In Oakdale Federal Detention Center in central Louisiana sits America’s most prominent political prisoner: former Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to serve 7 years and 4 months in prison. His crime? At this point, it’s reasonably clear that the crime of which he was charged and convicted, and for which he was sentenced with unprecedented severity, was being a successful Democratic candidate in a state that Karl Rove had slated for a G.O.P. makeover. The charges against him (he was convicted on only a handful of those brought) disintegrate in nothingness under inspection. No independent, objective prosecutor would ever have brought them.
But the Siegelman case is one of the hallmarks of the Bush Administration’s justice concept. Like tin-horned Central American dictators of old, the Bush crew believes that it can and should use the criminal justice system to take out its political enemies. It does this in a brazen way. And it has no shortage of ostensibly independent helpers to see its schemes along on their merry way. When the story is fully told, the “independent” players will be exposed as not remotely independent. This was an across-the-board systems failure.
There is a reasonable prospect that this enterprise, which is now feverishly attempting to disappear into the shadows of prosecutorial immunity, will be exposed. On Friday, House Judiciary Committee investigators will take the testimony of Jill Simpson, a Republican lawyer from Rainsville, Alabama (up on Sand Mountain), who has vital information linking Karl Rove, William Canary, prosecutors Leura Canary, and Alice Martin, and other key figures in the Alabama G.O.P., to the conspiracy to take down Siegelman.
Today, the New York Times’s Adam Cohen takes another look at the exceedingly dark and corrupt world behind the effort to “get Siegelman.” It focuses on the testimony of Jill Simpson:
she provides important support for Mr. Siegelman’s claim that his prosecution was political. In a sworn affidavit, she says she was on a phone call in November 2002 with Governor Riley’s son, Rob Riley, and Bill Canary, a Republican political operative whose wife, Leura Canary, is the United States attorney for Montgomery. According to Ms. Simpson, they were discussing the political threat Mr. Siegelman posed, and Mr. Canary said his “girls” — his wife and Alice Martin, the United States Attorney in Birmingham — would take care of Mr. Siegelman. Ms. Simpson said Mr. Canary also said the case had been discussed with Karl Rove. Ms. Martin’s office prosecuted Mr. Siegelman, but the case fell apart after a federal judge cast doubt on the charges. Ms. Canary’s office then convicted him of charges for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In addition to the phone call, which has been reported, Ms. Simpson says she will tell House investigators about a second conversation with Rob Riley. In late January or early February of 2005, she says, in his Birmingham office, Mr. Riley told her that Mr. Siegelman would be re-indicted in Montgomery. He was indicted by Ms. Canary’s office in May 2005, and tried in May 2006, one month before the Democratic primary for governor. Mr. Riley denies that the conversation occurred. There are other red flags, besides Ms. Simpson’s testimony. Mr. Siegelman was convicted of appointing the businessman Richard Scrushy to a state hospital board in exchange for a contribution to a campaign for a state lottery to fund education. Elected officials, from the president down, appoint people who contribute directly to their campaigns without facing criminal charges.
Decisions about whether to bring this sort of public corruption case are extremely sensitive. A prosecutor must examine an official’s state of mind and decide if he intended the appointment to be in exchange for the contribution, or if he simply ended up appointing a contributor. The extraordinary sensitivity of these cases — and their ability to change the political balance of power in the country — makes it is critical that prosecutors be nonpolitical and above reproach. In the current Justice Department, they have not been.
The Alabama media has treated the entire affair like some very unpleasant matter concerning a dear, close relative. News of it needs to be closely guarded, relegated to the back pages if it must appear, and then surrounded with counterfeit news designed to confuse the reader. The Birmingham News and Mobile Press-Register are the two fine practitioners of this artistry of obfuscation and deceit, and they present a real low point for the journalistic profession in Alabama.
But the News and the Press-Register have some rough months ahead of them. Simpson’s testimony is completely accurate, and has in the meantime been corroborated. And it’s not just that. As Cohen indicates here, the account of a single telephone conversation is only the tip of the iceberg. Much more information concerning this plot has come to the fore, and it’s only a matter of time before it works its way into the media.
Don’t expect to see anything in the Alabama press. But keep your eyes fixed on the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Time Magazine and CBS News. The truth is coming to the surface, slowly, but with certainty. And when the full story is out, Alabamians should be approaching the people they turn to for the news and asking: Why did you betray us? This is a case in which the media should have provided the watchdog, but instead it was out hunting with the wolves.