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Lieutenant Gustl Visits Alabama


These days I have taken to starting the day with a survey of the Alabama newspapers to see how they’re covering some of the matters I am following. I travel all over the planet and have worked in some of its more remote corners. Still, it’s hard to think of a place where the press is quite so blighted as Alabama. Albania perhaps? Zimbabwe? To be clear, Alabama’s press isn’t that bad. In most of the world served by the English language, the fourth estate plays an important role in politics, culture and business. It was a tradition started by Addison and Dr. Johnson. It helped build the culture associated with the English language to its dominant position in the world today. It’s a proud tree. But our ‘Bama brethren today reflect a worringly diseased branch.

Look at this editorial in today’s Montgomery Advertiser for instance, in which Jill Simpson, a Republican attorney who worked in the campaign of Governor Bob Riley is called “one of Siegelman’s attorneys.” (They’ve since corrected the website. I am wondering if it went to print in Montgomery with this gross error. Perhaps one of our Montgomery readers will let me know?) Shoddy journalism? An innocent mistake? I am inclined to think, especially looking at the balance of the Advertiser’s less-than-stellar work on the issue and its tendentious-to-creepy editorials, that it’s conscious deception. What would H.L. Mencken have to say about the Advertiser, I wonder? That takes little imagination.

Or Arthur Schnitzler? I am a big fan of that Viennese turn-of-the century master of the psychological element. And one work of his in particular always amused me: Leutnant Gustl, the coarse but presentable Austrian infantry officer who is portrayed speaking and acting–and then on a parallel track, Schnitzler tells us what he actually thinks. So, I’ve attempted my Schnitzlerian hand at the editorial appearing in today’s Birmingham News. What they say—and what they’re really thinking in italics (though only my conjecture, of course).

Mr. Siegelman goes to Washington
A take-off on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, oh how witty. Let’s distract attention from the fact that the Gonzales Justice Department sent him with no notice all over the country, landing him ultimately in Oklahoma, so that he’d be 600 miles away from his family and lawyers and thus unable to work with them in preparation for the Congressional hearings. Let’s make this light and funny.

THE ISSUE: A congressional committee hopes to see whether former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and others were victims of selective prosecution. In theory, there’s nothing to lose in a congressional committee’s plan to investigate whether the U.S. Justice Department played politics with cases involving former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and others. That’s right, in theory there’s nothing the matter with our Constitutional form of government; it’s just putting it into practice that we find distasteful. This is a tough matter for us. We hyped the prosecution from the first days and the prosecution’s case was built on the work of our favorite reporter, on a crusade to get Siegelman, that we financed from the get-go. Now the house of cards we built is tumbling down. How do we extricate ourselves from this mess? We can’t challenge Congress’s right to ask questions and probe. We’ll just infer it’s all a political game.

In a letter Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee’s chairman asked for information on the Siegelman bribery case and two other cases. It is the first clear signal the committee is including Siegelman in its inquiry, as it had been urged to do by U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, as well as dozens of former state attorneys general. Yes, let’s carefully suppress the facts that many of those seeking an accounting in Congress, and many of the 48 attorneys general—yes say “dozens,” so people will think it’s fewer—are Republicans who are sick of these shenanigans and want them to end.

In our view, it will be hard to pin the Siegelman case entirely on Republicans. The investigation began under a Democratic U.S. attorney. That is, of course, a lie. But if we say it, people might even believe it. In fact of course, the investigation was started by William Pryor, Alabama attorney general, and he was and most definitely is a Republican. Also, the Republican U.S. attorney who came in under President Bush stepped aside from the case, and it was instead carried out by career prosecutors who emphatically say they weren’t pressured to go after Siegelman. Let’s dole out some more lies here. In fact the current prosecution was commenced by Leura Canary, the wife of our friend Bill Canary, mainstay of the Alabama GOP. She only stepped aside months into the case, and even then she only did so after a motion was brought demanding that she do so. But these facts are best just swept under the carpet.

On the other hand, the Justice Department has invited scrutiny – if not in its handling of Siegelman’s case let’s just throw that in. Of course the Siegelman case is the front-and-center most prominent case in the country of wild political prosecution, so we’ll just deny it and pretend that the reporting of the serious papers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine is all just some bad nightmare. This is our beat afterall, then with its handling of other politically charged matters. Some U.S. attorneys in other states have claimed they were pressured by the Justice Department to pursue cases helpful to Republicans, and some said they were fired for not playing along.

If that’s true, it’s wrong, and Congress should be concerned. Of course, while Congress is concerned with fairness, it should also address terrible disparities in federal sentencing rules for crack cocaine as opposed to it powdery sister. And while it’s concerned about justice, it should look at limits placed on death penalty appeals that leave some defendants unable to raise claims even about innocence late in the game.

But back to Siegelman. While there’s no indication from prosecutors they were leaned on to go after Siegelman of course, no prosecutors have been sworn in and asked a single question yet—and one could have said just the same thing about the cases in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Washington before they were called to Washington to testify, so better get this little deceit in now while there’s still time, there have been allegations from other quarters about Republican machinations.

A Republican lawyer, Dana Jill Simpson of Rainsville, has said she once heard a well-known GOP operative make references that could be interpreted as evidence of the party’s involvement in the Siegelman corruption probe. According to Simpson, Bill Canary, the head of the Business Council of Alabama, referred to efforts by two Republican U.S. attorneys (one of them, his wife) as well as to conversations he’d had with Karl Rove about the matter.

Canary and others said to be present when the conversation took place have issued denials. And the alleged conversation took place months after the federal investigation of Siegelman became public knowledge. Let’s make it seem like Simpson’s sworn statement is somehow irrelevant because the case was on going. Of course, her affidavit said that. It said that Rove had previously discussed the case with Justice.

“It is intellectually dishonest to even suggest that Mr. Rove influenced or had any input into the decision to investigate or prosecute Don Siegelman,” said Louis Franklin, acting U.S. attorney in the case. Of course Louis Franklin has no idea who Rove spoke with in Justice, and he seems unbothered by the fact that Rove’e entire staff was given authority to intervene with Justice on any pending prosecution, and did with regularity, or what dealings Rove had with his former partner Bill Canary, or Bill Canary’s wife Leura. And Franklin isn’t going to ask any questions either. Leura, after all, is his boss. But he makes a blanket statement about things beyond his knowledge, into which he has made no inquiry, to throw people off the scent. Now that’s intellectual dishonesty. But what the hell, we’re just quoting him.

But the story has taken on a life of its own, and has been given some credence by the likes of Davis, himself a former federal prosecutor. If a congressional committee with subpoena power can sort out the facts and get to the truth, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Of course, the fact that an innocent man had his reputation dragged in the mud by us here at the B’ham News, and was dragged off in chains and manacles to a jail—those little injustices we’d rather not think about right now. Might cost us readership.

Of course, that assumes Congress won’t do what it accuses the Justice Department of doing – playing politics with its investigation. That’s right, playing politics with investigations is the exclusive prerogative of the Birmingham News and its crusading journalists.

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