Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Blogging will return after Christmas

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ethics Reform: How about Buzz Free Lawmaking?

Make mine a double!
Now, let's go pass some laws!

      Each day brings news from Montgomery of the advancements of Gov. Bob Riley's ethics package through the legislature. However, one "reform"is not to be found: That would be a law prohibiting Alabama legislators from keeping alcohol in the Statehouse; and from drinking while there's lawmaking going on in the chambers.

        First, let me acknowledge that I am not averse to alcoholic beverages. In fact, I'm going to a Christmas part tonight and imagine that I will drink a beer or two. 
        The following chapter from my book, "The Governor of Goat Hill," is pretty self-explanatory. It tells, among other things, of my not only coming across alcohol in the Statehouse but drinking some (wine) myself.  I was, mind you, not on the job that night.

        I almost feel prudish to suggest there should be a law banning drinking in the Statehouse, so colorful and lengthy is this tradition. But then again, maybe not. I can promise you that if someone were caught so much as bringing a beer into the Press-Register building, there would be hell to pay. Adding alcohol to the high-pressure, late night editing process? There would probably be fights (hmmmm, Charles Bishop hitting Lowell Barron?, I don't know the answer but wouldn't be surprised.)
      What if you heard your doctor was sipping before surgery? Or your child's teacher was catching a buzz between classes? How about your pilot getting wasted before take-off?

         This chapter tells of the tension packed and, one might suppose, alcohol-tinged final night of the 2001 legislative session.
        As best as I know, only one person got in trouble.

Night on the Town

      “During the last night of this year’s Regular Session of the Legislature, Ted Hosp walked into a Republican Senate office, where he found Mr. Curran drinking alcohol with a Republican senator, Claire Austin, and others. Drinking is not allowed in the 
Alabama State House.”
      -- Portion of Aug. 17, 2001, letter sent from Siegelman chief of staff  Jim Buckalew to Register publisher Howard Bronson.

        “On the last night of this year’s session, Mr. Curran became so inebriated at a Montgomery bar that he was not able to drive home. He had no money and asked then-Chief of Staff  Paul Hamrick for $20 for a cab.”
      -- From the same letter.

