No Comment — June 9, 2007, 6:39 pm

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.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.


e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today