Corruption case leaves a bad smell

The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTA -- Don Siegelman, a former governor of Alabama, has spent the past eight months behind the bars of a Louisiana federal prison. Perhaps he deserves every day of his 88-month sentence on corruption charges. Perhaps he committed an egregious abuse of the public trust, accepting a bribe from a former health care entrepreneur.

But there is a distinct possibility that Mr. Siegelman's most serious crime was being a Democrat who continued to win high office in a bright red state that Republicans believed should be theirs alone. A troubling trail of evidence suggests that Karl Rove and other GOP operatives intervened to ensure that Mr. Siegelman - who stood a good chance of winning a second term as governor of Alabama in 2006 - would go to prison instead of back to the state Capitol.

A week ago, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a segment in which a Republican political activist, Alabama attorney Jill Simpson, charged that Karl Rove was deeply involved in the effort to bring down Mr. Siegelman - repeating many of the allegations she had made under oath to the House Judiciary Committee last September.

According to Ms. Simpson, Mr. Rove relied on friends he had made when he worked as a political consultant in Alabama in the 1990s, including William Canary, whose wife, Leura, is U.S. attorney in Montgomery. Her office drove the Siegelman prosecution; she didn't recuse herself until the investigation was well under way. Her husband, for his part, has run political campaigns for Mr. Siegelman's chief rival, current GOP Gov. Bob Riley. (Mr. Rove, of course, has denied the charges of interference, but he refused to testify before Congress under oath.)

Even former Republican prosecutors are outraged by the extent to which Mr. Rove and his minions politicized the Justice Department, handpicking cases and firing attorneys who would not act as political assassins. Dozens of former state attorneys general, Democrats and Republicans, have urged Congress to investigate the Siegelman prosecution.

Mr. Siegelman's conviction involved an advocacy group that he set up to push for a lottery in Alabama, patterned after other state lotteries that support education. When the lottery vote lost, the advocacy group was stuck with debt. Mr. Siegelman accepted a $500,000 contribution from Richard M. Scrushy - then the high-flying CEO of HealthSouth Corp. - to pay it off. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Siegelman reappointed Mr. Scrushy to a state board that regulated health care facilities. (Mr. Scrushy was also convicted in the matter.)

The prosecution's case centered around one disputed point: When Mr. Siegelman took out a loan to fund the advocacy group, was he personally on the hook to repay the money? Prosecutors said he was, making the $500,000 contribution of personal benefit to Mr. Siegelman - i.e., a bribe. Defense attorneys argued that Mr. Siegelman saw no personal benefit from the contribution; they also pointed out that Mr. Scrushy had served on the same board under previous governors.

Either way, there's no confusing Mr. Siegelman's little deal with textbook good government. Advocates of stricter ethical standards - like me - harrumph over such transactions with regularity. But they are, nevertheless, pretty common, rarely inspiring much beyond raised eyebrows. It is highly unusual for the Justice Department to target public officials who have not personally benefited from their connections with contributors.

Even if Mr. Siegelman were the biggest crook since Jack Abramoff, you'd think the Justice Department - with a Democrat in its gunsights - would have gone out of its way to appear impartial by sending in a special prosecutor. Instead, the wife of a well-connected GOP operative headed the case for months. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has refused to turn over its files to the House Judiciary Committee.

It's no wonder the stench of a partisan persecution hovers about this case.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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