MONTGOMERY, ALA. - As Don Siegelman, the former Democratic governor of Alabama, goes before a federal judge today to fight a recommended 30-year prison sentence, he's telling anyone who'll listen that his prosecution was engineered by White House strategist Karl Rove.
All but a handful of more than 100 charges against the former governor were rejected, his defenders point out.
And the bribery charge on which he was convicted did not involve pocketing money personally, but rather persuading a rich business executive to put $500,000 into a campaign for a state lottery to support education.
Prosecutors said Siegelman, 61, named the executive to a state board, though the executive had held the same position under three previous governors.
The other charge on which Siegelman was found guilty, obstruction of justice, centered on trying to conceal a $9,200 deal involving a motorcycle he said he was trying to sell.
The 30 years in prison that prosecutors are asking U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller to impose could be a life sentence, his lawyers say, and more than the average meted out to murderers in Alabama.
"Congressional committees ought to investigate what in the world went on in this case," said Grant Woods, a Republican former attorney general of Arizona. Woods, who still tries high-profile cases as a special prosecutor, has reviewed the charges against Siegelman as a former colleague and friend.
"From start to finish, this case has been riddled with irregularities. It does not pass the smell test," Woods said.
Siegelman's supporters argue that his popularity and his history of attracting both black and white voters - dating to 1998, when he was elected governor - made him a target for GOP political strategists and may have played a role in a long-running effort by the offices of Republican U.S. attorneys to bring him down.
His supporters point to a welter of circumstantial and other evidence to support their view.
A previous indictment, for instance, was scotched by another federal judge in 2004 with a scathing rebuke to the government. Just this month, a Republican lawyer signed a sworn statement that she had heard five years ago that Rove was preparing to politically neutralize the popular Siegelman.
And there are links between the case and GOP political activists, as well as an alleged failure by prosecutors or Fuller to conduct a vigorous investigation into evidence that prejudicial e-mails may have been sent to jurors during Siegelman's recent trial.
The controversy in part reflects the loss of credibility suffered by the Bush Justice Department in the wake of evidence that Rove and members of his staff played a role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. In several of those cases, U.S. attorneys targeted for removal had been criticized by Bush officials for not being sufficiently attentive to GOP political priorities.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto waved away the controversy, saying: "Someone is always making some baseless charge about Karl. Unfortunately I can't comment in this case while legal proceedings are ongoing."
The lead government attorney in the case, career prosecutor Louis Franklin, said he had not been subjected to pressure.
Political corruption cases are nothing new in Alabama. Siegelman's three gubernatorial predecessors - two Republicans and a Democrat - faced criminal inquiries. Two were indicted and convicted.
But Siegelman's case differs from the usual pattern in some ways. For example, former Gov. Guy Hunt, a Republican, was found guilty in state court of personally pocketing $200,000. And state prosecutors sought probation, not jail time, in the Hunt case.
To support their call for the lengthy prison term for Siegelman, federal prosecutors gave Fuller a list of additional alleged illegal activities, including material from the counts on which the former governor had been acquitted by the jury.
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Adding such "relevant conduct" to sentencing memos is sometimes done in federal cases.
Still, the sentence is "extreme" and unwarranted, said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Montgomery office who now sits on the House Judiciary Committee.
Although he lauded the professionalism of his former colleagues, Davis said he would press to find out who at the Justice Department approved seeking such a sentence.
Then there are the ties between GOP political operatives and the investigation.
After Siegelman became governor, a Rove protege, Bill Canary, helped lead the successful GOP effort to defeat him in 2002. Canary's wife, Leura, is a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in Montgomery whose office won Siegelman's conviction.
Leura Canary started to supervise the case but recused herself after complaints from Siegelman's lawyers.
This month another Republican activist, lawyer Dana Jill Simpson of Rainsville, Ala., filed a sworn statement saying that she was on a Republican campaign conference call in 2002 when she heard Bill Canary tell other campaign workers not to worry about Siegelman because Canary's "girls" and "Karl" would make sure the Justice Department pursued the Democrat so he was not a political threat in the future.
Both Canarys reject Simpson's claims, as do others on the conference call.
Leura Canary said that suggesting she exerted political influence over the case was "a ridiculous assertion" because it was handled by a career prosecutor, Franklin, in conjunction with the public integrity section of the Justice Department in Washington.
After Leura Canary recused herself, Franklin says, he moved his investigative team to a nearby military base to assure its independence.
The present case arose out of Siegelman's attempt in 1999 to fulfill a campaign pledge to launch a state lottery that would provide free college tuition for most Alabama college students. The lottery initiative was defeated at the polls, in part because of opposition from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his allies who fought gambling enterprises that might compete with casinos operated by Abramoff's Indian clients.
Siegelman lost his reelection bid in 2003 by the narrowest margin in Alabama history to a former Republican congressman, Bob Riley, who had backing from Abramoff, the Bush White House and a broad array of Republicans.
Siegelman immediately laid plans to reclaim his old seat, but in 2004 he was indicted on bid-rigging charges by the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in Birmingham, Ala., Alice Martin.
On the first day of the October 2004 trial, the judge ended the case with a scathing order rejecting prosecution evidence.
Despite the rebuke, investigators joined forces with the Montgomery U.S. attorney's office to develop a series of charges against the former governor.
One month before the 2006 Democratic primary, Siegelman was brought to trial on charges of bribery, obstruction of justice, racketeering and organized crime activity. The latter charges, which require special approval from the criminal division of the Justice Department, were rejected by the jury.
Siegelman was convicted on the obstruction and bribery counts alone.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times