December 27, 2008
Last week, Al Gore sent an email message urging supporters to give money to Don Siegelman’s legal defense fund. Gore is the latest in a string of high profile supporters to suggest Siegelman, the former Governor of Alabama, was the victim of a Republican plot when he was found guilty of bribery, conspiracy and fraud in 2006, and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Now, in the waning days of the Bush administration, Siegelman is trying to win back his freedom — not to mention his good name — in a courtroom in Atlanta. Earlier this year, an appeals court granted his release after he had served nine months, saying the Governor’s appeal had raised “substantial questions” about the case against him. Siegelman’s cause was helped by a bipartisan group of 54 former state attorneys general from across the country who filed a federal appeals brief supporting his bid to overturn the conviction. Republican insiders have also come forward to say Siegelman was unfairly targeted by Rove and his circle.
Making it in prison depends on one’s level of tolerance. I’m used to mopping in my wife’s kitchen. It was just a bigger floor.
Siegelman’s appeal was heard earlier this month and the verdict will determine whether he returns to prison to finish out his sentence, or goes free.
How did a former governor — and a rising star in the Democratic Party — end up in a situation like this?
On June 29, 2006, Siegelman and Richard Scrushy, the CEO of HealthSouth, a chain of medical rehabilitation services with facilities both in the United States and abroad, were found guilty by a jury in Montgomery, Alabama, of federal bribery charges. A year later, Judge Mark Fuller, who had clear conflicts of interest in the case — a company in which he holds a major stake received a $175 million government contract at one point during the legal proceedings — sentenced Scrushy to almost seven years in prison. Siegelman got 88 months.
There was one central transaction that sent these men to prison for all this time. Not long after Siegelman had been elected governor in 1998, he convinced Scrushy to contribute $500,000 to a political action committee, which was supporting the establishment of a lottery in Alabama to pay for higher education. At the same time, he talked Scrushy into serving on a state hospital regulatory board on which he had already served three times — appointed by both Democrats and Republicans — and from which he had recently resigned. To US attorney Leura Canary, the wife of William “Bill” Canary, the close friend and former business associate of Karl Rove, the act constituted bribery, for which she charged the two men. Among the many other charges, dismissed by the jury, this was the one that stuck.
QUESTION: First, was the act for which you and Richard Scrushy convicted actually a crime?
SIEGELMAN: Fifty-four state attorneys general filed a friend of the court brief stating that it has never been a crime in America for a politician or a public official to appoint a contributor to anything, whether it’s ambassador or cabinet member or a member of a board or an agency. The only thing that is a crime is if you swap a position for money. And there has got to be an express agreement that’s provable. Otherwise, the United States Supreme Court says it’s an infringement on a person’s first amendment right to freely associate and make contributions.
QUESTION: The case with you and Scrushy seems especially weak.
SIEGELMAN: Scrushy had just recently resigned from the board and the person I had defeated, Job James, had appointed one of Scrushy’s vice presidents to the position. When I got elected I called Scrushy and said, “I want you to serve in my administration like you did in three previous administration.” And he said, “Oh, Governor, do I have to? I just resigned from that board. Can’t I get you the name of somebody?” I said, “Nope, it’s either you or nobody.” So he went onto the board reluctantly. And this poor guy is still in prison today.
QUESTION: Many observers believe he is because he would not cooperate with the prosecution to convict you.
SIEGELMAN: In an effort to get me, the prosecution went to Scrushy before they indicted him and said, “Just tell us Siegelman extorted the money; just tell us he twisted your arm.” He said, “I can’t do that because that’s not what happened.” They went to him after he was indicted and said, “Okay, we will give you another chance. Tell us Siegelman twisted your arm and tried to extort money.” He said, “I can’t say that because that’s not what happened.” During the trial, he was sitting at the defense table, and they came and got him again and gave him a third chance to throw me under the bus by lying for the prosecution and he wouldn’t do it. This is not the way the justice system in this country is supposed to work.
QUESTION: Describe what happened to you after you were sentenced.
SIEGELMAN: Scrushy and I were taken from the courtroom less than thirty seconds after the gavel came down in handcuffs, shackles, and chains around our waist and ankles. We were put in the back of a police car and driven to Atlanta where we were taken to a maximum-security prison and put in solitary confinement. Then they moved me around the country from prison to prison until I ended up in the swamps of Louisiana.
QUESTION: What was prison like?
SIEGELMAN: You can just imagine. But making it in prison depends on one’s level of tolerance. I’m used to mopping and sweeping floors in my wife’s kitchen. It was just a bigger floor and I had to mop it every day.
Seriously, all my life I’ve worked to try to correct and perfect our system of government to make it more fair, and here I was in the middle of something that wasn’t fair. If God had a purpose in this, it was for me to see how the system is flawed so I can do something about it. There are some things I’d like to see corrected — flaws in the system that can result in innocent people going to prison. When I get out of this situation for good, I’ll be back before the Judiciary Committee advocating changes.
