Don Siegelman Interview: Former Alabama Democratic Governor Details His Political Journey Through Hell
Image attributed to Marc Parker
On February 8, 2017, former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman was released from Federal Correctional Institution, Oakdale, in Louisiana, where he was serving a six-year sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice. He served the final months of his sentence on home detention that ended August 8, 2017.
Siegelman served as the Secretary of State of Alabama (1979-1987), the Attorney General of Alabama (1987-1991), as Lieutenant Governor (1995-1999) and as the 51st Governor of Alabama and the last Democrat to hold this office (1999-2003). He is the only person in the history of Alabama to be elected to serve in all four of the top statewide elected offices, and he served in state politics for 26 years.
"All I can say is Karl Rove had to vet Bill Pryor for his judgeship for the Eleventh Circuit. Interestingly enough, as soon as he was appointed, Jeff Sessions made the comment, 'We would’ve gotten Bill on the bench earlier, but we needed a Republican governor in place first.' That was 2003. You will remember that Bob Riley pushed his $2 billion tax bill and his popularity sank. My popularity rose. The political surveys in 2003 showed that I was going to just beat the stew out of him in 2006."
In 2004, Siegelman was indicted by the federal government for fraud, but those charges were dropped. In 2006, both he and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy were convicted on charges that they conspired in a bribery scheme seven years earlier. Siegelman, his attorneys and other Democrats have contended that his prosecution was an example of political use of the courts during the Bush administration.
Siegelman’s documentary, Atticus versus the Architect: The Political Assassination of Don Siegelman, will be shown at the Davis Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama, on October 1, 2017. Previously, in June of this year, the board members of the Capri Theatre in Montgomery rescinded its rental to a group planning to show the film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Don, how does it feel to get back to your life after spending years in prison?
Don Siegelman: Well, I’m not quite back yet. I’ll never get back to my life as it was, and I think that was the intent, obviously. First of all, to answer your question, it has been a few weeks since I was a federal inmate, so not having the electronic shackle on my left leg is comforting and being able to move around a little more freely, even though I have to connect with my probation officer if I go south of Birmingham, feels good. It’s still a blessing to be able to just go to lunch or go home when I want to rather than have to check with somebody to make sure that I’m on schedule.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were headed for national politics when you were convicted, along with former HealthSouth executive Richard Scrushy, of bribery charges in 2006?
Don Siegelman: While I was looking forward to entering national politics and had actually already written a speech, which I had to modify to give to the Democratic Governors Association after I had my 2002 election (for governor) stolen, I was planning to begin moving forward at that time in December of 2002 toward entering the Democratic primaries leading up to 2004 to give it a shot to see where I might end up on the ticket.
But I had that sort of political rug ripped out from under me in fighting the fight that I did, both for my own personal survival and freedom, and it was also a fight for the truth and for justice and for preserving our democracy. I knew who was behind it and why, so I didn’t get upset because I knew this was just another political fight. Then when we got into the courtroom, I could see things going awry.
We had a prosecutor whose husband was running my opponent’s campaign. We had a judge (Mark Fuller) with whom I had done political battle over the years beginning in 1996. I had Fuller’s office audited when he was District Attorney. It went to court, and he was trying to bilk the state retirement system out of $300,000 to boost the salary of one of his employees. Anyway, I could see that we were in a political battle in the courtroom, and it was very difficult to defend one’s self under those circumstances.
I had confidence in the jury (laughs). It has since been shown that the prosecutors had to have had communications with the jurors because they knew the nickname of a juror that was given to the juror in the jury room. Katie Langer was nicknamed “Flipper” because she was a gymnast at Auburn and did flips in the jury room.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So how would the prosecutors have known that if they had not mingled with the jurors?
Don Siegelman: How could the prosecutors have known that if they weren’t in contact with somebody that was given that information? When I was convicted, not that I didn’t expect it at that point in the trial, but it was still a shock and a realization that our system was flawed. I instantly said a quiet prayer to myself thinking that I had been Attorney General, and I had set execution dates because I was required to by the Constitution for people that had committed capital murder, but still I had to reflect on those seven men and one woman that I had set executions for and had a chance to commute sentences as governor. I looked at every case closely.
I didn’t commute any sentences. I just said, “Dear God, I hope I didn’t make a mistake.” Knowing that our system can be manipulated … coming to that realization was one thing. But then living it out in prison, getting chained and shackled and handcuffed and crammed in the back of a car was another.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was getting chained and shackled and handcuffed a humiliating experience?
Don Siegelman: No, I wasn’t humiliated because I knew it was all political. If I had felt like I deserved to be there, I probably would’ve felt humiliated, but I wasn’t humiliated.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you angry?
Don Siegelman: Not even really angry because again, I had a pretty good understanding. I knew that this was coming from Karl Rove, that we had sworn testimony at that point that he had communicated with the husband of my prosecutor while he was managing my opponent’s campaign, Bob Riley’s campaign. So I knew that this was a political hit. As we (Richard Scrushy was in the backseat with me) were traveling to Atlanta, and when we spent time in solitary confinement in the basement of the prison consistently voted the worst prison in the United States, I guess I started to think, “Why did they do this?”
