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Delivering a Verdict on a Corrupt Prosecution


On Thursday, United States District Judge Mark Fuller sentenced former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman to prison for a period of seven years and four months – a sentence of unprecedented harshness and severity. Ruling that appeals had no prospects for success, he also ordered the former governor to be handcuffed and led off to prison immediately in front of television cameras.

Siegelman claims he is innocent of the charges against him, and indeed the charges went forward to trial with no significant evidence to support them. They rested instead on the hysterical rants of irresponsible prosecutors, who would have been reined in by a more conscientious judge. After a verdict was returned, evidence broke which make the entire scenario clear. A Republican lawyer who had been deeply engaged in the campaign for Siegelman’s Republican opponent blew the whistle on a plot hatched by senior Alabama GOP figures, including the U.S. Attorney who brought the case (the wife of one of the most powerful Republican figures in the state and a close friend of Karl Rove), to “take care of Siegelman” using the powers of the Department of Justice in Washington. “Karl” had spoken with Justice and they were already on top of it. And indeed, the account – which has been thoroughly corroborated – lines up perfectly with the timeline of the Siegelman prosecution.

On top of this, the Justice Department has stonewalled requests for information about Rove’s dealings with it, as has the White House, which has now turned to the ultimate game of Constitutional chicken by invoking Executive Privilege. The Justice Department memorandum to the White House openly acknowledges the existence of a substantial volume of information concerning possibly criminal communications between Rove and his assistants and Justice Department figures. The Justice Department has also specifically stonewalled requests for information about the Siegelman case, pursuing a policy of open contempt for and breach of the Freedom of Information Act that ultimately led the career officer who headed the office to resign, directing charges of gross misconduct at political appointees at Justice.

In sum, it would be a serious understatement to say that this case is “suspicious.” The evidence of a corrupted prosecution is already substantial and unrebutted. Suspicion of prosecutorial misconduct arises from all the circumstances of the case, which give it the obvious flavor of a political vendetta. The simple fact is that for each count charged against Siegelman, his Republican successor had engaged in identical conduct involving vastly greater sums of money. And some of this had already been thoroughly documented, including by Senator McCain’s committee on Native American affairs in its report on Jack Abramoff’s dive into casino gambling – of which Bob Riley, Siegelman’s opponent, was a very striking benediciary.

But the most striking evidence that the case was a vendetta comes from talking with the other targets in the case. They tell a quite uniform case of prosecutors falling all over themselves to “get” Siegelman, quickly offering up immunity in exchange for anything the witnesses had on Siegelman, and acknowledging that they had “nothing.” In fact the pairing of the case with a prosecution of Richard Scrushy, the notorious CEO of HealthSouth, was clearly calculated for dramatic effect – an act of political courtroom theater worthy of Andrey Vyshinsky.

One of the most astonishing things I have learned in studying this case is that federal prosecutors offered Scrushy a plea bargain deal in which he would walk out of court a free man, provided that he give false testimony to help convict Siegelman. Hearing that helped persuade me that law enforcement was never the agenda of the prosecutors in this case. Indeed, it was just the opposite.

The final straw consists of the remarkable conduct of Judge Fuller. If this case had been designed by Karl Rove as a tool to help anchor the Republican Party’s control in Alabama by destroying the state’s most prominent and most successful Democrat, then Judge Fuller played his role to a “T.” His conduct seems carefully designed to play to a distinctly political audience beyond the courtroom, and his intention was to tar the Democrats and inhibit their ability to raise campaign funds.

Siegelman demonstrated that the contributions he received were also given to his Republican successor and Alabama Republican Senator Jefferson Sessions, neither of whom became the subject of any investigation or prosecution. The judge suppressed this and made it clear at various points that he had no issue with this quite curious exercise of prosecutorial discretion; he went out of his way to protect political figures, provided they were Republicans. In the end, it should not escape observation that this judge – the second to whom prosecutors turned, after the first judge quite properly dismissed the case and raised questions of prosecutorial misconduct – owes his judicial career to Karl Rove.

Today, the nation’s newspaper of record looks at the farce that was played out last week in a Montgomery courtroom and asks the obvious questions:

It is extremely disturbing that Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama, was hauled off to jail this week. There is reason to believe his prosecution may have been a political hit, intended to take out the state’s most prominent Democrat, a serious charge that has not been adequately investigated. The appeals court that hears his case should demand answers, as should Congress. The United States attorneys scandal has made clear that partisan politics is a driving force in the Bush Justice Department. Top prosecutors were fired for refusing to prosecute Democrats or for not bringing baseless vote-fraud cases to help Republicans. Lawyers were improperly hired based on party affiliation.

If the Justice Department was looking to help Republicans in Alabama, putting away Mr. Siegelman would be a shrewd move. In a state short on popular Democrats, he was elected governor in 1998. He was defeated for re-election in 2002 by just a few thousand votes, in an election marred by suspicious vote tabulations. The charges Mr. Siegelman was convicted of suggest that he may have been a victim of selective prosecution. He was found to have named a prominent Alabama businessman to a state board in exchange for a contribution to a campaign fund for a state lottery, something Mr. Siegelman supported to raise money for his state’s woefully inadequate public schools. He was not found to have taken any money for himself and many elected officials name people who have given directly to their own campaigns to important positions. The jury dismissed 25 of the original 32 counts against Mr. Siegelman…

The idea of federal prosecutors putting someone in jail for partisan gain is shocking. But the United States attorneys scandal has made clear that the Bush Justice Department acts in shocking ways. We hope that the appeals court that hears Mr. Siegelman’s case will give it the same hard look that another appeals court recently gave the case of Georgia Thompson. Ms. Thompson, a low-level employee in a Democratic administration in Wisconsin, was found to have been wrongly convicted of corruption by another United States attorney. Congress, though, should not wait. It should insist that Mr. Canary and everyone on the 2002 call, as well as Mrs. Canary and Mr. Rove, testify about the Siegelman prosecution. In standing by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales throughout the attorneys scandal, the Bush administration has made clear that it does not care about the integrity of the Justice Department. By investigating Mr. Siegelman’s case, Congress can show that it does.

I’ll second all the points made here by the editors of the Times. Alabamians are likely in the future to be studying the prosecution of Governor Siegelman as a second run-through of the sort of prosecutorial misconduct that produced one of the most horrendous miscarriages of justice in American history, the trial of the Scottsboro boys. But there is a critical difference: the Siegelman case was every bit as much the consequence of political plots hatched in the White House as of venal political figures in Alabama and rogue prosecutors currying political favor. And that makes it a case worthy of the attention of all Americans.

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