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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/25/12

What Federal Judge Fuller's Ugly Divorce Has to Do with Don Siegelman

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My guest today is Justice Integrity Project's Andrew Kreig. Welcome back to OpEd News, Andrew. There's a lot of news right now about Mark Fuller, a federal judge. What's all the excitement about and why should we care?

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Kreig, courtesy of Kreig

Thank you, Joan. The news relates to scandals arising out of an affair with a married subordinate the married judge [Fuller] is alleged to have had for years.  As you might imagine, such a situation involving children is more sad than anything else. But beyond the family situation, it's not simply sad but tragic. That's because this judge has been extremely powerful as chief judge in his district from 2004 to 2011 and very notorious for a variety of cases, including the infamous prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. This latest disgrace reminds anyone looking closely that we face broken government: in the courts, in the Justice Department, and in Congress.

The basic facts and hot-links, which I won't repeat here, are in my OpEd News column, "Alabama Judicial Scandal Could Taint Many Cases, Not Just Siegelman's."

We seem to face a broken media also, with a few exceptions. This should be a big story. It was broken by an experienced local newspaper publisher in Montgomery, Bob Martin, editor/publisher of the Montgomery Independent. The story was based on divorce papers filed by the judge's wife and last fall by the staffer's husband, each seeking divorce based on infidelity. Martin connected the dots based on his sources saying the affair had been an "open secret" at the federal courthouse for four or five years.  The prominent legal commentator Scott Horton concurred, based on his sources and gave Martin an extended interview saying why the scandal was important far beyond the Siegelman case in terms of administration of justice. Alabama blogger and OpEd News contributor Roger Shuler has described how the judge's wife's insinuations of extensive drug use are particularly significant. Yet there's been a virtual media blackout on this otherwise, aside what a few of us bloggers have been able to do.

So, I especially appreciate your interest. Then again, you have been a pioneer yourself for years in chronicling the mind-boggling injustices in the Siegelman case alone. For some of this, this has been like watching a 20-car pileup on the Interstate that turns into 50, 100 and then 200 vehicles. At some point you wonder: Isn't there supposed to be -- at some point -- an ambulance and traffic policeman assigned to the scene?

So, please answer your own question, Andrew. Why isn't this story gaining any traction with the media? And what does it all mean?

Most generally, we now have a media that places overwhelming emphasis on a few high-profile political and celebrity matters, eliminating in-depth analysis of the guts of government that actually affects most people's lives. Court and similar coverage is expensive and some would say "boring," but it's the lifeblood of democracy.

An increased willingness by reporters and their editors to rely on official pronouncements of guilt and authority instead of digging deeper is especially notable in court coverage. I covered federal courts from 1976 to 1981 on a daily basis for the Hartford Courant, a metro daily. I have witnessed first-hand vastly more deference now by reporters to prosecutors and judges.  But many legal experts have proven that political prosecutions in highly complex white-collar cases are a greater danger now than at any time in at least a half century before the Warren Court's civil rights protections. In other words, prosecutors have a vast ability to destroy a person's reputation, finances, job and freedom merely by filing charges in such cases, even if others doing the same thing are deliberately not investigated.

If you think about the job pressures now, reporter deference is easy to understand. An aggressive reporter will face job-threatening reprisals in day-to-day coverage. Easier just to go-along and get-along, instead of analyzing potential irregularities by prosecutors and judges.

On May 24 in Alabama, we saw an important illustration of this. The Associated Press reported, Newhouse Newspapers In Alabama Cut Publication To Three Days A Week . What a blow for the civic culture. On the other hand, for years these three papers have been rubber-stamps for the powerful, spinning or ignoring the news. None covered this Fuller story, or the previous ones in any depth, for example.  
Next we have the special situation of allegations of sex scandal. My view after two decades in Washington is that vastly more sex scandals deserve to be reported. But editors prefer to scapegoat a few targets, leaving most untouched. OpEd News recently published also an analysis by Russ Baker showing that those scapegoats are disproportionately Democrats (JFK, Gary Hart, Clinton, etc.) doubtless because Republicans generally push back more effectively at such aggressive reporting.

But special, additional factors exist here. The government's frame-up of Siegelman, Alabama's most popular Democrat, was the culmination of a two-decade plan by Karl Rove and his business allies to transform Alabama state politics and courts from historically Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican. Parallel developments occurred also in Mississippi and Louisiana, but it was most dramatic in Alabama, where Rove and the Bush family have longstanding ties and where the historically Democratic black population is the smallest of any Deep South state.

This political trend had very tangible, big-dollar benefits for some in a range of matters, including defense contracts, tobacco and trucking litigation, off-shore oil drilling, pollution regulation, etc. At some point about a decade ago, the major news organizations -- especially in Alabama -- in effect aligned themselves with the process and the powers-that-be. For them to dig into irregularities would be in effect an admission that they have been gulled for years. Further, the financially enfeebled national  media relies on local outlets to dig into these matters.