QUESTION: You have claimed Karl Rove was a driving force behind your prosecution.
SIEGELMAN: We know from documentary evidence and from testimony that Rove was involved in the firing of the US attorneys [at the start of Bush’s second term] and he’s been identified at the scene of the crime in my case. We know that others worked with Rove to carry out his conspiracies to subvert our system of justice and to abuse the power of his office and to misuse the power of the Department of Justice for political purposes.
QUESTION: Some people believe Rove wanted your political career damaged because of your standing in the Democratic Party.
SIEGELMAN: I had endorsed Al Gore in 2000 — the first governor to do so — and it wasn’t long after that that they started the investigation. I had made plans after my 2002 re-election — which I ultimately lost because of the bad press generated by these investigations — to hit the primary states. I had been secretary of state for eight years, attorney general for four years, lieutenant governor for four years, and governor for four years — I had all these friends around the country — so I thought I could gin up a campaign not for me but against George W. Bush, against his war, against his economic policies, and against his education policies.
There is no question in my mind that Rove played a key role in what happened to me. From the beginning, the investigation was started by Rove’s client, the state attorney general Mark Pryor; then the prosecution was carried out by the wife of Rove’s best friend and his former business partner. [They had previously worked as political consultants together in Alabama.] We have a live witness who claims that Bill Canary — Rove’s partner — said Rove had taken my case to the Department of Justice. Now it’s up to Congress — and the House and the Senate judiciary committees — to bring Rove before the House Judiciary Committee.
QUESTION: Actually, the House Judiciary Committee has already subpoenaed Rove to testify and he has refused to appear.
SIEGELMAN: That’s why it’s so important for the House and the Senate to hold Rove in contempt of Congress and exercise their inherent authority to enforce that subpoena by sending the Capital police to go get him and bring him in or by pursuing the thing through litigation. But one way or the other, it is critically important that the subpoena be upheld. Otherwise, it sends the message to all his accomplices that they are free to carry out their mischief in the future with impunity because nothing is going to happen to him.
QUESTION: Do you believe your case will be taken up by the Obama administration?
SIEGELMAN: There are lots of good fights, and I know that Obama is looking to end the war in Iraq, to provide health care to all Americans, to fix the economy, and to deal with global warning — there are so many important issues that are out there — but restoring people’s faith and trust in the government, assuring people the Department of Justice will no longer be used as a political weapon in this country, is vital. We are not going to allow the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo, nor are we going to permit the torturing of witnesses until we get the correct testimony to put political enemies in jail in this country.
A lot of Americans are aware of the injustices that have been going on in the Bush administration. They need to know that the Obama administration is not going to tolerate these kinds of injustices. I am hopeful that the Obama administration will work with an interested House Judiciary Committee (and hopefully a Senate Judiciary Committee) in finding the truth.
QUESTION: Do you hold George W. Bush accountable for what happened to you?
SIEGELMAN: All I know if that for a long time Karl Rove held himself up as a co-president with George Bush. He bragged about being his drinking buddy, his kicking-around buddy in the White House. They shared good times together. He was Bush’s “brain.” He was the genius behind Bush. For a long time, I thought they were inseparable. They were as close as close can be. I don’t know what Rove told President Bush. But we need to find out.
I’ve already spent nine months in prison and the guy who gave the money is still in jail for making a contribution so I could persuade the people of Alabama to vote for an education lottery so their children could go to college for free. We need to know how far my case goes up in the Bush administration.
QUESTION: Tell me about the charge of obstruction of justice for which you were convicted.
SIEGELMAN: The obstruction of justice charge is ludicrous. Honda Motor Company offered to give me a motorcycle. Now if I had taken it, they may have had a case — Siegelman took a motorcycle, an unpaid gift — but I said no to Honda and bought the motorcycle. The prosecution in my case ended up convicting me for accepting a campaign contribution to a lottery and paying for a free motorcycle.
QUESTION: What are your feelings about your appeal?
SIEGELMAN: I am not worried one way or the other. I hope and believe that the Eleventh Circuit will see through this and reverse and rescind, which means they’ll acquit me of the charges. If not, it’s another fight the Good Lord has put me into and there’s a reason for it. There are enough people in America made aware of Rove’s shenanigans in this case, we’d have a good fight on our hands.
QUESTION: Will you run for public office again?
SIEGELMAN: I don’t think so. I’m at a point in my life where I’d like to help others. Everyone says, “Never say never,” but at this point I do not see it in the cards.
Paul Alexander is the author of Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove and Man of the People: The Life of John McCain, among others. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The Nation, New York, The Village Voice, Salon, George, The New York Observer, The Advocate, Men’s Journal, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone.