Alabama US Attorney denies any involvement in university editor's termination
This 'case is definitely about the first amendment,' says Harper's journalist
The abrupt dismissal of a veteran University of Alabama employee who blogged about the firing of seven US Attorneys has added a bizarre new twist to allegations that the state's US Attorneys targeted political opponents for prosecution.
Roger Shuler -- a high-profile blogger and leading critic of Alabama's judicial system -- has written extensively about alleged corruption among U.S. Attorneys for over a year. In particular, Shuler focused on two US Attorneys from his home state: Alice H. Martin of the Northern District and Leura G. Canary of the Middle District.
An editor in the University of Alabama Birmingham publications office for the last 12 years and a university employee for 19, Shuler was placed on administrative leave May 7 and formally fired May 19.
"I had worked there for 19 years and never received anything but positive performance reviews," Schuler wrote RAW STORY in May. "I never received an oral warning about anything. Then I was fired without warning, contrary to university policy and almost certainly in violation of federal law."
Though he admits he can't prove it, Shuler believes that he was fired for criticizing Alice Martin and other high-ranking political players in Alabama, including Canary, and Alabama's Republican governor, Bob Riley.
He's not alone. Scott Horton, a journalist for Harper's Magazine and a professor at Columbia University who has written extensively about the US Attorney scandal, also believes Shuler's firing was politically fueled.
"Shuler's problem arose not because he blogged nor because he did so from his workplace, because it's clear he didn't," says Horton, who has been following both the Siegelman and Shuler's cases closely. "His problem came from the fact that he wrote critical, well received insights targeting a number of very powerful figures in Alabama, starting with U.S. Attorney Alice Martin and prominent Republicans with which she is aligned, and including a number of major figures in the Alabama media."
Questions about the politicization of the US Department of Justice emerged in 2007, after seven US Attorneys were fired with little or no official pretext, kindling a national firestorm that eventually prompted both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to investigate.
Shuler, a 51-year-old resident of Shelby County, began blogging on the scandal in spring 2007, particularly as it impacted Alabama and its former Democratic governor, Don Siegelman.
Siegelman was convicted of corruption charges and sentenced to seven years in prison in 2006. He had served nearly a year of his sentence by Mar. 27, 2008, when an appeals court overruled the lower court decision to hold him pending appeal.
As Raw Story Investigates revealed late last year, Siegelman was indicted on questionable charges brought by US Attorney Leura Canary, a Bush appointee with a direct relationship to former White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove. Leura Canary is the wife of Rove's longtime friend and former business partner Bill Canary, who also advised the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of Siegelman's Republican opponent, Bob Riley. Riley currently serves as the governor of Alabama.
Alabama Republican attorney and longtime GOP opposition researcher Dana Jill Simpson alleges that Rove had a hand in Siegelman's fall.
Shuler's initial goal as a blogger -- at his personal blog, Legal Schnauzer -- was to expose the corruption of a local lawyer and his allies in the local judiciary, he says. His posts decried the tactics of Alice Martin, US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Martin attempted unsuccessfully to prosecute Don Siegelman for allegations of attempted bid-rigging in 2004, only to have the case dismissed with prejudice.
Shuler also sought Martin's help in her capacity as a federal prosecutor. In the summer of 2007, he complained in writing to Martin about alleged federal crimes by lawyers and judges in the Northern District. Shuler has accused Martin of deliberately dragging her feet on the investigation to protect political allies.
Shuler asserted that Martin was guilty of the same types of abuses of her official position that she and Canary had so vigilantly policed when they attempted to convict Siegelman and other Democratic elected officials in Alabama, including senior members of the state senate.
A stalwart Republican, Martin has made no secret of her ambitions to hold statewide elected office. Her political career officially began in 1997, when she was appointed by Republican Gov. Fob James to fill a vacancy on the Lauderdale County Circuit Court. She ran unsuccessfully for reelection as a Republican in 1998. Two years later, Martin ran for a seat on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and lost. President George W. Bush appointed Martin US Attorney for the Northern District in 2001, at the recommendation of Alabama's two Republican Senators, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby.
Martin's critics say she's used the power of subpoena to further the Alabama Republican Party's electoral goals. During her term, she has shown a particular zeal for rooting out alleged corruption at colleges and universities. She's currently engaged in a frontal assault on state legislators who also draw a salary from the state's 2-year college system. Martin has subpoenaed at least a dozen legislators, the majority of them Democrats.
Martin says Shuler's allegations don't fall under her office's purview.
"Mr. Shuler has made, in writing and in person, numerous allegations against various individuals to my office which, if memory serves deals with civil litigation," she wrote in an email to RAW STORY Wednesday. "Many of his allegations are set forth on his blog."
