“The chances of anyone getting a pardon from this president are very, very slim,” said P.S. Ruckman, a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Illinois, who studies the use of the pardon power.
Since September, Siegelman, 66, has been in a federal prison in Oakdale, La., serving out the remainder of a six-year sentence in a 2006 public corruption case.
Siegelman exhausted his final appeal last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case. Since then, supporters say they’re seeking a presidential pardon for the former governor, whose sentence ends in 2018.
Ten years ago today, Siegelman left elected office as his 2002 gubernatorial opponent Bob Riley was sworn in as Alabama’s governor. For Siegelman the ensuing decade became a rollercoaster ride of investigations, legal proceedings and appeals.
A few years after leaving office, Siegelman was brought to trial after giving former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy — a $500,000 contributor to a fund that supported Siegelman’s campaign for a lottery — a seat on a state hospital board.
It has become one of the most hotly debated court cases of recent years, with Siegelman’s supporters pointing out that politicians often give appointments to political donors, and questioning the tactics of the prosecution. More than 100 former attorneys general signed a court brief requesting his release.
But it wasn’t enough to convince the jury, or the appeals courts that heard the case afterward. Now Siegelman’s supporters are doing their best to try to get the attention of the only person who can release the former governor — the president.
But Obama’s first term has produced fewer pardons than almost any single presidential term, Ruckman said. Presidents tend to be friendlier to clemency appeals in the final year of their final term. For Obama, that would come in 2016.
Dana Siegelman acknowledges that her father’s chances for a quick pardon might be better if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 election — making today the last day of Obama’s term in office.
Dana Siegelman said her father rooted for Obama to win anyway.
“He said he’d rather be in prison for another five years and see the country in good hands,” she said.
The former governor’s daughter said that a year ago, she was in Cairo, working toward a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies. Since September, she said, she’s working 18 hours a day to draw attention to her father’s case.
On Jan. 10, Siegelman supporters sent out an appeal asking sympathetic friends to write to national news programs such as the NBC Nightly News and request coverage of the case. In December, the website Huffington Post ran a webcast in which Siegelman supporters made their case for a pardon.
Dana Siegelman said she landed the HuffPost piece by “stalk(ing) the producer on Facebook” and bombarding him with information about the case.
The former governor, contacted through prison officials, turned down The Anniston Star’s request for an in-person interview. Dana Siegelman said prison rules allow only 10 people on an inmate’s list of approved visitors; the former governor, she said, was still holding out for nationwide media.
“If you shoot for the moon, maybe you’ll land among the stars,” she said, describing the organization’s media strategy.
Dana Siegelman is adamant that her father is innocent. She lives in Boston now, but is mystified by the reaction she gets when she returns to Alabama, where guilt or innocence don’t seem to matter to some voters.
“People in Alabama are like, ‘We love your dad, even though he’s guilty. He had a good heart,’” she said.
Still, nearly 45,000 people have signed her online petition seeking the former governor’s release on the grounds that he’s innocent.
That strategy won’t work, predicts Ruckman, the pardons expert.
The vast majority of pardons are granted to people who’ve already served their time, he said, and are simply seeking restoration of their civil rights.
Commutations — that is, reductions in sentence for people now in prison — are extremely rare, Ruckman said.
“Obama has granted just 22 pardons and one commutation in four years,” Ruckman said. That makes Obama’s first term the least lenient since the presidency of George Washington.
And to apply for commutation, he said, an inmate usually has to admit to some degree of guilt. Ill health or old age might shorten a sentence, Ruckman said, but pleas of innocence rarely do.
“If you’re asking for a commutation on the grounds that you’re innocent, your odds are extremely long,” he said.
Front of the line
The risk of political backlash, Ruckman said, has made presidents increasingly reluctant to use the power of the pardon. Bill Clinton granted clemency to more than 400 people, while George W. Bush pardoned less than half that number.
And there’s a backlog of requests. Ruckman said thousands of current and former inmates have petitions for clemency filed with the Justice Department.
Grants of clemency usually pick up in a president’s final year. But Obama’s track record would make a last-minute appeal in 2016 unlikely.
“The more leniency a president shows, the less controversial any pardon is likely to be,” Ruckman said, explaining that when the practice is perceived as normal for any given president, people tend to scrutinize it less.
Otherwise, Ruckman said, “You have to explain why this one petitioner jumped to the front of the line.”
And no matter how many public appeals an inmate makes, Ruckman said, presidents almost never pardon someone who hasn’t already filed a clemency petition. Dana Siegelman said the former governor’s lawyers are still working on Don Siegelman’s petition, which could be ready within months.
She said they’re still struggling with the fact that the commutation application seems to require an admission of guilt.
Some petitioners swallow their pride and drop their claims of innocence in exchange for freedom.
That might be tough for Siegelman, whose case has become a cause célèbre for Democrats, who see him as a rising political figure cut down in his prime.
Dana Siegelman said her father “would be on the national stage” if not for the conviction.
University of Alabama political science professor Stephen Borelli said it wasn’t entirely unthinkable. A Siegelman congressional run was more realistic, he said, but the former governor fit the mold Democrats once looked for in presidential candidates.
“They wanted well-educated Southern governors who didn’t fit the stereotype,” Borelli said. “They wanted wonks, not demagogues.”
Ruckman said Siegelman did attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September, just a week before his return to prison. News reports from the time quote Siegelman saying he was there to discuss the possibility of a pardon.
But past political clout means little when someone is seeking clemency, Ruckman said. It might even be a bad thing.
Ruckman cited another jailed politician, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, now in prison on a corruption charge. He said Ryan first appealed directly to the president for a pardon, then filed a clemency petition arguing his innocence. Neither worked — probably because of the potential political fallout if a president bypassed the process to pardon a politician.
It was a tough learning process for Ryan, Ruckman said.
“If you try to get everything, you can wind up with nothing,” he said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.