The question, a bit rambling and not worded as precisely as it could have been, touched a nerve with Don Siegelman, and the former governor’s temper flared like a blow torch. “Bullshit,” he said, raising his voice. “Why don’t you stay with the facts and not make shit up?”
The conversation topic had been the central charge of which Siegelman had been convicted in 2006 and which will return him to federal prison in less than two weeks – bribery, in the form of $500,000 from former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to Siegelman’s education lottery foundation in 1999, in return for Scrushy’s appointment to a seat on the state board that regulates health-care facilities.
Scrushy’s contribution came in two payments, and as the discussion focused on the first one, Siegelman suggested that the questioner (this writer) had implied the money had gone to him personally, when in fact it had not.
“I’m a little sensitive (about that),” he said later.
It’s a sensitive time to be in Siegelman’s shoes, but his coping strategy consists largely of doing something he has always done extremely well, well enough to win election to four of the state’s top constitutional offices: campaigning, taking the case for his innocence to those whom he thinks will listen with a sympathetic ear and share his version of events with a wider audience.
He was doing just that last Friday at a corner table at Surin’s Thai Bowl restaurant downtown, staying on message that consisted of such hotly contested points that the case against him was a political hit job, that a different federal judge than the one who presided at his trial, Mark Fuller, might have guided the jury to a different verdict (“Fuller set the bar so low that a conviction was a little or no brainer”), that those involved in bringing him down were either partisan, had conflicts of interest, had engaged in misconduct or were acting under threats of a long time in prison or under orders that originated with longtime Repubican strategist and former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove.
While Siegelman acknowledged that he suffered a clear-cut defeat when state voters turned down his education lottery in a 1999 referendum, he still maintained he won a second term in 2002 and that Republican operatives altered the results in Baldwin County to swing the election to GOP challenger Bob Riley. Fanning the flames a bit more, he also said the GOP stole the 1994 chief justice’s election away from Democratic incumbent Sonny Hornsby. He also said the law is not clear on what constitutes a bribe and a campaign contribution, and that it needs clarity given the vast amount of corporate money going into the current presidential campaign.
“I mean, if what I did can send me to jail for 6 1/2 years, what some of these people are doing can bring them before a firing squad,” he said.
“A lot of people are pumping in a lot of money, and they’re not doing it for good government,” Siegelman added. “They’re doing it because they expect that when their candidate gets elected, they are going to do something that is favorable to them. That doesn’t mean that there is a deal, just like there wasn’t a deal between me and Scrushy.”
Siegelman did not make many of these arguments on August 3 in Montgomery when he appeared before Judge Fuller to be re-sentenced. It was a tearful, apologetic time with his wife Lori, his daughter Dana and his son Joseph, and his children are mounting a campaign to get him a presidential pardon or a commutation of his sentence. By the time he was re-sentenced, Siegelman already had spent about nine months in prison, but a federal appeals court had ordered his release so he could pursue the appeal of his case. By Aug. 3, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear his appeal, and a three-judge panel had upheld his conviction while throwing out two of the seven charges of which he had been convicted. Scrushy, meanwhile, who had been convicted of bribery and other charges in the same case, was now free after spending nearly six years in prison.
Both Siegelman and Scrushy were convicted following a six-week jury trial. In upholding Siegelman’s bribery conviction, the three-judge panel said “the jury was instructed that they could not convict the defendants of bribery unless they found that ‘the Defendant and official agree[d] that the official will take specific action in exchange for the thing of value.’”
The panel also said “the evidence of a corrupt agreement between Siegelman and Scrushy to exchange the CON Board seat for a campaign donation was sufficient to permit a reasonable juror to find such a quid pro quo.”
For now, those words are carrying a lot more weight than whatever Siegelman and his supporters and lawyers can say on his behalf.
And three paragraphs detailing the criminal case round out his online biography at the state Department of Archives and History. They, too, are a weighty stain on the biography’s otherwise positive listing of economic development in the auto and aerospace industries, tort reform, school construction and educational improvement.
Siegelman says he would have built on those accomplishments in another term as governor had Republicans not made it their business to destroy him. He says he would have gotten the education lottery up and running, casino gambling in Mobile, maybe in the Black Belt and Birmingham, too, and gotten Kia Motors executives to locate their manufacturing plant in Alabama and not in west Georgia.
He does not know where he will serve his time, other than he expects it to be a minimum-security facility. Even after he trades his civilian clothing for prison garb and his freedom of movement for confinement, he will still be in campaign mode to prove he is and has been right – about his innocence, the partisan prosecution that targeted him and the murkiness of the law on bribery. It may not be his last campaign. But it already is his longest.
Editor’s note – Contributing writer Tom Gordon met Don Siegelman while the two were students at the University of Alabama in the late 1960s. Later, after Siegelman graduated and was a student at Georgetown University School of Law in Washington, D.C., the two stayed in touch, and Siegelman was instrumental in getting the late U.S. Rep Allard Lowenstein, D-NY, to hold hearings at UA over alleged police misconduct during student unrest following the fatal National Guard shootings of students at Kent State in Ohio in the spring of 1970. In the fall of that year, Siegelman later arranged for Gordon and two UA students to come to New York and help campaign for Lowenstein’s re-election. Gordon also voted for Siegelman in some of his past campaigns and smoked dope with him eight years before he made his first bid for public office.