Imagine this. A local leader of the political opposition in a country is targeted by the party in power — which controls all branches of the government. The President’s henchmen line up a criminal case against the opposition figure, but their first effort is thrown out of court. On their second try the jury deadlocks twice over the trumped up charges before ultimately voting to convict the political figure for corruption. The leader is sent away to prison for 7 years, with his legs and wrists shackled. With their main rival behind bars, the President’s Party goes on to capture two local elections in a row.
Where is this? Putin’s Russia? Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? Assad’s Syria? No, sadly, it’s right here in the USA.
Tonight, 60 Minutes documented the disturbing story of Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Several months ago he was sentenced to jail for 7 years for bribery. That’s not a remarkable story — until you hear the details. First, remember that behind this story lies the broader question of whether the Bush White House put pressure on US Attorneys throughout the country to file criminal charges against it’s political enemies. And then it fired and replaced those who wouldn’t go along with these efforts to enlist the justice system to settle political scores.
Then consider the details in this case. Don Siegelman was the successful Democratic governor of Alabama, a mostly Republican state. His enemies, under instructions from Bush Svengali Karl Rove, first hired investigators to catch him in compromising sexual positions. But that didn’t pan out. So they enlisted the help of two US Attorneys in Alabama — one of whom was married to the campaign manager of his gubernatorial opponent. Their first effort to try Siegelman was thrown out of court by a judge after hearing opening arguments — so flimsy was their case. So they tried again. On their second try, prosecutors charged him with bribery. His crime? Accepting $250,000 for a campaign effort to pass a lottery in the state that could be used to pay for improving public education. According to the Justice Department, businessman Richard Scrushy gave $250,000 to the lottery campaign fund in return for a promise to be re-appointed to a state board charged with determining the clinical need for hospital and related health care construction in the state. Now there are two problems with this allegation from a legal and ethical standpoint.
First, the state’s case rested on the testimony of one man, a former aide, who claimed he saw Siegelman emerge from a meeting with Scrushy with a $250,000 check in his hand and heard Siegelman explain that the check was in return for the seat on the state board. But there were two problems with this testimony. First, the check was actually cut many days after this supposed meeting, so the aide could not have seen it when he claimed. Second, the aide was himself facing charges of extortion for misusing his office and looking at a 10 year sentence unless he agreed to cooperate. He has claimed that it took him several days and repeated attempts to write out his testimony as the prosecutors wanted it. But the prosecutors never provided these various versions of testimony to the defense, as they were legally obligated to. In fact, the Justice Department has repeatedly declined all requests for an explanation about this missing testimony, even subpoenas by Congress.
Second, focus on the charge of bribery for a moment. Typically, in a bribery case, an individual derives a direct, personal benefit from the use of his political office. In an unrelated case, a former Republican governor of Alabama, Guy Hunt, personally pocketed $200,000, but prosecutors sought probation — not jail time. In this case, however, the money went to the Lottery Campaign Foundation — an effort to raise money to improve the state’s schools. If this is bribery, then by this reasoning any time a political donor is named to an ambassadorship, or a deputy cabinet position, or any state board, there’s been a crime. In other words, every governor, numerous Senators and Congressmen, and even the President are guilty of bribery. But in those cases the money pays for person’s own election effort. Here, the money went for school improvement! I probably dislike the campaign finance system as much as anyone, but I don’t think our current system represents a violation of bribery laws.
There have been many occasions during the last seven years of the Bush Administration to weep for America. A senseless war whose justifications evaporated about the same time it became evident that it was being mismanaged into catastrophe. The sullying of our international reputation by first the effort to justify torture and then the vast evidence that our country has both sanctioned and executed torture repeatedly in the last six years. Invisible and visible ‘detention’ centers around the globe, where ‘enemies’ of America can be held without charge merely because the Administration has labeled them ‘enemy combatants.’
But this case sticks in the throat like few others. Here, the victim is an American citizen. A high ranking member of the political opposition. Governor Siegelman may be no saint. But the decision to run for office ought not to subject you to the threat of prosecution by your enemies. Sadly, under our criminal justice system, any one of us can be indicted for one thing or another. As a friend once told me, “with a Grand Jury, you can indict a head of cabbage.” And if anyone looks hard enough, long enough, they’ll find something on just about anyone. That red light you ran last week, that time you drank and drove last year. That pot you smoked in college. The error you made on your tax form. That’s why the justice system is not to be used to investigate people but to investigate crimes.
In this case, Bush’s Justice Department tore apart a man’s life looking for one thing on which to build a case. They looked until they found what they felt was something, no matter how small. The Republican governor's campaign manager’s wife (Leura Canary, wife of Bill Canary) led the investigation and filed the charges, despite a clear conflict of interest. She only recused herself after the case was in the courts. The judge who tried the case had been appointed by the Republican governor. A former Republican aide has testified that she heard the governor’s son, Richard Riley, state that the Judge would “hang Don Siegelman.”
Siegelman has been in jail for 242 days and still has not received a trial transcript to ready his appeal. Yet the law requires that the transcript be delivered to the defendant within 30 days of conviction. The law also allows a defendant 45 days after conviction to prepare for surrendering to the Bureau of Prisons so that affairs can be put in order and a legal appeal readied. In Siegelman’s case, on conviction, the Judge ordered the governor shackled and bound in the courtroom, where he was immediately removed and taken away to Federal prison — a practice typically reserved for the most dangerous criminals or the criminally insane. 44 former state Attorneys General, both Republican and Democrat have signed a letter urging Congress to investigate the circumstances surrounding this case.
I don’t normally write these kinds of letters. I don’t normally involve my friends in these kinds of email chains. But I simply cannot sit still and do nothing in the face of this gross injustice. But there’s more than injustice here. There is a perversion of our democracy, a sullying of everything we believe in as American’s. Because democracy cannot thrive where the state can be enlisted to take sides in political debates, and its power can be used to crush dissent and opposition. Please take a moment to visit the website of Don Siegelman’s friends to learn how you can help.
Copy and paste this in an email and forward it to your friends. Write your Congressperson. Write the Judiciary Committee. Or donate to the legal defense fund. Thank you
PS. Oh, and if all this wasn’t enough to send chills up your progressive spine, how’s this tidbit from Siegelman’s Wikipedia entry: “He was defeated for reelection in November 2002 by Representative Bob Riley by the narrowest margin in Alabama history: approximately 3,000 votes. The margin was controversial, as a voting machine malfunction in a single county produced the votes needed to give Riley the election. The recount, however, of that county's votes was affirmed by the state's Attorney General.”