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FCC Launches Probe of Alabama TV Station Accused of Censoring a 60 Minutes Expose on the GOP’s Prosecution of Alabama’s Imprisoned Former Gov. Don Siegelman

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Last month, 60 Minutes exposed new details on how Karl Rove and the Bush administration may have unjustly targeted Siegelman for political reasons. However, viewers of CBS affiliate WHNT in northern Alabama saw nothing but a black screen during most of the segment. We speak to Scott Horton about the case and his new article in Harper’s, “Vote Machine: How the Republicans Hacked the Justice Department.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 24, 2007Political Prosecution? Justice Dept Holds onto Docs in Case of Jailed Alabama Governor Siegelman
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Federal Communications Commission has begun investigating allegations an Alabama television station censored the transmission of a recent 60 Minutes expose about the state’s imprisoned former Governor Don Siegelman. The 60 Minutes investigation examined how the Bush administration targeted Siegelman for political reasons. The station, CBS affiliate WHNT in Huntsville, Alabama, went black during most of the segment. The station says there was an equipment failure, a claim CBS denies. WHNT broadcasts across the northern third of Alabama.

Senator John Kerry, who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on Wednesday asking that he share the findings of the investigation and added that he would be “monitoring the situation closely.”

Siegelman is currently serving a seven-year, four-month prison sentence on charges of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud. Critics say he is the target of a political witch hunt. More than fifty former state attorney generals have called for a congressional investigation into Siegelman’s prosecution. One of them, Republican former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, was interviewed for the 60 Minutes report.

    GRANT WOODS: I personally believe that what happened here is that they targeted Don Siegelman because they could not beat him fair and square. This is a Republican state, and he was the one Democrat they could never get rid of.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A Republican lawyer also told 60 Minutes she believes Siegelman was directly targeted. The attorney, Jill Simpson, says former White House deputy [chief of staff] Karl Rove asked her to spy on Siegelman in the hopes of catching him cheating on his wife. Simpson also says Alabama Republican operative Bill Canary told her two state US attorneys would prosecute Siegelman. One of the prosecutors was Canary’s wife. Siegelman is currently appealing his conviction while he remains imprisoned.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton has been closely following this story, Columbia Law professor, contributor to Harper’s magazine.

So, bring us up to the latest in this case. I think most people in the country actually don’t even know that Governor Siegelman, the former governor, is in prison.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, of course, we have a very dramatic presentation by 60 Minutes bringing charges against the Department of Justice’s handling of the case, accusing them of suppressing exculpatory evidence and coaching witnesses, and the charge being led by Republicans throughout the show. So it had a dramatic effect. I think it’s shaken the matter up. It’s triggered quite a bit of additional coverage, especially by MSNBC.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to WHNT?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, we have to go back a little bit here. We have a situation in Alabama that’s very much like what was experienced during the civil rights era. That is, network television and national media has focused on an issue, has come in and has seen that the coverage inside of Alabama is just inexplicably strange. It’s skewed. It doesn’t fairly present the facts. And much of it seems to be — to have a vendetta-like quality targeting Siegelman. It seems to be participating in the prosecution rather than reporting on it. So a lot of this national reporting is very, very critical of the local media.

So, against that background, when we had this mishap, as described by WHNT, a large part of the audience there simply refuses to accept that it was a mishap. And I think that starts with the explanation that WHNT immediately put out. They said that they were having technical difficulties with the network at the time. I got calls from people in northern Alabama when this happened. I had done work with CBS in connection — supported their research on this. And I called CBS News in New York and was told, no, there were no technical difficulties. The signal was out, it was fine, it was going all across the country. The station, WHNT, had the signal and had operating transmitters. They couldn’t understand what was wrong.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And has the station clarified since then what the technical difficulties were?

SCOTT HORTON: Indeed. They changed their position. So they moved away from a network explanation to it being a problem with a receiver from CBS on their end. And they subsequently have published very, very detailed descriptions, engineers’ reports and so forth, justifying, you know, their claim that it was a technical problem. And, of course, technical problems happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Have they replayed the piece?

