No Comment — March 14, 2008, 10:15 am

Crazy in Alabama

The Imminent Threat Posed by Teachers
Much as the conduct of prosecutors in New York has captured the national imagination, conditions in Alabama are far more interesting and worthy of critical study. There, as readers of the Birmingham News know, the imminent threat to the safety of the state is posed by junior college teachers who underperform their teaching plans, especially if they happen to be Democratic members of the state legislature.

U.S. Attorney Alice Martin continues her massive frontal assault on the legislature’s Democrats, using issues surrounding the two-year college system as a pretext. As noted on the weekend, she last dispatched marshals with film crews to attempt to serve subpoenas on the floor of the state legislature—an act which would have been crime had it not been blocked.

Now we see the newspaper which has been developing the case in tandem with U.S. Attorney Martin editorialize about it. The Birmingham News states that it’s fed up with the criticism of the Birmingham News, and can’t stand it any more:

Frankly, we’ve had enough of people covering up, feigning surprise and trying to divert blame elsewhere. We’ve heard enough from people claiming the two-year college scandal is a conspiracy concocted to eliminate Democrats in the Legislature.

The truth is plain enough. There are corruption problems with the two-year college system, just as there are problems with nearly every aspect of the state’s bureaucracy. But this piece has been targeted and developed as part of a cleverly maintained political campaign, with the Birmingham News smack in the center of it. The News’s own editorial provides more proof. And so does its reporting in the following days.

The big day with the grand jury went nowhere in the end, as nine of the subpoenaed legislators were dismissed. As the AP reported:

Birmingham attorney Doug Jones, who represents at least six of the subpoenaed lawmakers, said Friday he has advised his clients not to immediately appear before the grand jury. “My position is and has been that I don’t think these people should go in there,” Jones said. He said he’s worried that witnesses will be badgered before the grand jury.

“There is no burden for these people to prove they are innocent,” said Jones, a former U.S. Attorney.

Jones does what any sensible lawyer would do. These developments demonstrated the thinness and lack of preparation of Martin’s case in a dramatic fashion. She had not done the basic spade work of contacting and interviewing the legislators or of working out the terms of which they would speak. Instead she plowed ahead into a major media-driven event, and it fizzled into nothing.

Lawyers turned to alternate media to relate that it was a wild fishing expedition. By their account, prosecutors had no basis to bring many of the legislators in and no focused questions about anything. Their strategy was to spotlight and embarrass every Democrat in the legislature who had a connection of some sort with a junior college by bringing them before the grand jury. And this abusive strategy was facilitated by the Advance newspapers, which fanned wild allegations in a manner which reminds of the subpoena hysteria of the mid-fifties. The most interesting account appeared this week in a local internet political forum:

It’s a little odd how this grand jury is being conducted. They didn’t interview anybody. Like you said in your blog, they didn’t ask anybody to come in. They served them with subpoenas.

They subpoenaed everybody in the legislature that had had any economic interest in the two-year system. But they don’t appear to have an evidentiary trail on any of them. Their bosses are represented by Post Secondary Education. Post Secondary Education would have the contracts, the information about hiring, but the Justice Department doesn’t appear to have any of that. If I were doing it, I would not have subpoenaed legislators to the grand jury without an evidentiary trail.

It looks like a fishing expedition, and they could gather information without embarrassing people. There are substantive concerns they should be investigating. I want to draw a distinction between their legitimate interest in gathering information and the way in which it’s conducted. It has appeared to be about maximum public damage. The media was tipped off so they could be there [when the subpoenas were served]. Most of the time with something like this, you call somebody’s lawyer, set it up, and they arrange a time to come in. These people would have come in.

There are two agendas at work. Some in the Justice office are badly partisan, and believe that anything you can do to embarrass someone gives you an advantage. Others in the division of labor are working the case, trying to do a good job, but they appear to lack both history and first-hand and documentary information.

So U.S. Attorney Martin storms the statehouse with marshals and television camera, disrupts the work of the legislature requiring a large part of its membership to attend grand jury proceedings. And it turns out she doesn’t really even have any questions for them. She was not preparing a careful prosecution, she was engaging in political grandstanding.

And how does the Birmingham News account for this? Evidently it’s all just a scheduling misunderstanding. In the News reporting, the legislators dragged up and then told “sorry” just ran into a scheduling backlog and “will not appear this week.”

