No Comment — February 1, 2008, 1:42 pm

Another Election Season, Another Political Prosecution in Alabama

The morning calm in the small Alabama town of Toney, located near Huntsville, was broken at 6:15 a.m. yesterday morning. A team of five FBI agents, accompanied by a prison matron, pounded on the door. When the man of the house answered, he was forced into the yard, shirtless in the early morning cold. The team had come for his wife, Sue Schmitz. She was dragged out of her bathroom, where she was taking a shower, handcuffed, breaking her flesh and scraping her wrists, and hustled off to prison.

Who was this threat to the community? Sue Schmitz is a diminutive, 63-year-old retired social studies teacher who has lived in the town for 38 years, roughly 20 of them as a civics teacher. She is loved in the community and among her students is legendary for her passion for civics and her outreach to the disadvantaged. The dream of her life was to let the fire of civic spirit catch on in communities and among families on the margin of society, where the danger of drug abuse and criminality are the highest. She dedicated her life to it. She launched a program called “We the People,” designed to build civic spirit and interest in participatory democracy among school children. And Sue Schmitz’s advocacy of civic engagement led directly to her conflict with U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, who considers it to be criminal. But one other fact figures directly in this drama. Schmitz is a Democratic member of the state legislature.

The Alabama G.O.P. is busy revving up its plans for the fall elections, and today gives us a unique opportunity to see its various limbs moving in perfect concert. The party’s objective is to take control of the state legislature. The party’s leader, Governor Bob Riley, announced that if he can raise $7 million, the party can take control of the legislature in 2010. Riley is busy mustering every tool at his disposal to accomplish that goal. That, of course, is all politics as usual–the sort of thing that goes on in states in every corner of the country. But there’s something exceedingly rotten in Alabama. And it’s revealed when we take careful stock of how Governor Riley and his party go about implementing their plans.

First, where do we read about this? On the editorial page of one of the three Newhouse newspapers that have a lock on the state’s print media market, and which operate as the press service of the Republican Party. The Mobile Press-Register, which otherwise publishes fawning pieces about Governor Riley’s cowboy boots and describes Karl Rove as a persecuted genius, now tells us that the G.O.P.’s plan to “take control of the legislature” (their words) is a wonderful idea. Indeed, it gets the official seal of approval of the paper. You can read this on line at the Press-Register’s website, but why not read it at the website of the Alabama G.O.P.? After all, they are all part of the same operation. Why bother maintaining the pretense of independence?

Here’s the core of their story:

Most Republicans are advocates of reform, perhaps because they’ve been on the outside looking in at a deeply entrenched system. The Democratic Party has controlled the Legislature for more than a century. That kind of political dominance breeds complacency, cynicism and corruption.

Got that? Republicans = reform. Democrats = corrupt. No need to deal with individuals and their record of service. No need in fact to actually explore any political issues, like education or taxation. That would just confuse your poor, tired mind. The labels are all you need to know.

Let’s keep in mind that the state government is in the hands of the G.O.P., and the legislature in theory provides oversight. What happens to the process of oversight when the executive and legislature are in the hands of the same party? I think we all know the answer to that: corruption. Voters often exercise just the kind of wisdom that the Founding Fathers envisioned by providing for opposing parties to live in an uncomfortable cohabitation. Uncomfortable for the politicians, that is. For those concerned about the hoggishness at the public trough that inevitably accompanies one-party crony rule, it can be the best solution. So when the Press-Register writes about “corruption” and “reform,” just remember that they mean those terms in the Orwellian sense.

The last several years have seen an explosion of no-bid state contracts in Alabama in which cronies of Governor Bob Riley are involved. What happens when newspaper reporters in Montgomery submit stories about these scandals to the three Newhouse newspapers? Alas, I’ve tracked that process, too. The stories don’t run and the reporters get chided. The Press-Register is absolutely right. There is a culture of “deeply entrenched” corruption in Alabama, and they’re a significant part of it. But for the Press-Register the seat of corruption lies not there, but in the Alabama Education Association, the organization that represents school teachers. Why? Because the AEA has crusaded for improvements to the state’s secondary education system, and has backed the Democrats, who generally support spending more money on education. You’d think a newspaper would favor reducing the state’s illiteracy rate, but you’d be wrong. After all, this is Alabama.

So the G.O.P.-loyal newspapers lead the charge into the campaign, calling for voter contributions to G.O.P. coffers to fund taking over the legislature. And they also crank out political propaganda for the G.O.P. in the form of stories that pass for news coverage. At the core of this is the work of the Riley Administration’s court chronicler, Brett Blackledge at the Birmingham News. Blackledge has earned his stripes with a crusade looking into Alabama’s two-year college system, where he is fearlessly rooting out corruption. Funny how everything he writes is perfectly choreographed with Governor Riley’s themes of the week and seems seamlessly joined with criminal investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney, about which Blackledge is impeccably well informed. And strange that his investigation of the two-year college system neglects to mention that Governor Riley ran it.

Still all of this pales in comparison with the single most wondrous fact about the Blackledge reportage–only Democrats ever figure in the crosshairs. Mind you, there’s probably no shortage of corruption in this college system, feather bedding and the like. No shortage of allegations have come to me, Blackledge and the U.S. Attorney’s office concerning corruption. A great many of them involve figures connected to Governor Riley and the G.O.P. But, alas, there doesn’t seem to be enough ink or newsprint to allow Blackledge to write about those cases. Or perhaps there’s another reason. It would be what my politico friends call “off message.”

