Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Judge to El-Amin: ‘You spit in the face of the people’

This will appear as tomorrow's Political EYE column in The St. Louis American and was written from the perspective of tomorrow. That is, what reads here as "yesterday" actually happened today (January 6, 2010). Got it? The picture is of Judge Autrey.

Former state rep T.D. El-Amin was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay $2,100 – exactly the amount he had agreed to receive in bribe money – in restitution yesterday morning in federal court.

Judge Henry E. Autrey showed El-Amin no leniency and stayed within the guidelines for sentencing, which called for 18-24 months."You stomped on the Constitution," Autrey told El-Amin in a passionate speech that preceded the delivery of the sentence. "You spit in the face of the people."

El-Amin had previously pled guilty to federal bribery charges. El-Amin was recorded soliciting and accepting bribes from a gas station owner in his district in exchange for helping the constituent deal with his alderman and a City of St. Louis department head.

The gas station owner was covertly cooperating with the FBI, which will receive the money El-Amin owes in restitution.

Federal sentencing guidelines, outlined in El-Amin’s plea agreement, call for 18-24 months in prison. El-Amin’s counsel, Paul D’Agrosa, citing letters testifying to El-Amin’s community service, asked for leniency. He asked for a sentence of 12 months and one day.

Federal prosecutor Hal Goldsmith argued that the federal guidelines called for an appropriate punishment and deterrent. Goldsmith said he had read El-Amin’s letters of support and found no evidence that his supporters even understood the facts of the case.

Judge Autrey agreed. If anything, El-Amin’s letters of support seemed to have counted against him. The judge quoted from one letter that said it was unfortunate that mistakes resulted in criminal consequences. "Some people call that justice," Judge Autrey said.

‘The Man’ in black

In his brief comments before the court, El-Amin said he himself had disagreed with supporters and constituents who approached him claiming that his legal problems were the result of "a conspiracy, or The Man." El-Amin said he told such supporters, "I broke the law."

The only conspiracy at work in this case was the network of undercover agents and informants working for or cooperating with the FBI and other investigative agencies in St. Louis. For the record, the regional director of the FBI, Special Agent in Charge Roland Corvington, is African-American, though John Gillies was running the office when El-Amin was recorded soliciting and accepting bribes. Corvington was not present in court yesterday.

Further, the judge who lectured El-Amin so sternly and stayed within federal guidelines in sentencing him, Henry E. Autrey, also is African-American. For those sensitive to courtroom dramaturgy, Autrey’s formidable presence as an eminent African-American jurist lent a special power to his passionate defense of the Constitution and his vivid expressions of disgust for public corruption.

"I am a citizen of the United States of America," Judge Autrey said directly to El-Amin. "I relish that. I am very proud of it. I think there is no place on this Earth I would rather be a citizen of. There is no place on Earth I value more than my country. There is no place on Earth that deserves my service as a citizen more than this nation."

The man – or, as conspiracy theorists might say, The Man – speaking these passionate words in defense of the nation was a black man. And, though there have been many criminal cases in other courts described (at times, fairly) as a "legal lynching," there was no reference to lynching as a metaphor in Judge Autrey’s court. The metaphor the judge used was, instead, "lynchpin."

"The lynchpin of everything we have in the United States is liberty," Judge Autrey said in his direct address to El-Amin. "Before you committed this act, before you resigned your position, you, Mr. El-Amin, were a figurehead, a guardian and a symbol of that liberty. The people who voted for you, who looked to you for guidance and leadership and strength, did so because they had the liberty to do so."

Judge Autrey construed El-Amin’s soliciting and accepting bribes while in public office as, fundamentally, an assault on this liberty. The judge framed his point in a way that was personal to himself yet magnified El-Amin’s crime to encompass more than 300 million victims.

"Every time, Mr. El-Amin, a politician engages in conduct that is illegal and unethical, it erodes my liberty," Judge Autrey said. "It erodes our liberty. It erodes the liberty of the 310 million, the 315 million citizens of this nation. And we have to try to get that back every time that liberty is eroded. That’s very difficult."

At that point, Judge Autrey rose to his most fervent defense of the Constitution and his most vivid castigation of El-Amin.

"When you strip away the material things, when you strip away the economics, all that we have and all that we really need as people is the Constitution," Judge Autrey said. "The Constitution gave you your job as a representative of the people. And you stomped on it. You stomped on these people you represented and you spit in their face."

Pols and polls

Judge Autrey – perhaps cognizant of the sizable contingent of reporters in his court – brought his concerns back to the people and reminded them that they have the power to choose better leaders.

"In the overall scheme of things, Mr. El-Amin, what will resolve this is the people," Judge Autrey said. "And I believe that the people of this city, state and nation have great intuition and great insight, and most of them understand what they have to do to resolve political corruption – and they do that at the polls."

As both Judge Autrey and the prosecutor, Hal Goldsmith, pointed out several times, El-Amin’s guilty plea to bribery is not an isolated incident in recent Missouri politics. For one, the specter of former state Senator Jeff Smith haunted El-Amin’s sentencing hearing.Once a golden boy of Missouri Democrats, Smith reported to federal prison the day before El-Amin was sentenced.

Smith had pled guilty to conspiring to obstruct two separate federal investigations regarding a minor act of campaign fraud he had committed during his 2004 congressional campaign. Smith – who was the beneficiary of a great many letters of support, ranging from the grass roots to the halls of power – was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and a fine of $50,000. His counsel had requested house arrest.

Goldsmith took a detour, while arguing that El-Amin should receive no leniency, to handicap the Democrats’ insider process to replace Smith. Goldsmith claimed El-Amin was the "front-runner" to replace Smith in the Missouri Senate – a far more powerful position than a seat in the state House, which El-Amin had – when El-Amin was snagged in the bribery sting.

"Ironically, he was the front-runner to fill the seat in the state Senate vacated by Jeff Smith, but for the government’s investigation," Goldsmith claimed of El-Amin.

Ultimately, Smith was replaced by a failed school board candidate and Democratic committeeman named Joe Keaveny, who served his first day in the Missouri Senate on the day El-Amin was sentenced. Keaveny was strongly pushed for the position by Mayor Francis G. Slay, who shares with Keaveny (and, previously, Smith) a dominant funding source in Rex Sinquefield. Slay wrote a passionate of letter in support of Smith for his sentencing hearing. Slay had counted both Smith and El-Amin as allies in the state Legislature and city politics.

Despite the taint in St. Louis politics left by a string of dramatic convictions, Judge Autrey rose in passionate defense of the political process as a means to improve the quality of elected officials. Judge Autrey said, "I think the people understand we have to be more careful who we pick, we have to have greater insight and patience and research to get the people we can trust to do the right thing."

1 comment:

Michael R. Allen said...

Judge Autrey is a true patriot. Bravo!