By Andrew Kreig / Project Director
A federal prosecutor and federal trial judge face a new scandal for allowing court clerks in Alabama to disclose confidential records about dozens of sensitive law enforcement surveillance operations. The security breach occurred in the same courthouse where the Bush Justice Department obtained corruption convictions in 2006 against former Gov. Don Siegelman in a now-infamous political prosecution against the state's leading Democrat.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Fuller is a Republican who conducted the Siegelman trial while secretly being enriched on the side through his closely held company's receipt of Air Force contracts. Currently, he presides as chief judge over record-keeping at the middle district federal courthouse in Montgomery, at right.
U.S. Attorney Leura Canary, left, is in charge of federal criminal and civil litigation in the district. On Thursday, Canary and her DOJ colleagues obtained a guilty plea from Country Crossing developer Ronnie Gilley, a gambling entrepreneur who was indicted last fall with nine-other defendants in an alleged plot to bribe legislators. The plea was welcome news for authorities. A different federal magistrate-judge had harshly criticized them earlier this month for illegally suppressing evidence in the gambling case, which is separate from Siegelman's decade-long prosecution.
But the good news for prosecutors was soon superceded. The Smoking Gun investigative website reported on April 22:
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. Over the past nine months, details of 40 separate sealed court applications filed by federal prosecutors in Alabama were uploaded to PACER, the web-based records system that counts nearly one million users, including defense lawyers, prosecutors, journalists, researchers, private investigators, and government officials.
Mistakes can happen anywhere, of course. But this episode is remarkable, given the histories of so many players described below. Also, the security breach constitutes a serious abuse of defendant privacy even if the disclosures were inadvertent. Among those whose information was exposed were defendants in the gambling casino case. As background: The DOJ announced in October the arrests of 11 suspects accused in a 39-count indictment for a bribery conspiracy. Authorities accused gambling entrepreneurs, lobbyists and four state senators of a plot to legalize electronic bingo machines that two-term Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, left, had ordered closed as illegal.
The Republican Riley has long campaigned against gambling. Gilley was the developer of the Country Crossing entertainment center in the southeast part of the state. Defendant Milton McGregor, a longtime political power broker in the state, owned VictoryLand, a facility near Montgomery.
Canary, a Republican whose husband managed Riley's first gubernatorial campaign against Siegelman, is a controversial holdover Bush political appointee who took office in 2001. The guilty plea was also good news for her and for the Obama White House and Justice Department. Siegelman supporters have attacked Obama for retaining such an extreme “loyal Bushie” as Canary so far into a Democratic administration.
Some have questioned also why authorities entrusted such a major investigation in significant part also Brenda Morris, a career prosecutor who helped suppress evidence in the 2008 federal trial of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, resulting in a pre-election conviction that doubtless helped cost him his Alaska seat. The DOJ vacated the Stevens convictions because of government wrongdoing.
Similarly, an Alabama magistrate-judge in the bingo case rebuked prosecutors for illegally suppressing evidence. "This is supposed to be some elite unit coming down from D.C.," the judge said, "and how this case has been conducted is ridiculous." The Birmingham News published a harsh editorial April 5 entitled, "Federal prosecutors in the bingo vote-buying case need to get their act together."
But there was more to come. The Smoking Gun report April 22 continues:
The court applications, made by ten separate prosecutors, included requests to install hidden surveillance cameras, examine Facebook records, obtain credit information on certain individuals, procure telephone records, and attach devices on phone lines that would allow agents to track incoming and outgoing calls. Remarkably, the U.S. District Court records -- which covered filings as recent as April 11 -- included specific names, addresses, and phone numbers that should never have appeared on PACER.
The Siegelman Frame-up & Cover-Up
More generally, Fuller (at left, in a Phil Fleming photo) and Canary have long been implicated in the DOJ’s abusive tactics to frame former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and his co-defendant, HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, on corruption charges. Our Justice Integrity Project reports are excerpted below. They show, for example, that Fuller’s privately held contracting company, Doss Aviation, Inc., secretly received $300 million in Bush-era federal contracts even as he was railroading Siegelman and Scrushy to prison during their 2006 trial with multiple pro-prosecution rulings.
