Reform Required After Alabama's Latest Federal Legal Mess

By Andrew Kreig / Project Director

Drastic reform is required following the latest revelations of a breakdown in Alabama's Montgomery-based federal judicial district. Over the weekend, our Justice Integrity Project reported on the latest scandal at the federal courthouse in Alabama, at right. The Frank Johnson courthouse is named for a jurist giant who courageously oversaw the dawn of the Civil Rights era. Sadly, the courthouse is now run by those with scant understanding of public resentment for arrogant, incompetent and self-serving regional federal officials who are empowered by clueless if not sinister officials in Washington from both parties.

To recap, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller and U.S. Attorney Leura Canary allowed court clerks in Alabama’s middle district to publish for months on the court’s electronic filing system secret records about dozens of law enforcement surveillances. Improper disclosures included details of a major political corruption case that’s rocked the state since a dramatic dawn raid by more than 100 police cruisers on an electronic bingo facility early last year. Later, authorities fanned out across the state again on Oct. 4 to arrest 11 defendants in a bribery plot to legalize the gambling. Suspects included gambling center owners Milton McGregor and Ronnie Gilley, who were accused of plotting to bribe four state senators. “More DOJ Abuses Revealed In Notorious Alabama Court” provides details. Last week, Gilley agreed to a plea deal.

The breach in security occurred in the same courthouse where a financially conflicted Fuller presided as the Bush Justice Department in 2006 framed former Gov. Don Siegelman, the state's leading Democrat, on corruption charges. Our four-part series earlier this month summarized specifics, such as the Republican Fuller’s enrichment via $300 million in Bush federal contracts that went to a closely held company the judge controlled. We described also why those who want an honest legal system in Alabama and elsewhere around the nation should fight President Obama’s nomination of Canary’s proposed successor, George Beck, left, because he is hopelessly conflicted from investigating the district's biggest case of the decade and its many offshoots.

Today, we’ll draw on three sources to amplify why authorities tainted by previous scandals in the district no longer deserve benefit of the doubt even if their latest snafu stems simply from human error. First, we contrast the latest mess with a parallel situation I covered during my five years reporting full-time on federal courts for the Hartford Courant. Second, Alabama legal commentator Roger Shuler illustrates the mind-boggling wealth and power that well-connected officials are extracting from their federal positions, almost unreported otherwise to the general public. Finally, Salon columnist  Glenn Greenwald argues that President Obama’s rhetorical gifts obscure his actual disdain for fair legal enforcement. You be the judge on whether this is hypocrisy at our nation's highest level and hurts the country.

Thirty years ago this week, I reported a front-page Courant story headlined, “Probe of EB Finds Evidence of Fraud.” The story stemmed in part from a slip-up by courthouse clerks who permitted secret grand jury information in public files, enabling me to know that a grand jury was underway. The documents hinted of how federal prosecutors had uncovered evidence of fraud in hundreds of millions of dollars in cost-overruns in the manufacture of nuclear submarines by “EB,” the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp. When I discovered the material, Chief U.S. District Judge Emmet Clarie could see I was taking notes on a file in his office as the courthouse was closing for the evening. Without knowing of my discovery, he let me continue work in his chambers, requesting that I turn of the lights and lock the door when finished with whatever I was doing.  Prosecutors were soon horrified that the confidential information had become public, prompting nationwide inquiries from the business press. They promptly sealed the materials, just as Alabama officials did last week in a similar situation.

A key difference between then and now, in my view, was that Hartford officials brought to their work a level of openness, humility and respect for public opinion that appear to be in scant supply among their peers these days. Clarie, for example, believed so strongly about ensuring public confidence in the court system that he refused ever to share a meal with a private attorney except at an occasional formal group function such as a bar association dinner. Also, he required that outside doors for the Hartford federal clerk's office be made of glass. This was, he once explained to me, “So the public can look in and know nothing bad is going on.”

