Don Siegelman sits at the big wooden conference table, hand in the air, voice rising as he recalls a moment that would ultimately change the course of his life forever.
“Hand on the Bible, hand raised, God strike me dead in this room at this time if I’m not telling the truth, when I called [Richard] Scrushy and said ‘Mr. Scrushy, you’ve served on this board through three previous governors, I want you to serve in my administration.’ He said, ‘Oh governor, do I have to? It takes up too much time. I can’t. I just don’t want to do this,’” Siegelman says.
But the former governor did what good politicians do and used his powers of persuasion to get what he wanted, and the HealthSouth CEO agreed to continue on the Certificate of Need Board. The decision would ultimately earn both men criminal convictions in federal court and land them in federal prison for years.
Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman visited Lagniappe’s offices two weeks ago as part of his effort to build interest in the showing of “Atticus v. The Architect” at the Mobile Public Library’s Bernheim Hall Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. This documentary outlining the alleged Republican conspiracy to have Siegelman indicted and jailed has roiled the state’s political waters already at its first few screenings. Siegelman is using it as one tine of a three-pronged approach to getting what he views as the truth about his conviction to “bubble up” in the public consciousness.
Altogether Siegelman did nearly six years behind bars for his 2006 conviction for taking a bribe from Scrushy. Released from the federal penitentiary in Oakdale, Louisiana in February of this year, he also was restricted to home detention for a final six months and remains on probation.
As he walked into Lagniappe’s office, he did so alone, unaccompanied by any of the trappings and handlers that had been with him since he first won statewide office in 1978. He also walked in without the guards who have controlled his movements since he went to prison in September 2012 as inmate #24775-001. He now travels alone, telling his story and hoping what he believes happened to him will one day be laid bare to the public, restoring at least his reputation and possibly punishing those he says worked to ruin him.
The documentary lays out the conspiracy plainly enough, starting with his election and claims that then-Attorney General Bill Pryor began investigating his administration just weeks after he took office. It walks the audience through a dizzying array of conspiracies and bad actors along the way, including the possibly criminal involvement of two U.S. Attorneys, $20 million in cash funneled in from Indian gambling interests in Mississippi, convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a corrupt federal judge, three retired FBI agents, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Karl Rove, Bob Riley and his son, presidential politics, coerced testimony and a stolen election, just to name a few.
It would all probably be too much to swallow had documentarian Steve Wimberly not broken down each allegation cleanly, providing documentation and some rather shocking interviews that might give even the most cynical viewer pause. The harshness of Siegelman’s punishment for a bribe that to many looks like little more than standard political business, serves to at least raise the question of why his case was handled the way it was.
A book deal and lawsuit
While “Atticus v. The Architect” is making its way across the state, Siegelman has two other fronts upon which he is working to make sure his theories are heard by a mainstream audience. One of those is a book he wrote while in prison, and the other is a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Northern Alabama aimed at forcing the Department of Justice to open up the records in his case.
Siegelman hopes this will help prove some of the collusion he alleges took place between investigators and Riley’s campaign and that he was selectively prosecuted for political reasons. That lawsuit has already made some headway, Siegelman says.
“The judge in the Northern District has ordered the government to turn over their file of misconduct. We are not so naïve to believe that they have not already purged the file of most things, but we know they left in at least one email from the lead prosecutor to Rob Riley, my opponent’s son, giving him an update on the investigation and expressing his frustration because at that point it wasn’t moving fast enough for him,” Siegelman said. “We have proof that there was a political connection to the investigation and prosecution, but we hope the judge will order the release of any and all documents she sees that may further prove the political motivation or selective prosecution, which are the two things Congress was looking at and the New York Times has editorialized about it 17 different times.”
As for his book, “The Assassination of Justice,” Siegelman says it is complete and he currently has three agents interested in helping steer it towards publication.
“I have shipped it off and am in communication with them. I would be truly happy with any of the three. It’s encouraging,” he said.
Siegelman’s fall from grace might be simply lumped in with the ever-growing list of governors nationwide who have been investigated, indicted or convicted of various misdeeds except for the belief held by many on both sides of the political aisle that his punishment far outstripped the crime — if what happened could be considered a crime at all. In July 2007, for instance, 44 former state attorneys general, both Democrats and Republicans, filed a petition to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees requesting further investigation of the Siegelman prosecution.
By comparison, former Gov. Guy Hunt, convicted of pocketing $200,000 from an inaugural account and using it to buy personal items, received only five years of probation. Earlier this year, Gov. Robert Bentley was allowed to resign and plead guilty to two misdemeanor campaign violations in the wake of a scandal that threatened to see him jailed over alleged felony misuse of government resources to conceal an affair with a top aide.
Siegelman remains incredulous that he was convicted and given such a long prison sentence when other convicted politicians have been handled with relative kid gloves and those he blames for upending his life have done so with no repercussions.
