Sunday, October 26, 2008

Alexandria: Torpedos, Cloggers, and Ghosts

After a short trolley ride down King Street, my friends and I arrived in Old Town Alexandria.

Situated along the Potomac riverfront, this colonial town still retains its 18th century charm. I half-expected to see George Washington and Robert E. Lee, two famous Americans to call Alexandria home, chatting in one of the town's taverns or perusing through one of the many antique shops that line the quaint brick streets.

Alexandria's history begins with Scottish merchants and tobacco. In 1669, the Scotsman John Alexander paid an English ship captain six thousand pounds of tobacco in exchange for the land that would become Alexandria. With the help of Scottish businessmen William Ramsay and John Carlyle, the town of Alexandria was officially established in 1749. Because of its prime waterfront location, Alexandria served as an important export center for flour, hemp, and tobacco throughout the colonial, revolutionary, and Civil War periods. With its bubbling fountains and trees wrapped with white Christmas lights, visitors today would never guess that Alexandria was constantly plagued by war. In fact, the town functioned as a hospital and supply center during the American Revolution. George Washington trained his militia at Market Square in 1754. English generals gathered at John Carlyle's house in 1755 to discuss the French and Indian War. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the town was immediately occupied by Union forces.

Our first stop in this historic town was the Torpedo Factory, a U.S. munitions factory constructed during World War I and used during World War II. Ironically, the former torpedo factory is now a three-story art gallery complete with studios and art demonstrations. One studio featured clay pots with miniature scenes visible only through tiny openings. Another studio displayed enormous stainless steel sculptures. My favorite sculpture: A seven foot steel "bageloid" (the artist's term to describe the sculpture's unique shape) entitled, "Fully Rounded Lust." Very dramatic.

A clogging competition was underway as we exited the Torpedo Factory. Performers decked out in Davy Crockett-style raccoon hats, strips of brightly colored cloth, and jingling bells danced to the tune of a recorder, a piccolo, rain sticks, and
an accordion.

Our 6 PM ghost tour, the highlight of the day, mixed historical fact with haunted tales. Sporting a bonnet and a lantern, our guide led us first to the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary shop where Martha Washington requested a bottle of the finest castor oil just days before her death. Our guide proceeded to tell us of two murders that occurred in the shop during a poker game gone awry. Apparently, the noises of the dead hitting the floor have been heard on several occasions by tourists and employees alike. Next, we walked past the peach-colored Athenaeum and stopped at a house that may have hid slaves as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Rumor has it that when a particular closet door is closed, three distinct voices can be heard singing a Negro spiritual. Finally, we paused outside Gadspy's Tavern, where George Washington had his first birthday ball. According to colonial gossip, George Washington's illegitimate child, "the female stranger," may have died in the inn that adjoins the tavern.

At the end of the tour, our guide deposited us at John Carlyle's house to se
e a re-enactment of his funeral. We paid our respects to Carlyle's family, viewed his 18th century coffin, and grabbed a sprig of rosemary to keep away the evil spirits. At 8 PM, as we walked to the metro to journey back to the 21st century, we observed more people in colonial attire than in present day clothing.

The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
  • Carved Obama's face into a pumpkin!
  • Watched Halloween for the first time . . .
  • Listened to a talk by Stephen J. Hughes (Secret Service Special Agent in Charge), who has protected the Clinton and Bush families

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Playboy and the First Amendment

This week I found myself on the 7th floor of the D.C. Newseum, eating shrimp, crab cakes, and strawberry shortcake at a party hosted by the Playboy Foundation.

Attending the Playboy event was an unexpected work assignment. Along with three of my co-workers from the National Whistleblower Center and an attorney from the law firm Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, I joined a crowd of journalists, elected officials, and civil rights activists at the 2008 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards.

Minus the alcohol and cuisine catered by Wolfgang Puck, the event was nothing like an episode of The Girls Next Door. There were no bunny suits or bikinis. The only Hefner at the ceremony was Christie, Hugh's daughter and the CEO of Playboy Enterprises. Christie Hefner created the First Amendment Awards in 1979 to recognize individuals who fight to protect our First Amendment freedoms. The bold filmmaker Michael Moore received the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in 1999.

