Special Report

Civil Wrongs in Alabama

Sewer politics and corruption in historic Birmingham.

By 8.5.05

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Birmingham, Alabama, will forever be known as one of the centers of the civil rights struggle. Instead of burying its past, Birmingham celebrates it. The sprawling Civil Rights Institute downtown freezes Birmingham's segregationist history and the protests it sparked. In a nearby park, statues depict fire hoses and police dogs directed against demonstrators. Anchoring the Civil Rights District, as the area is locally known, is the 16th Street Baptist Church.

One Sunday morning in September, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. Four little girls, including Denise McNair, were killed.

Flash forward to 2005. Chris McNair, 79, the father of Denise, retired in 2001 from his job as the county commissioner who oversaw the sewer department and the expansion of it to meet federal decrees not to discharge untreated sewage into streams and rivers. A small businessman, McNair was known to be an honest, fiscal conservative who never used Denise's death to try to get votes. The metropolitan Birmingham community was shocked when McNair was recently indicted for allegedly accepting free construction at his house and business, an Alaskan cruise, and $40,000 in cash from sewer contractors.

McNair's was the latest in a series of indictments. Four other current or recently retired sewer officials allegedly received $375,000 in bribes, from free construction on their homes to cash. The bribes were chump change for engineering firms that received $500 million in no-bid contracts. One retired official and the CEO of an engineering firm have already pled guilty. Meanwhile, sewer rates have tripled in 10 years to help service $3 billion in bonds issued to finance the project.

U.S. Attorney Alice Martin still smarts from the failure to bring an indictment against former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman for receiving huge gifts for lucrative favors and the acquittal of former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy. She looks for a very public win. Already Siegelman is starting to raise money to replace Republican Governor Bob Riley, who narrowly unseated him. If Martin doesn't win soon, President George W. Bush might have no choice to replace her.

McNair's attorney is former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, a Clinton appointee Martin replaced. Ironically, Jones prosecuted Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton, convicted of the bombing which killed Denise McNair and the other girls. Although elderly, both Cherry and Blanton are serving life sentences in Alabama prisons.

If McNair is guilty, will a Birmingham jury convict him? After all, he is a civil rights icon who was once the first black state representative elected in Alabama since Reconstruction. They didn't convict Scrushy, who had given generously to black churches through his charitable foundation. "God is great," said Scrushy as he emerged from the courthouse, flanked by black clergy.

Maybe Birmingham is the wrong venue for a fair trial for McNair and the others indicted. One of the sewer contractors also does work in Atlanta, where it is similarly known to offer bribes. Most of the records sought in the indictment for this contractor are in Atlanta.

After all, on the day after a court in New York sentenced former World Com CEO Bernie Ebbers to 25 years in prison for cooking the books, a Birmingham jury found Scrushy not guilty, ignoring evidence that was much more damning than in the Ebbers case. Five former HealthSouth financial officers pled guilty and implicated Scrushy for knowing costs were moved off the books to inflate stock prices. Scrushy also sold millions of dollars worth of stock just before a Medicare billing change rocked the company, which had been the darling of Wall Street.

The share price plummeted and many small investors, especially HealthSouth employees who bought stock through their 401 (k) plans, lost millions. Scrushy now faces civil suits by these investors. The types of legal dream teams who successfully represent criminal defendants, such as Scrushy and O.J. Simpson, are not the types of lawyers who win civil suits that have a lower burden of proof.

Because of government immunity, it is hard to imagine a successful civil suit in the Birmingham sewer case. Disgruntled sewer ratepayers, however, could take out their anger on Jefferson County commissioners unless they reduce the rates on a system plagued by scandal.

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About the Author

Mark G. Michaelsen writes frequently about public affairs.