“The people who were spending up to $20 million and more to defeat me and to defeat the lottery were never even investigated, much less charged, yet Richard Scrushy and I go to prison for seven years over a campaign contribution to the lottery foundation and I was not charged with benefiting by a single penny!” Siegelman said.
Government prosecutors used Scrushy’s appointment to a board he’d already been on for 12 years and been appointed to by three previous governors as the focus of a bribery charge. That bribery, they said, had come in the form of a $500,000 donation to the campaign fund pushing the lottery Siegelman hoped would be the signature achievement of his first term in office.
By the time Siegelman and Scrushy were indicted together in 2006, Scrushy had already beaten federal charges pertaining to the financial meltdown at HealthSouth, and Siegelman believes prosecutors wanted to link the two men in order to capitalize on Scrushy’s tarnished reputation and low public approval coming out of the HealthSouth scandal that cost investors billions.
“They knew he was so toxic from this case in Birmingham that they’d just lost that if they could connect the two of us that they might kill two birds with one stone, which is what they did. We tried to get the judge to separate the trials but he refused,” Siegelman said.
Who’s to blame
Siegelman doesn’t mince words when it comes to casting blame for his downfall. Sure, he saves some for himself, allowing that he should have been smarter and more aware of Nick Bailey and Lanny Young, former associates who ultimately rolled on him for the feds. According to Siegelman, the men were coerced to lie by federal prosecutors.
“You want to take care of people that helped you, but I should have been more vigilant. My antenna should have gone up,” he admits.
But the vast majority of Siegelman’s downfall he pins on a laundry list of Republican operatives he says were out to “stop him” for various reasons.
For instance, he says former Attorney General and current U.S. Judge Bill Pryor was at the center of the ballot manipulation in Baldwin County that gave Riley a skin-of-the-teeth victory in 2002.
“The primary person who I hold responsible for stealing the 2002 election is Bill Pryor,” Siegelman said. “Pryor gathered the ballots before we could have a hand recount of just one precinct and took the ballots and the tabulations to Montgomery where he and Jim Bennett certified the bogus results of the election. And he threatened to put anyone in jail who so much as touched any of the ballots.”
Siegelman explains his harsh sentencing as simply a personal vendetta from Judge Mark Fuller. Fuller, he says, was angry that after he became a federal judge, Siegelman appointed his replacement as 12th Circuit District Attorney and an investigation into Fuller’s financial handling of the office quickly ensued.
“We had reason to believe beforehand that he had spiked the salary of his investigator by some $300,000, so David Bronner joined with us in this lawsuit that followed. Fuller gave testimony and they lost the case and he was embarrassed and the Montgomery Advertiser basically said he was trying to steal money from the state retirement system,” Siegelman said. “He should have recused (from my case). There’s no question that he should have disqualified himself, but this is not what he had in mind. This was a time for payback, as the documentary says.”
Fuller did increase the sentencing guidelines for Siegelman and had both he and Scrushy shackled and taken from the courtroom immediately after sentencing, actions the former governor says demonstrated personal animosity.
“First of all, it’s sort of common practice to give anybody who’s convicted 30 days to get their financial act together before they are taken,” Siegelman said. “But in this case, Judge Fuller, to accent the political vindictiveness, had us whisked from the table, through the door, handcuffed, shackled, chained, taken to the basement and then taken to a maximum security prison in Atlanta where we were put in solitary confinement for about three weeks.”
Siegelman says his presidential aspirations are what ultimately brought him into the sights of federal prosecutors he believes were under the influence of former Bush Deputy Chief of Staff and senior adviser Karl Rove. The Rove connection — “The Architect” in the documentary title — remains a significant part of the Siegelman tale that stands more than a degree or two from verifiable fact. It relies on an affidavit by “Republican operative” Jill Simpson, who claims to have been privy to conversations where people talked about Rove’s involvement in directing an investigation. Rove has categorically denied the accusations and even declared Simpson “crazy.” Other accusations of Rove’s involvement also were from second- or third-hand sources.
But the involvement of former U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Middle District Leura Canary, and the fact that her husband is deeply involved in Republican politics, is something Siegelman says draws a direct line to Rove’s involvement.
“Karl Rove would have done whatever he had to do to take me out because his job was to politically protect the president. We have sworn testimony that he directed the Department of Justice to pursue me,” Siegelman said. “His fingerprints are all over the scene of the crime, from his client Bill Pryor who started the investigation, his best friend’s wife the Bush appointee as U.S. Attorney who kicked the federal investigation into high gear, Jack Abramoff, his college bagman who brings in the money. They would have come after me anyway, but it was a confluence of interests certainly that gave them the big bucks to spend. Millions of dollars went into Bob Riley’s campaigns from the casinos.”