Prosecutors in Hartford and Washington, for their part, worked hard on their EB cost-overrun investigation. But they ultimately believed that they could not in good conscience seek an indictment. That was because DOJ guidelines require that authorities feel confident they had overwhelming evidence of guilt before destroying either a company or person with federal charges. That mentality contrasts sharply with the DOJ’s all-out effort to find anything during its decade-long jihad against Siegelman that could destroy him, his co-defendants and their families. Scorched-earth prosecution tactics increasingly typifies of our era of oppressive federal swagger. It doesn't help that vast wealth becomes possible (especially in post-government careers) for officials who leverage their official powers adeptly.

Shuler’s blogs on greedy lawyers and judges further illustrate the problems. His latest column April 26, “Will Democrats Ever Rise Again in the Deep South?” focuses on the finances of the prominent Alabama attorney G. Douglas Jones, a former U.S. Attorney during the Clinton era who has represented both Gilley and Siegelman. Shuler has been relentless over the past week in three columns harping on the money Jones has been making, the conflicts it creates, and the foolishness of those who believe the public can rely on well-connected lawyers to ensure a fair court system. “Jones helped rake in more than $50 million in attorney fees from a lawsuit against individuals and entities connected to HealthSouth Corporation,” the columnist wrote April 20, for example. “When federal prosecutors in Montgomery targeted Siegelman, Jones became the former governor's defense attorney -- even though he already was involved in a lawsuit against Richard Scrushy, who would become Siegelman's co-defendant.” Shuler went on to challenge Jones in two other columns cited below, including one in which Shuler analzed comments that Jones provided to me recently to defend himself from such allegations of conflict of interest.

Jones is portrayed at left. To his credit, he has been the only one of those officials and former named willing to respond to my questions for our Project's long-running coverage, and he vigorously defended himself.

More generally, this is not simply parochial Alabama fare. Jones is influential and well-regarded nationally on legal issues, in part because of his prosecution as U.S. attorney of defendants in the notorious 1964 Birmingham church bombing. Beyond one former official's track record, our Project files are filled with examples of former prosecutors who extract virtually every dollar from criminal defense clients before pleading them out, sometimes in suspicious circumstances.

Far more important even than that, President Obama and his top appointees repeatedly show that they give only lip service to the concepts of equal treatment under the law. The administration exempts financial elites and law enforcers from accountability in both criminal and civil cases. The legal system's different treatment of BP and victims of its Gulf disaster is one illustration, amplified below column by Alabama blogger Glynn Wilson with a video of a paralysis victim seeking to question the BP/Obama-apponted Gulf compensation czar Kenneth Feinberg.  A broader pattern emerges from Greenwald’s April 20 column, “President Obama speaks on Manning and the rule of law.”

Protesters yesterday interrupted President Obama's speech at a $5,000/ticket San Francisco fundraiser to demand improved treatment for Bradley Manning. Obama's responses are revealing on multiple levels. First, Obama said this when justifying Manning's treatment (video and transcript are here): “We're a nation of laws. We don't let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.”

The impropriety of Obama's public pre-trial declaration of Pfc. Bradley Manning's guilt ("He broke the law") is both gross and manifest. How can Manning possibly expect to receive a fair hearing from military officers when their Commander-in-Chief has already decreed his guilt?

Greenwald goes on to criticize Obama for invoking America's status as a "nation of laws" to justify why Manning must be punished.

That would be a very moving homage to the sanctity of the rule of law -- if not for the fact that the person invoking it is the same one who has repeatedly engaged in the most extraordinary efforts to shield Bush officials from judicial scrutiny, investigation, and prosecution of every kind for their war crimes and surveillance felonies. Indeed, the Orwellian platitude used by Obama to justify that immunity – “Look Forward, Not Backward” -- is one of the greatest expressions of presidential lawlessness since Richard Nixon told David Frost that "it's not illegal if the President does it."

