI with its investigation -- Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale, Rep. Barry Mask of Wetumpka and former Rep. Benjamin Lewis of Dothan -- "had obvious political motivations."

In the trial, the jury heard portions of a tape recording Beason made in a private meeting with Republican legislators where they talked about strategy for the 2010 election, when the Republican Party was trying to gain control of the Legislature. The jury heard one snippet where the Republicans discussed how the gambling legislation would go on the November 2010 ballot if approved by the Legislature and that would bring out more Democrat-leaning black voters, who favored gambling, and would hinder the GOP's efforts.

The legislation didn't go on the ballot, and the GOP won control of the Legislature.

Tolbert, who served as the jury's computer operator during deliberations, said the panel listened to Beason's entire two-hour tape during the deliberations, and it persuaded them that politics was involved in the case.

"Is there anybody in Alabama who doesn't think that?" she said.

Isn't it interesting that an everyday American can easily spot a political prosecution, but brainiacs in the Obama administration apparently cannot?

That's not to say that it will be impossible for the feds to get convictions the second time around. After getting a much closer view of our "justice system" than I ever wanted over the past 10 years, I am convinced that juries can easily be fixed. In our system, all it takes is one tainted juror to befoul a trial. And in low-profile cases, I suspect many jurors can be swayed by a "plant," caving in just to rid themselves of jury duty and get back home.

The "plant," I suspect, can be particularly effective if he or she is the foreman. In fact, I'm not convinced that the first bingo jury was 100 percent pure. Tolbert reveals that the jury's only man was the foreman--and I find that curious. I've talked over the years with a number of friends who served on juries, and every one of them said that no one wanted to serve as foreman. One friend told me that he finally volunteered to do it after everyone else made it clear they wanted no part of the job.

Here is Tolbert's explanation of the foreman selection:

"He had to spend all summer with 16 women. We had to give the poor guy something."

I like Teresa Tolbert. She sounds like the kind of thoughtful, sensible, down-to-earth person I would want on my jury--if I had to have one. She also sounds fundamentally honest, and her quote reveals something unusual about the jury foreman--at least to my ears. It indicates that the lone male on the jury wanted to be the foreman. If the others "gave" the position to him, seemingly as a reward, that tells me that he wanted it. And my informal research indicates its very unusual for someone to actually want the foreman's job.

Did the foreman vote to convict? I would bet the mortgage that the answer is yes. Did the foreman manage to sway three others to vote his way, with all of them refusing to budge? Again, I would bet the answer is yes. Did the foreman and his allies pretty much ensure that the jury would hang on some counts, against some defendants? Hmmmm.

Do my suspicions mean the foreman was tainted or that he did anything improper? Of course not. In fact, I don't know how he voted at all. But I have observed more than one jury in recent years--one in a case involving me, one where I was an observer--and neither case came even close to being decided correctly, based on the facts and the law. To be blunt, both jury decisions were flat-out stupid and did not even meet the common-sense test. I do not believe the jurors, as individuals, were stupid. But I did come away with a strong suspicion that juries can be manipulated. And my guess is that it happens way more than most of us would ever dream.

A tainted jury might be the prosecution's only chance for convictions the second time around. Maybe that's what they are counting on. Scott Horton, for one, seems surprised that prosecutors would want to wade into this swamp a second time:

While prosecutors are free to retry the defendants who were not fully acquitted, the acquittals will greatly complicate that process, and the poor result with the first jury suggests that the effort might yield even more embarrassing results.

How nasty is the swamp? Horton gets to the big picture, noting that the Alabama bingo controversy is driven largely by actions connected to GOP felon Jack Abramoff. In a sense, the Obama DOJ is siding with the Abramoff crowd. That truly is a mind-boggling prospect. But Horton spells out the pro-bingo perspective in Alabama, and shows that the DOJ's pro-Abramoff slant is real:

The defendants did not deny that the Alabama bingo industry had mounted an intense lobbying effort, but they argued that the real conflict was between Alabama’s homegrown gambling industry and Mississippi’s Indian-casino gambling industry, which has thrived in part by luring Alabamans across the state line. The Choctaw, the primary tribe involved in Mississippi Indian casino gambling, were aggressively represented by Republican campaign consultant Jack Abramoff, who enlisted a number of prominent Republican officeholders in his efforts. Abramoff, you might recall, was released from prison last summer after serving three and a half years of a six-year sentence for mail fraud and conspiracy; one of his principal business partners, Michael Scanlon, Bob Riley’s former press secretary, was sentenced to 20 months for his role in the Abramoff operations this February.

Abramoff exercised a suspicious amount of influence on the Justice Department in all of his dealings, including in his work on behalf of the Choctaw. In one prime example, the tribe was assisted in procuring funds for a new jail by a senior Justice official whom Abramoff had given valuable perks. While the Choctaw were being represented by Abramoff, they also funneled at least $13 million into Riley’s 2002 election campaign. The suppression of the Alabama bingo gambling industry, and the Justice Department’s prosecution of those associated with it, greatly benefited Mississippi’s Indian casino gambling operations by putting their principal competition out of business. In a sense, therefore, the bingo prosecution forms a coda to the tale of “Casino Jack” Abramoff, with the Justice Department playing a murky and controversial ongoing role.