And today we see the typical pincer movement involving the Alabama G.O.P. election campaign’s third arm, the U.S. Attorney’s office. Specifically, Alice Martin, the sometime U.S. Attorney, sometime G.O.P. candidate for elective office. Martin fully understands the benefit to the party and its election efforts of criminal prosecutions being commenced that target elected Democrats, are geared carefully to the election cycle, and are hyped extensively to the party media apparatus. And yesterday, as Sue Schmitz was dramatically dragged from her home in Toney, Alice Martin went before the press with an announcement which will feature prominently in Republican campaign literature for the coming years. She announced an indictment that Blackledge signaled, with his usual perfect clairvoyance in all things prosecutorial, was in the works months back.

Sue Schmitz’s day was dramatically interrupted by her arrest. She had never before had a conflict with the law in any way. And yesterday morning, she had just been preparing to take a group of school kids from underprivileged backgrounds on a tour of the state capital, Montgomery. Here’s how the AP reports the story:

“We charge that Representative Schmitz’s only substantial ‘work’ was to work her official position in the Legislature to land a job through the postsecondary system,” U.S. Attorney Alice Martin said in a statement.

Schmitz was employed from January 2006 until October 2006 by the CITY Skills Training Consortium, an arm of Alabama’s troubled two-year college system. The federally funded program operated at 10 sites statewide to help at-risk youth referred by juvenile courts develop academic, behavioral and social skills. The indictment claims Schmitz made as much as $53,403 annually as a program coordinator despite rarely showing up and doing virtually nothing for the money.

Let’s just pause and look at what’s going on here. A massive federal case has been launched, at a likely taxpayer cost in excess of $2 million, against a social studies teacher, who it is alleged (on the basis of sharply disputed evidence) was not putting in as many hours as she should have in teaching her classes. This has to count as one of the more absurd (if not malicious) cases I’ve seen in recent years. And remember, this is a Justice Department that can’t spare an FBI agent to look into, or a prosecutor to handle, a gang rape case involving Jamie Leigh Jones, or any of the dozens of other cases involving rape, assault and homicide in Iraq. They’re not “priorities.” On the other hand, bringing charges against Democratic office holders has been a very high priority from the day Bush took office, and it continues to be so today.

More than this, note how party connections flavor the U.S. Attorney’s interest in cases of feather bedding. Recall that a Missouri criminal attorney conducted a detailed investigation into the service of Mark Everett Fuller as District Attorney in Coffee and Pike Counties. His study, presented in a sworn affidavit and backed up with documentation, showed that Fuller was an absentee district attorney. He drew his salary for the job, but he spent his time out of state, largely in Colorado, attending to the business that he owns and operated and which continues to provide most of his income–Doss Aviation. The affidavit was submitted to the U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department. No investigation of its allegations occurred. The allegations of “feather bedding” in the case involving this Republican official were many times greater than the one charged against Schmitz. But what happened? Nothing. The U.S. attorney was not interested. As a prosecutor told Time’s Adam Zagorin, different rules apply with respect to the “home team.” Fuller went on to be the judge designated to handle the highest profile political prosecution in the country, involving former Governor Siegelman. Now we’re seeing more evidence of the two distinct flavors of justice dispensed by Republican prosecutors in Alabama: one marked with a “D” and the other with a “R.”

U.S. Attorney Martin seems to have a problem with the truth. She’s currently under investigation for giving perjured testimony in connection with an employment litigation. I lay out the details of the accusations against her, which are quite compelling, here. However, Martin serves at the pleasure of the president, and, as comedian Jon Stewart would say, it clearly pleasures him for her to continue to serve. And it pleasures Karl Rove and the G.O.P. state organizers even more.

“My client is a wonderful, dedicated educator. It’s been her life’s work. These charges are garbage,” said her attorney Buck Watson. He also noted that he had advised the U.S. Attorney that if they decided to indict his client, she would come in on her own, and he would handle it–an offer spurned in favor of the heavy-handed arrest squad. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s bizarre.” I spoke with several of Schmitz’s colleagues, who were shocked by the charges. And it’s spreading a message of cold fear in the community. Others with whom I communicated were afraid to have their names appear in print. “This is a political vendetta. Anyone who objects to what they’re doing will become a target,” one teacher told me.

So why would a federal prosecutor put such tremendous resources into arresting and prosecuting a retired social studies teacher? Schmitz is an irresistible target. She’s a Democratic member of the state legislature. Note how Alice Martin’s loudly trumpeted indictment works in a perfect trifecta:

• The battle plan rolled out to retake the legislature, announcing “corrupt Democrats” as the target

• The Newhouse papers run the call to arms and funds, and print a sequence of stories designed to make it all credible

• The U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham announces the indictment of a “corrupt Democrat” retired school teacher.

And today, as expected we see stories in the Newhouse papers announcing the indictment, with predictably tendentious commentary. All of this is geared at helping smooth the way for a successful prosecution, and more to the point, a successful Republican takeover of the state legislature. It is a pattern that Alabama has witnessed over and again in the last six years.

The charges against Schmitz will of course have to be proved in a court. And whether they are meritorious or not, Schmitz will be put to hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal expense and is having her reputation tarnished, all courtesy of the taxpayers. Whether the charges stand or fall, all of this activity has one clear-cut beneficiary: the Alabama G.O.P. and its plans “to take control of” the state legislature. Funny, but the ballot box doesn’t figure very prominently in that effort.

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