Former governor discusses trial, conviction and future in new memoir
It’s said you can’t judge a book by its cover, but if you did, the title of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman’s new memoir, “Stealing Our Democracy: How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens Our Nation,” should indicate it’s not just his life story.
Siegelman, pictured on the cover in his white federal prison garb and whose authorship is accompanied by the phrase “POLITICAL PRISONER #1,” devotes just a few dozen pages to his childhood in Mobile, his education at The University of Alabama and beyond, and his entrance into politics, first as secretary of state in 1979, then attorney general in 1987, lieutenant governor in 1995 and, for a single term between 1999 and 2003, the 51st governor of Alabama.
From that point forward, from chapters 18 to 83, Siegelman devotes the book to his failed statewide campaign to pass an education lottery, the “stolen” 2002 gubernatorial election where the race was reversed in Bob Riley’s favor after ballots were adjusted in Baldwin County in the middle of the night, fraud investigations into his office, and the conviction that ultimately sent him to federal prison for nearly seven years, ensuring he’d never hold a statewide office again.
Even if you aren’t judging it by the cover, be assured this is a book about politics. Siegelman has always maintained his innocence, and in a conversation with Lagniappe earlier this month, said he’s only ever apologized “in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.”
“The only thing I apologized for was embarrassing the state, but that wasn’t something that I caused,” he said, suggesting he was only guilty by association. “The things I would apologize for would be hiring a couple guys — at least one who was definitely a crook — and not having enough sense to recognize it earlier.”
The crook, he said, was his former chief of staff, Nick Bailey. Earlier, Bailey had been implicated in an illegal back-room deal with an acquaintance to build new warehouses for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. And in order to avoid more serious prison time of his own after federal prosecutors alleged Siegelman accepted a bribe from disgraced health care tycoon Richard Scrushy for his education lottery campaign, Bailey became the prosecution’s primary witness.
While he’s told the same story before — Siegelman went on a media blitz while he was free on appeal — the book details the broad political conspiracy the former governor believes he was the target of, instigated by such prominent Republicans as Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff, Bill and Leura Canary, Steve Windom, Alice Martin, Bill Pryor, and former federal U.S. District Court Judge Mark Fuller, to name a few.
There’s an entire chapter dedicated to Fuller, entitled “The Vengeful Judge with a Grudge,” who Siegelman claims acted improperly throughout his proceedings, because as governor, Siegelman led an investigation into Fuller’s time as district attorney in the 12th Judicial Circuit of Alabama, where it was determined he awarded “exorbitant salaries” to some staff members.
Fuller himself later left the bench in disgrace after his then-wife called 911 to report he physically beat her in an Atlanta hotel room. Thus, Siegelman refers to Fuller as “the wife-beating judge,” but it’s not the only name-calling. Former federal prosecutor Steve Feaga is referred to as a “professional political whore” and Bill Pryor a “ballot thief.” Siegelman insinuates one of the jurors in his trial may have had a romantic interest in an FBI investigator, while she also tainted the jury with improper communications and outside news and opinions.
“I’m sure there will be a few people that read it and start fuming,” Siegelman said of his detractors. “I’ve had people ask if I’m afraid they are going to sue me and my answer is no. For one, truth is a defense and another thing is I’ve got 152 legal notes in the book. Plus, they’re not going to want me to put them under oath.”
Of particular interest to local readers may be the story of the 2002 election, which was called in Siegelman’s favor before, sometime around 2 a.m., election officials in Baldwin County determined a “computer glitch” misrepresented the ballot count in a single precinct. Without any oversight and two days earlier than constitutionally allowed, then-Attorney General Bill Pryor certified the error, which took 6,000 votes away from Siegelman and awarded the election to Bob Riley. The ballots were sealed and never reopened for an independent audit.
In 2004, Siegelman was initially indicted by the federal government for fraud, but the charge was quickly dismissed as “completely without legal merit.” It was then, after he announced his intention to run for reelection in 2006, he alleges politically motivated federal prosecutors doubled down and brought the bribery case involving Scrushy, who himself had just beaten an indictment for falsely inflating earnings at the publicly traded HealthSouth Corporation.
Siegelman told Lagniappe the book was originally over 600 pages in length, but publishers weren’t interested until he whittled it down by half. It’s a little manic at times, dashing from one anecdote to another in chapters sometimes less than a full page in length.
