Whistleblowing Along The Path With Heart (Part 1)
I moved to Kentucky with Crane Station in June, 2006, to start a new job as an associate professor of law teaching Criminal Law at the American Justice School of Law, a start-up law school in Paducah, KY owned by the Dean, the Assistant Dean, their accountant, and a respected Kentucky lawyer who had published a book on the Kentucky Rules of Evidence and court procedures.
I was hired because of my national reputation as a skilled and effective trial lawyer handling complex litigation; my extensive death-penalty expertise, including representing serial killers, and my 2004 King County Washington Lawyer of the Year Award that I shared with my 7 co-counsel and supporting staff; my knowledge of forensics, particularly DNA testing; my reputation as an expert at cross-examining expert witnesses; and the successful efforts of Innocence Project Northwest, an organization of lawyers and law students that I co-founded at the University of Washington in Seattle with Professor Jackie McMurtrie.
In 2000, for example, the National Law Journal awarded IPNW its prestigious Pro Bono Award for its work in representing 17 innocent parents wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the Wenatchee Sex Ring cases, a series of witch-hunt prosecutions in the mid 1990s that were eerily reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials. Most of our clients had pled guilty on advice of court-appointed defense counsel who had failed to provide the minimal level of representation required by the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel Clause. Most of our clients also were developmentally disabled. Yet, we prevailed and freed all of our clients eventually despite daunting odds.
The school used my name and reputation to enhance its reputation in the community and to attract students. I specifically recall warning the deans at the conclusion of my job interview in February not to hire me, if they thought my commitment and aggressiveness in defending the due process rights of the poor, the mentally ill, minorities, and the marginalized would anger and provoke the powers that be in the community to take retaliatory action against the school.
“I don’t know them and y’all do. It’s your call,” I said.
A retired and highly respected former circuit court judge was teaching Criminal Procedure when I arrived at the school and, even though he is much more conservative than I am, we soon became good friends. Our students liked us because we had real-world experience and we balanced each other. Although we disagreed about many things, we definitely agreed on the importance of ethics, civil rights, and the Bill of Rights. We repeatedly stressed their importance to our students.
The Dean fired both of us without notice in November, 2007, after he discovered that we blew the whistle on his Ponzi scheme stealing student loan money.
We had about 200 students when I joined the faculty. The tuition was $15,000 per semester. The total per semester cost to attend the school, including books, assorted fees, and living expenses, was $30,000. Due to financial hardship, most of our students had to borrow that full amount from Student Loan Express, the only student loan lender who would lend money to students enrolled at an unaccredited law school. Student Loan Express would wire the full amount of each loan into the school’s bank account at the beginning of each semester. The school was entitled to keep the tuition, of course, but it also was supposed to issue a check to each student borrower for the balance of their loan within 48 hours of receiving the loan proceeds from Student Loan Express.
As the judge and I were to discover in confidence from many of our students over the course of the following academic year, the deans were withholding their loan money and doling it out a little at a time in exchange for a variety of unsavory favors or to grease a squeaky wheel. We also discovered that they were changing student grades after the professors turned them in to reward their favorites with higher grades or to punish their detractors with lower grades. This grade-fu was difficult for professors and students to detect because the school used an anonymous numbering system to grade exams and the professors were not provided with a list matching numbers to student names. The students only knew their own numbers. We turned in a list of student numbers and grades to the administration and it notified the students of their grades. As is typical of many law schools the final grade in the course was based solely on the final exam grade.
We figured out what was going on when some of our better students questioned their final grades. Upon reviewing a student’s final exam with the student, we discovered that in many cases the administration had recorded the student’s final grade (e.g., a B), when we had awarded the student a higher grade on the exam (e.g., an A). We also discovered that some students should not have been admitted to the law school because their LSAT scores were below the minimum threshold for admission and, with some overlap, others were receiving inflated grades in exchange for sex.
We were horrified by these stories and decided to protect our students and do something about the situation. I wanted to go to the United States Attorney’s Office but the judge was concerned that the school would be shut down, if we did that. He hoped to save the school and help the students by finding new owners to buy out the deans. He proposed we notify the Greater Paducah Area Development Council that owns the building and the property in Information Age Park where the law school is located. The members of the council are wealthy and he hoped to enlist some of them in an effort to buy out the Dean and Assistant Dean. He was optimistic because one of them owns the Sylvan Learning Center schools and several law schools.
To be continued.
Cross-Posted at my blog and the Smirking Chimp.
If Not Now, When? is my intellectual property. I retain full rights to my own work. You may copy it and share it with others, but only if you credit me as the author. You may not sell or offer to sell it for any form of consideration. I retain full rights to publication.
My real name is Frederick Leatherman. I was a criminal-defense lawyer for 30 years specializing in death-penalty defense and forensics. I also was a law professor for three years.
Now I am a writer and I also haul scrap for a living in this insane land.