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Abramoff and “Justice” in the Heart of Dixie


On a hill above Birmingham, Alabama stands a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, a symbol of the city’s debt to the steel industry around which it grew. Today, however, little steel is forged in Birmingham, but scandals are coming aplenty. What continues to emerge from the former Pittsburgh of the south are more details in the unfolding allegations surrounding the politically driven prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, today in the form of an article in the Birmingham News. Or rather, perhaps the Birmingham News piece is itself the story. Under a headline stating “Two Siegelman Advocates Missed Out on State Contract,” the News reports:

The two people alleging that former Gov. Don Siegelman’s prosecution was tainted by politics are tied to a company that did not win a state contract from Gov. Bob Riley’s administration last year. Former Riley Chief of Staff Toby Roth said he believed the lost contract was a factor when the two people signed statements accusing Riley’s advocates of engineering the case against Siegelman, a Democratic rival. “I think it certainly raises suspicions about their accusations,” Roth said. “This has got a sour grapes aspect to it.”

Now as my readers know, I am an attorney and an opinion-journalist, I teach law and journalism students at Columbia University, and as an attorney, I spend a good part of my practice representing and working for the media. My instincts tell me that this story was been peddled by Toby Roth – he may well have called a “marker” to get it run – and it aims to discredit the evidence for Karl Rove’s involvement by linking the sources to a failed contract bid. This is mighty thin gruel. But it all goes downhill from there. And you really have to read the story to its end. As in the Sherlock Holmes tale of “Silver Blaze” the really fascinating thing about the Birmingham News story consists of the facts which are strangely missing. For instance:

  • Might Toby Roth have some particular exposure or interest in the affidavit other than simply shilling for his old boss? A good journalist knows that he needs to acquaint his reader with the relationship the speaker has to the story, particularly the connection that the speaker does not want to disclose. Now Toby Roth is a former chief of staff for Governor Riley. Granted, a chief of staff has a duty to shill for his boss – that’s a core part of the job description – but beyond that? How about the fact that Governor Riley’s son features smack dead-center in the allegations. That’s a fact. It’s not mentioned.
  • Might there be any relationship between Toby Roth and Karl Rove? That would be another highly relevant entanglement, wouldn’t it? Well, before Mr. Roth served Bob Riley as chief of staff, he had a very long engagement in Alabama GOP politics. And among his clients was Harold See, a candidate for the Alabama Supreme Court. With whom did he collaborate in that long and hard-fought battle? Perhaps our friends at the News could have asked a question. Perhaps they could have invested 90 seconds on the internet. The answer would have been: William Canary and Karl Rove. That’s right, the third man who together with Canary and Rove drove the transformational campaign profiled in the Atlantic’s groundbreaking story was Toby Roth. That’s a fact. It’s not mentioned.
  • Where exactly did Toby Roth go when he left Governor Riley’s service? Roth is one of an entire platoon of Riley staffers who departed in order to take up work for Indian gaming interests. Others are: Michael Scanlon, Dan Gans, Dax Swatek, Twinkle Andress. Roth went to work with former Trent Lott chief-of-staff John Lundy at a Jackson, Mississippi-based lobbying firm named Capitol Resources. Among the firm’s principal clients are the casinos owned and operated by the Mississippi Choctaw Indian, whom they represented jointly with Jack Abramoff.

Considering the fact that the Siegelman prosecution springs out of allegations of Siegelman’s involvement supporting a gambling initiative, that’s a very curious fact, especially when juxtaposed with Jack Abramoff and what we know about Mr. Abramoff’s practice of trying to suppress one gambling interest supposedly to benefit another and stirring up the “yahoos” (I am quoting Mr. Abramoff-related emails) to vote against casino gambling. Another of the Abramoff fortes was using his lobbyist position with the casinos to stampede money into the coffers of Republican candidates for office. Indeed, looking at this list of names, it suddenly occurred to me: I’ve seen them many times before: they’re all names that have appeared in connection with the Abramoff investigation – widely considered the “mother lode” of modern political scandals. Indeed, it dawns on me suddenly that this story and the Abramoff story intersect, and the point of intersection is Toby Roth.

The News story also contained a remarkably lame account of the allegations:

“Simpson said in her affidavit that, in a 2002 conference call, she heard Republican Bill Canary tell the governor’s son and lawyer that White House adviser Karl Rove had told him the Department of Justice was investigating Siegelman. Canary and other participants say they don’t remember such a conversation.”