But it wasn’t anger. I was trying to unravel it and put things together and that’s what I did. For the years that this went on, from really beginning in March of 1999, right after I became governor, until I left prison, and even now as I put the finishing touches on my book, I’m trying to figure out really what happened and why. Having an opportunity to live with inmates, to hear their problems, to hear what went wrong in their situations and the draconian sentences that were imposed, brought a whole new perspective to me as a citizen, a lawyer, former Attorney General and governor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you begin writing your book while you were at Oakdale prison?
Don Siegelman: I did. I started writing actually in 2007 right after I got settled at Oakdale. I sent letters to a couple of friends and asked them to give me their thoughts, and they were responsive, I think one to humor me and the other to encourage me. Al Gore sent me to his New York agent in 2008, and I’ve had conversations with another agent on the west coast years ago, and he renewed contact after I got out.
But at that time, I submitted the first chapter and the synopsis of the other chapters that I had in mind and my general pitch as to why it should be published. I really wanted to write the book myself, and I didn’t want a ghost writer, so that propelled me to just keep writing while I was in prison and have everything pretty much on paper when I got out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure that helped also to pass the time while you were at Oakdale.
Don Siegelman: Oh, yeah. I stayed busy working on other inmates’ issues constantly. It wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t helping somebody with a commutation or a motion or a brief or something.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I want to discuss the basis of the charges against you and how the First Amendment came into play. You were convicted of bribery by campaign contribution because the quid pro quo was found to be too “explicit”?
Don Siegelman: What is so bizarre, and what attracts so much national focus is there was no quid pro quo. There was no evidence of a quid pro quo much less an express or an explicit one where the terms of the agreement are asserted by the parties, which is a statement from the Supreme Court in the McCormick case of 1991. The Supreme Court in McCormick is the last pronouncement from the Supreme Court regarding what constitutes a crime in a campaign contributions setting. They said, “To cross the line from politics to crime, there must be an explicit agreement because the First Amendment is at play.” An explicit agreement is where the terms of the agreement are asserted by the parties.
Well, there was no evidence of any agreement or any express agreement or explicit agreement where the terms were asserted between me and Richard Scrushy. In fact, it couldn’t have been farther from the truth. As Elmer Harris, the head of Alabama Power, testified, “Scrushy didn’t want the job, didn’t want to be on the board.” Scrushy had served 12 years under three previous governors. I was the fourth governor to ask him to serve. When I called him, as God is my witness, strike me dead if I’m not telling the truth, Richard Scrushy said to me, “Oh, governor, do I have to?”
I said, “Mr. Scrushy, you served three previous governors. If you bail out now, it’s going to look like you’re leaving because I’m the Democrat, and I’m trying to bring in the business community and build my base. I need you to serve on this board.” That’s when Elmer Harris went to see him and talked him into doing it. That’s what happened.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it the FBI that brought charges against you?
Don Siegelman: It was not the FBI that brings the charges against me. It was retired FBI agents who worked for Sessions in Mobile who were hired by the Attorney General’s office as contract employees initially. But it was those employees, those retired FBI agents of Sessions, who worked constantly for nearly five years doing nothing but trying to build a case against me, first in 2004 which failed, and then again in 2006.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Wasn’t this a rare case, Don?
Don Siegelman: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals admitted in writing that they could find no other case in American jurisprudence where a politician has been sent to prison on a campaign contribution referendum where there was no political benefit, no financial benefit and no self-enrichment scheme to the politician. What does this have to do with the First Amendment? It’s clear that this puts dangerous powers in the hands of prosecutors to go after targets and silence people that they don’t agree with. It has everything to do with the First Amendment.
What concerns me is that this kind of power in the hands of a ruthless, political US Attorney General could present us with another constitutional crisis, and that’s why I suggested to Neil Cavuto a couple of weeks ago that if President Trump saw this documentary, he would want to pardon me because he would know that he, too, could be prosecuted for appointing Betsy DeVos or she could go to prison for bribing him. All you need is a witness who’s willing to give the right testimony.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And that witness in your case was your former aide and prosecution key witness Nick Bailey? I believe that, based on his testimony, it was decided that an explicit agreement had existed between you and Richard Scrushy.
Don Siegelman: Exactly. I had years in prison to read and re-read and to think about all of this. Most people are never going to think about it. You may sit back on your chair when you hear this. But when grand juries are conducted in secret, when there’s no judge there, nobody looks over the prosecutor’s shoulder to see what they’re saying to the grand jurors. Keep in mind these are not the grand jurors that our founding fathers had in mind when they constructed this part of our system. These are just average everyday folks, some of whom have to have warning labels on peroxide saying “not for human consumption.”