This rout of Democrats has left the party so enfeebled that the national party has in effect ceded to Republicans much of the control over the justice system in these regions, as otherwise in the guts of government. For example, the Obama administration left in office until last spring the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney who helped frame Siegelman, and then named as her successor a man who as a defense attorney represented the chief witness against Siegelman.

This created a perverse incentive to keep a lid on the scandals. Further, Congress is abandoning its watchdog role except in a few partisan matters. In this case, we now know that some prominent Democrats from Alabama in effect sold out Siegelman for their own selfish purposes by bad-mouthing him and trial critics behind-the-scenes in Washington.

It thus becomes "the perfect storm."

Now what? Can any of this mess be unraveled soon enough to do anyone any good? And how does this affect the Siegelman case? 

Judge Mark Fuller, photo credit: Phil Fleming 
The good news is that the mysteries of the Siegelman case could be unravelled quite easily if just one person in authority convened an official probe, and put the relevant people under oath for the first time. The fact that no one will do it is an ogoing scandal, not simply for what it says about that case but the "justice" and political system.

Personally, I'm astonished, disappointed and occasionally discouraged about the lack of official response to the many years of revelations. But these battles are still worth fighting. In that spirit, I'm filing with the Alabama domestic relations court to ask for a hearing on the sealing of Fuller divorce records because of longstanding law in Alabama that such records are presumptively open. Second, I continue to be impressed by the great fighting spirit Rob Kall, the rest of your OpEd News team and your pro-active readers show in continuing to fight injustice whether in the Obama administration or anywhere else. Refusing to settle for the lesser of two dangers is what we've all got to keep doing in visible ways.

I'm doing a lot of reading now about the dreams, hatreds and political conniving that marked the early years of the Mormon religion as I seek to understand between the worldview of the presumptive GOP candidate Mitt Romney and the likely policy consequences. This historical reading is a useful reminder for me of how much some people hated each other, sometimes for what appear to be good reason, even back in "the good old days."  

The Supreme Court is scheduled to discuss at its conference May 31 the Siegelman petition for review. The Obama administration has consistently argued against review, and for Judge Fuller's continuation as presiding judge -- and for more prison time for the defendant. They refused to do basic preliminary investigation on Karl Rove and his minions, and instead resolved the White House role in sham, whitewashed, unsworn closed-door questioned in July 2009, as OpEd News columnist Roger Shuler reported at the time.

Whatever happens next, those in the Justice Department are comfortable for that argument to be their legacy. Meanwhile, most in the legal establishment and politics want to ignore the issue. The rest of us, however, should never forget their cold-blooded choices, not just for Siegelman's sake but for what it says about the nation's justice system.

Siegelman has claimed that if he is (again) convicted, any politician accepting any political contribution, not to mention the entire election-driven democratic system, will be at risk.  Is that hyperbole, Andrew?

Huge dangers loom, as he says. But several factors are in play here. First, this too is an extraordinary effort by the state and federal government to railroad him into prison. The state investigation to take him out began in 1999 as he took office and continues today at a cost I'd estimate of at least $25 million in taxpayer funds.  Also, you had in his case an extraordinary one-party domination of state and federal government authorities in the crucial period of 2003 to 2007, which is unlikely to reoccur easily.  Finally, a number of other ways exist for authorities to frame rivals aside from this particular set of legal interpretations. Here at OpEd News, we saw a few years ago, for example, how authorities tried to frame famed medical expert Dr. Cyril Wecht on 43 felony charges of using an office fax machine for 43 personal faxes during his career as a part-time county coroner.

That said, it's hardly encouraging that the specifics of the Siegelman case are just one way for authorities to prosecute individuals unjustly. Therefore, the real route to reform in my view is a thorough, independent oversight investigation with sworn testimony from suspect authorities, not just the defendant. The best protection for the public from this happening again and again is establishing the facts once and for all. Think of that: It's never happened in more than 12 years of this.

Sounds great. But, realistically speaking,  what are the chances of such an investigation ever being launched? Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

Sadly, it's very unlikely unless we keep up the pressure in new and creative ways. The statute of limitations has expired for most people and most offenses. Yet there's one other big exception: There's no statute of limitations for impeachment, as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions noted in a law review article in 1998. He's too partisan to do anything in this situation, of course. But we need to maintain an ongoing challenge to others to use their inherent powers for oversight.

It's very tough, but a fight worth continuing. Thanks for the opportunity to share these ideas on a story that's been stifled in so many places.

I'm so glad that you  and the Justice Integrity Project are staying on top of this, Andrew. Thanks for talking with me. It's been enlightening.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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