In fact the Simpson affidavit, which is readily available, but which the News reporters evidently couldn’t be bothered to actually read, provides a detailed specific account of what transpired, starting with Canary’s statement “not to worry about Don Siegelman that ‘his girls would take care of him.’” Then Riley’s son asked Canary if he was sure that Siegelman would be “taken care of,” and Canary told him not to worry that he had already gotten it worked out with Karl and Karl had spoken with the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice was already pursuing Don Siegelman.” “His girls” were Canary’s wife Leura Canary, who as U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Alabama, did in fact start the investigation, only dropping off when objections were raised by Governor Siegelman’s counsel due to her obvious political bias and the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham Alice Martin. Ms. Simpson, who gave the affidavit, is a lifelong Republican and was a worker in the Riley campaign against Siegelman, and her account has been contemporaneously corroborated – all facts the News reporters have also suppressed. The statements denying the affidavit are extremely vague “non-recollections,” are unsworn, and in a law court would count for absolutely nothing.

Now going back through the Abramoff database and looking at the names lined up against Siegelman in this affair is a curious exercise indeed. There’s a hit every few seconds.

  • Michael Scanlon – he was Riley’s Congressional press secretary. Scanlon left Riley to work for Tom DeLay and then went to work for Jack Abramoff. He has since pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress. A Senate Report prepared under the supervision of John McCain details how Scanlon and Abarmoff funnelled Choctaw funds into the Alabama gubernatorial race in 2002.
  • Dan Gans – served as Riley’s chief of staff both in Washington and Montgomery. He left Riley to work with Ed Buckham and Christine DeLay at the Alexander Strategy Group, which has been repeatedly implicated in the Abramoff Scandal. Gans is a Republican “voting technology expert” who played a mysterious role in the 2002 gubernatorial election – he was in Republican controlled Bay Minette, Alabama, when 6,000 votes inexplicably shifted from Siegelman’s column to Riley’s due to a “computer glitsch.”
  • Twinkle Andress – is the former Executive Director of Alabama GOP. She was elected State GOP chair while signing up with Capitol Resources. She is now Riley’s Deputy Chief of Staff.
  • Dax Swatek – a key Riley campaign consultant in the 2006 race. Swatek has been identified as working with former William Canary partner Pat McWhorter in the formation of a fictitious non-profit organization in 1999 to benefit Abramoff’s client “Channel One,” a scheme which also involved Ralph Reed.
  • Governor Riley – the McCain report found that millions of dollars from the Choctaw Indians came into Alabama during the 2002 governor’s race – a fact denied by Riley until the report was released. In emails released by the Senate, former Riley congressional staffer Michael Scanlon partnered with Jack Abramoff to funnel Choctaw Indian funds into the 2002 Alabama Governor’s race, supporting Riley. The report contained emails detailing conversation regarding the 2002 race in which Abramoff tells Scanlon that he has been in touch with “Nell” (Nell Rogers) of the Choctaws and “had it not been for what you did in Alabama, we would have had to spend millions in Alabama over the next four years.” The conversation then details what “Nell” wanted Riley to do in return for the “help” he had received. The email states Rogers made it clear that she “definitely wants Riley to shut down the Porch Creek operation.” The Alabama Porch Creek Indians were competitors of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Subsequently, Riley met with Attorney General John Ashcroft about the Porch Creek Indians, and Alabama Attorney General Troy King wrote a letter on behalf of Riley to the Department of the Interior requesting denial of Porch Creek Indians request for Class III gaming. A commission to evaluate the Porch Creek application for Class III (table game) license was created.
  • And who should be appointed to that commission but William Canary’s “girl” and U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, Leura Canary?

So what emerges from this Birmingham News article? We have two remarkably incurious and lazy reporters. I supervise J-School students up at Columbia from time to time, and this product would not get a passing grade. Which is a shame, because this is exactly the sort of story that any journalist worth his salt should dream of being assigned to write on. On the other hand, doing a quick fact-check on their story revealed a lot.

The real story is that the deeper one delves into this, the more convincing the Simpson affidavit becomes. We’re looking at one hell of a scandalous miscarriage of justice, the object of which is corrupt and patently partisan and political. Very powerful forces have been engaged to cover it all up. There are also unmistakable signs of corruption surrounding the Montgomery statehouse – it’s not Siegelman’s corruption, but rather that of his successor and opponent. Indeed, it seems very closely tied to the people who claimed to have launched an effort to “get” Siegelman, using the authority of Karl Rove and his reach deep into the Department of Justice. And at this point it’s simply impossible to dismiss these claims as hollow boasts – we have the sworn testimony of eight former U.S. attorneys saying just the opposite. And just think about it – while one tentacle of the Abramoff scandal, which is the subject of press coverage all around the world, was flailing about wildly in the Alabama political scene, the U.S. Attorneys in Alabama ignore it and instead pour massive resources into its victim. If you made this stuff up, no one would accept it as plausible fiction.

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