Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Alabama Lawsuit Might Shine Light on Abramoff, Siegelman Cases

An ongoing lawsuit in Montgomery, Alabama, might pull back the curtain on Republican corruption in the Deep South, providing insights on the Jack Abramoff money trail and activities that led to the Don Siegelman prosecution.

Insurance executive John Goff filed a lawsuit in March 2007 against Gov. Bob Riley, former Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, Insurance Commissioner Walter Bell, and others, alleging they conspired to destroy Goff's workers compensation business.

The Montgomery Independent reports that depositions have been scheduled over the past two weeks, through today.

Perhaps the most interesting name on the deposition list is Bill Canary, director of the Business Council of Alabama and husband of Leura Canary, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. Leura Canary oversaw the Siegelman prosecution, and according to Republican whistleblower Jill Simpson, Bill Canary told associates on a telephone conference call that "his girls" (Leura Canary and fellow U.S. attorney Alice Martin) would "take care of Don Siegelman."

As regular readers know, I am not an attorney. But my understanding is that the rules governing depositions in most states [Rule 30(c), Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure] allow for a wide-ranging inquiry. Questions that draw an objection from a defending attorney generally still must be answered.

That means the depositions were likely to produce information that goes beyond the Goff case to associated matters--including the Abramoff and Siegelman cases.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Truman M. Hobbs Jr. on June 24 dismissed claims against all defendants except for one count of fraudulent misrepresentation against Bell. Hobbs ruled that the two-year statute of limitations had run on a number of the claims.

In a surprise move, Bell resigned his position in Riley's cabinet at the end of August and became chairman of Swiss Re America Holding Corp. When asked if Bell's resignation was connected to the Goff case, spokesman Ragan Ingram said, "Not at all."

Goff once was a Riley supporter, helping to raise about $500,000 for the 2002 campaign--which Riley won in a bitterly fought contest over Siegelman--and allowing the use of his company airplane.

But Goff claims in his lawsuit that two of Windom's associates, Jim Tait and Don Price, visited his office in August 2003 and said they could help Goff retain an important account if he split the commission with them. The men, Goff alleges, said the Riley administration would make sure Goff lost the account if he did not give in to their demands.

"In my 30 years in the insurance business in dealing with the state, I have never experienced such an open attempt at extorting money from me," Goff said.

Thomas Gallion, Goff's attorney, reported the incident to the Alabama Insurance Department. Rather than investigate a possible criminal act, Commissioner Bell initiated a series of events that led to Goff Group Inc. going into bankruptcy, the lawsuit alleges.

Two months before filing his lawsuit in March of last year, Goff wrote a letter to Riley. Goff said an audit related to his company's bankruptcy revealed irregularities regarding the use of his airplane. According to Alabama Secretary of State records, Goff said, Riley had not reported the "in kind" contribution based on his use of the plane.

Because the contribution was not reported for campaign purposes, Goff said, he had to assume that Riley used the airplane on two trips to Washington, D.C., for personal reasons. "I knew that you were going to use this plane to campaign in the state of Alabama," Goff wrote, "but I did not know that you used my plane on March 12, 2002, and May 14, 2002, to go to Washington, D.C."

Goff enclosed an invoice for $25,000 to cover the cost of the two trips to Washington. The Riley Campaign, after balking initially, paid the amount. But it apparently bristled because of another issue Goff raised in his letter: the activities of disgraced GOP lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, and their connections to Bob Riley.

"It puzzles me as to why you did not report (this in-kind contribution), and I am very much concerned that it could be related to your handling of the Indian casino money that has been recently described in the news media," Goff said. "I have read that the two people you dealt with were a Mr. Abramoff and a Mr. Scanlon (your former congressional aide) who were indicted and plead guilty to illegal funneling of these Indiana gambling-related monies to various political croniees. The article clearly describes that you were the recipient of millions of dollars of this money and through your use of my airplane in your campaign; I need assurance that you did not use my plane to pick up these monies on the two above described trips to Washington, D.C.

"I need for you to respond to this letter in that I have had enough problems with your administration and certainly don't want to get innocently involved in this Indian casino gambling scandal that I understand is still ongoing."

How did the Riley administration react to Goff's concerns? Not well.

It apparently encouraged U.S. Attorney Leura Canary to investigate and indict Goff on criminal fraud, conspiracy, and embezzlement charges. Goff is scheduled for trial in federal court on January 5, 2009.

These charges came even though the subject controversy already had been settled in an administrative-law case. Gallion says the criminal charges amount to double jeopardy. Goff says they are retaliation for his lawsuit.

With most of its claims dismissed, the Goff lawsuit appears to be foundering. But that might not remain the case. Gallion has filed a motion to reconsider, asking that Judge Hobbs reinstate a number of charges against Windom and Bell. The motion, for now, does not ask that Governor Riley and his son, Rob Riley, be reinstated as defendants. But that could come once depositions are completed today.

Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, the Goff lawsuit appears to have led to one major event-- Bell's resignation.

"It seems to me to be more than coincidence," Gallion told the Montgomery Independent. "My sources tell me that after Bell received the deposition notice, there was a meeting in Gov. Riley's office with Windom and Bell, and that's when Bell resigned. The appearance of it is rather peculiar."

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