State of the Union

January 28, 2014

When President Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union address he is reported to be emphasizing the problem of economic injustice. At first glance, this would seem to be a good thing, since the extraordinary re-distribution of wealth to the top 1% has only accelerated in the past 4 years, and the ability of Americans to improve their financial situation has significantly declined.

I say “at first glance” because without a radical change of policy the Obama Administration will only continue to accelerate these trends. Maybe some of you remember Jim DeMint’s infamous “you lie” outburst during the first State of the Union address by Obama? Maybe it should have been held in reserve for this one. Let me explain why …

The fact is that 95% of the benefits of the “Obama Recovery” have gone to only the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans. The fact is that during the same Administration that has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all other Presidents combined, prosecutions of white collar crime has virtually stopped. Journalists, Congress, academics … all agree that illegal activity by Wall Street bankers has escalated since the taxpayer bailouts, illegal activity that has robbed the taxpayers of countless billions SINCE the bailout. I think we all understand now that Congress has been beholden to Wall St. and billionaire donors for years, but “say it ain’t so Barak”! 

A few years back, March 27, 2009 to be exact, President Obama held a meeting with the Lords of Wall St. at the White House.  During that meeting he reportedly cut a deal to not criminally prosecute any of the bankers for the massive fraud that had nearly destroyed the economy. At the time, the President denied this leak, but facts speak for themselves. Prosecutions of white collar crimes has reached an all time low under the Obama Justice Department, even as more and more evidence of white collar crime is being unearthed. 

Many of the rich and their hired apologists in government and the media accuse economic justice advocates of simply being envious of the rich and desirous of a something for nothing society. The fact is that much of what has caused such an unjust distribution of wealth has been a rigged tax code and illegal activity by banks “too big to fail”. We simply want a fair playing field.

When President Obama talks about the need to “protect the middle class” and to “restore the ability of Americans to improve their financial opportunities”, realize that his policies have been designed by Wall St. to protect Wall St. and not our own well being.  Without a radical reversal of his own policies, it would be a false promise (a lie).    


Remembering Griffin Bell

January 13, 2009

I was saddened by NPR’s story of the passing of former United States Attorney General Griffin Bell who died this past week of cancer. After serving as a federal district court judge for 15 years, Griffin left the bench and shortly thereafter was appointed by President Carter as United States Attorney General. Griffin was a remarkable figure and civil rights advocate. He worked tirelessly on desegregation of public schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. His endeavors were met with great opposition by the states and public schools who tenaciously resisted the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. Griffin never backed down.

Perhaps Bell will be remember best however for taking over a deeply tainted Justice Department in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Remember that Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell was the first (and perhaps not the last) AG convicted and imprisoned for his role in the break-in of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Griffin’s task was to restore public confidence in the Justice Department during a time of immense public distrust of the agency. And how did Griffin do this? He made the agency transparent by publishing his daily logs and calendars allowing the media and public to know what he and the agency were doing on a daily basis. Griffin also involved career professionals in the daily decision making of the agency so as minimize the appearance of political ties to the White House.

What a stark contrast to the Bush Justice Department which has been politicized to an extreme. Indeed, the Bush–Gonzales Justice Department has operated itself in a ‘cloak and dagger’ fashion by dreaming up novel and unfounded legal arguments to support “state secrets” and other vague “privileges” to protect and shield the agencies misdeeds. What we don’t know (and can’t discover) can’t hurt us, right?

If only there were another Griffin Bell, I’m certain we need him now just as we needed him before.

Sunday News Programs

January 12, 2009

Some random thoughts after spending a rare Sunday morning watching the news shows like “Meet the Press”:

A man named Madoff may be going to jail because he made $50 billion of other people’s money disappear. Sounds about right, but what about this? President-elect Obama said in an interview with ABC News that he was told that nobody has been accounting for the $750 billion of our tax money that Congress approved. In other words, money is gone and we have no idea where it went. If Madoff should go to jail for $50 billion, what should happen to people who make $350 billion disappear?

Congress gives $350 billion of our tax money to Wall Street Bankers to keep them solvent and they promptly give out $70 billion as buy-out bonuses to executives. That means that some of the same people who lost their homes because investment firms holding their mortgages refused to refinance ended up giving the same people who took their homes a loan AND a bonus. Who needs the money more than a family who is about to lose their home or a banker looking for a bonus? Why am I remembering the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” (Makes Me Wanna Holler)?

Seven years ago we were told that we were invading Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and free Afghanistan from terrorists. Now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has told us that we are losing the war to the Taliban and desperately needs more troops. Is Afghanistan going to become Obama’s Iraq (or Viet Nam)?