       I was seeking neither drink nor trouble but enlightenment when I entered the Alabama Statehouse on the evening of May 21. I would get all three in a night that concluded with a 2 a.m. cab ride from a bar called Bud’s.
      By tradition, the legislature concludes each year’s session on a Monday evening, often not finishing until the midnight deadline, and then after a flurry of last minute shell games orchestrated by lobbyists and the craftier and therefore more influential lawmakers. The rest of the world finds out later, fingers are pointed, no
one can prove anything, and projects no one ever heard of get funded.
      Or so I’m told. First hand, I wouldn’t know because I’ve never covered the legislature. The bulk of my Montgomery coverage involves the executive branch and the state agencies under its control. I’ve attended a handful of committee meetings, retrieved records from legislative offices, interviewed many lawmakers,
and written a reasonable number of stories about legislation. But in terms of seeing the process in action, I was a neophyte.
      So I felt it would be interesting, even beneficial, to watch the sausage makers on their busiest night of the year. For that reason I scheduled meetings and record review appointments on Monday and Tuesday. Our Montgomery reporters didn’t need me.
       I’d be off  the clock, free to roam and watch, a tourist with a pass to the show. I ate alone and at about 8:30, walked from my hotel – the aging landmark Statehouse Inn – to its namesake, a few blocks away.
        The Statehouse – not the hotel, but the place where Alabama’s laws are made – is a white rectangular eight story building across from the Capitol. Within the top four floors, as if carved from its innards, are the two chambers, with the Senate above the House. 
       There’s something incongruous about the relative sprightliness of the chambers residing within what is now, with the impressively
modern Bronner buildings, among the plainer structures on Goat Hill. On their respective floors are the offices, with the senators – of which there are 35 – enjoying roomier accommodations than the 105 members of the lower house. I chose to start with the Senate, the more exciting and mischievous body.
        Exiting the elevator was like being dropped on a downtown Mobile street at Mardi Gras, with legislators, lobbyists, reporters, support staff, and hangers on racing about, some huddled talking strategy, others calling out for this or that cohort. It was a world unto itself, its inhabitants without a trace of self consciousness
and wired with energy. I was dodging people, winding my way toward the stadium seating above the senate when Claire Austin rushed out the door I was entering.
     “Guess who’s here? Suzanne! You’ve got to meet her. Come on!” said Claire.
     Sure! And why not?
    Claire was off , me tagging along. A turn here, down a hall there and into the office of Jabo Waggoner. I’d never met Waggoner, but knew of him. Who could forget a name like Jabo? Technically, Waggoner was State Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills. For giggles, reporters called him State Sen. Jabo Waggoner,
R-HealthSouth, a play on his day job as Richard Scrushy’s vice president for public relations. In any event, Waggoner was a conservative Republican from the Birmingham area who as I learned upon entering his suite maintains an impressive
stock of spirits and mixers.
       We found Suzanne seated, chatting away and drinking a glass of red wine.
       As her phone voice suggested, Suzanne was fun, and not one to take herself seriously. Among her duties was lobbying for passage of law enforcement-related bills important to the Attorney General’s office. No such legislation was pending that night, so she’d come over for kicks. She offered me a glass of wine, and after
a moment’s self-debate, I accepted.
     Suzanne wouldn’t have cared if I’d asked for a Coke, but I opted for the wine. Dumb, but not done in conscious violation of any rule prohibiting drinking in the Statehouse. I’d never given the subject a thought, and if I had, Senator Waggoner’s bar would have served as the final word on the matter. He should know the rules, right?
       Senators came and went, many with drink in hand. Suzanne introduced me around. It was a Republican crowd, and I received much hearty praise for the stories on G.H. Construction and Honda. At some point Ted Hosp stuck his head in. He didn’t ask for anyone       in particular, and I had the distinct impression he’d heard I was there and came to verify.
       A brief hello, something short of friendly, and Ted was off,
       “Oh great,” I thought. I hopped up and chased after Siegelman’s lawyer.
       In the hallway outside Waggoner’s office I gave some rushed and unnecessary explanation of how I came to be there. I couldn’t gauge his reaction and returned, slightly troubled.
        Ted, no doubt, was the source of the drinking in the Statehouse with Republicans charge made three months later in the letter to Bronson. In fact, two of the seven charges originated from what was for me a rare night out in Monkeytown.
       I seldom left for Montgomery before 9 p.m., primarily for procrastination reasons but also because of a preference for night driving. Daytime glare makes me sleepy, not so cooler nights with less traffic. Strong coffee and loud, fast-paced rock’n’roll make falling asleep impossible even should I seek it. Often as not I was
sorry I had to stop, and if lucky, was asleep in a cheap hotel by 1 a.m.
       During the Siegelman years, 8 a.m. generally found me walking into a state agency or courthouse. From then until 5 p.m., I didn’t stop, and then only because offices closed and people went home. Lunch often as not came from a machine – maybe a pimento cheese or chicken salad sandwich and a candy bar.
       Most of these trips lasted one day. After being booted out of offices or courts at 5, I’d swing by the Register’s Montgomery office, make some calls, do some computer searches, get back in my old station wagon and coff ee-up for the night ride back to Mobile.
         I was, as goes Montgomery, a saint. Couldn’t have named a bartender in town. With rare exceptions, a teetotaling working machine.
         As for the Republican aspect of the charge, had Suzanne been in the office of a Libertarian Party senator or a Green one that’s where I’d have gone, not that Alabama has any of those.
        After about an hour I left to go watch the senate, which, good to its reputation, provided fine entertainment. After the buzzer tolled on the session I returned to the party in Waggoner’s office. Claire said Fine & Geddie, the state’s premier lobbying firm, had rented Bud’s for a post-session gathering open to all, and asked
if I was interested.
        Should I go to a party paid for by lobbyists? The needle leaned to yes. I justified it on grounds that I’d never attended such a function and supposed it could prove educational, since lobbyists and lobbying appeared frequently in my stories. That and I felt like going out.
       My car was at the hotel and Claire offered me a ride. She dropped me off  at Bud’s and went across the street to Sinclair’s. “You go in alone. I’m scared to even be seen with you,” she said. Some already suspected her of being my source on the G.H. stories, and she didn’t want to encourage such thinking.
       I’m not sure what I expected, but more than I found. It was all guys, like a gathering of a fraternity to which I didn’t belong. Bud’s is a roomy bar, and against the far wall was a table with chicken fingers and other appetizers. In the near corner a mass of lobbyists and legislators drank and re-hashed the night’s action. I recognized a few, but knew none of them, or in any event, not well.
        I bought a drink – as in, paid for it myself -- and was relieved when Chris Pringle, a house member from Mobile and a year ahead of me in high school, walked in. We talked, and after awhile I walked across the street to Sinclair’s. By 1:30, more tired and bored than “inebriated,” I began thinking hotel and sleep.
        I asked people I didn’t know or to whom I’d just been introduced if they were heading back downtown, and if so, could they give me a ride?
       None were, and none offered to go out of their way. I returned to Bud’s. The only people I knew were sitting at a table nursing drinks. I remember thinking: Should I? The brief run-in with Hosp – his caught-you look -- weighed in favor of yes. I felt it wouldn’t be a bad idea, perception-wise, to make my night out a bipartisan aff air. Lawyers are famous for ripping each other’s heads off  in court
then meeting over drinks as if nothing happened. Might this sort of civility apply as well between a reporter and subjects of his political stories?
          “Mind if I join you,” I said, and Hamrick and Mabry motioned for me to sit down. Soon I wondered aloud if either was heading back downtown. Neither was. I asked the bartender if he could call a taxi. I’d not anticipated going out and
had spent what little money I had. h e bartender said the taxi company didn’t take credit cards. Was there a money machine nearby? No, there was not.
         I was staring at a 2 a.m. walk of three miles that would take me under an interstate and through some of the city’s more crime-ridden neighborhoods. I had a full schedule the next day and the clock was ticking against my sleep allotment. Walking was out of the question.
        Much as I tried, I could think of no other way. I approached Hamrick and Mabry and in a tone as apologetic as I could make it, asked if one of them could spot me money for a cab. Without a second thought Hamrick handed me a $20.
        I assured him that he would get it back in the morning and thanked him. The cab delivered me to the hotel, and sleep. I might have slept longer were I not so cognizant of owing $20 to Siegelman’s chief of staff. That slate needed wiping, fast. My first act post-breakfast was to retrieve cash from a money machine.
        I was in the waiting area outside Hamrick's office by 8 a.m., gave the receptionist a $20 and asked her to please make sure to give it to Paul Hamrick as soon as he arrived and, equally important, please tell him that it came from Eddie Curran.
     Hamrick was out $20 for about six hours, and for most of that time, it’s reasonable to assume, he was snoozing.