We reported also how the court clerk’s office in 2003 failed to file on government's PACER electronic records system a sworn affidavit and supporting exhibits from a Missouri attorney seeking Fuller’s recusal from a separate civil case.
The affidavit provided evidence of why the DOJ should prosecute and convict the judge in an alleged Doss-related plot to defraud the State of Alabama pension system of $330,000. The document called for Fuller’s impeachment, noting that there is no statute of limitations for crimes leading to an impeachment action.
But without records in the filing system, litigants before Fuller such as Siegelman, at right,and Scrushy had scant way of knowing about the judge's massive incomehe was gettingvia the closely held Doss, which the judge controlled as its largest shareholder. The missing file is one of many documented irregularities at the courthouse.
President Obama and his administration have closed ranks with their Republican predecessors to limit inquiries into law enforcement methods in general -- and such political prosecutions as the Siegelman/Scrushy case in particular. As part of this, Obama followed a recommendation of the Alabama Democratic Party to nominate Alabama defense attorney George Beck, left, as a successor for Canary.
Our Justice Integrity Project opposes Beck’s confirmation because he represented Siegelman’s chief accuser, whom prosecutors unreasonably pressured. Beck's appointment would therefore undermine public confidence that the DOJ is serious about exploring allegations of wrongdoing in that case, which has vast quantities of never-explored allegations of government wrongdoing.
Alabama legal commentator Roger Shuler this week continued his in-depth analysis of these issues in several columns excerpted below. He cited our Project reports and probed more deeply into what he regards as serious conflicts by the Democratic power broker, G. Douglas Jones, a former U.S. attorney for Alabama's Northern District. Jones represented Siegelman and Gilley, and also prosecuted as co-lead counsel with Riley’s son, Rob Riley, a highly lucrative civil suit against Siegelman’s co-defendant, Scrushy. The Justice Department investigation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff brought forth evidence that Mississippi gambling interests secretly funded Riley’s gubernatorial campaigns.
Evidence before a Senate suggested the amount totaled $13 million from Mississippi casinos for Riley to protect their turf by blocking Alabama gambling. This sum would have enabled Riley to enjoy the best of both worlds – enormous funding from gambling interests, plus a public position (like his ally and fellow beneficiary of gambling money, Ralph Reed) of winning votes by opposing gambling on moral grounds. Additionally, investigative reporter Wayne Madsen broke a story alleging that Riley and his allies secretly obtained millions of dollars morefrom a McGregor investment into a plan for Riley allies to create a lottery in Russia.
Whatever the facts, those kinds of suspicions appear never to have been seriously investigated via witnesses called under oath by federal authorities who operate in a cozy world seemingly immune from any serious outside scrutiny, no matter what the administration.
Jones, Fuller, Canary, Riley and others in authority have denied wrongdoing. Links to their full statements available also in via the excerpts below. Because federal authorities have not announced inquiries or results the mainstream press has largely ignored all of the allegations aside from Abramoff-related Senate testimony about Mississippi casinos.
To redress such gaps, our project has published stories examining DOJ internal reviews. For example, we reported two years ago how Siegelman’s first trial judge, Chief U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon, left, of Alabama’s Northern District, urged Holder to investigate the conditions of Siegelman’s prosecution after the Bush Justice Department authorities finessed the case away from Clemon’s jurisdiction into Fuller’s courtroom and Canary’s prosecution office. There’s never been a public indication that Obama’s Justice Department acted on Clemon’s request or the impeachment evidence against Fuller by calling any witnesses.
In early 2009, President-elect Obama said he wanted to “look forward, not backward” regarding potential law-breaking by law enforcers. His actions since through his Justice Department appointees have confirmed their reluctance to undertake serious investigations of wrongdoing in the courts and Justice Department. By this, the president risks further erosion of public confidence in the courts even if the Alabama disclosure of sealed records in the bingo case stemmed simply from human error.
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Listed below are selected articles providing background.
Appendix I: Alabama Background
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.
Legal Schnauzer, Who Benefits From Ronnie Gilley's Guilty Plea in Alabama Bingo Case? Roger Shuler, 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. Our post, titled "Is Lawsuit Cash Having a Negative Impact on Progressive Politics?" focused on a federal HealthSouth lawsuit that generated more than $50 million in attorney fees. The prime Alabama lawyers who drove that case were G. Douglas Jones, of the Birmingham firm Haskell Slaughter, and Rob Riley, a Homewood-based lawyer who happens to be the son of former Republican Governor Bob Riley.
