Sometimes there is news in the Birmingham News. Indeed, sometimes there’s serious journalism there. In fact, I found that recently wading back through copies of the News from the thirties, as I was researching the piece on Birmingham that I just posted.
And today I see some more. I have questioned the Birmingham News’s coverage of matters relating to U.S. Attorney Alice Martin for some time. A number of highly significant matters go unreported, and cases they do report—especially those relating to highly politicized matters in which the News often actually appears to be clearing a path for Martin—are not covered with a level of what I would call appropriate skeptical detachment. But today the News demonstrates that it is capable of reporting on the high problematic nature of Martin’s tenure as U.S. Attorney, and they’re to be congratulated on it. They give an account of a prosecution that Martin brought against a Huntsville entrepreneur, charged with violations of the Arms Export Control Act. It appears that the principal offense committed by the defendant, Alex Latifi, was breathing while being of Middle Eastern extraction. Here are the guts of the News account.
Like a modern-day Job, Alex Latifi can only sift through the ashes of what was once a prosperous life, and curse those who he says have tormented him without provocation. The workshops of his Huntsville defense contracting firm, Axion Corp., are empty. His machine tools, humming with government contracts since 1984, are mothballed. Once lauded by defense procurement officers for going above and beyond contract specifications, Axion Corp. is now a silent hulk of sheet metal buildings in what was once a cotton field on Huntsville’s northeast side. Legal fees have drained Latifi’s bank account.
It all began to disappear – the $4 million in annual sales, the 60 employees – in 2003. That’s when the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Alabama showed up and accused Latifi, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, of crimes that included violating the Arms Export Control Act. His main alleged offense: sending a schematic drawing of the Army’s Black Hawk utility helicopter to a prospective subcontractor in China. His main accuser: a disgruntled employee who began informing on him only after she had stolen thousands of dollars and was facing prosecution for forging checks.
After four years of investigation and two raids by federal agents, none of the charges against Axion or Latifi stuck. U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson said the main witness lacked credibility. The Black Hawk drawings Latifi was accused of sending to China weren’t marked as classified, and his lawyers argued they were readily available for viewing on the Internet. And the technology is hardly a secret to China, which already owns more than 20 of the freight and troop transporters made by Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. In October, after a seven-day trial in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, the judge dismissed the case. Johnson ruled there was no way federal prosecutors from Alice Martin’s U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham, were going to meet their burden of proof in the criminal trial.
One of the hallmarks of the case was the malicious nastiness that Martin’s office exhibited towards her prey. The News reports: “It was terrible,” said Beth Latifi, Alex’s wife. “They treated us like terrorists. Pistols everywhere, trying to scare us.”
Of course, those who read the account of the arrest of legislator Sue Schmitz know that this is standard operating procedure for Alice Martin’s office.
And the matter isn’t over.
No one at the U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham will discuss the trial’s outcome, because Alex Latifi isn’t yet finished. His lead lawyer, Henry Frohsin of Birmingham’s Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, has filed a claim for compensation from the government called a Hyde motion. It’s based on a 1997 law that allows acquitted federal criminal defendants to argue the Justice Department engaged in wrongful prosecution and collect whatever money they spent on their legal defense.
Frohsin said he was told it was the first Hyde claim to be filed in the Northern District of Alabama. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for April 15. “It will be a mini-trial,” Frohsin said. “I plan to put Alice Martin on the witness stand. I plan to subpoena federal agents. If this doesn’t qualify as a vexatious, misguided prosecution, then nothing will.”
What was the cost? Not just the psychological damage done to the victims of this malicious escapade that demonstrated a total failure of prosecutorial judgment. Think about the damage to the community resulting from the destruction of a business and the loss of 60 jobs. The conduct as described borders on criminal abuse of power.
Just a bit of friendly advice to Mr. Frohsin. He should keep Martin’s track record for making false statements under oath in mind and be sure the judge is fully acquainted with it. He might also want to ask how it is that Alabama Republican leaders are always so well informed about her plans to indict and prosecute Democrats. And he might even want to ask her a question or two about her decision not to act on a federal judge’s charge that she go after Dickie Scruggs. Did she discuss that with a senator or two? Martin clearly needs to be thinking about engaging counsel. And she may decide she needs to invoke the constitutionally guaranteed shield against self-incrimination, which is her right, of course.