Significant new information is appearing on the Siegelman case, in the form of the 143-page deposition of Jill Simpson, a Republican lawyer who previously issued an affidavit that described a telephone conversation in which Alabama’s leading G.O.P. strategist described Rove intervening with the Justice Department to get the Siegelman case going. The deposition is backed by a mountain of documents that corroborate Simpson’s statements on most critical points. The transcript was leaked by Republican Judiciary Committee staffers earlier in the week to the vest-pocket publication of the Alabama G.O.P., the Birmingham News, as I noted yesterday. Today, however, Time magazine weighs in with an accurate account of the transcript, which I am still reviewing.
A Republican lawyer claims she was told that Karl Rove—while serving as President Bush’s top political adviser—had intervened in the Justice Department’s prosecution of Alabama’s most prominent Democrat. Longtime Alabama G.O.P. activist Dana Jill Simpson first made the allegation in June, but has now provided new details in a lengthy sworn statement to the House Judiciary Committee. The Committee is expected to hold public hearings on the Alabama case next week as part of its investigation of possible political interference by the Bush Administration in the activities of the Department of Justice. Simpson said in June that she heard a close associate of Rove say that the White House political adviser “had spoken with the Department of Justice” about “pursuing” Don Siegelman, a former Democratic governor of Alabama, with help from two of Alabama’s U.S. attorneys. Siegelman was later indicted on 32 counts of corruption, convicted on seven of them, and is currently serving an 88-month sentence in Federal prison.
If Simpson’s version of events is accurate, it would show direct political involvement by the White House in federal prosecutions — a charge leveled by Administration critics in connection with the U.S. attorney scandal that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. But her account is disputed; those who she alleges told her about Rove’s involvement during a G.O.P. campaign conference call claim that no such conversation took place. . .
[Simpson] recalls conversations in early 2005 with Rob Riley, Jr., son of Alabama’s current Republican governor, over his father’s coming gubernatorial race, in which Siegelman appeared to be the top Democratic challenger. The younger Riley, she says, told her that his father and Bill Canary, the state’s top Republican political operative and a longtime friend of Rove, contacted Rove in late 2004, after which he intervened with the Justice Department’s Public Integrity section to push for criminal prosecution of Siegelman. Months later, in May 2005, Siegelman was indicted, setting off a chain of events that led to his imprisonment and the end of his political career.
Simpson also claims Riley, Jr., named the judge who would eventually be assigned to the case, and says Riley told her the judge would “hang Don Siegelman” because of a grudge against the former governor. She says he also specified one of the exact charges that Siegelman would later face. She says Riley, Jr., told her that Siegelman had conceded the close 2002 governor’s race to his father only after being told he would no longer be subject to possible federal corruption charges.
I have previously documented Judge Fuller’s grudge against Siegelman, which was recorded in a local newspaper in Alabama’s wiregrass area. You can get the complete background in “Judge Fuller: A Siegelman Grudge Match.” As I discovered in my earlier research, Simpson’s claims of long familiarity with Alabama Governor Bob Riley, and his son, Birmingham lawyer Rob Riley, check out. Her dealings with both stretch back to the period well before Riley’s election as governor and are well documented. Simpson turned over some of those documents to the Judiciary Committee, and they thoroughly corroborate her claims. Zagorin gives us a sampling:
Simpson also provided evidence aimed at refuting the younger Riley’s claims, when the allegations first surfaced last June, that he barely knew Rove. This evidence includes a letter, over which a message is scrawled in what Simpson says is Riley’s handwriting. The message reads, “To: Jill — I e-mailed this to (name redacted), Karl (signed) Rob”. Simpson says Riley’s reference is to Karl Rove. Riley counters that “Karl” refers to another lawyer. The president of the company whose case Riley was handling at the time said: “Rob Riley mentioned Karl Rove about four or five times as someone he was getting in touch with to help settle our business in Washington.”
When the Judiciary Committee publicly examines the Siegelman case next week, sources close to the panel say that former Alabama U.S. attorney Doug Jones will likely be a witness. Jones had been Siegelman’s lawyer until 2005, and says that in July 2004, he was told by federal prosecutors that only three areas of potential wrongdoing by the former governor were under investigation. Yet when Siegelman went to trial, he faced a 32-count indictment. “We on the defense believed that the case would soon be over, based on that conference with Federal prosecutors in July 2004,” Jones said.
The external evidence perfectly matches the allegations—the vigor of the prosecutorial inquiry was measured perfectly to whether Siegelman was going to contest the G.O.P.’s grip on the Alabama statehouse. Moreover, Karl Rove’s fingerprints are now well documented, and they are all over the Siegelman case. At the core stand the senior figures of the Alabama G.O.P., many of them Karl Rove’s clients, and the U.S. Attorney in Montgomery—who is the wife of the state’s leading G.O.P. strategist, and a close and long-standing friend of Karl Rove’s.
These allegations also help put a focus on the role played by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in the case. At key points this section was headed by Noel Hillman, a protégé of Michael Chertoff and a partisan political activist from New Jersey. Hillman is now a federal judge. While the case was pending, Hillman is known to have been in regular discussions with the White House. We can guess what those discussions were about.
The U.S. Attorney involved, Leura Canary, has fielded senior professional staff in her defense. She leads her defense effort with an easily penetrated claim that she recused herself. But her staff have resorted to increasingly ridiculous claims by way of defense. They have claimed that they exercised all discretion in prosecutorial decision-making, a claim denied by senior figures at the Justice Department. They have also launched an assault on the press, saying that all of these concerns are coming from “out-of-state” troublemakers, echoing ugly accusations of the Civil Rights era. One staffmember was recently quoted in the media dismissing concerns about how the Montgomery office handled claims against Senator Jefferson Sessions and Judge William Pryor (the latter being the instigator of claims against Siegelman). Moneylaundering isn’t a crime, he claimed. At this point, I suspect that none of these prosecutors would be making the outlandish claims they’re offering up if they were speaking under oath. And the Judiciary Committee appears poised to swear them in and put them under cross-examination very shortly, as it should.
We should also consider the role played by the Birmingham News and the Mobile Press-Register in this entire affair, including their reporting in the last couple of days. Given these recent revelations it seems to me that these papers were active participants in the cover-up and in the original plan to take down Siegelman. Indeed, the News’s earlier reporting can now be understood to include a fairly pathetic effort to construct a defense for Rob Riley based on a differing understanding of who “Karl” was.
For months, the Alabama Republican machine has attempted to brush off claims about Rove’s involvement as some sort of fantastic speculation. Those efforts have just been exploded. We are one step closer to understanding why Karl Rove left the White House, and perhaps also why Alberto Gonzales stepped down as attorney general. The Siegelman case is emerging, as we predicted, as the most damning exhibit yet in the story of the Bush Administration’s use of the Justice Department as a partisan political tool.