Moreover, as usual, the Birmingham News presents the inside scoop. You don’t need to be a fly inside the grand jury room. You just need to pick up the News to read all about it. So in the pages of the News one learns that Alice Martin is focused on a “discretionary fund,” and then details of the U.S. Attorney probe emerge, as usual, from the mouth of G.O.P. Senator and presumptive gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne. It’s the usual trifecta, with the usual participants.

Interestingly, the independent press, national press, and the New York Times’s own regional bureau in Alabama are clearly emerging with a strikingly different take on things from the Advance newspapers, which wallow in their own delusional universe.

Who is Alice Martin?
A good example comes in a piece by Bob Martin, the dean of the independent journalists in Alabama. He takes a look at Alice Martin and her lightning strike on the legislature on Thursday.

(Update, April 22, 2008: Harper’s was informed on April 17, 2008 that the perjury investigation against Alice Martin was concluded on November 28, 2007, with a finding by the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility that Alice Martin “did not commit professional misconduct or exercise poor judgment.” More information on the OPR’s findings is available on this site.)

Thursday is named for Thor, the red-haired and bearded god of thunder in Germanic paganism. Has Thor become the mark of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Alice Martin? It certainly appears that way. Martin leads the way in the demonization of educator-legislators in Alabama with loud claps of thunder on Thursday, her favorite day to strike with the hammer of the U.S. Department of Justice in her hands in an attempt to interfere with the political process in our state.

This past Thursday her law enforcement surrogates appeared at the State House in Montgomery and tried to force their way into the legislative chambers to serve subpoenas while the legislature was in session. Notwithstanding what you think about the recipients of her attacks or their politics — they are primarily Democrats with a couple of token Republicans thrown in — these people are the legislative representatives of our state and they clearly have the right to serve under all the laws of Alabama and the United States. If this were 1861 the second war against federal aggression would have already started.

He also gives a brief bio of the U.S. attorney handling the case, Alice Martin. The hallmark of her career has been, he concludes, venomous political partisanship:

Martin was appointed city judge in the early 1990s and was later appointed as a circuit judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit by Gov. Fob James. She replaced Judge Don Patterson, a Democrat, who died. (Her federal court bio lists it as the 21st Judicial Circuit, which is incorrect). She ran for the position at the following election on the Republican ticket, spending over $100,000, but was soundly defeated by the Democratic nominee.

Martin was next appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District by President Bush at the behest of her sponsors, Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby. She still lives on Shoals Creek near Florence. Martin’s career as a prosecutor has been checkered. She is currently under investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility of the Department of Justice for lying under oath in an employment discrimination case – perjury, if you will. The matter has not been resolved, and my sources in Washington tell me it is being “slow-walked” to keep her in office to continue to disrupt the Democrats.

Although she has had some success as a U.S. Attorney, she botched the first prosecution of Siegelman and Scrushy, and her attempted interference in the second case nearly wrecked it. My sources in Florence tell me she is a very angry person who has an agenda against all Democrats.

Evidence of a Republican Cabal?
So was there a high-level Republican cabal to “get” Siegelman? Karl Rove has ridiculed this claim as tin-hatted lunacy. Yesterday, the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein had this to say:

A new review of evidence suggests that an aligned group of Republican interests were pressing for — and seeking to profit financially from — the trial of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman on charges of bribery. According to court documents and official testimony, months before Siegelman was charged, Rob Riley, the son of the state’s governor, expressed confidence that an indictment would occur and that Siegelman’s political financier, Richard Scrushy, would be drawn into case.

Around the same time, moreover, Riley managed to maneuver himself into an extremely profitable position: lead local counsel on a separate, massive civil suit against Scrushy and his company, HealthSouth. How he received the assignment aroused some suspicion.

Riley had limited experience in securities litigation. And, for critics, his appointment gave of the appearance of legal-political insider trading: the governor’s son, cognizant that Scrushy would be dragged into Siegelman’s case, saw the benefits to be had from the civil suit against Scrushy’s company, and positioned himself to profit.

Funny. You’d think that the Birmingham News, which devoted more than 200,000 words to coverage of the HealthSouth litigation, would have picked up on some of this. But of course we know that in their view, this is all “black helicopters.”

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