But it's long been clear that this is Obama's understanding of "a nation of laws": the most powerful political and financial elites who commit the most egregious crimes are to be shielded from the consequences of their lawbreaking -- see his vote in favor of retroactive telecom immunity, his protection of Bush war criminals, and the way in which Wall Street executives were permitted to plunder with impunity -- while the most powerless figures (such as a 23-year-old Army Private and a slew of other low-level whistleblowers) who expose the corruption and criminality of those elites are to be mercilessly punished.

In sum, the Justice Department and court system have been making many mistakes, at best, in Alabama and elsewhere these days. Let's keep the lights shining.

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment

Listed below are selected articles providing background.

Appendix

Salon Unclaimed Territory, President Obama speaks on Manning and the rule of law, Glenn Greenwald, April 23, 2011. Protesters yesterday interrupted President Obama's speech at a $5,000/ticket San Francisco fundraiser to demand improved treatment for Bradley Manning. Obama's responses are revealing on multiple levels. First, Obama said this when justifying Manning's treatment (video and transcript are here): “We're a nation of laws. We don't let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.”

Legal Schnauzer, Will Democrats Ever Rise Again in the Deep South? Roger Shuler, April 26, 2011.  Douglas Jones was about the only person who would comment about the Beck nomination for a recent four-part series by Andrew Kreig, executive director of the Justice Integrity Project (JIP). Jones' comments, if read closely, are hardly comforting. In fact, he seems to engage in the kind of dissembling that is likely to turn off any Alabamians who might consider joining the progressive cause.

Locust-Fork News-Journal, Paul Doomm Speaks, Feinberg Runs, Glynn Wilson, April 23, 2011. Gulf Coast Pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg came to New Orleans on the anniversary of the BP oil disaster and got a mouthful from some of feel wronged by the process of paying out up to $20 billion in loss claims. Paul Doomm has been confined to a wheelchair since the end of Summer 2010 after swimming in the Gulf. After all, the government said it was safe. A lot of controversy has surrounded his illness. He wanted to speak directly to Feinberg, but he was not allowed. So he was interviewed by videographer John Wathen.

Legal Schnauzer, Who Benefits From Ronnie Gilley's Guilty Plea in Alabama Bingo Case? April 22, 2011. Friday, April 22, 2011. Why did Country Crossing developer Ronnie Gilley plead guilty this morning in the federal Alabama-bingo prosecution? The answer, at least in part, probably can be found in a post we wrote two days ago here at Legal Schnauzer.

Legal Schnauzer, Is Lawsuit Cash Having a Negative Impact on Progressive Politics? Roger Shuler, April 20, 2011.  Alabama lawyer G. Douglas Jones helped rake in more than $50 million in attorney fees from a lawsuit against individuals and entities connected to HealthSouth Corporation. Lawyers from California and New York were involved in the case, but Jones served as co-liaison counsel here in Birmingham, home to HealthSouth headquarters.

The Smoking Gun, Sealed Records Exposed In Major Court Gaffe; Federal prosecutors scramble to cloak details of ongoing probes, Staff investigation, April 22, 2011. In a shocking failure to protect sensitive details about dozens of ongoing criminal investigations, federal officials somehow allowed confidential information about sealed cases to be publicly accessible via the court system’s online lookup service, The Smoking Gun has learned.

Birmingham News,VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor's lawyer says Ronnie Gilley's plea changes nothing for his client, Kim Chandler, April 22, 2011. A lawyer for VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor said "nothing has changed" for his client because of co-defendant Ronnie Gilley's decision to strike a plea deal with prosecutors. "From our point of view nothing has changed. Mr. McGregor is innocent and we continue to look forward to proving his innocence," McGregor lawyer Joe Espy said.