       The night’s activities returned three months later like a boomerang bound for my neck with the seven charges list sent to (Register editor) Mike Marshall and (Register publisher) Howard Bronson; and again, in September, when the paper published a story
about the allegations.
      I made a cursory effort to research the supposed prohibition against drinking in the Statehouse and found a 1997 story by Robin DeMonia of the Birmingham News. She had reported finding empty bottles of Scotch, gin and Jack Daniels in a dumpster behind the Statehouse on the morning after the fi nal night of that
year’s session.
        Capitol Police Chief Cecil Humphrey told Robin that alcoholic beverages generally aren’t allowed in state buildings, but that the legislature makes its own rules. State representative Ron Johnson told her that no such rules were posted, and acknowledged that some lawmakers were known to drink in their offices.
    "They're the members’ offices, They pretty much free to have in them what they want,” he said.
        My personal research on the final night of the 2001 session supported Robin’s findings 100 percent. I was not, though, in a position to offer that in my defense or to suggest we consider the irony of this administration’s making an issue of me or anyone else taking a cab home from a bar.
     How could Don Siegelman, whose wife was almost killed by a drunk driver and who’d long advocated for increased punishment for drunk drivers, fault anyone for calling a taxi from a bar, even if it meant having to borrow money from one of his aides? He should have touted me as an icon of responsible drinking.
       I wanted to ask, “Hey Gov, how’d your buddies Paul and Henry get home? Drive? And after drinking? Saw ‘em drinking, Gov! Witnessed it myself. How’d they get home?”
      This was all inner-monologue, and ignored the real reason I didn’t drive home: I can’t say with any certainty that I’d have called a cab had my car been available.
       Our story in September about my seven transgressions concluded with comments by Keith Woods, an ethics professor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism graduate school in Florida.
         Curran, said Woods, “left himself and his newspaper open for attack” by cursing at a governor’s aide, drinking with a source and borrowing money from another.
         “When we start to say those things are OK, the risk begins,” he said.
         Something short of fun it was to read those words in my hometown newspaper, to say nothing of the one that employed me.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Start of chapter called, "Siegelman's Big Score"

      This is the start of a chapter called, "Siegelman's Big Score." The chapter is about the more than $1.3 million in legal fees paid Siegelman while he was governor, and focuses on an estimated $800,000 paid him by a law firm for which he had a prior association, with the payments made after a secret settlement of a dormant tobacco lawsuit that was to produce $2.4 million in fees to the law firm. The defendant tobacco companies were not the ones settling but, for reason too complex to summarize here, it was the state, with state funds, that "settled" the lawsuit.
      As previously noted, each chapter starts with two quotes. However, the excerpt here doesn't directly relate to Siegelman's legal fees as governor, but rather, the sort of lawyer he was . The letter, shown below, is explained in the excerpt.


