Monday, February 25, 2008
On this day:

The prosecution of Don Siegelman

Last night's 60 Minutes segment entitled "The Prosecution of Don Siegelman" can be viewed here.

There's lots to be said about this piece and the whole controversy surrounding Siegelman's prosecution. I won't be able to get to much of it in this post, partly because there's just so much to discuss and partly because I need some time to refresh my memory on all the details.

First off, this is hardly an example of fair and balanced reporting. We're clued in to that from the very beginning, in CBS correspondent Scott Pelley's brief intro:
Is Don Siegelman in prison because he’s a criminal or because he belonged to the wrong political party in Alabama? Siegelman is the former governor of Alabama, and he was the most successful Democrat in that Republican state.
Anyone familiar with Alabama politics knows that it is simply not accurate to call Alabama a "Republican state." While the state has been trending Republican for decades, the Democratic Party is still very strong here: both houses of the state legislature are dominated by Democrats, and a majority of local elected officials are Democrats.

Later in the piece, former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, a Republican, stated:
I personally believe that what happened here is that they [the Republican federal prosecutors] targeted Don Siegelman because they could not beat him fair and square. This was a Republican state and he was the one Democrat they could never get rid of.
In fact, Don Siegelman was beaten "fair and square" by Lucy Baxley in the 2006 Democratic primary. In fact, there are quite a few very powerful Alabama Democrats that Republicans have yet to "get rid of." Like Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, Lieutenant Governor Jim Folsom, Jr., Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, U.S. Representative Bud Cramer (AL-5), U.S. Representative Artur Davis (AL-7), Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks, and numerous members of the House and Senate who have been persistent thorns in the sides of the state's Republican office holders. Of these, Baxley, Folsom, Davis, and Sparks have been mentioned as leading Democratic candidates for Governor in the 2010 election. There are more Democrats who have benefited from Don Siegelman's demise than Republicans.

But it is trivial to argue about whether or not Alabama is a "Republican state" or about who has benefited most from Siegelman's conviction. As it stands, we now have a former Governor serving time in the federal penitentiary under a sentence that is disproportionate to the offense(s) he may or may not have committed; that should be troubling regardless of one's party affiliation. While the 60 Minutes report was clearly a one-sided defense of Don Siegelman, it nonetheless raises several important questions:

1) Was Siegelman's conviction on federal bribery charges legit? I have my doubts. The bribery conviction resulted from Siegelman's appointment of HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to Alabama's Certificate of Need Review Board in exchange for Scrushy's donation of $500,000 to Siegelman's lottery campaign fund. There is no evidence that Siegelman pocketed any of that money. The only personal benefit to Siegelman, if any, was purely incidental.

2) Was the prosecution of Don Siegelman politically motivated? I suspect that it was, in that the political inclinations of the U.S. Attorneys who prosecuted the case led them to believe - as I did, and still do - that Don Siegelman was a corrupt politician whose backroom shenanigans needed to see the light of day. But the prosecutors got ahead of themselves. They found evidence of corruption in what was no more than run-of-the-mill politicking. Many of their charges were brought under the federal RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, a law which was intended to curb organized crime. As much as the right-winger in me wants to believe that much of what government does nowadays is in fact organized crime, that doesn't make it so. The federal RICO statute is ripe for abuse, and interpreting it too broadly runs contrary to the law's intent and serves to undermine the federalist principles of the Constitution.

3) Did Karl Rove enlist Republican attorney and GOP activist (?) Jill Simpson to spy on Don Siegelman in order to catch him cheating on his wife with an unnamed aide? I don't doubt that the Republican Party in Alabama has done an enormous amount of "opposition research" on Don Siegelman. That's the nature of politics, and it shouldn't be surprising to anyone. This kind of dirty politics goes both ways. Still, it's hard to believe that an administration big-wig like Karl Rove would have asked a low-level operative like Jill Simpson to "take pictures of a compromising, sexual position with one of his aides," as she has alleged. Ms. Simpson doesn't seem like a liar, but a major defect in the 60 Minutes report is that no reasonable person could convict her of telling the truth, since the proper follow-up questions were never asked. For instance, 60 Minutes didn't ask Simpson how she would have had such intimate access to the former Governor that she would have been able to whip out her digital camera on a moment's notice to catch him receiving a Lewinsky.

I'm sure I'll be posting more on this story later in the week. In the meantime, for a differing view on this story, I suggest reading Quin Hillyer (formerly of the Mobile Press-Register) here and here.