Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama, returns to federal prison today to resume his six-and-a-half-year sentence on a controversial bribery conviction that has been compared to a political witch hunt. Siegelman and his supporters say he was the target of a plot, in part orchestrated by former Bush administration deputy Karl Rove, for belonging to the Democratic Party in a state with a Republican majority. "No one wants to go to prison for something that is not a crime, and especially one orchestrated by Karl Rove," Siegelman said. "Everyone remembers the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired by Rove during the Bush administration because they would not pursue political prosecutions. Well, the U.S. attorney in Alabama, appointed by Bush, vetted by Rove, pursued a political prosecution." Siegelman has already served over nine months in prison, one month in solitary confinement and three weeks in a maximum security prison. Hours before he reports back to prison to resume his sentence, Siegelman joins us from a hotel room in New Orleans. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin our show with the man who the American Trial Lawyer magazine calls America’s "Political Prisoner #1." That’s Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama, who returns to federal prison today to resume his six-and-a-half-year sentence. He was convicted on bribery charges stemming from his appointment of a campaign donor to a non-paying government board.
However, his supporters say his only "crime" was belonging to the Democratic Party in a state with a Republican majority. Siegelman’s supporters say he was the target of a political witch hunt, in part orchestrated by former Bush administration deputy Karl Rove. They claim the federal prosecutors and presiding judge decided to destroy Siegelman’s career.
Siegelman was once touted as a possible Democratic presidential candidate. In Alabama, he served in four of the state’s top elected offices. He was governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
Siegelman’s supporters already include 100 former states’ attorneys general—both Republicans and Democrat—as well as former presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry. Last week, he actually attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, not as a politician or candidate but as a man seeking a presidential pardon.
Pace Law Professor Bennett Gershman says Siegelman’s case is, quote, "one of the most egregiously bad faith prosecutions by the Justice Department ever."
Siegelman has already served over nine months in prison, a month in solitary confinement, three weeks in a maximum security prison. He now has to report back to federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, by this afternoon.
For more, we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by former Governor Don Siegelman. He’s joining us from a hotel room in New Orleans on his way to jail.
Governor Siegelman, welcome to Democracy Now!
DON SIEGELMAN: Thanks, Amy. I’m delighted to be with you this morning.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s hard to believe you’d use the word "delighted" today, but can you talk about why you’re headed to jail today?
DON SIEGELMAN: Well, no one wants to go to prison for something that is not a crime, and especially one orchestrated by Karl Rove. Everyone remembers the eight attorney—the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired by Rove during the Bush administration because they would not pursue political prosecutions. Well, the U.S. attorney in Alabama, appointed by Bush, vetted by Rove, pursued a political prosecution, and this is the flip side of that congressional investigation that stirred up a stink about how Rove was using the Department of Justice as a political weapon.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what happened. Talk about your time as governor, though you served in many different official capacities, elected positions in Alabama, and then exactly what happened to you.
DON SIEGELMAN: Well, I was raising money to get a state referendum passed that would establish a lottery so Alabama’s less fortunate kids would have a chance to go to college for free. Jack Abramoff, in his book, admits that he put $20 million of Indian casino money in Alabama, first to defeat me in 1998 and to defeat the lottery campaign in 1999 and then to defeat me again in 2002. There was a confluence of both the casino interests to get rid of me, to target me and to stop me, as well as Karl Rove and his best friend and his best friend’s wife, who was the U.S. attorney, as well as Karl Rove’s client, who was the state attorney general.
I was raising money, and I had asked a gentleman to raise money for this state referendum. He did, and later I appointed him to the same board on which he had served through three previous governors. And it’s interesting to note that all three of these previous governors had received contributions directly from this CEO. I received a contribution, but it went to a referendum campaign, yet I was targeted and convicted with—for bribery.
The other interesting note here is that the judge lowered the standard by which juries can convict to not an expressed quid pro quo or an explicitly asserted quid pro quo, but, in my case, an implied quid pro quo. So, now we have a standard in Alabama where people can be convicted not on evidence that they actually got together and decided to swap money for favors, but to allow the jury to assume or to imply that there was such a deal.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to—
DON SIEGELMAN: So that’s—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Craig Unger, author of the new book, Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power. He appeared on Democracy Now! a few weeks ago and talked about your case.
CRAIG UNGER: Right. Well, I think Siegelman is absolutely right. I mean, it’s not the prettiest part of the American political system, but it’s sort of standard operating procedure that sometimes campaign contributors get political appointments. And in Siegelman’s case, Siegelman personally got zero dollars. He appointed a contributor to a non-paying state-appointed position. And if he’s to go to jail—George W. Bush gave appointments to over a hundred campaign contributors and was not prosecuted on any one of those. And it really has been standard operating procedure. Hundreds of ambassadors throughout the years, in one administration after another, have been campaign contributors.
And what you see that happened—and this is really under Rove’s aegis—is selective prosecution. And I think there’s nothing more damaging democracy than when laws are applied only to one group. And as I began to research this, I saw that, you know, you may notice that a mayor of Alabama was indicted or investigated, a mayor of Honolulu was investigated just before an election, mayor of Miami, mayor of San Francisco. And all in all, I found mayors of 12 major cities. There’s Cleveland; Detroit; Portland, Oregon; New Orleans; Chicago; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Memphis and Dallas. What do they all have in common? They are Democrats. They are governors and lieutenant governors from five states—Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey and Maryland—and on and on, over 200 politicians, and 85 percent of them are Democrats. And I think there’s no data suggests that the Democratic Party is seven times more corrupt.
