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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/22/10

Andrew Kreig on Bernie Kerik and Don Siegelman: What They Have in Common and Why We Should Care

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My guest today is Washington-based journalist and commentator, Andrew Kreig. Welcome to OpEdNews, Andrew. This past week, you wrote a piece about Bernie Kerik, former NYC Police Commissioner. It looks like he's going to be serving time soon for his felonious behavior. Why is that a bad thing?

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Thanks, Joan. I've admired your work for a long time, and have been looking forward to a time I'd have enough to say for a good interview. In the Kerik case, there are troubling procedures suggesting that he was bulldozed into a guilty plea by over-zealous prosecutors enabled by an unfair judge. Even though fairly few people know about that, it's a horrible situation for a family and also for the public.

Thanks for the kind words, Andrew. Do you find many similarities between the prosecution of Kerik, a Republican, and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat?

Yes, there are strong resemblances that underscore that the country's loss of civil rights in white-collar prosecutions is real and should concern those from both right and left. Here a few of the similarities:

Each was relentlessly prosecuted with great public fanfare, with financial ruin for their families just one part of the ordeal.

Each was convicted on relatively trivial felonies based on circumstances far less serious than commonly reported.

Each prosecution was enabled by a pro-prosecution judge who showed their true colors in proof-positive ways with abusive prison sentences and other confinement conditions.

Each has struggled mightily to have the true story fairly reported because of a pro-prosecution bias by traditional media that has increasing budget difficulty staffing expert coverage of secretive and powerful government departments, such as Justice.

So, let's say that you're correct: that political prosecutions exist and affect both Republicans and Democrats. Hasn't that always been just the way the Game is played? And what can we as concerned citizens do about it? And, while we're at it, why isn't the press all over this?

It's not supposed to be a Game, of course, but instead a serious quest for justice. The guiding principle is still supposed to be the eloquent words of U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson, speaking in 1940 at the second-ever conference of the nation's U.S. attorneys as war clouds gathered. "The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America," he said, in comments cited in an essay by former Attorney Gen. Janet Reno in 2008, as guidance for the new Obama Administration. "While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficial forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst."

I know you're being a good, neutral reporter here asking devil's advocate questions, but it's important for me to make clear that a tradition of fearless and fair prosecutions has a solid basis in our history. Jackson, of course, went on to become both a Supreme Court Justice and chief U.S. prosecutor for the Nuremberg World War II war crimes trials. The later role especially underscores how every public official has a duty to make honest decisions, not just go along with whatever is the accepted wisdom in vital matters of civil rights.

Regarding the public's ability to influence events, there's no easy answer. I've been struggling with this since I embarked on investigative reporting about abusive prosecutions nearly 18 months ago. For a long time, I thought that if the news articles were researched solidly enough, the appropriate oversight institutions would kick into gear in the three branches with a minimum of initiative from the press or other surrogates of the public. Not so.

The oversight bodies operate largely for show and their own career goals, I'm ashamed to say. I don't recall it as being this way during my first stint as a full-time reporter three decades ago. Back then, I recall prompting a number of investigations on relative trivial matters (like a federal employee using staff to build a doghouse in his backyard) as well as much bigger stuff. For whatever reasons, now you can document appalling conduct and consequences and there's only a random chance that anyone will look into it.

What's happened to the news media is the topic of many fine recent books, and so it's hard to sum up here. Twenty years ago I wrote a book called Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America's Oldest Newspaper. It was a case study of the paper where I'd worked for 14 years, the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, as it was transformed from local ownership to becoming upgraded, ostensibly, by Los Angeles-based Times Mirror, one of the best of the news chains. The book documented how the rhetoric of the press regarding reader service doesn't really match the financial realities: which is that reporting on public affairs doesn't really help news organizations in the bottom line that much because readers don't know what they're missing for the most part. Also, many news organizations rely heavily on income from non-media affiliates, which may be reluctant to antagonize powerful political or other government officials.

The Justice Department, in particular, can be a good ally or a bad foe to a news organization It can approve mergers and price hikes, and it can make both beat and investigative information available to reporters or ignore any requests for even routine information.

So, it sure looks like the deck is stacked against achieving justice a la Jackson or documenting injustice and having anyone on the other end listen. So, again, I ask, what can concerned citizens do about it?

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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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