Of course, our legal system depends on more than appearances. Looking guilty is not the same thing as actual guilt. Yet, the prosecution of Siegelman on federal corruption charges amounts to little more than singling out the former governor of Alabama for something commonplace in modern politics. We hope the Supreme Court will take a hard look at the case, and clear up what looks like a case of selective prosecution.
After a three-year investigation, federal prosecutors in Alabama alleged that Siegelman was involved in a bribery scheme while governor. When their first case fell apart in 2004, they came back a year later with another indictment. In June 2006, Siegelman was convicted on seven of 33 counts.
Prosecutors claimed that Siegelman, who was governor from 1999 until 2003, and Richard Scrushy, then-CEO of HealthSouth, conspired together. Scrushy contributed money to the governor’s pro-lottery campaign — $500,000 in total — and in return Siegelman appointed the CEO to a seat on an unpaid-but-important state hospital board. The jury agreed, even though there was no smoking gun tying Siegelman and Scrushy to an explicit “give X to get Y” arrangement. Without it, critics of the verdict say, a lot more politicians who reward contributors with appointments could soon find themselves on trial.
We could start with the president. Several of his ambassador appointments went to men and women who gave heavily to the Obama 2008 campaign. And that’s not new. According to the American Academy of Diplomacy, over the past 50 years 1-in-3 ambassadorships have gone to generous contributors to chief executives. Then there are the governors who appoint contributors to various state boards and the lawmakers who find a way to write bills that just happen to benefit those who give lavishly to their campaigns.
Damaging to the public’s trust in government? Absolutely.
Criminal? Not according to the nation’s long history of political contributions.
Who says so? Washington Post conservative columnist George Will does for one. In February, Will wrote that any American “who cares about the rule of law — should hope the Supreme Court agrees to hear Don Siegelman’s appeal of his conviction. Until the court clarifies what constitutes quid pro quo political corruption, Americans engage in politics at their peril because prosecutors have dangerous discretion to criminalize politics.”
Another supporting voice is a bipartisan collection of former state attorneys general. The 113 former AGs wrote to the Supreme Court: “This case is about the criminalization of First Amendment freedoms,” adding a prosecution “will significantly alter the liberty of constituents to contribute and the desire of citizens to run for office.”
Siegelman’s liberty is very much at stake. He served a portion of his sentence in federal prison before being released while his appeal made its way through the courts. Unless the Supreme Court takes up his case in the next few weeks, Siegelman heads back down to federal court to face re-sentencing.
By hearing Siegelman’s appeal, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to clear up this murky issue of selective prosecution.