On January 5, 2010, David Savage, legal correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Yesterday, President Obama’s lawyer argued to the US Supreme Court that US citizens do not have a constitutional right not to be framed.” That attracted my attention. I read the case. He quoted the Deputy Solicitor General correctly arguing on behalf of the president, and I thought, “Oh, this is a slow ball over home plate. The president’s going to knock this one out. We’re not going to let prosecutors deliberately and intentionally frame people.”
This was a case where two black men spent 25 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. They were suing the investigators and prosecutors for framing them. But when you allow prosecutors to present whatever evidence they want in a grand jury without any oversight, they can do whatever they want to do, and they’re legally protected by the Federal Torts Claims Act. They are given immunity from civil liability even if they willfully and intentionally present false evidence.
In my case in 2004, I went back and read the grand jury’s testimony and how they suborned testimony. They got Amy Herring to say something that wasn’t true. Matt Hart got a retired FBI agent to say something that wasn’t true. In 2006, getting back to Mr. Bailey, unbeknownst to anyone, he had been taking money and shaking people down in state government.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And Bailey spent time in prison on bribery-related charges and was released in 2008.
Don Siegelman: Well, he had gotten himself into substantial debt and mortgaged his mother’s farm to invest in the cattle futures. All of this came out at trial, that he had pocketed $200,000 from different people, committed a number of felonies all with serious federal consequences, so he could easily have been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So Bailey made a deal?
Don Siegelman: This doesn’t come out in court. It comes out on 60 Minutes on February 4, 2008, that he was interviewed over 70 times and made to write and re-write his testimony over and over until he got his story the way the prosecutors wanted it. He did that in exchange for a commitment that they would recommend no time in prison, and that’s what they did.
The threat to the First Amendment is two-fold if you can charge somebody with a crime of bribery for accepting a campaign contribution and then prove it on the basis of false testimony where you have pressured and cajoled a witness or bribed a witness with a lighter sentence and then convict him not on the basis of the McCormick case, which requires an asserted express or explicit agreement, but like Judge Fuller said in my case that it was okay if the agreement is inferred or implied.
That’s why this case stands out as being so dangerous to the First Amendment. You’ve got the dual problem of, if prosecutors can get people to lie, and they present false testimony deliberately and intentionally to indict or convict someone, and then if you applied the standard in my case, they can get the jury to convict based on an implicit agreement based on the state of mind of the actors.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You call Republican strategist and former member of the George W. Bush administration Karl Rove the “architect” or “leader” of this political hit on you. But did top Republicans in Alabama or President George W. Bush actually give the order to Rove?
Don Siegelman: I’m not sure what came first. I do know that Karl Rove said his job was to protect the president politically, and we’ve got sworn testimony that he had directed the Department of Justice to pursue me. There’s another Republican whistleblower that said Rove was invited to a meeting by the Alabama Republican Party chairman where it was to be discussed how they could use Leura Canary to indict me in the middle of the election. He said that Karl Rove was supposed to be in the meeting along with Bob Riley and some other people. I think he mentioned Michael Scanlon.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Many political operatives were engaged in this operation?
Don Siegelman: Oh, yeah. It’s clear that there’s an email from Ralph Reed, who lobbied against casino gambling, to Jack Abramoff, lobbyist who was convicted of corruption in 2006, the day after my election saying, “We lost Alabama,” meaning Bob Riley lost and Siegelman won. To that, Abramoff responds in his book (Capitol Punishment) that I emerged as the first threat to their client, the Choctaw Indians, because putting two and two together, the lottery and casinos meant people would be coming to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, to Selma and Montgomery on the Alabama River and to Birmingham.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mississippi was protecting their gambling interests?
Don Siegelman: Mississippi spent $20 million to defeat me, to defeat the lottery and defeat other gaming measures. Abramoff goes on camera in the documentary and says, “We had to do what we had to do to stop Siegelman because he was a threat to our client.” He doesn’t say, “He was a threat to George W. Bush.” I wouldn’t expect him to do that because he’s close to Karl Rove. Anyway, we had a cast of characters including Jack Abramoff, Mike Scanlin who had worked for Bob Riley, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and Pat Robertson all involved in working to defeat me and defeat my education lottery proposal.
We’ve kind of discussed the links to Karl Rove, but some of them we have missed. In 1999, I’m sworn in as governor. In less than two months, Karl Rove’s client, State Attorney General Bill Pryor, starts a Medicaid fraud investigation, which led eventually to a trial in 2004 where Judge U. W. Clemon said it was the most unfounded criminal case over which he has presided in his nearly 30 years on the bench.
Karl Rove’s client comes back into play in 2002 when Bill Pryor stops my hand recount, which would have proven one way or the other whether I won the race or whether there was electronic vote fraud. He seized the ballots and the returns and those ballots and returns have never been seen or counted since. Pryor certified them illegally two days before Alabama law allows for certification after which he was appointed to the federal bench in Atlanta on the Eleventh Circuit through which my appeals have to go.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So all the dots definitely connect back to Karl Rove?
