MOBILE, Ala. — A Freedom of Information Act request last week showed that the Department of Justice dropped a sexual abuse civil rights investigation the day after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, citing “conflict of interest.”
In 2009, Herman Thomas, a black Democratic judge who had been elected numerous times in an Alabama county with predominantly white and Republican population, saw what had been a promising career come to an abrupt halt after he was indicted on charges of sodomy, kidnapping, sex abuse, extortion, assault and ethics violations. According to the indictment, Thomas was accused of sexually abusing male inmates in exchange for leniency.
According to information received in the FOIA request by Lagniappe, a bi-weekly Mobile, Ala.-based alternative newspaper, an order was sent on Jan. 21, 2009, to drop the investigation citing an undisclosed “conflict of interest.” Ten of 11 pages were withheld in the returned FOIA request.
Though evidence against Thomas was strong, including one of the alleged victims’ semen being found on his office’s carpet, the Mobile County District Attorney’s office did not secure a full guilty verdict. The jury acquitted Thomas on major counts, and was gridlocked on others.
Despite the gridlocked charges, the trial judge directed a verdict on all counts in favor of Thomas.
But that finding did not mean Thomas had been fully cleared of the federal charges he could be facing on civil rights counts — at least that’s what the public thought at the time.
But as it turned out, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Alabama had dropped their investigation, even before the local trial had taken place.
Former Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson, a Democrat whose office was behind the original indictment of Thomas, had looked for federal authorities to handle some of the heavy lifting, specifically the civil rights violations. He said federal authorities “promised me several things over the course of a year,” but they were never delivered throughout the whole ordeal.
“The U.S. Department of Justice in Washington took over and they too promised me things and then they, for unknown reasons, stopped what they were doing,” Tyson told Lagniappe. “In my view, it was a U.S. Department of Justice case from the beginning. They had prosecuted, in north Alabama, a district attorney for exactly the same kinds of activities and concluded it within a year before this one. I do not understand to this day why they recused themselves or why they refused to go forward on what I thought were cases they should handle. I had a clear expectation three times before they recused themselves that something would happen on a federal level and I had expectations as many as two times they were going to do something on a national level.”
Federal officials have raised red flags when looking into Thomas prior to his 2009 indictment. In 1997, Thomas was being considered by the Clinton White House for a federal judgeship. According to an Oct. 19, 1997 story in The Birmingham News, Joe Reed, an African-American political leader in Alabama, revealed that the Clinton administration had sought an FBI and American Bar Association background check on Thomas for the federal judgeship. However, after that inquiry for reasons that were never made public, Clinton never proceeded with a formal nomination.