As we set sail on 2012, a year in which political news will be dominated by the build up toward a presidential election, the mind drifts back to events that led us to this peculiar moment in American history. Our first black president is seeking re-election--and should be a shoo-in, even though he has disappointed huge numbers of his progressive base. The Republican Party counters with perhaps the weakest field of candidates any major party ever has put forth.
Why so much disarray and disgust on both sides of the political fence in an election year? I would propose that it's because the nation still has not recovered from eight years of the disastrous George W. Bush administration. Obama has been hamstrung for four years by the economic, financial, and international messes he inherited from Bush. Republicans cannot hammer too hard on the nation's woes without coming awfully close to admitting that one of their own caused them.
Here in Alabama, all of this has me thinking about one of the great political mysteries of the past generation. It's a mystery that began to unfold before Bush ever took office, but it did not gain national attention until Dubya and his acolytes were in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The mystery can be summarized by two questions: (1) Why did Karl Rove and his pro-business GOP thugs target Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman? (2) Why did the Bush administration proceed with what has become the most notorious political prosecution in American history?
Those questions are particularly powerful now because Siegelman last week filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court for review of his 2006 convictions on bribery and obstruction of justice charges. This appears to be Siegelman's last crack at appellate review, and if it is denied, he probably is headed back to federal prison.
I've probably written more words about the Siegelman affair than just about anyone on the planet, so I might as well take a crack at answering those questions.
Those who believe that the Siegelman prosecution was legitimate, that the former governor and codefendant Richard Scrushy really did commit crimes over a contribution to an education-lottery campaign, often say something like this: "Why would Karl Rove and his associates worry about Don Siegelman? Alabama is a backwater state that nobody cares about, and its governor was not all that important. Why would Rove even care about a relative nobody like Don Siegelman?"
Folks who ask these questions underestimate Alabama's strategic importance. They also underestimate the grotesque greed and lust for power that has come to grip the modern GOP. Most importantly, they ignore the fact that Don Siegelman was a central figure in three financial and political scenarios that spelled potential danger for the Republican Party and the money men who support it. Let's examine these scenarios:
* The Duel Over An Air Force Refueling-Tanker Contract--Journalist/lawyer Andrew Kreig, of the D.C.-based Justice Integrity Project, has reported that the Siegelman prosecution was driven largely by the fierce competition between Boeing and EADS for a $40-billion Air Force refueling-tanker contract. Republicans are known to wear patriotism on their sleeves, so you might expect them to support an American company such as Boeing. But EADS planned to build a manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama, and that meant the business forces that control our state strongly supported the European contender. Where does Siegelman fit into this picture? He had helped Boeing expand a plant in Huntsville, Alabama, and locate a new facility in Decatur, Alabama. Siegelman served as governor from 1998 to 2002, and business interests feared he would favor Boeing over EADS during a second term. How to get Siegelman out of the picture? About three months after Siegelman took office, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor launched an investigation that later would be taken over by federal officials. Key events in the investigation seemed to be timed around the 2002 election, which Siegelman lost to challenger Bob Riley, and the 2006 election--when Siegelman had appeared to be the strongest likely challenger to Riley. Who ran Bill Pryor's campaign for the attorney general's office? Why, none other than Karl Rove. Did Pryor's efforts eventually pay off? Bush appointed him to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Did the effort to bring down Siegelman pay off? No, it did not; the tanker contract went to Boeing.
picked up steam when Siegelman took office in 1999. He hired the Mobile law firm of Cunningham Bounds Yance Crowder and Brown to represent the state in lawsuits involving oil companies. The firm must have done a pretty good job because it won a $3.5-billion jury verdict against ExxonMobil. But the punitive damages were overturned by the Republican-packed Alabama Supreme Court. Did Karl Rove and his buddies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce want to make sure that Don Siegelman never again went after big oil? I would say the answer is yes.
* The Threat of a Pro-Gun Democrat in the Deep South--Siegelman built a relatively strong progressive record while holding four different statewide offices in Alabama--governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. But he was to the right of most Democrats on the issue of guns. And sources tell Legal Schnauzer this infuriated, and terrified, Republican politicos. Our sources say that Siegelman was not a hard-core supporter of gun rights, but he developed a relatively friendly relationship with the National Rifle Association for his support of guns in hunting and other sporting activities. In fact, NRA icon Charlton Heston signed a letter supporting Siegelman in the 2002 governor's race. Why would this cause considerable consternation among Republicans? Political scientists who studied the 2000 presidential race have noted that the NRA's massive spending that helped place normally Democratic West Virginia in the GOP column was a critical factor in winning the White House for George W. Bush. Had West Virginia remained a Democratic stronghold, the subsequent Florida vote-counting controversy would have mattered little; Al Gore already would have had the electoral vote sewn up. Republicans have made huge political strides from scaring sportsmen with the notion that Democrats are going to take away their guns. But there was Siegelman, in the heart of deep-red Dixie, winning an endorsement from the NRA. If other Southern Democrats had taken similar stances on guns, it could have spelled political calamity for Republicans. Is that the reason they had to take down Siegelman?
Our list of GOP motivations for the Siegelman prosecution is not all inclusive. It does not include, for example, the fact that Siegelman threatened Jack Abramoff and his Mississippi gaming clients by proposing an education lottery in Alabama.
So what is our No. 1 reason that Karl Rove and his thugs targeted Don Siegelman? The gun issue is perhaps the most interesting one because of its potential for national political implications; Democrats probably should ponder whether it's wise to come across as anti-gun in a country that clearly loves its firearms. The Boeing vs. EADS issue is intriguing because of the sheer volume of money involved. But when you consider the timing and the long-standing power of the players involved, I would say Siegelman's battles with the oil industry are the No. 1 reason he was targeted.
Siegelman sicced a Mobile law firm on big oil in 1999, and the Boeing/EADS battle didn't pick up major steam until about 2001. The gun issue and Charlton Heston did not become known until just before the 2002 election.
It's not enough for big oil to screw consumers at the pumps every summer. It also wants to defraud states out of the true value for their mineral rights. Could Alabama have used that $3.5 billion? It sure could have--for better schools, roads and bridges, health care, you name it.
Don Siegelman was fighting for that, and our guess is, that's why big oil decided he had to be stopped.