In April 2001, former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman hired a lawyer after articles in statewide newspapers indicated a federal grand jury was focusing on his administration.
The hiring of that lawyer, the late David Cromwell Johnson of Birmingham, could be seen as the beginning of the Siegelman court battle. Today, 10 years later, the case ranks as perhaps the most notorious political prosecution in American history. Justice still seems a long way off and, perhaps most alarming, a veteran federal justice official seems intent on making sure the public never discovers what really drove the Siegelman case.
Where is the Siegelman matter headed after a decade of legal wrangling? I met the former governor for breakfast on a recent rainy morning to find out. I've written probably several hundred posts about the Siegelman case, and we had talked via phone a couple of times, but this was the first time we had met. I've followed the case closely since the former governor's conviction in 2006, but I did not realize it had been 10 years since the battle really began--roughly three months after George W. Bush had entered the White House, with the help of GOP electoral guru Karl Rove.
Siegelman looks remarkably fit for a 65-year-old man who has been through 10 years of legal hell. He remains convinced that Rove is behind his prosecution, and he hopes to someday prove it. But for now, he and his lawyers are playing a waiting game.
The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Siegelman judgment last June and ordered the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case in light of new law regarding honest-services fraud. A three-judge panel from the Eleventh Circuit heard oral arguments in January, and Siegelman expects a ruling in the next two to three weeks. Also pending is a motion for the recusal of trial judge Mark Fuller, a Bush appointee who handled the case in a stunningly corrupt, and pro-prosecution, fashion.
"My expectation is that we will win," Siegelman says. "It's just a question of when."
Siegelman's No. 1 concern at the moment seems to be the U.S. Justice Department's apparent determination, even under a Democratic president, to obscure the truth about his prosecution. Birmingham lawyer John Aaron filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in February 2006, seeking documents related to the recusal of Leura Canary, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, site of the Siegelman prosecution. With the DOJ stonewalling on the FOIA request, Aaron filed a lawsuit in May 2009, and that case is pending. Discovery has revealed the existence of more than 1,000 documents related to Canary's recusal, and they have not been turned over. (See a summary of the FOIA case below.)
Who is behind the DOJ's efforts to stonewall on the Siegelman case? The former governor points a finger at David Margolis, an associate deputy attorney general and the most senior career employee in the department. "When you ask if the Siegelman case was handled fairly, Margolis has to say yes because he was the one who approved many of the decisions to pursue the case," Siegelman says. "As long as he's addressing questions about my case, I'll never get a fair shake because he was involved from the outset.
"There is an obvious conflict of interest for him to be ruling about decisions he was involved in. He needs to step down from any involvement with my case."
Ten years after the battle was joined, Don Siegelman clearly is not content to see a wrongful conviction overturned. He wants to know what caused a flawed prosecution to be launched in the first place.
Siegelman FOIA Request