Salon / Unclaimed Territory, Newly leaked documents show the ongoing travesty of Guantanamo, Glenn Greenwald, April 25, 2011. The documents reveal vast new information about these detainees and, in particular, the shoddy and unreliable nature of the “evidence” used (both before and now) to justify their due-process-free detentions. Given that multiple media outlets have just published huge amounts of classified information, it is more difficult than ever to distinguish between WikiLeaks and, say, the NYT or the Post under the law. How could anyone possibly justify prosecuting WikiLeaks for disseminating classified information while not prosecuting these newspapers who have done exactly the same thing?

Security and Privacy News

Politico, Wiretapping leak probe dropped, Josh Gerstein, April 26, 2011. The Justice Department has dropped its long-running criminal investigation of a lawyer who publicly admitted leaking information about President George W. Bush’s top-secret warrantless wiretapping program to The New York Times — disclosures that Bush vehemently denounced as a breach of national security. They also stoked a congressional debate about whether the government had overstepped its authority as it scrambled to respond to the 9/11 terror attacks.  The decision not to prosecute former Justice Department lawyer Thomas Tamm means it is unlikely that anyone will ever be charged for the disclosures that led to the Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story in December 2005 revealing that, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush ordered the interception of certain phone calls and email messages into and out of the U.S. without a warrant — a move many lawyers contend violated the 1978 law governing intelligence-related wiretaps.

New York Times, Obama’s Young Mother Abroad, adapted from “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” Janny Scott, April 20, 2011.

Harvard Law School, Former Swedish Justice Minister offers a view of the Assange case and the relevant laws, April 25, 2011. Thomas Bodström, former Swedish Minister for Justice, discussed several key pieces of legislation implicated in the legal actions taken against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, at an event hosted by the Harvard European Law Association and the Center for European Studies on Friday, April 8, 2011.  Bodström, who served as Minister for Justice from 2000 to 2006, highlighted the importance of trust among European governments in negotiating the European Arrest Warrant in 2001. Swedish authorities issued an arrest warrant in December to extradite Assange from the United Kingdom to Sweden for questioning. Assange, the target of the ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, has appealed the decision to extradite him.

U.S. Corruption Cases

Newark Star-Ledger, FBI informant Solomon Dwek's sentencing is postponed until next year, Ted Sherman, April 26, 2011. Solomon Dwek — the central figure in the biggest federal corruption sting in New Jersey history — is unlikely to hear his fate anytime soon.  U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares once again put off his sentencing date — this time until March 5, 2012.  His involvement in the sweeping sting operation came to light July 23, 2009, when 44 people were charged with corruption, extortion, bribery and money laundering, leading to the arrests of three mayors, two assemblymen, five Orthodox rabbis and dozens of others.  To date, 27 have pleaded guilty — most recently Vincent Tabbachino, a former Guttenberg councilman who admitted on Monday that he agreed to launder $125,000 that Dwek claimed to be the profit from a knock-off designer handbag business.  Three others have been convicted at trial, two were acquitted and one died days after his arrest. The rest are still awaiting trial.

Dwek continues to draw a $12,500-a-month stipend being paid out of his bankrupt real estate empire in return for his services to the federal trustee overseeing the sell-off of his properties.  A judge in the case last month also approved the payment of limited expenses — including the cost of $100-an-hour bodyguard.


Politico
, Wiretapping leak probe dropped, Josh Gerstein, April 26, 2011. The Justice Department has dropped its long-running criminal investigation of a lawyer who publicly admitted leaking information about President George W. Bush’s top-secret warrantless wiretapping program to The New York Times — disclosures that Bush vehemently denounced as a breach of national security. They also stoked a congressional debate about whether the government had overstepped its authority as it scrambled to respond to the 9/11 terror attacks.  The decision not to prosecute former Justice Department lawyer Thomas Tamm means it is unlikely that anyone will ever be charged for the disclosures that led to the Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story in December 2005 revealing that, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush ordered the interception of certain phone calls and email messages into and out of the U.S. without a warrant — a move many lawyers contend violated the 1978 law governing intelligence-related wiretaps.