Don Siegelman: All I can say is Karl Rove had to vet Bill Pryor for his judgeship for the Eleventh Circuit. Interestingly enough, as soon as he was appointed, Jeff Sessions made the comment, “We would’ve gotten Bill on the bench earlier, but we needed a Republican governor in place first.” That was 2003. You will remember that Bob Riley pushed his $2 billion tax bill and his popularity sank. My popularity rose. The political surveys in 2003 showed that I was going to just beat the stew out of him in 2006.
At that point, the state Republican Party chairman, Marty Connors, was summoned to Jeff Sessions’ office in Washington where they had a discussion about the parameters under which Jeff would run against me in 2006. Sessions told Connors, “I want a close field for the Republican primary. If Riley is out of there, I’ll leave my Senate seat. I’ll run for governor.” Maybe the discussion centered around who he’d appoint as governor to fill his unexpired term in the US Senate. At that point, Sessions was interested in running for governor in 2006.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Former Alabama Republican campaign consultant Bill Canary’s the spouse of former US Attorney Leura Canary who prosecuted your case. What’s the story behind Karl Rove and Bill Canary’s relationship?
Don Siegelman: I was brought to trial one month before the Democratic primary in 2006 by Leura Canary, the US Attorney whose husband, Billy Canary, was and is a close personal friend and business associate of Karl Rove. In 1992, when George Herbert Walker Bush was being challenged by Bill Clinton, Rove was working for Bush trying to raise money for him, and Billy Canary had been on Reagan’s staff as the state liaison to states from the Reagan administration. He went to work for the Bush re-election campaign. He and Rove worked together. Billy Canary ran the ground troops for the Bush/Quail campaign against Clinton.
When they lost, Canary and Rove made a trip through Texas and came to Alabama where they set up a political shop here to do for Alabama what Rove had done for Texas, that is to take over the Supreme Court for the business interests. Their first target was E. C. “Sonny” Hornsby who was the Democratic Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. They stole that election. The question involved whether absentee votes should be counted or not counted based on some technical flaws in the preparation of the envelopes that contained the ballots.
I testified on behalf of Sonny Hornsby against the Rove takeover of the court in ’94. Hornsby had won in state court and won at the state Supreme Court level, but Rove maneuvered it back into a federal court in Mobile where the federal judge threw out the ballots and declared the Republican Perry Hooper, Sr. the victor. That was his first election, but they stayed together working on Supreme Court races and other races such as Bill Pryor’s for a number of years up to at least 2000 and maybe 2002. Rove admits this in his book.
Canary and Rove both married ladies from Alabama. They got married here. Rove moved to the Gulf Coast on Rosemary Beach, and Canary moved to Montgomery so they could have a close relationship and work together on various cases. Bill Canary wasn’t just an aide to Reagan. He was described in Time magazine as a political paratrooper who could be dropped in anywhere there was a problem that needed to be fixed. He had worked for Andrew Card. Canary was a fairly substantial Republican political operative before he came to Alabama and maintained that aura working with Rove.
Canary and Rove came into take over the Supreme Court. They worked in the ’94 elections, and when Sessions was elected as Attorney General, and I was elected Lieutenant Governor, they worked on Bill Pryor’s campaign in ’98, and they worked against me and the lottery in ’99 as did Judge Fuller. He was on the Republican executive committee that opposed the lottery.
In 2002, it was Karl Rove’s client, Bill Pryor, who openly participated in stealing the election. Two other people were given credit for stealing the election. One was Rove’s employee, a woman named Kitty McCullough who later married and changed her name to Kelly Kimbrough and a guy named Dan Gans who claimed credit on his website. Dan Gans, immediately after the election was stolen, went to work for a Tom DeLay/Jack Abramoff related lobbying firm called the Alexander Group. So to answer the question about the political operatives, the players were substantial, and there were substantial ties leading to Rove, leading to the White House and going directly, of course, to Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Scanlin and Norquist.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Leura Canary has appeared to have sabotaged the July documentary premiere at the Capri Theatre in Montgomery.
Don Siegelman: She did, and if I were her, I would not want it shown either. I will make a prediction that after this documentary is shown on October 1, that Billy Canary’s tenure at the Business Council of Alabama will be short lived and that Leura Canary will feel so uncomfortable that she’s going to want to move to another city. The documentary is strong, and it hits them pretty hard.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do you think President Obama didn’t pardon you?
Don Siegelman: Eric Holder’s firm represented Rove and the Republican National Committee. That’s one problem. The second problem is that the guy that Eric Holder leaned on was the longest serving civil servant in the DOJ named David Margolis. Margolis, over the years, had built up his own portfolio of responsibilities, and it included signing off on the charging decisions of all high level officials. Signing off on any charges of misconduct of prosecutors, any ethics charges, any criminal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) charges had to go through David Margolis.
