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PLN associate editor's anti-Puryear campaign reveals improper disposal of methadone clinic records

Nashville Scene, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN associate editor's anti-Puryear campaign reveals improper disposal of methadone clinic records - Nashville Scene 2008

Getting Trashed

Anti-CCA activist Alex Friedmann goes Dumpster-diving to soil Gus Puryear

By Caleb Hannan

Published: July 31, 2008

No man should look this relaxed in a courtroom. No man who's been here before—and had a decade of his life determined by a judge—should be this composed. But Alex Friedmann rocks on his heels, hands in pockets, looking like a man without a care.

Two broad-shouldered suits enter, a woman between them. The men nod, while the woman shoots Friedmann a frightened look. She has a right to be scared.

He has something that she wants back: A bag of trash. Something she once thought of as nothing is now in dispute within this Davidson County courtroom.

One of the suits gets up to make an opening statement. He wants the bag of trash to be returned. He's calling his client a victim, claiming she's collateral damage due to her association with one man.

"Your honor," he says, "the common thread in this whole thing seems to be our landlord."

No one's disputing that.

Today's scene is about more than the contents of one Hefty bag. It's just the latest twist in a saga that began earlier this year, a passion play involving a grand American tradition, in which one determined man makes life miserable for a wealthier enemy.

In this casting, Friedmann plays the role of instigator. His target: Gus Puryear IV, the top lawyer for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and George W. Bush's pick for federal judge in Nashville.

The backstory begins in 1987. That's when self-described "dumb as rocks kid" Friedmann found himself sticking up a Nashville coin dealer. A gun was pulled. Shots were fired. When the dust cleared, he was facing a 20-year sentence for armed robbery and attempted murder. He spent much of his time in a CCA-owned prison in Clifton. There Friedmann gave an interview to a national magazine that led to an unfavorable article on the company. Friedmann subsequently sued CCA twice, claiming the company retaliated for his words, and won a small judgment in one case.

Once a free man, Friedmann turned his antipathy for privately run prisons into a career. While researching a story for monthly newsletter Prison Legal News, where he serves as associate editor, Puryear arrived on his radar.

The lawyer is well-connected among Tennessee's Republican elite. Bush nominated him for a judicial post last year. Friedmann wasn't about to allow his former captor clear sailing through the Senate confirmation process.

So began his scorched-earth campaign. Friedmann drilled Puryear on his paucity of courtroom experience (just two cases tried as lead counsel) and conflicts of interest (serving as a judge in the same zip code as his former employer's corporate HQ).

Then came revelations of Puryear's membership in the infamously antiquated Belle Meade Country Club, where those of darker pigmentation aren't especially welcome. That was followed by an accusation from a CCA whistleblower, who claimed that Puryear tried to cover up data on prison riots, rapes and murders to protect the company from bad publicity.

Bruised and battered, Puryear's confirmation stalled. So one Saturday last month, Friedmann went looking for the knockout punch.

Puryear owned a Nashville building occupied by a clinic. Friedmann hoped the clinic's work was controversial (read: abortion).

But when he arrived, he discovered instead the Middle Tennessee Treatment Center (MTTC), a methadone clinic. It was closed. As he walked back to his car, he noticed a stack of papers lying face-up in the Dumpster. It proved to be a mother lode of MTTC patient documents that included names, addresses and Social Security numbers.

By law, MTTC is required to destroy such records with industrial strength shredders. For people looking to wean themselves of powerful opiates, privacy is of the utmost concern. But here they were, awaiting scavengers.

With a trunk full of trash, Friedmann tried to trigger an investigation. He contacted state and federal authorities and provided The Tennessean with copies of the discarded records. He also conducted a background search on MTTC, revealing that the head of the clinic was at one time put on probation by the state medical board for overprescribing. But at no point did he think about returning the papers.

"I've been an advocate for 10 years," says Friedmann. "I know that the quickest way to right a wrong is to make it public, not allow the people who screwed up to deal with it themselves."

What followed was a fairly predictable round of ass-covering. MTTC slapped Friedmann with a temporary restraining order. Personal info for dozens of its patients was now in the public. Clinic officials could envision mounds of litigation accumulating at their door.

Meanwhile, Friedmann says that the state refused to return his calls. All he wanted was to hand over the bag of trash. All they wanted to do was pass him on to their PR department.

After admitting that the case was "highly unusual," Judge Carol McCoy ordered the trash handed over to the state. What comes next is unknown. Both they and MTTC will conduct their own investigations (and refuse to comment).

Outside the courtroom, Friedmann's eyes have already returned to his ultimate crusade. The garbage case did nothing to stain Puryear. And though the man who nominated him will unceremoniously retreat to Texas come January, Puryear's allies in D.C. will remain.

"I don't care about methadone clinics," says Friedmann. "The only reason this came up is because this is part of the larger campaign against Gus Puryear."

Friedmann stands up to go. And with that, the campaign continues.

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