     Sometime ago, I publicly announced that I personally would waive any compensation for my involvement in this litigation, but those who hold public office and who have refused to prosecute our state’s claims against tobacco companies continue to suggest that this litigation is somehow designed for my own personal financial benefit. My withdrawal from this lawsuit should terminate these politically motivated criticisms.”
   -- Portion of October 1997 letter Siegelman sent to Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price.

   “Don has never been shy about asking for money, or about the degree of prestige his name carries with it.”
   -- Mobile lawyer Chris Peters, in explaining Siegelman’s reason for demanding that Peters’ law firm pay him a severance package in the neighborhood of $800,000.

     On a Sunday night in June 1996, Todd Cunningham ran out of gas on Interstate 85 just east of Montgomery. Leaving his wife and two young sons in the car, the 30-year-old contractor took off with a plastic jug in hand. It was close to 9 p.m. and dark when Cunningham started walking down a service road to the nearest gas station.
Later that night, Howard Fitts, an inmate from the Montgomery Work Release Center, told prison officials that the blood on the van came from a deer he’d run over. His story didn’t survive the subsequent discovery of Cunningham’s body.
      The next morning, Cunningham’s parents returned home from comforting their daughter-in-law to find among their many phone messages one from Nick Bailey. He’d introduced himself as an aide to the lieutenant governor, left a number and asked the Cunninghams to call Siegelman.
    “We were getting lots of calls of condolences, and it was one of the first ones,” said Todd Cunningham’s mother, Cheryl. “I really thought it was something more to do with the actual accident, and was thinking, ‘OK, the state has some more information about what actually happened.”

        That afternoon or the next day, Cheryl’s husband, J.C. Cunningham Jr., received a call from Siegelman.
“He said he would like to talk to us about our son’s death and that the state owed us a lot of consideration,” said Cunningham, a retired Montgomery police officer. “At that time I wasn’t really interested in suing anybody and getting money. I was very hurt and very sad, and my interest was in comforting my wife and daughter-in-law. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I had other things on my mind.

     “I told him I’d have to think about it. It was before he was buried.”
       Cheryl Cunningham was so incensed she took notes of the message left by Bailey and Siegelman’s subsequent efforts to recruit them as clients.

      “I was furious that someone like that would use a death like that for profit. It was beyond hurt – I was furious,” she said years later. She said Siegelman’s calling so soon after her son’s death and offering to sue the state he’d been elected to serve was “off the charts.”

      Later, J.C. Cunningham received a short hand-written letter from Siegelman. The envelope bore the seal of Alabama, as did the stationary, which in all aspects but one appeared to be the official stationary of the lieutenant governor’s office. The lone difference was the tiny print at the bottom, which stated, “Not printed at government expense.”

      “Last year I sued the State (Alabama Dept. Dept. of Agriculture) for the death of a state employee,” Siegelman wrote, the parentheses his. “If I can be of any help to you in any way please do not hesitate to call.”
Siegelman signed it and provided Cunningham with his private pager number.

      When Cheryl Cunningham told her daughter-in-law’s attorney about the letter, he asked for the date. He wanted to know, she said, because state bar association rules require lawyers to wait at least 31 days before sending solicitation letters to accident victims.
     “We received his handwritten letter 32 days after the accident, and that just infuriated me,” she said. “It was so devastating. I just looked at it and said some most un-ladylike comments, and I said it will be a cold day before I call him.”
       The state settled the case without ever being sued. Bill Gray, the legal advisor for then governor Fob James, told a reporter at the time that the state agreed to pay almost $1 million to Todd Cunningham’s widow and children because the “facts in the case were very bad.”
        Siegelman’s attempt to represent the Cunninghams isn’t directly related to the Register stories that examined more than $1.3 million in legal fees paid to him while he was governor. The Cunningham case is, however, an indication of the sort of law Siegelman practiced, to the extent he practiced law at all.
        He was an ambulance chaser. And when the chase produced a client, he handed it off to another lawyer. A real one.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Creative Perjury Chapter
Jill Simpson, center

Over the past week I ran, in installments, the chapter, "Creative Perjury," about Jill 
Simpson's September 2007 testimony before lawyers for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Click the headline above so you can read it from top to bottom, instead of the other way around (as it is below.) 