Margolis was the one who made the decision that Leura Canary did not have a conflict even though her husband had been paid by Steve Windom who was one of my opponents and was working for Bob Riley, my general election opponent. As they say in the documentary, even a blind man can see that conflict. But Margolis apparently didn’t. When Tamara Grimes, a Republican who was a paralegal at the DOJ, came forward and filed a formal whistleblower complaint in 2008, it was Margolis and Eric Holder who immediately fired her. All this talk about transparency and protecting whistleblowers goes out the window when you’re trying to protect the image of the DOJ. So we had Margolis approving the charging decisions against me. We had Margolis approving Leura Canary’s continued involvement in the case even though her husband was working for my opponent.
You had Margolis and Eric Holder who fired Tamara Grimes who was working on my case and who said that she witnessed Nick Bailey being cajoled and pressured into saying things that he clearly could not remember, but he didn’t want to disappoint the prosecutors. So why didn’t Obama pardon me? I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and just say he was relying on Holder and the DOJ. They were the umbrella protecting the people below them from Leura Canary all the way up to Karl Rove or whomever. Margolis couldn’t recommend that I be pardoned because that would mean that everything he did was wrong. We had substantial people speak with the president including the former Democratic Speaker, the former Democratic Whip, the former Majority Leader in the Senate, the Democratic Minority Leader and the current governor of Virginia.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So you sufficiently had President Obama’s ear?
Don Siegelman: Well, I don’t know if we had his ear, but it was spoken to his ear (laughs). His ear was full.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand Al Gore weighed in also on your behalf.
Don Siegelman: Oh, Al Gore, too. He was the first person to come to my defense. He recognized that Rove was involved and was outraged and sent emails out. He said something to the effect that Don Siegelman’s not just fighting for his freedom, he’s fighting for our democracy. He called on people to speak out.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were a dark horse in the presidential primary to win the Democratic nomination, if you could've won re-election as governor in 2002.
Don Siegelman: The Kiplinger letter touted me as that. At the time, Gray Davis from California was capturing all of the attention. Gray and I were friends, and I had called some people in the national Democratic Party and talked to a major Democratic donor in Waco, Texas. They said that Gray Davis had the thing locked up. I knew if I got on the trail as a southern Democrat, I might have a chance. I had a pretty outstanding record in terms of accomplishments with five automobile plants in three and a half years, and I had a commitment to get KIA in Alabama also.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You changed the face of the auto industry in the state.
Don Siegelman: I had also negotiated to bring the Delta 2 rocket to Decatur. We were already manufacturing the Delta 4 rocket. We rebuilt the docks and restructured the airport in Huntsville, and we did a lot of business development. We had 1,000 new school construction projects, had the largest road and bridge project in the history of the state and put a lot of people back to work.
What propelled me to push for the lottery was it would obviously help keep kids in school and out of trouble because they would have hope for their lives. I had seen so many young people that had and still have no hope. I thought that if we can guarantee every single graduate of every high school in Alabama that they could go to a trade school, a two-year college, a community college, or go to college if their grades were good enough, that would be an incentive for them to study and finish school. That could’ve changed a lot of lives.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That could’ve changed the outlook of this entire state and actually kept many families together.
Don Siegelman: It would’ve kept families together, and we were doing all this in combination with bringing in jobs that college graduates could work at UAB or corporate headquarters at some of these places, and some of the jobs paid very well. So I felt like I had a pretty good record to run on as a southern liberal. I say southern liberal because of my background and everything I’d done. I worked for Al Lowenstein who was the Democratic congressman fro Long Island, worked in the anti-war movement, worked with McGovern and was endorsed by Jane Fonda when I wanted to run for US Senate. Despite all of that, I was also the only Democrat in 2002 to be endorsed by Charlton Heston.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That has to be an interesting story (laughs).
Don Siegelman: It’s a long story. But I honestly think that was when Rove said, “Get that son of a bitch! Kill him!” They were so shocked and could not believe I pulled that off.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So you were moving in both Democratic and Republican circles?
Don Siegelman: Well, I knew Jimmy Hinton, one of the Republican patriarchs in Tuscaloosa, and I was friends with Red Blount from Montgomery. Bill Ireland from Birmingham took out an ad in the Birmingham News that said, “I have not endorsed a Democrat since 1948, and that was Strom Thurmond, but I am endorsing Don Siegelman.”
What led to my ability to capture Charlton Heston started in 1986. I was taking karate, and the deputy sheriff knew I was going to run for Attorney General. He said, “I just bought you a membership in the NRA. You’ve got to have this.” I said, “Okay.” As Secretary of State, after Al Lowenstein was assassinated by one of his co-workers who had mental problems, I’d started taking an interest in how guns were purchased. The Secretary of State had the authority to prescribe the forms for buying weapons. I wanted to computerize the records and to do something to ensure that people with mental illnesses couldn’t purchase guns. There was some interaction back then with the NRA.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The NRA was not that political back then?
