“Stealing Our Democracy: How the Political Assassination of a Governor Threatens Our Nation”
Author: Don Siegelman
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Price: $28.95 (Cloth)
As his second trial was coming to an end, Governor Siegelman wanted to testify on his own behalf. His lawyers, certain the state had not made its case and the governor would be acquitted, persuaded him not to.
Siegelman’s brother Les disagreed.
“Don, it’s a mistake. You need to tell your side of the story. The jurors need to hear it from you. You’ll be believable…. you have to testify.”
Siegelman had been acquitted after a previous (2004) trial which involved Dr. Philip Bobo and the Alabama Fire College. Now there was a new indictment on bribery and obstruction charges. The trial had gone on from May of 2006 until the Friday before the fourth of July. The jury, which had been sequestered—really unnecessarily considering this was a white-collar trial—for ten weeks, could not reach a verdict after six days of deliberation.
The judge, Mark Fuller told them: “Look, I’ve been appointed for life. I can keep you here until next July if I want to. Bring me a verdict or a partial verdict.”
Siegelman was found guilty. There were appeals and even a new trial but he finally served a sentence of over five years in federal prisons, a sentence longer than many violent criminals in Alabama would serve for heinous crimes. He was forbidden to communicate with the press. Much of it was in solitary confinement.
Released from custody at the age of 71, Siegelman now at 73 is telling his story. It is a raw story, taking place over a space of 14 years, written in anguish over his own suffering and the suffering of his wife and children. It is frightening to see the immensity of the power of federal prosecutors and what determined prosecutors, with a political agenda, can do to ruin a rising political star, the state’s first New South governor, the state’s lone successful Democratic politician.
Siegelman had appeared unstoppable. He had been elected Secretary of State, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor and Governor. It seems clear he would have been reelected governor in 2004 if there had not been chicanery with the ballots in Baldwin County.
Then, as Siegelman is running to regain the office, trouble begins. Charges that are brought seem unlikely at first.
As part of his campaign platform, Siegelman was pressing for a state education lottery, all profits to go to education K through 12 and free college for some, much like the Georgia model.
Richard Scrushy, CEO of HealthSouth, contributed $500,000 to promote the lottery and Siegelman persuaded Scrushy to serve on the Certificate of Need Board, a board that certifies equipment needs for hospitals and nursing homes. Scrushy had served on the board for 12 years under three other governors and had recently resigned. Siegelman persuaded him to take up again this thankless job. Later it will be asserted that this was the quid pro quo in a bribery scheme even though Siegelman never got a penny and Scrushy did not want to be on the board. The feds insisted there was value in that position.
Some individuals were threatened with ruin if they did not testify, even falsely, against Siegelman.
This became, pardon the cliché, a perfect storm. As Siegelman outlines, a Republican conspiracy directed from D.C. involved the federal prosecutor whose husband was running the campaign against Siegelman’s election, and the judge in the case was an old, angry adversary.
I have not done so here, but Siegelman names names, from Republicans in the state of Alabama all the way to Carl Rove in D.C.
His sentence was 88 months. Siegelman was taken away immediately in shackles, a humiliation usually reserved for convicted pedophiles. There were appeals and even a new trial, but to no avail.
Siegelman received letters of support, some of them amicus briefs, from many congressmen, legal scholars, 113 past attorneys general, and 100,000 private citizens. All were ignored.
This is a complicated narrative; the reader can get lost in the legal weeds.
Don Siegelman felt compelled to tell his story. In this sense it is special pleading but entirely convincing.
One day an historian, a Michael Beschloss perhaps, will write of these events; I feel confident the same conclusions will be reached. In the meantime, it would be wise to listen to one of Governor Siegelman’s warnings: if they can do this to a governor with considerable resources “think of what a politicized prosecutor can do to you and your family.”
Aristotle in “The Poetics” did not say it any plainer. When a great man falls from a great height, we all feel pity for the suffering of a fellow human being but we feel fear for what could happen to ordinary, weak us.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.