Canary did ultimately recuse herself in 2002 from the Siegelman investigation over complaints about her husband’s ties to Riley and other Republicans. But in 2008, Department of Justice employee Tamarah Grimes filed a complaint to the DOJ outlining several instances in which Canary had continued involvement in the case, including an email directing a courtroom strategy to keep Siegelman from discussing his case in the media.
“I hesitate to use the word ‘forgive,’ but I could forgive the people who were responsible — Karl Rove, Judge Fuller, Billy Canary, Leura Canary, the lying prosecutors that pressured and cajoled Nick Bailey to lie … The thing that really bothers me is that there was a confluence of interests,” Siegelman said. “Karl Rove didn’t want me around because I was about to put my foot into the 2004 presidential race for the Democratic nomination. Jack Abramoff didn’t want me around because he was being paid millions and millions by the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi and as he admitted in his book, and in the documentary, I had to be stopped.”
The documentary seeks to provide backup and proof of these claims, and the interviews lend support to Siegelman’s claims that he was selectively prosecuted.
Surprisingly, Abramoff even appears in the movie discussing the strategies devised to keep the lottery and gambling expansion from happening in Alabama.
“It happened to be Alabama had kind of unfortunate circumstances of a very Republican state having lost the governorship to a Democrat, and being proximate to the state that contained our large client, the Choctaws,” Abramoff explains in the film. “And eventually we made the decision that we had to do what we could to make sure he wasn’t re-elected because he was a continuing and ongoing threat to our client in Mississippi.”
Thomas Gallion III, former Alabama Counsel for the National Republican Committee, was also interviewed and told a story of being called by one of the state’s leading Republicans and asked to attend a meeting in which a plan to have Canary appointed U.S. Attorney and to indict Siegelman so Riley could win the governor’s office would be discussed. Gallion also said the caller told him Rove would be at the meeting.
“I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to be a part of something like this. Count me out.’ I said, ‘Political prosecution is not the way to go.’ And so that’s the last I heard of it until the middle of the campaign between Bob Riley and Don Siegelman. I pick up the paper, Don Siegelman’s been indicted. And I thought, ‘Holy Moses are these people for real?’” Gallion says in the documentary.
And Scrushy also relates a story about being offered an opportunity to have the charges against him dropped if he would testify against Siegelman. Scrushy says in the film that he and his wife discussed it and decided there was no way he would cave in to prosecutorial pressure and lie.
“And a decision was made between she and I that I’m not going at all to go out and lie against this man and have him go to prison for something that I said that was not true, and have to live with that the rest of my life,” Richard Scrushy says in the documentary.
These days Siegelman still looks the part — tall, thin, handsome and outgoing — of a man some considered Alabama’s answer to Bill Clinton. But most of a decade has passed him while he sat in prison, and it’s clear his former life is long gone. He spoke about how being incarcerated affected him and his family as well.
“That’s one thing about prison. Prison is something that when you’re there that hopefully you adjust and you live with it. It’s day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year. You occupy your time — at least I did — where you feel you’re doing something productive. I was making an effort to try to get the truth to bubble up. But the people who are severely punished are the children and spouses and relatives,” he said. “It was the stress and anxiety of not knowing how I was dealing with prison. At times I was in solitary confinement, nobody knew where I was or even what state I was in. The whole thing is far more stressful on family members than it is on the inmate.”
That Siegelman spent so much time in solitary confinement is one of the more often-mentioned points by those arguing that he was railroaded in a political prosecution. The ex-governor says he was sent to solitary confinement three times — once for nearly eight weeks. Two of those times, he said, it was for talking to media outlets.
“I was treated like any other prisoner. Maybe a little special in the sense that I was sent to solitary confinement several different times,” he joked. “It’s pretty miserable. A little bit of time you can read sometimes. Depends on whether you get a book. If somebody comes by and gives you a book you can read and kill some time. You can do pushups and sit-ups. You can’t really write because they give you a little golf pencil and a piece of paper. And you can buy a deck of cards and play cards, but after a while that gets old. I think the longest stretch I was there was 54 days, so that was a long time.”
As he pushes to get his story out, Siegelman says he’s taking things “one step at a time.”
“Life is not something one can jump back into after having been locked up for several years. Nothing is the same. Relationships change. I’m trying to get a feel for things,” he said.
He’ll be present at the showing of “Atticus v. The Architect” Sunday at 2 p.m. and says he hopes to give a short talk before or after the movie and perhaps even sign some of the political memorabilia that fills up the trunk of his car. He also says the movie, while about him, was not something he had a hand in producing.
“When you see the documentary keep in mind this is an independent film. There are things in it I would not have put in. There are things that aren’t in it that I would have put in that are in my book,” Siegelman said. “It has gotten very strong reviews. People after watching this documentary are upset.”