Some Muckraker: Reporter Defends Corruption Among 'Bama Democrats
Feel the drama:
There is fear in the halls of the Alabama State House. Your colleague may be wired. Somebody may be watching you. An indictment looms.
After a dozen legislators received subpoenas one day last month in a criminal investigation, an atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety has descended on the gleaming white building that houses the State Legislature, many of its occupants say.
Legislators are sweeping their offices for bugs. Routine horse-trading for votes is stymied, for fear it could be misinterpreted. A wary lawmaker agrees to meet a reporter only in a wide-open parking lot. After-hours get-togethers are off.
The concern is a result of a long-running federal investigation into corruption within the state's system of two-year colleges that has led to guilty pleas on bribery and corruption charges by one state lawmaker and the system's former chancellor. The Birmingham News reported in 2006 that a quarter of the 140 members of the Legislature had financial ties to the college system, with most of the jobs or contracts going to lawmakers or their relatives. Recent reports indicate the number has grown to nearly a third of the Legislature.
Besides strangely appearing to side against the corruption investigation, Nossiter stirred in Democratic conspiracy theories about the prosecution of the state's former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman, who in some paranoid circles (like CBS's "60 Minutes")is a victim of Karl Rove.
The fear is all the more acute in that the current investigation centers on Democrats in their last redoubt of power here, the State Legislature, and takes place against a backdrop of intense partisan ill-feeling. Many here maintain that a former governor, Don Siegelman, who was convicted by federal prosecutors and jailed last year, was singled out because he is a Democrat.
Anger among Democrats was re-stoked last week when Mr. Siegelman emerged from a federal prison after nine months, freed on bond by a federal court in Atlanta that said his appeal had raised substantial questions.
Legislators say they are merely unwilling points on the same political continuum as the ex-governor, whose case has drawn notice in Congress.
Nossiter basically excused the Southern spoils system that employs Democratic polsfor little or no work:
At the heart of the investigations is an Alabama institution that was politically born and nourished: the system of dozens of junior colleges, established by former Gov. George C. Wallace, sometimes to reward allies.
A populist step up in a working-class state with shaky public schools, the system is also a beckoning cash kitty that has seen scandal over the years. The former chancellor, Roy Johnson, himself once an influential legislator, recently pleaded guilty in a bribery and kickback scheme. Mr. Johnson admitted giving $18 million worth of business to contractors, for kickbacks. Another former legislator has pleaded guilty to using public money to pay gambling debts.
"It's very evident that it is a corrupt system and has been for a long time, and I think it's healthy what we are going through now, cleaning it up," said State Representative Mike Hubbard, the House minority leader and chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.
The tradition of Alabama legislators, mostly Democrats, having jobs at the two-year colleges is well-entrenched; the question prosecutors appear to be pursuing is whether they do any work. The emphatic answer from the Democratic side, inevitably, is yes. But even if it were not, the legislators and their lawyers ask, since when is being a slacker a federal crime?
"You could put the whole universe in jail for that," said State Senator W.H. Lindsey, a Democrat who was not among those subpoenaed. "Some folks don't like to work."
The prosecutors' angle was made explicit in the recent arrest of State Representative Sue Schmitz, from a district in northern Alabama. The government says Ms. Schmitz collected thousands of dollars for a make-work, no-show job in the two-year college system.
Ms. Schmitz's lawyer, Herman Watson, says she is a 63-year-old grandmother and a dedicated teacher. Mr. Watson said that Ms. Schmitz was awakened in her home before dawn by six federal agents, two of whom were armed. She was handcuffed, Mr. Watson said, and taken off in tears to jail.
Lawyers for the subpoenaed legislators say there are similarities to the prosecution of Mr. Siegelman - in particular, a government penchant for high-profile grand jury summonses rather than low-key interviews in a prosecutor's office.
At the least, a distinct chill is in the air in the corridors of state power here.
"The people who have been subpoenaed, they don't know what's being looked for, what's being sought," said State Senator Myron C. Penn, a Democrat. "People don't know what to say. There's just so much of an apprehension, even to discuss it."