Classy in a tan dress and matching shoes, Christie began the evening by introducing this year's award winners, three individuals selected out of a pool of 60 nominees. Christie said, "These winners have shown extraordinary commitment to preserving the First Amendment rights of all Americans . . . Their example is an inspiration to everyone who cares about the fundamental civil rights on which our democracy is based." She ended her introduction with a wink, saying, "First Amendment rights . . . Use 'em or lose 'em."

Here are the three recipients of the 2008 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award:
  • A whistleblower! Mark Klein discovered a secret room at AT&T's office in San Francisco and unraveled the ploy between AT&T and the National Security Agency to intercept billions of Internet communications. Klein spoke out against this illegal government spying operation. His information was featured on PBS/Frontline, ABC Nightline, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. In his acceptance speech, Klein emphasized the complete lack of support that he received from the U.S. Congress.
  • A high school student! With the help of the ACLU, senior Heather Gillman sued her high school principal for prohibiting students to wear or display symbols supporting gay and lesbian rights.
  • A public advocate and college campus lecturer! Greg Lukianoff received the very first $25,000 Freedom of Expression Award. He is the president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education- What an acronym).
Fun Fact: In 1986, the American Council of the Blind went to court claiming that the Library of Congress violated the First Amendment rights of blind people by eliminating Braille editions of the Playboy magazine. The Council argued that withholding $103,000 in library funds, the exact amount of money needed to produce 1,000 copies of the Playboy magazine in Braille, was unconstitutional. What a scandal for a Playboy magazine without pictures . . .

The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
  • Went salsa dancing with a group of Washington Center Students from Mexico at the hip Latin club Café Citron
  • Sipped a café au lait and sampled a caramel apple plate at Tryst, a crowded coffee shop in Adams Morgan with excellent desserts
  • Learned to make mushroom risotto!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Oral Argument at the U.S. Supreme Court

This Monday, the first Monday in October, signaled the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court term. On Wednesday, I joined the lines of people waiting at the Supreme Court steps to listen to oral argument for the employee rights case Crawford V. The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

The public began lining up for the 1 PM oral argument at 9:30 AM. As I waited in line, I was entertained by a group of silent protesters, their mouths sealed with pieces of tape that read, "Life." I watched as members of the Navy were whisked away in black cars after arguing that sonar used in Southern California Naval exercises did not present significant harm to whales.

At 11 AM, when a police officer announced that only the first 25 people in line would be admitted to the 1 PM oral argument, the crowd panicked. A man in front of me tattled on a group ahead of him that had saved spots in line for friends. He left enraged after the police officer told him that he could do nothing to reprimand the spot-savers. Luckily, around 12:45 PM, the police officer led a larger-than-normal group into the Supreme Court. After passing through security and placing all my belongings in a locker, I filed into the curtained courtroom.

The Case: Vicky Crawford, an employee of the Metropolitan School District for 30 years, participated in an internal investigation of her employer. Her employer, one of the highest ranking officials in the school district, was investigated after several female employees expressed concern about sexual harassment. When questioned, Crawford told the investigator that she was sexually harassed by her boss. As soon as the investigator's report was released, Crawford was fired. Crawford's attorneys argued that Crawford's cooperation with the unofficial investigation was protected under Title VII (Section 704(a)) of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Metropolitan Government countered that employees are only protected against retaliation when charges are formally filed with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). According to the Metropolitan Government, Crawford did not actively "oppose" her employer's sexual harassment. Opposition is a crucial clause in Title VII. After losing her appeal at the U.S. States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear Crawford's case.

The Oral Argument: In oral argument, each lawyer has 30 minutes to make their case. I was surprised to learn that oral argument is structured more as a question and answer session than as a typical courtroom procedure in which attorneys state their key points after making opening and closing statements. In the argument that I attended, the lawyers barely spoke for a minute before they were drilled by the nine Supreme Court Justices. Specifics of the case were not addressed. Instead, the Justices asked hypothetical questions to get a feel for the precedent they will set based on their decision. The Crawford case
also illustrated that my English Literature major matters. The main conflict between both sides centered on the connotations of the word, "opposition." (Lawyers debated whether the opposition clause of Title VII applies to Crawford. One side said that she opposed her employer's sexual harassment by simply telling him to get out of her office. The other side said that the definition of the word "oppose" calls for action. It is not enough to participate in an internal investigation. Crawford should have filed official charges.) The Justices were animated during the argument. The most poignant comments came from Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer. Except for Justice Scalia, notorious for his outspokenness and extremely Conservative beliefs, the Justices seemed to support Crawford.