Don Siegelman: No. About 1986, I met a local lawyer in Birmingham named Jim Porter whose dad had been on the board of the National Rifle Association. Jim and I became acquaintances, then later friends. I went to him frankly and said, “I’ve got this questionnaire from the NRA. I need you to help me fill this out.” I wanted to stay true to my beliefs, but didn’t want to draw fire unnecessarily. As Attorney General, I filed more environmental lawsuits in my first six weeks than Charles Graddick did in his entire eight years.
As a result of the settlements, I put a lot of money into the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, different environmental groups, and Jim Porter suggested I restore this shooting range at the Anniston Army Depot. So I did that. He also got me interested in a gun safety course that the Daisy BB Gun people were promoting, and later we did commercials and an ad for the NRA magazine on gun safety. But all of that was non-sequential stuff.
In the course of that, Jim and I shared time together at some hunting lodges over the time I was governor. When it came time for the NRA to make an endorsement, I knew I was facing Riley, Shelby and Sessions, and all of them were lobbying the NRA. I was staying in touch with their national lobbyist, and he said, “Everybody is calling my boss.” I said, “Is Rove calling?” He said, “Everybody is calling my boss trying to get this endorsement for Riley. The one thing you have going for you is that you’re an incumbent, and our policy has always been that we do not turn our backs on an incumbent for a challenger. I can’t guarantee you it won’t change, but that’s what I’m pushing for, and that’s what Jim Porter is pushing for.” Toward the end of the campaign, he said, “You’re not going to get an endorsement of the NRA per se, but Mr. Heston is going to personally fly down to Mobile and endorse you.” I thought, “That’s better than an endorsement by the NRA.”
My wife and I flew down to Mobile and met Charlton Heston at the hotel. The next morning, he stood before the cameras and endorsed me. I swear I think that’s when they went crazy and said, “We need to make sure we have plan B in place.” Plan B was to steal the election. Having done a pretty good job as governor and having woven my way through the political landmines, I thought it was time for me to challenge Bush on education, the economy and those stupid wars that he got us in that was going to bankrupt us and stir up a hornet’s nest. This was in December of 2002. I made the same speech to the Democratic Governors Association, but obviously I hadn’t been elected, but I was still determined.
I was appointed chairman of a new organization called Democratic Governors Ameritus. My job was to raise money for the Democratic governors running in 2004. I thought, “Well, I’m not the first person who’s made friends by raising money. I’ll go out and speak at Democratic fundraisers in different states and at the same time continue to build a place for me on the ticket.” It turned out to be vice-president with Kerry. But that didn’t work out either because the day that I was flying up to New York to meet President Clinton for our first fundraiser in New York for the Democratic Governors Ameritus, I got indicted. That set me on a different course.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re heading toward national prominence, then all of a sudden …
Don Siegelman: I’m heading to prison.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re now going to be an activist and work on clarifying this legal situation to prevent abuse of power from prosecutors?
Don Siegelman: Yeah. I have to say this. I could just keep quiet. George Will pointed out that the Siegelman case is not going to be the last time this power is going to be abused. If the Supreme Court doesn’t step in or Congress doesn’t step in to clarify this, there’s going to be some other person who’s going to walk into this trap and get prosecuted. But, yes, there are a few important changes in the Criminal Justice system that I think need to be discussed and tweaked. They’re not huge changes, but they need to be looked at and changed.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you call this a personal, spiritual journey for you?
Don Siegelman: Absolutely. If there’s a purpose in every situation or everyone is to find a purpose in whatever situation they find themselves in, I know what my purpose is. This is like God saying, “Okay. Now you see what’s wrong. Fix it.” I feel like I’ve been given a challenge. I couldn’t rest without trying to fix this.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In other words, this isn’t about Don Siegelman. It’s about what’s fair, right and just.
Don Siegelman: It’s about balancing the scales of our justice system so that what happened to me won’t happen to other people. It’s not like I was a weakling. It’s not like I was an easy target. But they took me out. If they can do this to a sitting governor, what can they do to an unemployed steel worker or a hairdresser or a cab driver or the Latino or black man or woman that gets caught up in some kind of drug deal?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes. In 2008, Rachel Maddow said this about your case, “If they can throw an ex-governor in jail with almost no evidence, what chance do the rest of us have? If we get in the cross-hairs of the wrong people, we are done.”
Don Siegelman: I remember when she said that. That’s why I feel so strongly that I’ve got to speak out on Criminal Justice reform. Nothing can be done to put me back where I was, and I’m not looking to go back. But if I can make the changes that I believe need to be made to help balance the scales of justice to ensure that fair trials are fair and that the sentences that are meted out are based on the Constitution or the laws and not the whims of a judge, then I will feel like that to some extent, my time in prison was worthwhile.
Let me mention two things. I mentioned grand juries and how they can be manipulated and how, even under President Obama, it was proclaimed that US citizens do not have a constitutional right not to be framed. If that is what President Obama’s lawyer will proclaim, what in the world will Jeff Sessions and President Trump proclaim? That’s a pretty low bar that President Obama has set, so it is dangerous and frightening that no one has said, “What? Not in America! What are we talking about?”