SCOTT HORTON: And they also did that. They replayed it first at 6:00 — excuse me, at 10:20 p.m., which was against, of course, the best picture award at the Oscars, and then the next evening they ran it at 6:00 for the evening news. So, you know, they made an effort twice to reshow it. So I think you can’t fairly accuse them of censorship. It was transmitted.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say that the media in Alabama have treated this differently, what about the newspapers in the state? What has been their coverage of the Siegelman conviction?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, it’s particularly the newspapers. I mean, we have — actually, we have a highly divided media market in Alabama with the market really controlled by three papers owned by Advance newspapers, S.I. Newhouse. And two of those three Newhouse papers really took an aggressive posture throughout this case. They led the prosecution, essentially. In fact, at the sentencing, the lead prosecutor opened by bestowing a bouquet of praise on these two Newhouse newspapers for their wonderful work that supported this prosecution — a rather extraordinary relationship. And I think if we get a special prosecutor looking into this, one of the things the prosecutor is going to look at is what’s going on with these newspapers and this prosecutor.

AMY GOODMAN: What was Karl Rove’s involvement?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, we have — of course, this is the question everybody’s asking or looking to see it developed. But it seems that Rove was involved at several different levels. He was directing an opposition research effort focused at Siegelman, probably on behalf of his Republican adversary, Riley, and this is the context in which he spoke with the Republican lawyer, Dana Jill Simpson. He’s also very, very close to Bill Canary, who is the most important GOP election adviser in Alabama and who was involved in two campaigns opposing Siegelman. So he seems to have a position in the background.

Now, the bigger question is, how did he influence the Justice Department, and through what means? And that’s the question to which we don’t have clear answers, but we do have very clear connections with Rove dealing with the Department of Justice and dealing with US attorneys, very, very well-established track lines already. And, of course, this has been the focus of the House Judiciary and Senate Judiciary Committee inquiries and the subject of a standstill between Rove and Congress. He has refused to appear, refused to testify and refused to produce his emails, his internal documents and so forth. We’ve seen a very aggressive assertion of executive privilege to block that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what are the prospects of what the committees will do in the standoff?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think it’s clear that the House Judiciary Committee is going to be pressing forward with this. They issued a contempt subpoena already against Bolten and Miers. I think we’re going to see the same thing vis-a-vis Karl Rove. And, of course, there’s a lot of attention being focused right now on the internal Department of Justice inquiry into the US attorney scandal, very tightly connected to the Siegelman matter.


SCOTT HORTON: Because it relates to the same pattern of facts. One of the key points of inquiry in the US attorney scandal goes to New Mexico, where there are very well-substantiated allegations right now that Karl Rove was involved in attempting to press the timing of a prosecution of a Democrat next to an election to get electoral benefit. It’s very much like what we see being played out in Alabama, a lot of witnesses putting him there, an internal inquiry pressing that right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And the judge in the case that oversaw the trial of the former governor, Siegelman?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, there’s nothing normal about the Siegleman case. I mean, one of the things that came out after the trial is that this judge was a former member of the Alabama GOP’s executive committee. He was also — he also made public statements, reflected in a television report, that he believed that he had been the subject — that he had been targeted by the Siegelman administration, so he suggested that an audit of his records was politically motivated. That suggests a grudge. I mean, all these things are grounds for recusal, but he refused to recuse himself from the case.

AMY GOODMAN: The title of your Harper’s piece, “Vote Machine: How the Republicans Hacked the Justice Department.”

SCOTT HORTON: Well, that’s right. I mean, when we looked through all these cases and we tracked them back to the end, we see in every case there appears to be a conscious effort to play an election somewhere, to influence an election. The Siegelman case, Siegelman — as Attorney General Woods said, Siegelman was a Democrat that the Republicans simply couldn’t beat in Alabama, one of the few races where they just couldn’t eliminate him. And there appears to have been a turn to this as a way of eliminating him from competition. And his reputation was destroyed, and ultimately he was put in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: And how the hacking will affect the presidential or congressional races this year?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, that remains to be seen. I mean, I think we have a switch now to Michael Mukasey, and Mukasey has pulled in the reins on this operation to some extent, but not altogether. And the key, of course, is the ninety-five US attorneys around the country. There’s been very little change there, and many of them seem to be operating according to the same standards they operated before.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, we want to thank you for being with us. Scott Horton is an attorney, a law professor at Columbia University and writes a blog at Harper’s and has a new piece in Harper’s magazine.

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