No Comment — June 9, 2007, 6:39 pm

Abramoff and “Justice” in the Heart of Dixie

On a hill above Birmingham, Alabama stands a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, a symbol of the city’s debt to the steel industry around which it grew. Today, however, little steel is forged in Birmingham, but scandals are coming aplenty. What continues to emerge from the former Pittsburgh of the south are more details in the unfolding allegations surrounding the politically driven prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, today in the form of an article in the Birmingham News. Or rather, perhaps the Birmingham News piece is itself the story. Under a headline stating “Two Siegelman Advocates Missed Out on State Contract,” the News reports:

The two people alleging that former Gov. Don Siegelman’s prosecution was tainted by politics are tied to a company that did not win a state contract from Gov. Bob Riley’s administration last year. Former Riley Chief of Staff Toby Roth said he believed the lost contract was a factor when the two people signed statements accusing Riley’s advocates of engineering the case against Siegelman, a Democratic rival. “I think it certainly raises suspicions about their accusations,” Roth said. “This has got a sour grapes aspect to it.”

Now as my readers know, I am an attorney and an opinion-journalist, I teach law and journalism students at Columbia University, and as an attorney, I spend a good part of my practice representing and working for the media. My instincts tell me that this story was been peddled by Toby Roth – he may well have called a “marker” to get it run – and it aims to discredit the evidence for Karl Rove’s involvement by linking the sources to a failed contract bid. This is mighty thin gruel. But it all goes downhill from there. And you really have to read the story to its end. As in the Sherlock Holmes tale of “Silver Blaze” the really fascinating thing about the Birmingham News story consists of the facts which are strangely missing. For instance:

  • Might Toby Roth have some particular exposure or interest in the affidavit other than simply shilling for his old boss? A good journalist knows that he needs to acquaint his reader with the relationship the speaker has to the story, particularly the connection that the speaker does not want to disclose. Now Toby Roth is a former chief of staff for Governor Riley. Granted, a chief of staff has a duty to shill for his boss – that’s a core part of the job description – but beyond that? How about the fact that Governor Riley’s son features smack dead-center in the allegations. That’s a fact. It’s not mentioned.
  • Might there be any relationship between Toby Roth and Karl Rove? That would be another highly relevant entanglement, wouldn’t it? Well, before Mr. Roth served Bob Riley as chief of staff, he had a very long engagement in Alabama GOP politics. And among his clients was Harold See, a candidate for the Alabama Supreme Court. With whom did he collaborate in that long and hard-fought battle? Perhaps our friends at the News could have asked a question. Perhaps they could have invested 90 seconds on the internet. The answer would have been: William Canary and Karl Rove. That’s right, the third man who together with Canary and Rove drove the transformational campaign profiled in the Atlantic’s groundbreaking story was Toby Roth. That’s a fact. It’s not mentioned.
  • Where exactly did Toby Roth go when he left Governor Riley’s service? Roth is one of an entire platoon of Riley staffers who departed in order to take up work for Indian gaming interests. Others are: Michael Scanlon, Dan Gans, Dax Swatek, Twinkle Andress. Roth went to work with former Trent Lott chief-of-staff John Lundy at a Jackson, Mississippi-based lobbying firm named Capitol Resources. Among the firm’s principal clients are the casinos owned and operated by the Mississippi Choctaw Indian, whom they represented jointly with Jack Abramoff.

Considering the fact that the Siegelman prosecution springs out of allegations of Siegelman’s involvement supporting a gambling initiative, that’s a very curious fact, especially when juxtaposed with Jack Abramoff and what we know about Mr. Abramoff’s practice of trying to suppress one gambling interest supposedly to benefit another and stirring up the “yahoos” (I am quoting Mr. Abramoff-related emails) to vote against casino gambling. Another of the Abramoff fortes was using his lobbyist position with the casinos to stampede money into the coffers of Republican candidates for office. Indeed, looking at this list of names, it suddenly occurred to me: I’ve seen them many times before: they’re all names that have appeared in connection with the Abramoff investigation – widely considered the “mother lode” of modern political scandals. Indeed, it dawns on me suddenly that this story and the Abramoff story intersect, and the point of intersection is Toby Roth.

The News story also contained a remarkably lame account of the allegations:

“Simpson said in her affidavit that, in a 2002 conference call, she heard Republican Bill Canary tell the governor’s son and lawyer that White House adviser Karl Rove had told him the Department of Justice was investigating Siegelman. Canary and other participants say they don’t remember such a conversation.”