Why is there ANY debate as to whether or not the Bush Administration should be investigated for any violations of law when the evidence is manifest? They ADMIT to authorizing interrogation of war prisoners that violated existing U.S. and International laws. They ADMIT to warrantless wiretapping of American citizens? Could it be that members of Congress were complicit? Could it be that President-elect Obama can’t prosecute crimes he enabled when he was a member of the Senate (see FISA)? How do we hold any President to any standard of law or conduct when we refuse to hold the Administration responsible for crimes they admit? Bush/Cheney not only broke the law but they are arrogant about it. This is not about the past, it’s about the future.

What are the chances of Justice Dept. lawyers investigating themselves for violating ethical guidelines or the law they committed on orders from Bush/Cheney/Gonzales?

The politics of fear

August 19, 2008

We just finished a long nightmare with the Government which began three years ago with a raid by nearly 100 FBI agents on my office and the homes of my employees. The agents raiding my law firm had Kevlar vests and extra clips of ammunition – shock and awe. Were they looking for terrorists? No. Their allegations were that we had violated Campaign Finance Laws. More armed FBI agents were assigned to investigate our contributions to the Edwards presidential campaign than troops had been tasked to find Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. I’m not kidding! In the end, the Government spent millions of dollars to investigate less than $150,000 in contributions. Why?

The heavy-handed tactics of the Justice Department were calculated to produce one thing: FEAR. Bush justice hoped that fear would produce evidence so they threatened my employees – who were offered deals to buy their freedom through false testimony. Dozens of people were told “you are a criminal and you will lose your job, your family and go to jail unless you cooperate against Fieger.”

This brings me to a point: fear is a powerful emotion and a powerful tool.

Fear is the tool that Governments have used to get consent. We need look no farther than the past few years to passage of the Patriot Act and FISA as contemporary examples of how many Americans are willing to sacrifice liberty for the illusion of security. Fear is the companion of tyrants. The only defense to fear is the courage to act for something more important than ourselves.

“Fear is the companion of tyrants. The only defense to fear is the courage to act for something more important than ourselves.”

In my case, the Government wanted to take me out as an example to other attorneys. In a policy that originated in the White House, the DOJ began to target trial lawyers who were contributing to the 2004 Edwards Campaign (Edwards was considered by Karl Rove as the probable Democratic nominee) with the goal of suppressing contributions by prosecuting trial attorneys in highly publicized trials. I was a trial lawyer, a former candidate of the Democratic Party for Governor of Michigan and prominent advocate of Edwards as President. “W” had attributed his loss of the Michigan Primary in 2000 in part to me in a concession speech delivered at Lawrence Technological University. In other words, I was a perfect target for them – except for one thing: I wasn’t afraid of them.

I wasn’t afraid of them but I was afraid of what they could do to my friends and their families. In the end though, I was less afraid then I was outraged by their tactics. I was NOT going to let them get away with it. Not only my career and freedom were on the line, but also the livelihood of over 60 loyal employees and hundreds of their family members, not to mention the of safeguarding the electoral system and the judicial system.

It sounds like an exaggeration to consider my resistance as important for the electoral and judicial systems but this is how I thought of it. If we allow the Bush Administration to control who their opposition was (by intimidating contributors), then we were in big trouble. This was not an isolated case of payback or intimidation. I was part of a campaign being run by the DOJ.

A Medal of Honor winner once was asked if he was ever afraid. His response was that he was always afraid in combat. He said that real heroes were not people who had no fears; they were people who overcame their fears and did the right thing. I was fortunate to have the best trial attorney in the country representing me – my friend Gerry Spence. He is a man of great courage, maybe not so much for fighting the government as for being willing to have a trial attorney as a client. Together, we had the courage to fight and to prevail. I must admit that during jury deliberations I felt fear — loss of control of my destiny, and it was Gerry who got me through this tough time.

I am most proud of the fact that my partner, Ven Johnson, was also charged and faced the same penalties I did, but he never wavered once. He was charged for one reason only – to flip against me in exchange for a “deal”. He could have easily saved hundreds of sleepless nights and his career by taking their deal. He had a family to consider as well as his own career and freedom. The same was true for each and every one of the employees of my law firm. Some of them were scared to tears. Yet not one single employee agreed to falsely testify for the Government. I could not have been more proud of them. You see, these were ordinary citizens, secretaries, maintenance, couriers, etc., many with no training in the law, who overcame their fears and became heroes. In contrast, and very much to my embarrassment as an attorney, many of my fellow Michigan attorneys were cowed into silence. I guess lawyers are subject to the same fears as everyone else – fear for their livelihood, their freedom. I have always believed that attorneys were the first line of defense against tyranny. But in this case the courage of ordinary citizens shamed the silence of the legal community. In this case, ordinary citizens showed attorneys how to defend liberty.

We all have fears and it is a powerful, primal emotion. Fear helps us to survive. But when fear paralyzes us then it is debilitating. I chose to fight. I believe that what distinguishes real lawyers from those who simply have a law degree is the strength to overcome fear and act for the good of all.

How do you deal with your fear?