How can that be?
A recent post here drew comparisons between former Governor Don Siegelman's failed lottery campaign and the failed tax-reform campaign of current Governor Bob Riley. We noted the letter Siegelman had written to Riley, stating that the two campaigns were set up in a similar fashion and that Riley should be cautious because Siegelman was then facing federal corruption charges largely as a result of contributions made to his campaign.
A reader left a comment to my original post stating that Riley announced state support for a biotechnology project in Huntsville, and the donation to his campaign came after that. The reader seemed to be saying that this is one quality that made Riley's contribution legal. The reader also noted that Riley's biotech initiative enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
The reader's comment caused me to do a little research. Here's what I found:
Siegelman was prosecuted under several corruption-related statutes, including 18 U.S. Code 666 (Theft or bribery concerning programs receiving Federal funds). The statute states that bribery occurs when an agent of a State "corruptly solicits or demands for the benefit of any person, or accepts or agrees to accept, anything of value from any person, intending to be influenced or rewarded in connection with any business, transaction, or series of transactions of such organization, government, or agency involving any thing of value of $5,000 or more."
I realize that's a mouthful of legalese. But a couple of things are clear. The Huntsville biotech project certainly involved more than $5,000. And it is irrelevant that Riley announced state support for the project prior to receiving the campaign donation. The key is the communication between the two parties, not the timing of any announcements.
This is not to say that I have any proof that Riley committed a crime. Siegelman, in his letter, said he did not think Riley had committed a crime, and I'm willing to go along with the opinion of a former state attorney general. Of course, Siegelman also thought that he (Siegelman) had not committed a crime. The Bush Department of Justice (DOJ) begged to differ.
The critical question is this: Why did the Siegelman transaction draw heavy scrutiny from the press--and eventually, an investigation and prosecution by law enforcement--while Riley's transaction drew scant attention in the press and evidently zero interest from law enforcement?
That goes to the issue of selective prosecution, which Congress is set to investigate when it returns from summer recess in September.
In a recent press release, Acting U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin (Middle District of Alabama) said the investigation into Siegelman's activities was prompted by a series of articles (many of which ran on the front page) by Mobile Press-Register reporter Eddie Curran.
The same reporter, Mr. Curran, wrote a story about Riley's transaction with the biotech folks in Huntsville. (It evidently was not a series of stories; best I can tell, it was only one story, and I think it ran on an inside page. Selective reporting?) But the transaction has not been a secret.
Riley's political opponents, one an arch-conservative, made very public statements about the biotech deal. Roy Moore, Riley's opponent in the Republican primary for governor, called the biotech transaction a clear "quid pro quo." Lucy Baxley, who ran against Riley in the general election, also noted the transaction, "Tell me that's not a trade-off."
Granted, Moore and Baxley were opponents of Riley. But they also have significant experience in state government. Moore was chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, so his thoughts on legal matters should resonate with someone. But evidently the Bush DOJ isn't interested enough to even look into the Riley matter.
As for the idea that Riley's biotech deal enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support, that's not exactly true. Anyone who was in Birmingham or around UAB at the time remembers the uproar over an investment in biotech for Huntsville while a substantial biotech infrastructure already exists in the Magic City. Even The Birmingham News raised questions about duplication of services.It's interesting to note the response of Riley's spokesmen to charges that the biotech venture was improperly handled. Josh Blades used the terms "ridiculous" and "ludicrous" to describe such charges. Dax Swatek (whose father, Pelham, Alabama, attorney Bill Swatek, is at the heart of our story of judicial wrongdoing) used the term "ridiculous."
Those don't seem to be terribly substantive responses to serious inquiries--inquiries about the kind of matters that have put one former governor in federal prison.