"The US Attorney, when receiving complaints, refers them to an appropriate federal or investigative agency, as we do not investigate cases," she added. "His complaints were forwarded to the US Postal Inspection Service, as I advised him in my email, as he asserted the mails were involved. He was also advised to contact the Alabama Bar Association. He met with an Assistant US Attorney and presented no evidence of an offense, only has opinions, [and was referred to agencies] that could conduct an independent investigation. I have no knowledge of him contacting those agencies."
She also denied her office was in any way involved with Shuler's termination.
"There has been no contact by the office to Mr Shuler's employer," she wrote.
Shuler, a journalist by training, has published numerous original investigative reports on Martin, Gov. Bob Riley, and both Leura and Bill Canary.
Riley also has close ties to Alice Martin. In 2007, whistleblower Dana Jill Simpson testified before the House Judiciary Committee that she heard Canary promise Gov. Riley that "his girls" would take care of Siegelman. Canary's "girls" were his wife, Leura Canary, and Alice Martin.
He's also president ex officio of the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama, and a frequent target of Shuler's barbs.
Shuler's blog-based reporting on the Siegelman prosecution and other high-profile cases has won him recognition in Alabama and beyond. Last month, Shuler was cited as an authority in an appeal filed by attorneys for prominent Mississippi Democrat Paul Minor, whom Shuler has defended as a victim of politically-motivated prosecution.
Shuler's reporting has also attracted interest from national media, including Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine, Raw Story, author Mark Crispin Miller and Jay Allbritton of AOL News. Prior to his dismissal, Shuler appeared on a local TV news segment about bloggers and the Siegelman case.
Like many bloggers, Shuler vociferously expresses his opinions. His posts offer scathing headlines, such as a five-part series on Alice Martin titled "A Corrupt Bushie in Alabama" -- a sequel to a three-part series, "The Malice of Alice," which Shuler published shortly after "Alice Martin: Outlaw Woman."
"How would you define an outlaw? I would say it's a person who operates outside the law and gets away with it," Shuler wrote on Apr. 24, "By that definition, Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, is an outlaw. Comforting thought for those of us who live in Martin's district."
"Is it possible that Alice Martin is the worst U.S. attorney in American history?" Shuler asked in a April 8 post titled "Alice Martin: Bad to the Bone."
The former University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) employee started to become suspicious that he was being targeted for his opinions in late 2007, when his supervisor, Pam Powell, began what he calls a "harassment campaign" against him shortly after having given him a positive performance review. He says he found Powell's sudden change in attitude bizarre, because they had had a good working relationship for the past 12 years.
On Apr. 15, Shuler received a strange comment on his personal blog from an anonymous user, threatening to report him to his superiors for blogging on university time.
"Schnauzer does your employer UAB know you blog at work," the anonymous commenter wrote. In fact, Shuler was on vacation that day.
It's not clear how the anonymous commenter knew that Shuler worked for UAB. Shuler never identified himself on his blog as a UAB employee but did describe himself as a "university editor" on the masthead of his blog. Shuler wrote under his real name and identified himself as a resident of greater Birmingham, so it wouldn't have been difficult to figure out that he worked for UAB.
According to Shuler, his immediate supervisor Pam Powell, Director of Publications, called him in into her office Apr. 15 and gave him a verbal warning for filling out a leave request form and leaving it on her chair the previous Friday afternoon instead of asking her for permission. Shuler says Powell had given him conditional permission to take Monday off. She was out of the office by the time Shuler left work that day, so he filled out the form and left it on her chair, as he'd done many times before.
Shuler's official termination letter from University of Alabama Associate Vice President Dale Turnbough, dated May 19, says, "You were verbally counseled on April 15, 2008, for failure to seek authorization for time off and for failure to document work time in our billing system. During this counseling session you displayed belligerent and threatening behavior towards your supervisor and received a written warning for your actions."
Shuler denies that he threatened Powell when she spoke to him about vacation time and billing. He also denies violating any UAB policies.
"I've never had a client claim I overbilled them or falsified their billing in any way," he wrote in his official grievance protesting his dismissal. "Pam Powell approves our billing, and she reviews our timesheets. If I had done anything wrong in timekeeping, it would have been with her blessing."
Believing Powell had made unfounded accusations about his job performance, Shuler arranged a meeting with Turnbough to discuss his concerns on Apr. 22. Shuler says he raised the issue of his blog in the meeting but was assured that it wasn't a problem. Shuler filed a written grievance against Powell the same day.
On Apr. 24, an anonymous commenter threatened Shuler: "Yours is coming sooner rather than later." Google, the company that owns Blogger, refused RAW STORY requests for IP information that might be used to pinpoint the source of these threats.
The official letter of dismissal explains Shuler's firing as a result of an IT review of his work computer. According to the dismissal letter, Shuler's computer logs showed that he averaged nearly 3 hours a day of "non-work related" online activities, including research for his blog. The letter also cites insubordination, unauthorized use of vacation time, and unspecified inaccuracies in filling out his electronic timesheets.