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. Jones [right] was a leading advocate of the Obama administration's recent decision to nominate George Beck as U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, sources tell Legal Schnauzer.The Beck nomination was roundly criticized in a recent four-part series by Andrew Kreig, who Kreig calls the nomination "Obama's Alabama Snafu," and you can read all four parts of his piece through links at the end of this post. Is George Beck the best candidate to replace Leura Canary, the abominable George W. Bush appointee who helped ramrod the Don Siegelman/Richard Scrushy prosecution? No, and not by a long shot.
Appendix II: Justice Integrity Project Columns
Series on President Nomination of Alabama's George Beck to Become U.S. Attorney
Justice Integrity Project, Part I: Senate Must Grill Tainted Alabama DOJ Nominee, Andrew Kreig, April 5, 2011. President Obama ended more than two years of high-profile White House indecision March 31 by naming the prominent Alabama attorney George L. Beck as his nominee to become U.S. attorney for the state’s Montgomery-based middle district. Despite an impressive career overall, Beck is a horrible choice because he was a compliant defense attorney in the notorious prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman’s, the state’s leading Democrat. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy of Vermont, at left, oversees Senate confirmations.
Justice Integrity Project, Part II: Bailey-Beck Siegelman Frame-up, Andrew Kreig, April 6, 2011. Two videos, one from June 2007 and another just seven months later in 2008, illustrate why George Beck is such a bad choice as the Obama nominee to run Alabama’s troubled middle district office in the state capital of Montgomery.
Justice Integrity Project, Part III: Beck's Backers Make Their Case, Andrew Kreig, April 8, 2011. “For his diligence and relentless pursuit of justice, I have named George L. Beck to serve as a U.S. Attorney,” announced President Obama on March 31. “I am confident he will serve the people of Alabama with distinction.”
Justice Integrity Project, Part IV: What To Do About Obama's Alabama Snafu? Andrew Kreig, April 8, 2011. The Justice Integrity Project today calls for the Senate Judiciary Committee to invite independent witnesses to testify at the confirmation hearing for George L. Beck, President Obama's nominee to become U.S. attorney for the middle district of Alabama. Only a full review of the conflicts surrounding this nationally important but dubious nomination can restore vitally needed public trust.
Justice Integrity Project, Inside Story on DoD's $35 Billion Boeing Air Force Tanker Deal, Andrew Kreig, Feb. 25, 2011. The Department of Defense Thursday announced its choice of Boeing for a $35 billion contract to build the Air Force’s next generation of mid-air refueling tankers. Boeing’s selection, subject to any challenge by the losing bidder EADS, could end a decade-long, scandal-ridden process that became one of the controversial and important in modern U.S. procurement history. The Justice Integrity Project has tracked the proceeding closely for a year and a half after learning from reliable sources details about industrial espionage and skullduggery in the contract battle.
Daily Censored, Justice Department Probe of CIA Torture Evidence: Another Whitewash? Andrew Kreig, Nov. 9, 2010.
Nieman Watchdog, New Questions Raised About Prosecutor Who Cleared Bush Officials in U.S. Attorney Firings, Andrew Kreig, July 25, 2010.
Huffington Post, Did DOJ Blackmail Siegelman Witness With Sex Scandal? Andrew Kreig, July 21, 2009.
Huffington Post, As Rove Testifies About Firings At Justice, Why Did DOJ Fire Whistleblower? Andrew Kreig, July 8, 2009.
Huffington Post, Alabama Decisions Illustrate Abuse of Judicial Power, Andrew Kreig, June 10, 2009.
Huffington Post, Siegelman's First Trial Judge Blasts U.S. Prosecutors, Seeks Probe of 'Unfounded' Charges, Andrew Kreig, May 21, 2009.
Huffington Post, Siegelman Deserves New Trial Because of Judge’s ‘Grudge’, Evidence Shows….$300 Million in Bush Military Contracts Awarded to Judge’s Private Company, Andrew Kreig, May 15, 2009.