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For most Americans, the very concept of political prisoners is remote and exotic, a practice that is associated with third-world dictatorships but is foreign to the American tradition. The idea that a prominent politician a former state governor could be tried on charges that many observers consider to be trumped-up, convicted in a trial that involved numerous questionable procedures, and then hauled off to prison in shackles immediately upon sentencing would be almost unbelievable.
But there is such a politician: Don Siegelman, Democratic governor of Alabama from 1999 to 2003. Starting just a few weeks after he took office, Siegelman was targeted by an investigation launched by his political opponents and escalated from the state to the federal level by Bush Administration appointees in 2001.
Siegelman was ultimately charged with 32 counts of bribery and other crimes in 2005, just as he began to attempt a political comeback. He was convicted the following year on seven of those charges. Last summer, Siegelman was sentenced to seven years in prison and immediately whisked off to a series of out-of-state jails, not even being allowed to remain free on bond while his appeal was under way.
Shortly before the sentencing, however, suspicions expressed by Alabama observers that there was something "fishy" about the case as Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine would later put it began to reach the national stage. What initially appeared to be merely a whiff of possible political corruption became something stronger, with allegations that Karl Rove and the Bush Justice Department had been operating behind the scenes. And yet, despite these suspicions and the attempts of a few journalists to bring them to greater notice, Siegelman's case remains virtually unknown to most of America.
As a result, Raw Story Investigates has decided to focus a series of reports, interviews, and investigative pieces over the next several weeks on Siegelman's case. At the very least, the investigation will illuminate an incestuous pool of corruption in Alabama, with government officials, lobbyists, attorneys, and even judges behaving in ways that breach the public trust.
Don Siegelman, political prisoner
Governor Don Siegelman was a popular Democratic politician in a largely Republican state and was the only person in Alabama history to hold all of the state's highest posts. He served as Attorney General, Secretary of State, Lieutenant Governor and finally as Governor from 1999 to 2003.
On Election Day in November 2002, when the polls had closed and the votes were being counted, it seemed increasingly apparent that Governor Siegelman had been victorious in his
As CNN reported at the time, there appeared to be two different sets of numbers coming through for one particular Alabama county:
"The confusion stems from two sets of numbers reported by one heavily Republican district," the network stated.
"Figures originally reported by Baldwin County showed Siegelman got about 19,000 votes there, making him the state's winner by about two-tenths of 1 percent," its reporter added. "But hours after polls closed, Baldwin County officials said the first number was wrong, and Siegelman had received just less than 13,000. Those figures would make Riley the statewide winner by about 3,000 votes."
"Sometime after midnight, after the poll watchers were sent home, a small group there decided to recount the votes a third time," Siegelman told a news conference at the time. "No watchers legally entitled to be present were notified and then a different total was established."
The following morning, Alabama saw a new governor declaring victory in the election. But the story didn't end there. It was only the beginning of a case that would turn the politics of dirty tricks into something far more sinister.
Riley's electoral victory rested on a
State and county Democrats quickly requested another Baldwin County recount with Democratic observers present, as well as a
Unless Siegelman filed an election contest in the courts, Pryor said, county canvassing boards throughout the state did not have the authority "to break the seals on ballots and machines under section
But at the same time, other, more embarrassing questions involving the Riley camp and Alabama Republican officials appeared to have fallen off the radar.
A Raw Story investigation shows that as early as 1998, when Siegelman was first elected governor, Alabama corporate interests already saw him as a looming threat. These interests were aligned with GOP operatives who would emerge again during the 2002 election cycle.
One of those
At that time, Rove had been active in Republican political campaigns for more than 15 years and had recently been hired as an advisor to George W. Bush's campaign for governor of Texas. A wider public would learn of Rove only six years later, when he was tapped as Bush's White House Deputy Chief of Staff after the 2000 election. Rove's name would then appear in almost every scandal involving the Bush White House, the most infamous of which involved revealing the name of a covert CIA officer as political retribution for her husband's refusal to endorse bogus intelligence leading up to the Iraq war.