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why has that not been challenged?
Don Siegelman: There are some federal judges that have shaken their heads over these things for years, but I’m hopeful that I can get before the right people and talk about these things and make them realize that this should not be happening in America. We talked about grand juries and framing people. Most people don’t know that judges can add years to your sentence for matters for which juries have said you are innocent. Acquitted conduct means that the judge can say to the jury, “I know you said ‘not guilty,’ but I think there’s enough evidence to give him four more years.” They did that in my case.
My guideline change for my sentence was tripled based on acquitted conduct. We made this argument to the courts … and nothing. I thought when my lawyers made the argument to the Eleventh Circuit and to the Supreme court that we had a shot at it. I thought the Supreme Court was bound to recognize that fair trials are based on jury convictions, and judges shouldn’t be allowed to add time for acquitting conduct anymore than Alabama judges should be allowed to impose the death sentence when a jury has said “life in prison.” It makes no sense.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): No, it absolutely does not make any sense. How did your family cope while you were in prison, Don?
Don Siegelman: It’s been extremely difficult on my kids and my wife. I was the primary breadwinner. My God, when this started, I guess Joseph was 11 and Dana was 14. They’re now 28 and 32. And it’s still not over. I say it’s still not over because I want to talk a little bit about this FOIA case that we have pending before Judge Haikala.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your son filed this lawsuit against the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility?
Don Siegelman: My son is the plaintiff. There was a hearing based on the briefs that were filed. Judge Haikala issued a ruling that we had shown enough bad faith on the part of the government to warrant her to examine the government’s documents in camera. What led to this was the revelation of a secret letter that was sealed. I call it a secret letter because it was secret to us. It was sent by the DOJ to the House Judiciary Committee in 2010 where they admitted that the lead prosecutor in my case had sent emails to Bob Riley giving him updates on the investigation and prosecution, in which the lead prosecutor said that he was frustrated because the case wasn’t moving along fast enough and that he was running into roadblocks.
The roadblocks they were running into at the time was Charles Niven of the Middle District that had been there 25 years and also a lawyer from the DOJ, John Scott. Both concluded there was insufficient evidence to bring charges. That’s why he was expressing his frustration at the time. In this letter, they lay out other areas of misconduct of federal prosecutors.
Another one that’s worth mentioning is Julia Weller who was appointed to fill Niven’s place as the head of the Criminal Division of the Middle District. When he retired, he was interviewing Lanny Young, another government witness. When Young said, “Well, I did the same thing for Bill Pryor and Jeff Sessions. I gave coffee cups and hats and plane rides to Jeff Sessions and Bill Pryor. And that’s not all. I gave Sessions cash and got my employees to give him checks and paid him back.”
They said, “Wait! We’re not interested in what you did for Sessions and Pryor. Stick with Siegelman.” When this finally came to light, we pressured the prosecutors and said, “Why didn’t you bring charges against them? You brought charges against Siegelman based on this guy’s testimony.”
They said that they found his testimony incredible and that it wasn’t believable. It wasn’t believable as to the Republicans, but it was miraculously believable as to Siegelman. But interestingly, all of the charges based on this guy that they said wasn’t believable, I was acquitted of by the jury. So they were right in the respect that they were incredible, but at least the jury didn’t believe them. The fact is they ignored the charges against Sessions and Pryor and brought charges against me.
Based on these revelations, we asked the judge to either produce the whole report and let us look at it or look at it in camera and determine what parts of the report should be released. So that’s where we are now. It’s our last legal thread to pull. Depending on if Judge Haikala produces the report, there may well be other strings to pull, other layers to peel off, so we can get a little deeper into discovery.
Keep in mind that every motion we file for discovery from the beginning at my 2006 trial, has been denied. Efforts to find out whether the emails between the jurors were real or not was denied. Once it was revealed that Leura Canary, the US Attorney, had been emailing her prosecutors, we filed a motion for more discovery to look at other emails. That was denied. So this is our last effort to try and open the tent and let some light shine in on what really happened in the case.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve said that President Trump should pardon you. Was that really said with a straight face?
Don Siegelman: I’m not a fool (laughs). There’s probably a greater likelihood that Trump might to it, though, because Obama had a chance to do it and didn’t do it, as this president appears to want to undo what Obama’s done. But the reason Trump should do it is because somebody has got to clarify this area of the law. This is so murky that prosecutors have dangerous power to prosecute and put in prison people they simply don’t like or want to silence. So to protect himself and to clarify the law, pardoning Don Siegelman would be a way to do that.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, he pardoned Sheriff Arpaio for ignoring a court order, but he’s a Trump supporter.
Don Siegelman: Oh, my God. You had to say that, didn’t you? This is a man who took pride in running a concentration camp where 170 people hung themselves. I don’t believe that happened. But he took pride in the fact that he was compared to the Klu Klux Klan. I don’t have any words to express how horrible it is every time Donald Trump failed to state clearly that the confederate flag should come down or that he repudiated the endorsement of the Grand Wizard from Louisiana.
