A scandal-tainted GOP federal judge ruled in December to strip a casino gambler of $10 million in winnings just as Republicans prepare to pack the courts in 2017 after blocking Obama appointments to the lifetime posts.
The two developments underscore the mainstream media's reluctance to report in depth on judges and nominees except in the rarest of scandals.
The Washington Post, for example, omitted any mention of New Jersey federal judge Noel Hillman's past in reporting about him on Dec. 20 in a story headlined Famed poker pro with ‘remarkable’ $9.6 million scheme has to pay it back, judge rules. That omission typifies the timid, superficial coverage that traditional newspapers and broadcasters accord to judges and nominees.
Hillman, shown in an official photo, began his career in 1986 as law clerk for two years to casino magnate Donald Trump's sister. Hillman later helped the George W. Bush administration orchestrate the Justice Department's nationwide political prosecutions to destroy opponents, which resulted in several of the most notorious legal disgraces in recent U.S. history, including the federal corruption prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.
Another front-page Washington Post story earlier this week, Trump in position to reshape judiciary with more than 100 vacancies, shows why judicial oversight should loom as major issue after the Trump administration takes office next month.
But that can never occur so long as media outlets foster the illusion that judges are inherently wise, fair and needing little scrutiny. Judges themselves seek to portray this image (as implied by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' year-end report on the federal judiciary, released on Dec. 31).
Today we recap Hillman's innovative (if not activist) casino ruling, then explore the disturbing way he worked his way through the legal system. He reached a position where, beginning in 2001, he helped supervise a series of seemingly partisan Justice Department prosecutions that primarily targeted Democrats, including Siegelman.
The former governor Siegelman, for many years of one his state's most popular politicians, is still being held in the Louisiana federal prison at Oakdale for 1999 conduct that many legal experts say did not constitute a crime, and certainly not one meriting such long, oppressive investigation and punishment.
During Hillman's five-year tenure as a senior official in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, the department waged an all-out crusade against Siegelman beginning in 2001. It joined forces with Alabama's GOP Attorney General William Pryor in a joint federal-state probe that state Republicans had begun at the start of Siegelman's term in 1999.
The special investigation was located at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base for unexplained reasons suggesting the police state tactics in the offing. Playing a lead role was an Air Force colonel who held a joint appointment to the Justice Department and the Air Force Reserves. The Bush administration spared no expense to intimidate witnesses, according to sworn statements and other evidence. For example, they interrogated the key witness Nick Bailey up to 70 times without required disclosure to the defense, and threatened Bailey, a former aide to Siegelman, with 10 years in prison and the likelihood of repeated rape there if he did not provide the required testimony against his former boss.
Siegelman's first trial judge, Chief U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham indicated at trial that he believed charges were weak (later describing them as the "most unfounded' he had seen in nearly three decades on the federal bench). Authorities shopped for a new judge in a second trial and obtained the ethically compromised trial judge, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller of the middle district in Montgomery. Fuller thereupon provided many pro-prosecution rulings on dubious grounds, as documented below.
Alabama's two U.S. Senators, Jeff Sessions (now President-elect Trump's nominee for Attorney General) and Richard Shelby, were part of the Alabama GOP power structure that had sponsored the key judicial and prosecutorial nominees aside from Clemon.
Update: Washington Post's Sari Horwtiz reported Jan. 3 in More than 1,100 law school professors oppose Sessions’s nomination as attorney general. “We are convinced that Jeff Sessions will not fairly enforce our nation’s laws and promote justice and equality,” states the letter signed by professors from 170 law schools.
Siegelman is shown at right with a fellow prisoner in a photo in late 2015 after emerging from 57 days in "The Hole" of solitary confinement. His offense? No one in authority will say on the record.
But the treatment reputedly was because Siegelman had echoed legal experts nationally who say that his 1999 conduct — reappointing to a state board businessman Richard Scrushy, a donor to an Alabama foundation Siegelman supported — was not a crime. Authorities have meted out extraordinary reprisal to whistleblowers and others speaking up for Siegelman, including his co-defendant Scrushy.
Scrushy said he was offered a plea deal with no prison time if he would incriminate Siegelman but he refused to lie, and was thereupon prosecuted to the hilt for his donation to the non-profit. Fuller gave him the same seven-year prison term as Siegelman, and ordered them hauled away in chains to begin serving time immediately, without the normal stay and appeal bond in white-collar cases.
We estimate the government spent at least $15 million on the case, including $500,000 for one paralegal alone to work under contract (outside standard DOJ channels) at the military base filing evidence, as Tamarah Grimes, shown in a photo and the DOJ's top career paralegal on the case reported. The Obama administration's reaction was to fire her, as we reported in a magazine for paralegals with an exclusive interview headlined "From Justice Dream Job to Nightmare…Why This Whistleblower Was Dissed & Dismissed.
Reflecting on all this last spring, the civil rights attorney, law professor and columnist Scott Horton wrote that some key Justice Department officials believe its reputation would be too deeply hurt if the true facts of the prosecution were ever revealed, according to Horton's Washington Spectator column, The Case for a Presidential Pardon for Don Siegelman.
This helps explain the bipartisan nature of the scandal whereby the Obama administration, sometimes using career personnel, repeatedly helped thwart redress of oppressive Bush political prosecutions, some of which were against Republicans like Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens who were targeted for special reasons, as we have often reported.
Hiding the Evidence?
But cover-up is wrong, as the Justice Department (of all places) should know.
Horton provided key parts of that background in a 2007 Harper's Magazine online column, Noel Hillman and the Siegelman Case. Yet Siegelman must still seek via a recent lawsuit the basic records about his case that should have been disclosed before his 2006 trial. His lawsuit seeking documentation from the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility was filed last year, reported under the headline Son of jailed former governor files lawsuit to obtain government information.
Horton, shown in a file photo, reported that Hillman's 2007 nomination for advancement from the district court to the federal appellate court had been blocked because revelations in 2007 demonstrated Hillman's disgraceful conduct as head of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section when it targeted public officials like Siegelman on "corruption" charges.
The result not only kept imprisoned targets like Siegelman, so popular in Alabama that he otherwise could have been a potential presidential candidate, but financially ruined their families and those of co-defendants, and rendered their constituents without effective leadership and the national party deprived of several prospective national leaders similarly prosecuted around the nation during the presidency of George W. Bush.