AMY GOODMAN: Soon after we talked to Craig Unger, author of Boss Rove , he went to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and he had this exchange with Karl Rove, which was captured on camera.
CRAIG UNGER: Hi. I’m Craig Unger from Vanity Fair.
KARL ROVE: Yes, of course you are.
CRAIG UNGER: And I also have a new book coming out next week called Boss Rove.
KARL ROVE: This is—this is where Unger is going to flack his book. Go ahead, Unger. Launch away.
CRAIG UNGER: Before and during the Republican primaries, on Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, you took—were highly critical of Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry—
MODERATOR: Wait, wait. We don’t read questions here. Just be quick.
CRAIG UNGER: —and Gingrich. Were you doing that intentionally to help Romney’s chances, and did you discuss it at all with Roger Ailes?
KARL ROVE: No and no. And I was complimentary of some of those same people at different times. But if—for example, when Donald Trump went out and Rick Perry went out and embraced the birther issue, I was critical of it. Unger’s got an interesting book. I’m responsible for the murder of Michael Connell.
CRAIG UNGER: The book does not say that.
KARL ROVE: Well, it comes very artfully close to saying it. He also depends upon a nut named Dana Jill Simpson, who claims that I got her to—I personally got her to investigate Governor Siegelman of Alabama. And this is going to be an entertaining work of fiction. I wish you all the best with it.
CRAIG UNGER: You’re misrepresenting the book.
KARL ROVE: No, I’m not. No, I’m not at all.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Karl Rove being questioned by Craig Unger. Dana Jill Simpson—Governor Siegelman, your response?
DON SIEGELMAN: Well, my daughter had the opportunity of confronting Karl Rove at the Democratic National Convention, where he yelled and shook his finger in her face and told her that I should stop using his name, or he was going to sue me. Well, you know, obviously, I’m not—I have not stopped and will not stop using his name.
My response to Mr. Unger’s book is that—and my quest to get people to sign this petition to the president by going online to Free Don Siegelman or Free Don or to my website, DonSiegelman.org, is because this case is not just about my freedom. This is about America’s freedom, about restoring justice and preserving our democracy. It is to underscore, in fact, that we cannot allow people like Karl Rove to take over the Department of Justice and use it as a political weapon, which is what happened during the Bush administration. And so, this case, in my request to the president to pardon me or to commute my sentence, is much bigger than my freedom, although, you know, my freedom is important to me, but the freedom of this country is more important to all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2008, Governor Siegelman, Karl Rove was questioned about his involvement in your case by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: To be clear, you did not contact the Justice Department about this case?
KARL ROVE: I read about—I’m going to simply say what I’ve said before, which is I found out about Don Siegelman’s investigation and indictment by reading about it in the newspaper.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s not a denial.
KARL ROVE: I—I’ve—you know, I read about—I heard about it, read about it, learned about it for the first time by reading about it in the newspaper.
AMY GOODMAN: Governor Siegelman, that’s what Karl Rove says.
DON SIEGELMAN: Anybody that believes Karl Rove, you know, we could sell him a bridge. But there’s—there is no question that Karl Rove’s fingerprints are all over my case, from the initial investigation by his client, who was the attorney general, to the prosecution by his best friend’s wife, to his partner, who was involved in stealing my election in 2002. His bag man, Jack Abramoff, was pumping a bunch of money into my race to defeat me. You know, there is just no doubt in my mind—there may be a doubt in his mind, but there is no doubt in my mind that Karl Rove did direct the Department of Justice to pursue me.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, your conviction was upheld on appeal. Can you explain why?
DON SIEGELMAN: Well, I can explain that, you know, we had 113 state attorneys general, we had law professors, who wrote the book on constitutional law, literally, who all were appealing to the United States Supreme Court, because they saw that this area of the law, one, is already so murky. And it was—it was less clear at the time when—back 13 years ago. So, you know, we have the best constitutional law professors, attorneys general, both Republicans and Democrats, all saying that what I did was not a crime. And, you know, we have the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the lower court’s ruling, where they had—where the court had lowered the standard by which juries can convict on bribery. Most of the time when you hear about a politician and bribery, usually you hear about the politician taking money. Well, there was no allegation in my case that I received a single penny or benefit from this contribution at all. So, this is a very unusual case. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Don Siegelman, you’re headed to jail today. You’ve been traveling from Birmingham, Alabama, where you live with your wife and your two children. When do you enter the jail today? And how long do you expect to serve?
DON SIEGELMAN: Well, I’ve been sentenced to six-and-a-half years. I will enter the prison before 2:00 this afternoon. And, you know, how long I stay there depends on really whether your viewers will get online and sign that petition at DonSiegelman.org, and whether the president understands and takes an interest in my case. I am hopeful that the president will take an interest after the election.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama and you were at the Democratic convention. Did you get to speak to him?
DON SIEGELMAN: No, Amy, and if I had, I would have talked to him about how to win this election. I wouldn’t have talked to him about my case. It’s just—it’s not appropriate, I don’t think, to bring this issue up until after the election. So, I did not have a chance to talk to him, but wouldn’t have talked to him about my situation even if I had had an opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: Don Siegelman, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a former Democratic governor of Alabama, returning to prison today before 2:00 to complete a sentence for his federal government corruption conviction. Critics say he’s the target of a political witch hunt. We will continue to follow this case. Thanks so much for being with us. Best to you.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to Chicago, the largest teacher strike in 25 years. Stay with us.