The Process: The Supreme Court only hears about 100 of the 10,000 petitions filed each term. Before hearing an argument, the Justices read through all legal briefs so that they are familiar with the case and the legal positions of each party. During an argument week, Justices hold private conferences and take a preliminary vote on the case. The Justices then select someone in the majority to write an opinion. Once the draft opinion is agreed upon by all the Justices in the majority, the decision is announced in a court session. There is no set deadline for when the Justices must reach a decision. All cases argued, however, are decided before the summer recess begins.

Fun Facts about the U.S. Supreme Court: These are some fascinating facts from my new Pocket Constitution (Yes, I bought a pocket constitution! Now I will be aware of my rights everywhere I go):

  • The Supreme Court had no docket and made no decisions during its first term in 1790. When the U.S. capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, the Supreme Court did not even have a courtroom. Congress provided a small committee room in the basement of the Capitol, where the Court stayed until the Civil War.
  • Justice Byron White is the only Justice inducted in the Football Hall of Fame.
  • Jimmy Carter is the only president to serve a full term without nominating a Supreme Court justice.
  • Thomas Jefferson broke the tradition of justices wearing wigs.
The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
  • Took a 4-hour practice LSAT through Kaplan. Brutal
  • Went tango dancing at the West End Library
  • Climbed to the top of the Old Post Office to see the view of D.C.
  • Listened to a lecture by Jim Clyburn, the Majority Whip for the U.S. House of Representatives
  • Ate Malaysian food at a restaurant in Dupont Circle
  • Visited Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Wonderful selection of wax political figures

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Whistleblowers: Don't Shoot the Messenger

Before starting my internship at Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, a D.C. law firm that specializes in whistleblower law, my knowledge of whistleblowers was limited to what I had seen in an episode of Arrested Development. In the episode entitled "Whistler's Mother," Michael (Jason Bateman) receives a large amount of money to invest on behalf of his real estate company. Pestered by his corrupt family to use the money illegally, Michael passes out whistles to all of the company board members and urges them to "blow the whistle" when they witness someone breaking company policy. The board members love blowing the whistles so much that they look for every opportunity to accuse a fellow co-worker of wrongdoing. Tired of all the racket, Michael demands the return of the whistles a mere 20 minutes later. The message? Whistleblowers are obnoxious tattletales.

Is this television depiction of whistleblowers correct? Who are whistleblowers? A study conducted in 2006 reported that the average whistleblower is a family man in his forties with high moral values. Whistleblowers speak out against illegal activity in the workplace. They report crimes ranging from Medicare fraud to environmental contamination to the mishandling of evidence by the FBI Crime Lab. As a result of their disclosures, whistleblowers often face retaliation by their employers. They lose their jobs and their homes. They go bankrupt. They file for divorce. They seek psychiatric or physical care. Because of the extreme amount of stress that whistleblowers experience, any attorney will tell you that whistleblower clients are some of the most difficult to work with on a case.

Fun fact: The False Claims Act, perhaps the most effective piece of whistleblower legislation ever passed, was introduced by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. During the Civil War, contractors sold the government weak mules, faulty guns, bad ammunition, and rotten provisions. To prevent this kind of fraud against the government, Lincoln created the False Claims Act. The False Claims Act, also known as the "Lincoln Law," allows individuals to sue fraudulent contractors or companies on behalf of the government. The Qui tam provision of this law permits the relator (a legal term for the person representing the government) to recover a portion of the money awarded in a successful lawsuit. The possibility of award money provides incentive for whistleblowers to report criminal activity at work.

A Few Famous Whistleblowers:
  • Daniel Ellsburg: Leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret account of the Vietnam War, to The New York Times in 1971.
  • Linda Tripp: A former White House staff member who revealed that Bill Clinton committed perjury for denying his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.
  • Frederic Whitehurst: The first modern-day FBI whistleblower. He reported serious flaws in the FBI laboratory as well as the faulty analytical methods used in investigations for the Oklahoma City bombing case and the World Trade Center bombing case.
  • Cynthia Cooper, Sherry Watkins: Exposed corporate scandals at WorldCom and Enron. Named Time Magazine's People of the Year in 2002.
  • Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse: Exposed illegal no-bid Halliburton contracts for reconstruction in Iraq.