by Jeffrey Toobin
Since the midterm elections, President Barack Obama has been acting as if he feels liberated from parochial political concerns. After taking action on immigration, Cuba, and climate change, he should take on another risky, if less well-known, challenge by commuting the prison sentence of Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama.
Siegelman, a Democrat, served a single term in office, from 1999 to 2003, in the last days before Alabama turned into an overwhelmingly Republican state. He’s spent the subsequent decade dealing with the fallout from the case that landed him in prison—a case that, at its core, is about a single campaign contribution. Siegelman ran for office on a promise to create a state lottery to fund education in Alabama. The issue went to a ballot question, and Richard Scrushy, a prominent health-care executive, donated five hundred thousand dollars to support the pro-lottery campaign. (Voters rejected the lottery.) After Scrushy had given the first half of his contribution, Siegelman reappointed him to Alabama’s Certificate of Need Review Board (the CON Board), which regulates health care in the state. Scrushy had served on the CON Board through the administrations of three different governors. The heart of the case against Siegelman came down to a single conversation that he had with Nick Bailey, a close aide of the Governor’s, about a two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar check from Scrushy for the lottery campaign. As summarized by the appeals court:
Bailey testified that after the meeting, Siegelman showed him the check, said that it was from Scrushy and that Scrushy was “halfway there.” Bailey asked “what in the world is he going to want for that?” Siegelman replied, “the CON Board.” Bailey then asked, “I wouldn’t think that would be a problem, would it?” Siegelman responded, “I wouldn’t think so.”