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“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.” That quip was offered by Mark Hanna during the first modern professional presidential campaign, that of William McKinley in 1896. But it could just as easily have been voiced by Hanna’s modern understudy, Karl Rove, the man who emerged as the undeniable mastermind of the G.O.P. following their recent convention in Tampa. As Rove understands it, electoral politics has little to do with policy and everything to do with money—in particular with ensuring that his side has a massive advantage over its adversary.
From early in his career, Rove’s game plan was to tap the tills of corporate America by pushing “tort reform,” which is to say, stacking the deck against tort lawyers by electing Republican judges in state court elections. In Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and other states around the nation, this tactic served to fill the coffers of a flagging Republican Party and to bolster its electoral efforts across the board. Rove’s agenda focused on the rapid appointment of a particular species of judge and prosecutor characterized less by their experience in the courts than their history in Republican Party politics. The last decade witnessed the gradual emergence of a Rovian judiciary—overwhelmingly Republican, usually appointed by the Bush White House under Rove’s strategic guidance. For a Rovian judge, it’s an article of faith that corporations and the truly wealthy who control them have the right to contribute without limit to the Republican Party candidates of their choice. This, apparently, is the true meaning of the First Amendment. Citizens United marked the triumph of this program, and that ruling benefited no single individual more than Boss Rove. Indeed it has already transformed American politics from a bid for votes to a scramble for billionaires.
But Rove’s focus on money has been twofold: the object is not simply to raise it but also to thwart the fundraising capacity of the opponent. And that brings us to the plight of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who this week returned to the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, to serve a seven-year sentence. What precisely was Siegelman’s crime? A foundation associated with Siegelman that supported his effort to secure a state lottery for education in Alabama received a $500,000 donation from Richard Scrushy, the CEO of insurance giant HealthSouth. Siegelman reappointed Scrushy to the same non-compensated state board to which three prior governors had appointed him. Federal prosecutors argued, and ultimately convinced a jury, that Siegelman should go to prison for this donation, even though he received no personal benefit from it.
Though it may be distasteful, the appointment of campaign donors to high offices belongs to the rough-and-tumble of American electoral politics. Karl Rove is the undisputed master of this practice; under his Pioneer and Ranger programs, donors who could raise or bundle $100,000 or $200,000 for the campaign were entitled to special benefits. According to Texans for Public Justice, 146 of the 548 Bush Pioneers and Rangers received political appointments within the administration. The Democrats are also familiar with such arrangements; in fact, as I have noted, Barack Obama topped Bush in rewarding campaign contributions with ambassadorial appointments. Yet the Justice Department never lifted the covers to examine any of these appointments. There was a reason for that: the upper echelons of the Justice Department itself are populated with political players who raise campaign cash for the party of their choice. Incidentally, the same could be said of Mark E. Fuller, a former member of the Alabama G.O.P. Executive Committee who presided over Siegelman’s trial, ruling for prosecutors at every turn and pressing an ostensibly hung jury to deliver a verdict that would send Siegelman to jail. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Fuller made generous contributions to the G.O.P. and, in particular, to the campaign of Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican senator who pushed forward his nomination to the federal bench.
So what was different about Don Siegelman? The answer to that question is chilling. The prosecutor who brought the case to its conclusion, Leura Canary, is the wife of one of Karl Rove’s closest protégés, Bill Canary. As Leura investigated Siegelman, her husband played a prominent role in raising contributions for G.O.P. campaigns and advising the campaigns of Republicans, including Siegelman’s Republican adversary, Bob Riley. As Jack Abramoff recently disclosed, casino gambling interests opposed to Siegelman’s lottery initiative played a key role in funding the G.O.P. effort, and hindering Siegelman was a priority for them. The Republican campaign was bolstered by a steady leak of damaging materials from Siegelman’s investigation to two Alabama newspapers tightly linked to the state’s G.O.P. Of course, the substantial donations that Scrushy had made to Republican governors who appointed him to the same board were ignored, as was the appointment by Siegelman’s Republican successor of one of his key donors to the same board. The message that this prosecution sent was unequivocal: donations to the G.O.P. were fine, but write a fat check to the Democrats and you risked a criminal investigation. Moreover, this campaign was not limited to Alabama. Next door in Mississippi, one after the other, leading donors to the state’s Democratic Party found themselves the targets of federal criminal probes. The result was direct and swift: Democratic funds dried up as Republican coffers began to bulge. The Justice Department had been converted into a campaign fundraising tool.
In a rapid series of exposés that appeared on CBS News’s 60 Minutes, Time Magazine, the New York Times, and other publications, the prosecution of Siegelman was exposed as a sham. His conviction hinged on the testimony of a witness who gave false evidence, whom CBS learned had been badgered and cajoled in over seventy sessions by prosecutors who attempted to script his evidence. Even a member of the prosecution team stepped forward to denounce the gross misconduct she had witnessed. Media around the nation including even Rove’s employer Fox News and conservative columnist George Will decried the injustice and called for Siegelman’s freedom. More than a hundred former attorneys general from around the country, many of them Republicans, called for a reversal of the case. The House Judiciary Committee, though stonewalled by the Justice Department, issued a report finding strong evidence of wrongdoing. Yet in the end, Siegelman’s conviction was allowed to stand and he was sent back to prison. How is this possible?
This case bears grim witness to the American justice system’s tendency to close its eyes to the truth. In the end, the courts and the Justice Department, obsessed with their own prestige, were vehement in their refusal to recognize the facts about the political tampering behind the case that had been exposed by the media and Congress. As former New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams observed, they have left a “deep stain on the justice system.” This cannot be purged until Siegelman is set free.
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Chances that a deep breath inhaled today will contain a molecule from Julius Caesar’s dying breath:
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”