Salmon fishing in Alaska is not exactly a likely place to contemplate what happens to our society when a basic institution like our legal system becomes corrupt. If citizens cannot count on fair and equal treatment when going to court, we will soon tire of this thing called civilization. It’s like going to a ballgame knowing the scoreboard will favor one side.
But I spent quite a bit of time contemplating that because of what I found out was going on in Western Michigan–Van Buren County to be exact. Frequent readers will know that I often complain quite bitterly about the melodramatic reporting typical of local TV investigative reports. But the “I-Team” of Kalamazoo’s WWMT came across a story about possible corruption in Van Buren County’s legal system that has certainly earned them my appreciation and I hope earns them a Pulitzer.
Below are the links to the first three investigative reports. As I write this, I am waiting eagerly to view the fourth which could be the incredible climax to this amazing story.
Here’s the gist of the story.
A business man in Grand Rapids loaned the owner of a storage container business $700,000. After three years of trying to collect on the loan, working with his brother-in-law (Bob Baker) he went to court. Judge Hamre in Van Buren County awarded them the right to repossess 600 steel containers and sell them to recover their money. The defendant then hired some high-powered Van Buren attorneys, and the judge promptly rescinded his order and lowered it by nearly half.
Baker and his attorneys protested. They are in a neighboring county and held a conference call with the judge who had the two defendant attorney’s in his office, while Baker and attorneys were in the other county on the phone. The phone call from their standpoint was not-productive. But, instead of hanging up, they left the conference phone on, and much to their amazement, realized the other side–the judge and two attorneys–had left their conference phone on as well.
The judge and two attorneys in his office began talking about Baker and the attorneys in vulgar language (“f— d-heads” if you want to know). The judge told the attorneys he was not going to give them what they wanted. And they continued on holding this very clear “ex partee” communication–strictly illegal and highly unethical.
Baker and team promptly asked the judge to recuse himself, citing verbatim the discussion they overheard. The judge refused and the three in one way or another denied that the conversation occurred. Amazingly, they got the County Prosecutor involved who issued criminal arrest warrants on trespassing and assault charges against Baker and his attorney Don Visser presumably for their actions during the repossession attempt. Baker had videotaped the repossession and if anything it showed the other party’s aggression. Baker’s charges were dropped but Visser’s still stand as of this writing.
All of this has been carefully reported by the I-Team. Now, you might reasonably wonder why the I-Team was so confident in confronting the 17 year veteran of the bench and two attorneys with considerable influence in this area. After all, what would keep Baker and team from making up the whole conference call conversation? One thing: Baker had a tape recording of the call. And the judge and attorneys didn’t know it.
The tape has been turned over to the judicial review authorities and the bar. It was also turned over to the I-Team which explains their aggressive and confident reporting. But they have not, to date, revealed to the judge, the two attorneys, nor the prosecuting attorney the existence of the tape. While the judge recused himself on bogus reasons, he just announced that he is retiring from the bench almost immediately. The two attorneys have completely denied the allegations and instead have come out swinging against Baker and Visser. Their denial is filed with the court and, if my understanding of law is correct, may very well face perjury charges–let alone what the bar association may say or do. As for the Prosecuting Attorney, when he willy nilly files criminal charges at the behest of a couple of attorneys, well, there’s something fishy here as well.
Now that this has come out publicly, Baker says he has heard from many in the legal community who have said that something is rotten in Van Buren county.
You may wonder why I have so much interest in this story. First, assuming this all plays out as it looks, the I-Team has done a great service. While I am often very critical of the “black hat white hat” reporting, I am also grateful for this kind of investigative reporting which can if properly used speak truth to power. They clearly understand what is at stake here which is why they have already done four investigative segments on this story.
And the other reason? Personal connection. Bob Baker is my cousin, someone I used to babysit when he was a rambunctious kid, and my fishing buddy in Alaska. Good luck to you Bob and team. Thanks for having the courage to help keep our system clean.