Rove and Canary managed Attorney General William Pryor's
After Pryor was
Pryor's history and relationship with Canary and Rove should have been reason enough for the Alabama Attorney General to recuse himself from the November 2002 election controversy. But Pryor refused. The following April he was nominated by George W. Bush to serve as a federal judge on the Eleventh Circuit Court. He was eventually installed by a recess appointment, overriding the objections of Senate Democrats.
It would take a Riley campaign attorney
Simpson had worked for the Riley campaign in 2002 as an opposition researcher, digging up dirt on
Simpson had been communicating with Siegelman attorney's before releasing her affidavit, and during that period her house was burned down and her car was run off the road.
Expanding on her original allegations, Simpson testified on Sept. 14 before lawyers for the House Judiciary Committee and dropped a bombshell revelation. In this additional testimony, Simpson described a conference call among Bill Canary, Governor Riley's son Rob and other Riley campaign aides, which she said took place on November 18, 2002 the same day Don Siegelman conceded the election. Simpson alleged that Canary had said that "Rove had spoken with the Department of Justice" about "pursuing" Siegelman and had also advised Riley's staff "not to worry about Don Siegelman" because "‘his girls’ would take care of" the governor.
The "girls" allegedly referenced by Bill Canary were his wife, Leura Canary who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2001 as the US Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama and Alice Martin, another 2001 Bush appointee as the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Simpson added that she was told by Rob Riley that Judge Mark Fuller was deliberately chosen when the Siegelman case was prosecuted in 2005, and that Fuller would "hang" Siegelman.
Siegelman case watchers have noted that the Canary "girls" would be instrumental in "taking care" of the governor by fixing the facts around his indictment. Yet it remains unclear what charges, if any, Siegelman was actually guilty of, because the process had become so politicized and the case so aggressively partisan.
Leura Canary had begun working on Siegelman's case almost as soon she took office in 2001, when she federalized Attorney General Pryor's ongoing state probe. It was that investigation that finally culminated in Siegelman's prosecution on corruption charges in
In 2002, after having spent more than six months investigating Governor Siegelman, Leura Canary was forced to recuse herself or at least give the appearance of doing so over her husband's connections to the Riley campaign. However, it is widely believed that she in fact continued to guide the case behind the scenes.
In 2004, charges of Medicaid bid-rigging were brought against Siegelman by the other one of Bill Canary's "girls," US Attorney Alice Martin. These charges were eventually thrown out by a visibly exasperated Alabama judge.
After Siegelman indicated his intention to seek reelection in 2005, Canary's original investigation resurfaced. Canary had never stopped pushing the investigation along, even against the advice of her professional staff, and in October 2005, Don Siegelman was once again indicted by a federal grand jury in Canary's district on 32 counts of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud.
The Siegelman case was assigned to Judge Mark Fuller, a former district attorney whom George W. Bush had nominated for a federal judgeship in August 2002. Fuller was accused by his
Siegelman was accused of accepting a $500,000 donation from HealthSouth founder Richard M. Scrushy in exchange for an appointment to the Alabama hospital regulatory board. That donation went to pay off a debt incurred by a
The case dragged on until June 2006, shortly after Siegelman was defeated in the Democratic primary. A few weeks later, he was acquitted of 25 of the 32 counts against him, but he was ultimately convicted on the other seven, after the jury had deadlocked twice and been sent back to deliberate by Judge Fuller. During the trial itself there were many irregularities, including strong indications of jury tampering involving two jurors.
When it finally came time for sentencing, Judge Fuller imposed a sentence of seven years, four months and would not allow Siegelman to remain free while his case was under appeal. Within hours of his sentencing, Siegelman had been taken to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
In the days immediately following Siegelman's imprisonment, another set of strange occurrences further underscored the serious ethical and legal questions surrounding this case. First his lawyer's office was broken into, although the thieves took nothing of value and only appeared to have been looking for files. Then, ten days later, Siegelman was sent on an extended odyssey to prisons in Michigan, New York, Oklahoma and finally Louisiana during which time his attorneys were led to believe that he had been moved to Texas.
It was this final series of moves that brought this case to public notice and raised the ire of 44 former state attorneys general, who penned a letter to Congress asking that the case be investigated.
Copyright 2007, Raw Story Media, Inc.