In fact the Simpson affidavit, which is readily available, but which the News reporters evidently couldn’t be bothered to actually read, provides a detailed specific account of what transpired, starting with Canary’s statement “not to worry about Don Siegelman that ‘his girls would take care of him.’” Then Riley’s son asked Canary if he was sure that Siegelman would be “taken care of,” and Canary told him not to worry that he had already gotten it worked out with Karl and Karl had spoken with the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice was already pursuing Don Siegelman.” “His girls” were Canary’s wife Leura Canary, who as U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Alabama, did in fact start the investigation, only dropping off when objections were raised by Governor Siegelman’s counsel due to her obvious political bias and the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham Alice Martin. Ms. Simpson, who gave the affidavit, is a lifelong Republican and was a worker in the Riley campaign against Siegelman, and her account has been contemporaneously corroborated – all facts the News reporters have also suppressed. The statements denying the affidavit are extremely vague “non-recollections,” are unsworn, and in a law court would count for absolutely nothing.

Now going back through the Abramoff database and looking at the names lined up against Siegelman in this affair is a curious exercise indeed. There’s a hit every few seconds.

  • Michael Scanlon – he was Riley’s Congressional press secretary. Scanlon left Riley to work for Tom DeLay and then went to work for Jack Abramoff. He has since pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress. A Senate Report prepared under the supervision of John McCain details how Scanlon and Abarmoff funnelled Choctaw funds into the Alabama gubernatorial race in 2002.
  • Dan Gans – served as Riley’s chief of staff both in Washington and Montgomery. He left Riley to work with Ed Buckham and Christine DeLay at the Alexander Strategy Group, which has been repeatedly implicated in the Abramoff Scandal. Gans is a Republican “voting technology expert” who played a mysterious role in the 2002 gubernatorial election – he was in Republican controlled Bay Minette, Alabama, when 6,000 votes inexplicably shifted from Siegelman’s column to Riley’s due to a “computer glitsch.”
  • Twinkle Andress – is the former Executive Director of Alabama GOP. She was elected State GOP chair while signing up with Capitol Resources. She is now Riley’s Deputy Chief of Staff.
  • Dax Swatek – a key Riley campaign consultant in the 2006 race. Swatek has been identified as working with former William Canary partner Pat McWhorter in the formation of a fictitious non-profit organization in 1999 to benefit Abramoff’s client “Channel One,” a scheme which also involved Ralph Reed.
  • Governor Riley – the McCain report found that millions of dollars from the Choctaw Indians came into Alabama during the 2002 governor’s race – a fact denied by Riley until the report was released. In emails released by the Senate, former Riley congressional staffer Michael Scanlon partnered with Jack Abramoff to funnel Choctaw Indian funds into the 2002 Alabama Governor’s race, supporting Riley. The report contained emails detailing conversation regarding the 2002 race in which Abramoff tells Scanlon that he has been in touch with “Nell” (Nell Rogers) of the Choctaws and “had it not been for what you did in Alabama, we would have had to spend millions in Alabama over the next four years.” The conversation then details what “Nell” wanted Riley to do in return for the “help” he had received. The email states Rogers made it clear that she “definitely wants Riley to shut down the Porch Creek operation.” The Alabama Porch Creek Indians were competitors of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Subsequently, Riley met with Attorney General John Ashcroft about the Porch Creek Indians, and Alabama Attorney General Troy King wrote a letter on behalf of Riley to the Department of the Interior requesting denial of Porch Creek Indians request for Class III gaming. A commission to evaluate the Porch Creek application for Class III (table game) license was created.
  • And who should be appointed to that commission but William Canary’s “girl” and U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, Leura Canary?

So what emerges from this Birmingham News article? We have two remarkably incurious and lazy reporters. I supervise J-School students up at Columbia from time to time, and this product would not get a passing grade. Which is a shame, because this is exactly the sort of story that any journalist worth his salt should dream of being assigned to write on. On the other hand, doing a quick fact-check on their story revealed a lot.

The real story is that the deeper one delves into this, the more convincing the Simpson affidavit becomes. We’re looking at one hell of a scandalous miscarriage of justice, the object of which is corrupt and patently partisan and political. Very powerful forces have been engaged to cover it all up. There are also unmistakable signs of corruption surrounding the Montgomery statehouse – it’s not Siegelman’s corruption, but rather that of his successor and opponent. Indeed, it seems very closely tied to the people who claimed to have launched an effort to “get” Siegelman, using the authority of Karl Rove and his reach deep into the Department of Justice. And at this point it’s simply impossible to dismiss these claims as hollow boasts – we have the sworn testimony of eight former U.S. attorneys saying just the opposite. And just think about it – while one tentacle of the Abramoff scandal, which is the subject of press coverage all around the world, was flailing about wildly in the Alabama political scene, the U.S. Attorneys in Alabama ignore it and instead pour massive resources into its victim. If you made this stuff up, no one would accept it as plausible fiction.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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