But Shuler says that at the closed-door hearing, Sean Maher, a university IT staffer who had investigated Shuler's computer for policy violations supported Shuler's assertion that he never updated his blog at work.
"A representative from UAB IT testified at the hearing that his investigation showed I had never written anything on my blog from UAB equipment," Shuler said. "I have printed news items, things to keep for my story-ideas file -- and they are claiming that was non-work related activity. In fact, keeping up with such news items is a part of my job description."
Maher did not respond to requests for comment.
A Closed-Door Hearing
At his June 25 disciplinary hearing, Shuler learned that Powell had his computer audited for Internet use less than a week after he'd filed a written grievance against her. An audit in retaliation for a grievance would be a violation of university policy.
Shuler readily admits to reading and printing news stories at work, but he insists the sites that showed up in the IT logs represented work-related activity. As a university editor, Shuler was responsible for keeping up with current events, especially if those that involved the university or members of the UAB community.
"I spend most of every work day writing my own stories, conducting research for my stories or publications, copyediting my colleagues' stories, proofreading projects that are either my own or my colleagues'," Shuler explained in the written grievance protesting his termination, "I constantly use the Web to check or verify information. It's a critical aspect of my job -- and of my coworkers' jobs. Not only is this activity work related, it is required of my job."
The Siegelman case was big news at UAB, especially since Siegelman's co-defendant Richard Scrushy is an alumnus and a major donor. Alice Martin pursued a major whistleblower lawsuit on behalf of two UAB employees who reported that the University had misused federal grant money, and in 2005 the University agreed to pay $3.39 million to settle allegations that researchers double-billed on federal research grants. Under the terms of the settlement, Martin retained the power to reopen a civil or criminal investigation against UAB officials. This power, coupled with Martin's demonstrated enthusiasm for investigating corruption at universities, may have given UAB officials pause.
Shuler contends that he never blogged from his work computer. He says he can only access his blog through a special password-protected email account, an account which he says he never touched at the office.
The personnel hearing was closed to the public and the only account of the information regarding the IT investigator's findings is Shuler's.
Under UAB rules, Shuler was not permitted to bring a lawyer to his disciplinary hearing. Nor has he been given access to the judgment of the disciplinary committee in writing. The university made an audio recording of the hearing, but Shuler has not received a copy. He says that at the hearing, Powell was unable to produce documentation to substantiate her allegations. Shuler said she had no written record of having given him the verbal warnings alluded to in his official letter of dismissal.
RAW STORY repeatedly phoned and emailed department head Pam Powell, Associate Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations Dale Turnbough, and other UAB officials in an attempt to get UAB's side of the story.
When asked whether Shuler was fired for blogging, Turnbough wrote in an email, "No, as I said before, that is inaccurate, but we cannot comment further on this personnel matter."
Turnbough's comment is the only response UAB has provided to RAW STORY over a two-month period of repeated calls and emails. UAB staffers declined to comment, even to the point of ignoring requests for confirmations of basic factual details, such as the spelling of their names and their exact job titles.
Press Interest and the Possibility of Reinstatement
Shortly after the June 25 hearing, Shuler was informed that the committee had voted to overturn his dismissal, but he remains unemployed as of this writing. He is scheduled to meet with Chief Human Resources Officer Cheryl Locke July 11 to discuss the terms of a possible reinstatement.
He says, however, that he is reluctant to return to work under the terms that have been explained to him. If he goes back to work, he will be assigned to a new position and he will still have two written warnings in his file.
Shuler alleges that Locke told him she was well aware that the media were following the case. He says she warned him that press coverage might affect her decision, a remark Shuler interpreted as a threat.
Shuler maintains that he's done nothing wrong and he is determined to clear his name. He says he won't rule out the possibility of legal action if he can't negotiate a fair resolution with UAB.
"In the end, the Shuler case is definitely about the first amendment, and whether it will be a dead letter in Alabama," Harper's journalist Scott Horton told RAW STORY. "There are certainly a number of folks at UAB who obviously wish it were dead. They may be in for a very unpleasant surprise."
Muriel Kane and Larisa Alexandrovna contributed to the research and writing of this report.
Lindsay Beyerstein is an investigative reporter for Raw Story, regularly covering national issues relating to civil liberties, corruption, and women's rights. Her writing has appeared in Salon, In These Times, the New York Press, and AlterNet, and her photography has appeared in TIME and other publications. Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com.
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Part Four – How Bush pick helped prosecute top Democrat-backed judge
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Part Six - Break-ins plague targets of US Attorneys
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Part Seven: Justice for Sale: How Big Tobacco and the GOP teamed up to crush Democrats in the South