Some details, like the circumstances and location where Siegelman and his wife conceived their first child, could be excluded. More interesting facts, such as being housed in the same cell block as former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, demand further elaboration.
But while Siegelman reveals both humanity and humility during his prison sentence, the book is also tinged with dichotomy, suggesting for all his political savvy, the former governor also had his weaknesses.
As a young man Siegelman portrayed himself as an early advocate for equal justice and civil rights, but he only identified with and attempted to help the most downtrodden inmates after his second stint in federal prison. He had a 30-year career in politics, but comes off as somewhat naive about the lengths opponents would go to in order to bring him down and advance their own agendas. He was an attorney, but didn’t trust his own legal instincts as chief executive of the state, or in his criminal defense and public relations campaigns.
But the book feels honest, at least from his perspective, and if it’s not redeeming, perhaps Siegelman’s next chapter will be.
“[Prison] was a time for me to be able to analyze not only what happened and why and who was involved, but I was able to talk with other inmates about their experiences and how they ended up in prison and there became some disturbing patterns that led me to the conclusion that there were system problems in our justice system that needed to be fixed,” he said. “There are myriad issues related to prisons and recidivism.”
Siegelman surrendered his law license after his conviction, but he maintains an office in The Cochran Firm in downtown Birmingham, on the eighth floor of the historic Farley Building on 20th Street. The lobby of the building is filled with photos and artifacts from his career.
“Now I’m focused on the issue of mass incarceration, particularly as it relates to men and women of color, people who are powerless and voiceless,” he said. “Keep in mind I wasn’t powerless or voiceless and I had the resources to fight back, but I was still targeted and convicted of something that never happened.”
Then Siegelman alluded to his memoir, warning about how he believes democracy is being stolen.
“U.S. citizens can be framed, prosecutors can present false evidence, can knowingly and willingly present false testimony, can withhold exculpatory evidence in the secrecy of a grand jury or a trial and there is nothing you can do about it because there is this umbrella protection over prosecutors giving them immunity from civil liability regardless of what they do to get a conviction,” he said. “It’s shocking, but there are some things Americans don’t want to believe. They don’t want to believe elections are stolen, they don’t want to believe we would be led into war under false pretenses, and they don’t want to believe the justicial system is not on the up and up. But the facts are there.”
While he said he’s done with politics, Siegelman suggested Democrats still have a future in Alabama, even though all three branches of government have been controlled by Republicans since 2010.
“I was able to be elected to the four highest offices and arguably I shouldn’t have been able to be elected to any,” he said. “But the way you get elected is by doing things, talking about things and running on a platform that’s meaningful to the working people of this state. Now you’ve had a Republican governor, chief justice and speaker of the house all removed from office for impropriety, while the sitting attorney general was elected with $670,000 of illegal PAC-to-PAC money. That’s clearly an illegal contribution, but the U.S. attorney did not file charges and the State Ethics Commission punted on the issue and refused to take a position on the matter. It’s difficult to say whether the Democrats will point out the faults of those who’ve been accused of wrongdoing and do something positive on the flipside, but I think it is possible for Democrats to make a comeback in Alabama. But it’s not going to be easy.”
Siegelman suggested he would seek a return to practicing law, but in the meantime is more interested in lobbying for grand jury reform. He believes the secretive nature of the grand jury process can be manipulated by prosecutors, but there’s a solution in allowing defense attorneys at grand jury settings, while also providing a means for accountability for malicious prosecutors and investigators.
“If it is important enough to have a defense lawyer present in a civil deposition where economic damages are at stake, surely it ought to be important enough in a criminal proceeding where somebody’s life and liberty is at stake,” he said. “All interviews of witnesses should be recorded and those recordings should be turned over to the defense, and Congress needs to make it clear that prosecutors and investigators who willfully and intentionally present false evidence or withhold exculpatory evidence are not immune from civil liability.”
Siegelman will appear at Page and Palette in Fairhope on Thursday, June 18, to meet readers and sign copies of his book. It’s the only book signing event in the state he’s currently scheduled.
“This will be my first public appearance for the book,” he said. “We’ve talked about it and have been cautious and are assured it can be done with social distancing and all proper precautions taken. It’s an interesting time to launch a book and challenging to say the least, but we’re going to be very careful and ease ourselves into this.”
“Stealing Our Democracy: How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens Our Nation”
Author: Don Siegelman
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: NewSouth Books (June 16, 2020)
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