In this interesting analysis, Legal Times senior editor Douglas McCollam explains that Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick got caught in the legal version of an illegal shift – an act that is technically illegal, but rarely enforced, unexpectedly becomes the focus of a media feeding frenzy that inflames public opinion and compels aggressive prosecutorial action for a hitherto low-priority infraction hammer and tong.

Those in the midst of this perfect storm of public opprobrium and prosecutorial zeal often “feel unjustly persecuted,” writes McCollam, adding that “their plight draws sympathetic clucking from supporters about how ‘too big a deal’ is being made of their offense.”

McCollam then details how the illegal shift has also ensnared baseball players “juiced up on steroids,” Wall Street tycoons who were sharing “inside information like they were trading recipes over the back fence,” as well as K Street lobbyists and politicians with a penchant for peccadilloes:

For years well-heeled lobbyists like Jack Abramoff conducted their influence peddling more or less out in the open, or at least at prominent tables in high-end eateries. Then the shift hit, and suddenly the line dividing the plainly illegal from the merely sleazy oozed over a couple of spots, helping land Abramoff and several of his associates in jail and sending other lobbyists running for cover, at least for a while.

A similar sort of shift caught President Bill Clinton by surprise. Before the Paula Jones case, no one really imagined a sitting president could be hauled into court on a civil suit and quizzed about his sexual escapades. Clinton protested on national TV that he had been forced to answer questions that “no American citizen would ever want to answer.” … The line had shifted, just as it had for presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1987 when previously accommodating reporters defied convention and splashed his extramarital dalliances across the front page.

But perhaps the greatest self-proclaimed victim of the shift was President Richard Nixon, who long after he was driven from office by the Watergate scandal continued to claim that his predecessors had engaged in far worse political shenanigans than he ever had. Nixon clearly saw himself as the victim of an illegal shift about which kind of dirty tricks were allowed a politician and which were not. Like so many others, he failed to notice not so much that he had crossed the line, but that the line had crossed under him. “I am not a crook,” Nixon famously declared near the bitter end of his struggle. Funny, that’s pretty much what Michael Vick’s been saying.

Gee, The Stiletto thought Vick was saying, “I did not stage dog fights with that pit bull, my pet.” Oh well, her mistake.

One could argue that Leona Helmsley also got caught in an illegal shift. Before she went to jail on charges of tax evasion and other financial improprieties, no one really lost sleep over owners of a profitable business treating the AP department like a petty cash fund. In a retrospective of Leona’s life and times New York Times columnist Gail Collins describes her as “an unusual combination of ’80s excess and a Depression-era pathological cheapness,” adding:

She rubbed some people the wrong way — including, it appeared, almost all her relatives and virtually every person she had ever employed or done business with. They talked to the newspapers, then the prosecutors, and eventually the Helmsleys were charged with 235 counts of tax evasion and other financial misdeeds by the state attorney general and U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. …

Given the tsunami of rancor before, during and after the trial, you’d have thought that Leona had bankrupted the steel mill, thrown the whole town out of work and run off with the church poor box. Ed Hayes, who was representing one of her former employees, called the prosecutor’s office to try to delay producing his client for questioning as a potential witness. He heard hysterical laughter on the other end of the line. “I can’t get through the room full of people I got,” the prosecutor told Hayes. Men and women no one had ever heard of were walking in off the street, volunteering to testify against Leona. The office looked like Yankee Stadium on the day World Series tickets go on sale.

And here’s the kicker: “You’ve got to say this for Leona Helmsley: She had nothing to do with global warming and she never got us into a war.”

In case you didn’t get it, Collins is obliquely suggesting that President Bush is solely responsible for global warming (all those farting cows have nothing to do with it), and he single-handedly got us into the Iraq War (Saddam flouting U.N. resolutions for more than a decade had nothing to do with it).

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