Veteran academics are supposed to feel free to speak out on important matters. In fact, the general idea behind tenure is that professors should be able to examine controversial issues without fear of reprisal.
But we cannot help but wonder if fear is hanging over the professoriate in Alabama when it comes to the prosecution of former Governor Don Siegelman.
Why does that thought come to mind? For one, I worked as an editor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) for 19 years before being unlawfully terminated in spring 2008 because of my reporting about the Siegelman case on this blog. And that's not a guess on my part; a human-resources official at UAB told me in an audiotaped conversation that I was targeted because of the Siegelman-related content on Legal Schnauzer. (See video at the end of this post.)
For another, three Alabama academics recently made comments about the Siegelman case that are utter nonsense. These gentlemen are articulate and, best I can tell, highly respected. So why did their comments on the Siegelman matter come across as pablum?
Were they afraid to make statements that might be seen as critical of the federal officials who ramrodded the case? My guess is that the answer is yes. And given my experience at UAB, I would say those fears were well founded.
Let's consider the comments, as reported at al.com:
* Wayne Flynt, distinguished university professor of history, Auburn University--
Wayne Flynt, a former Auburn University history professor, said history will view Siegelman as a cautionary tale. The corruption case that brought him down rested at the intersection of two of the Democrat's trademarks--aggressive fundraising and his signature campaign issue to establish a state lottery to fund education.
Flynt said history likely will view Siegelman as a warning about ethics and ambition. . . . "I do not think there was a moment in his career when he thought to himself, 'What I am doing is illegal,'" Flynt said.
* William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science, University of Alabama--
"It's very much a mighty fall," said political scientist Bill Stewart.
"What strikes me is the sadness of it, for the governor, his beautiful wife and family and the citizens. Unfortunately, it will also reinforce Alabama's reputation as a corrupt state," Stewart said.
* Brad Moody, professor of political science, Auburn University Montgomery--
"He was clearly, very, very, very ambitious. In some ways the irony is that his ambitions are what derailed him," said Brad Moody, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery.
One senses that Flynt and Stewart have warm feelings toward Siegelman and his family. Flynt suggests that Siegelman did not know he was breaking the law and had no criminal intent. It's hard to tell about Moody, based on his one comment here. But in a 2002 interview, when the investigation of Siegelman had just begun, the Mobile Press-Register reported the following:
Auburn University Montgomery political scientist Brad Moody said Siegelman should not be surprised if the investigation has reached his personal finances, but said there may be some political motivation behind this week's revelations. "The timing is not coincidental," he said. "It is probably the case that there is some politics involved."
It seems likely that all three academics know Siegelman and codefendant Richard Scrushy were not guilty, were prosecuted for political reasons, or both. So why the inane comments? All three of these gentlemen have a reputation for being able to shine light on important events in our state. But what do we get on the Siegelman saga, which has engulfed Alabama for a dozen years or more? Not much.
My initial reaction to the comments went something like this: "Since when have we criminalized aggressive political behavior? Since when have we demonized ambition? Do we want government officials who don't have ambition, who don't think big thoughts and look for big solutions?
"If Siegelman was 'criminally ambitious,' why did that not become apparent when he served as secretary of state, attorney general, and lieutenant governor? Siegelman held statewide offices, and was subject to federal prosecution, under justice departments led by the following presidents--Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Why was there never a whiff of scandal around Siegelman during those years? Why did Siegelman only become 'corrupt' when the U.S. Justice Department came under control of George W. Bush and his acolyte, Karl Rove?"
In the professors' defense, it's possible the reporter either misinterpreted their words or chose to leave out provocative material. It's also possible the reporter never asked the kind of questions that would elicit the professors' deeper insights on the case.
I feel certain that all three of these gentlemen are smart enough and informed enough to have truly enlightened the public on the Siegelman case. I think all three of them could have said something like this:
The facts in this case strongly suggest that the federal government criminalized standard political behavior. The facts also suggest that Siegelman was targeted mainly because he was the most prominent Democrat in a right-leaning state, where Karl Rove and the Bush family have powerful connections. We also have signs that the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury were compromised--and the chief government witness was improperly coached and pressured.
No matter what you think of Don Siegelman personally--and whether you liked or disliked his policy stances--we all should be deeply concerned that a public official and a contributor were targeted because of the official's political affiliation.
It's well established that the question in a bribery case involving a campaign contribution is this: Did the official and the contributor engage in an "explicit agreement," did they have a "something for something" deal that amounts to a quid pro quo. The evidence in this case did not show such a deal, and the jury instructions did not require it, contrary to well-settled law.
One also should consider this question: How are two men indicted in May 2005 for alleged acts that took place in summer 1999--when the statute of limitations is five years? How does that happen?
Citizens who focus only on the jury's decision, and the alleged misconduct of Siegelman and Scrushy, are missing the bigger, and much more important, picture. A fundamental tenet of our justice system is that we prosecute crimes, not people. Powerful evidence suggests the Siegelman case was not handled in such a fashion. In fact, this case raises profoundly disturbing questions about our justice apparatus, from top to bottom. The case has emitted a Stalinesque smell from the outset, and citizens should not rest until a thorough Congressional investigation has peaked into some very dark corners.
Wayne Flynt, Bill Stewart, and Brad Moody are undoubtedly capable of making such a statement. But they had to know those words would bring them grief--and they chose not to walk that thorny path.
From my own experience in Alabama higher education, I can't say that I blame them.