I recalled it was only months after George Wallace raised the confederate flag over the capitol in Alabama where his rhetoric and symbolism of raising the flag emboldened the KKK, who then planted dynamite at the foot of the 16th Street Baptist Church killing those four young girls. Trump’s actions in failing to condemn the extremists, terrorists, Klan members, white supremacists and Nazis and his comparing them on equal footing with other protestors could unwittingly embolden those who will do harm to others as did Wallace’s rhetoric in 1963.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Don, you said that you were not humiliated or angry when you were shackled and handcuffed. Are you angry now?
Don Siegelman: I’m not even angry today because I feel like what I learned, what I gained and the people I helped all will have an impact, but it is bigger than me. It’s more important than my freedom. The story that I tell and what my prosecution tells is about our democracy and how democracy can be stolen.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): By interfering in the 2016 presidential election, Russia attempted to destroy America’s democracy.
Don Siegelman: Democracy can be stolen by a Russian hacker, or it can be stolen by a local hacker, which is what happened in 2002. We’re at different levels, and we’re talking about a governor’s race and a presidential race, but the fact is that we know it can be done. Elections can be manipulated quite easily.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Now we have a demagogue in the White House who’s basically circumventing democracy himself as president.
Don Siegelman: Trump is doing his best to put up roadblocks to a constitutional challenge of his presidency, and we haven’t seen the last of this, obviously. It is likely to get more dangerous and more out of hand. It sounds a bit cliché, but it does require Republicans to buck up, to stand up and speak out. They can’t keep their heads ducked much longer.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But that is analogous to what you’re saying. This is how democracy can be circumvented, and I think personally that we’re on the verge of a constitutional crisis.
Don Siegelman: Yeah. We’re very close and it’s scary.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Don, how can the Democratic Party heal the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton divide that partly led to electing Trump?
Don Siegelman: I’m not sure. I’ve always believed that a strong candidate who passionately believed in what he or she was saying could move voters, and it’s in that dialogue and discourse that people are moved one way or the other. Unfortunately, in this last Democratic primary season, it seemed that the Democratic Party had a thumb on the scale and was tilting it toward Hillary, and at the same time, it seemed to me that Bernie’s message was resonating with new voters and was more exciting to the voters than was Hillary’s message. The election primary didn’t turn out for Bernie, and the general election didn’t turn out for Hillary. I don’t know that there’s necessarily any reforms that the party needs to adopt. I’m not close enough to it now, not as close as I was.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you become a liberal Democrat?
Don Siegelman: I have to go back to my parents, the good people who raised me in a way that made me aware that I should respect others. My dad, when he heard I had used the “n” word, sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “Go get the dictionary. I want you to find that word.” I couldn’t find it. My dad said, “That’s because it’s not in there, and we don’t use that word. This word, ‘negro.’ That’s the word we use.”
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What year was this?
Don Siegelman: It was the 1950s. When I was in college, I helped the African-American students form their own group union. By that time in 1967, I was working with Al Lowenstein who was an anti-war Democratic congressman from New York. We’d gone into Mississippi a couple of times, once to organize a coalition delegation between McCarthy and, and then in 1969, we went to Charles Evers inauguration. He was Medgar Evers’ brother. I put together a group of students including Judge Johnson’s son, Johnny Johnson, to go over and help Charles Evers in his effort to run for governor in 1971. It was just a natural progression after that.
Marc Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You reacted to injustices?
Don Siegelman: Yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you were an activist?
Don Sigelman: Yeah, but I don’t want to overplay that, but I was involved in things most people wouldn’t have touched. I also had a softer side in the sense that I experienced things. My mother would put me in situations deliberately, so I would have experience with older people that needed help, and I worked with the Red Cross, the March of Dimes and the Albert P. Brewer Center for the Mentally Retarded (what they called it at that time) and people with physical disabilities. Back when I was in high school, I worked with the Boys Club. I went to Georgetown and continued working for Lowenstein in his office and worked for the Department of Justice for a couple of years as a law clerk. I did all that while I was doing anti-war stuff. I did a lot of stuff on the side and organizing delegates and voter registration work and working for various anti-war groups.
When I came back after finishing post graduate work in international law, I worked for Bob Vance who was the Chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party back then. Immediately, he was being challenged by George Wallace. Wallace wanted to take over the Democratic party to use that as a vehicle to make another run for president in 1976. This was 1974. So I worked with Vance to out-organize the Wallace forces, and we maintained control for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. I guess that pretty much connects the dots on how I developed into a liberal Democrat.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you ever be involved again in Alabama or national politics on any level?
Don Siegelman: Maybe in some tangential way, but I don’t see myself as a candidate. I’ve been there done that kind of thing, so to speak (laughs). It’s excruciatingly hard work. I did my share, and that’s why I was elected. That’s why they targeted me and came after me because, as the Republican candidate for Attorney General said, “I was the one Democrat that they couldn’t beat fair and square.”
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