Monday, April 09, 2007

The curious case of Georgia Thompson

Last November— coincidentally, no doubt, just before the election—state purchasing agent Georgia Thompson was sentenced to eighteen months in a Wisconsin federal prison after being convicted of official corruption: namely, steering a lucrative government contract to a company that donated $20,000 to Democratic Governor Jim Doyle for his hard-fought campaign for re-election. The trial judge refused to release Thompson from prison while her appeal to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago was pending.

In their attack ads, Republicans relied heavily on the fresh Thompson conviction as proof of Doyle's corrupt administration. Nonetheless, Doyle won the election with 53% of the vote.

So far this sounds like a routine white-collar prosecution with a political twist, but on further examination the facts get more interesting:
  • The competing bids were close (a "statistical tie"), but Thompson's final decision favored a Wisconsin firm over one that was out-of-state.
  • Georgia Thompson was appointed to her position in 2001 by a Republican, and she was sentenced by a Republican appointee to the federal bench.
  • The U.S. Attorney (USA) in Milwaukee, Steven Biskupic (a Dubya appointee), survived the Justice Department's purge of eight USA's who were deemed insufficiently partisan in their prosecutions of official corruption and "voter fraud" (1) by Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove (as described previously here and here, and all over the net).

  • Most critically, legally speaking, there was no evidence at trial that Thompson had any knowledge whatsoever of the campaign contribution to Doyle that allegedly motivated her decision.
Thompson's conviction demolished her reputation, led to the loss of her job and cost her at least $300,000, mostly in legal fees and lost salary (2).

Faced with the trial record, a three-judge panel (including one Democratic and two Republican appointees) of the 7th Circuit held last week that "no reasonable jury" could have convicted Thompson on the evidence presented. One of the judges told the Assistant USA at the hearing that “it strikes me that your evidence is beyond thin." The written order of the court in Case No. 06-3676 was terse and direct:
"The judgment of conviction is reversed, and the case will be remanded with instructions to enter a judgment of acquittal... Thompson is entitled to immediate release from prison, on her own recognizance. The United States must make arrangements so that she may be released before the close of business today."
It is unclear whether the government will appeal to the full panel of the 7th Circuit.

Appellate courts usually remand cases back to the trial court for further proceedings; they rarely acquit defendants on the spot and order their instant release from prison (after just 26 minutes of oral argument). This extraordinary result came "with a swift, blunt decisiveness almost never seen in the legal system," and "struck a blow to the credibility" of Biskupic and his office.

A Democratic state senator said:
"I think it's right out of the Karl Rove playbook... I never thought I'd see a prosecution like this. That woman is innocent. He's ruined her life."
As Congress investigates the purge of the eight USA's, the prosecution of Thompson presents a larger question: (as noted in a NY Times editorial): "what did the surviving attorneys do to escape the axe?" Is it just a coincidence that only 17.8% of federal prosecutions for official corruption have been directed against Republicans by Bush's Justice Department?

Ordinarily the motivation to prosecute isn't legally relevant if the evidence shows that a crime may have been committed. But the evidence suggests that Thompson may have been "railroaded" based on scant proof of guilt. How many other convictions in federal court are vulnerable to attack because of partisan motives? And how many federal prosecutions were actually blocked for partisan reasons? The scandal in the Justice Department will be playing itself out for the remainder of Bush's interminable presidency.


(1) Sure enough, Biskupic led a "joint inquiry" into voter fraud last year that found:
...clear evidence of fraud in the Nov. 2 election in Milwaukee, including more than 200 cases of felons voting illegally and more than 100 people who voted twice, used fake names or false addresses or voted in the name of a dead person.
But even with a reported discrepancy totaling 4,609 in the Milwaukee voter rolls, none of the alleged fraud occurred on a scale that would have affected the statewide election results for governor or president.

Biskupic seems to have a reputation for impartiality, but it remains to be seen whether he was unaffected by the political storms within the Bush/Rove Justice Department.

(2) Gov. Doyle didn't help Thompson's cause by stridently dissociating himself from her after her conviction, saying that he had "zero tolerance for ethical lapses in government." Now he proclaims that she was "a political football" and "an innocent woman who was imprisoned for more than four months just for doing her job." [This analysis has been disputed—see comment below.]

NOTE: A high-quality audio version of the oral argument is online at the 7th Circuit's site. It's easy to see where the court is headed as it takes the case under the briefest "advisement" before issuing its order.

PHOTO: Biskupic speaking at the Federalist Society, the source of many right-wing appointments to the federal bench (including Justices Scalia and Thomas) and prominent conservative attorneys like Kenneth Starr. The NY Times notes that:
...much of the [Society's] influence, and most of the intrigue, flows from an informal social network, which members use to advance one another's causes and careers. Openly and behind the scenes, members have played prominent roles in the most pitched political battles in recent years, including the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the Florida recount fracas in 2000 that led to the election of Mr. Bush.


Anonymous said...

Two problems with your analysis - claiming Doyle distanced himself. That is an out of context quote that has been used to attack Doyle. Second, Biskupic as impartial. That is based on the former Democrat AG is giving him cover. Doesn't fly in state though. She was arrested for drunk driving after she was found passed out in a ditch in her state car. She continues to be pissed that the Governor backed an opponent in the primary that beat her. Who would ever think that an Attorney General arrested for drunk driving in a state car would run for reelection, let alone feel they are entitled to support?

M.J. O'Brien said...

Thanks, anonymous. Good points, all. (Maybe I was trying too hard to preserve my own "impartiality.")