Now, for a ... COMMERCIAL BREAK!

                      What better gift for Christmas than a signed
 book and, if you wish, a personalized message, such as below. If you want one or ten, or one of the new hardback 
versions, go to the link below and I will sign, add a message if you wish, and get it in the mail pronto. It's also a way to support self-financed journalism.



Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Alabama Ethics: The Blue Harbor Decision

Jim Sumner,
 longtime director of the Alabama Ethics Commission

           Over the next week or so I plan to give some thoughts on Alabama's ethics laws and the Alabama Ethics Commission, which is charged with enforcing them. My opinion of the commission is low. However, I do support most of the changes proposed by Gov. Riley that will be addressed by the Legislature in the coming special session.
            During the special session, I think lawmakers must ask Commission Director Jim Sumner to explain the decisions he and his staff made in deciding not to pursue a complaint against northwest Alabama businessman Dennis "Blue" Harbor.
           Sumner, as director, is the highest ranking employee of the commission. He serves at the pleasure of the five-member commission, which is composed of political appointees.
            In my book, "The Governor of Goat Hill," I addressed the decision at length in a chapter about a complaint accusing Siegelman of using his office to funnel some $800,000 from the state to himself. That complaint, for which Siegelman was cleared by the commission, involved a convoluted and secret settlement by the state of a tobacco lawsuit brought by the University of South Alabama. (The legal fee deal was, as I argue in the book, the most serious and certainly the most lucrative criminal act by Siegelman during his tenure as governor.)
            In the excerpt, I am putting in bold points made and questions raised in the chapter that I believe should be asked of Sumner in the coming special session. There is also a link at the bottom to a recent news story that bolsters some of the points made in the excerpt.
            Here, from the chapter, "Ethics, Alabama Style":

            Any doubt that Siegelman would skate on the legal fees case was erased in April (2002), when the commission dropped its investigation of Dennis “Blue” Harbor, the Siegelman backer and friend and occasional business partner of Roger Bedford.
            I didn’t think my estimation of the commission – the competence and backbone of its investigative and executive staff and its politically appointed commission -- could sink any lower. The Blue Harbor case illustrated, not for the first or last time, that the commission, rather than policing corruption, enables it.
            It occasionally busts little fellas, but finds excuses to clear or avoid investigating powerful people. By doing so, it encourages rather than deters public corruption and should be abolished. (Note: I think the clerical staff should be retained to receive/organize records, such as the statements of economic interest that public officials are required to file.)
         Based on his public title – member of the Marion County Water Authority – Harbor would seem to be one of those little fellas. He was anything but. He’d made a splash the previous summer when Bedford was revealed as having tried to force the Marion County Commission to pay $3 million for land owned by
Harbor and valued at a fraction of that. He’d also donated $7,000 to Siegelman’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign.
            The ethics case against Harbor involved another matter, if most of the same players. As with almost every corrupt act exposed in Alabama, it was brought to the public’s attention by print reporters.
            (Birmingham News reporter Brett) Blackledge’s August 2001 story made a strong case for a violation of a crucial and seemingly straightforward portion of the ethics lawIt reads: “No member of any county or municipal agency, board, or commission shall vote or participate
in any matter in which the member or family member of the member has any
financial gain or interest.”
            In 1999, Harbor began pressing fellow members of the authority to fund a
$945,000 water line extension along Marion County 25 – a route whose residents
included Harbor. More importantly, the project would bring running water to his
timber business and allow him to develop 200 lots on 255 acres he owned.
            The purpose of such projects is to provide water to rural, frequently poor areas
where residents get their water from wells and springs. Boards like the one on which
Harbor sat seek Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which are federal
funds awarded through ADECA. CDBG grants are supposed to be competitive and
blind to politics, but in the Siegelman administration, were anything but.
            Until Harbor came along the Marion County 25 project was well on the
back-burner. Authority members were focusing on a project to extend service
along Alabama 19. Residents along the road had petitioned the board seeking
water services; it was a cheaper project; and satisfied the program criteria to a far
greater extent than the one pushed by Harbor.
            Harbor won the day because, as he told the other members, Bedford could
guarantee funding for Marion County 25, but no such assurances existed for the
other project.
            The smell factor was ratcheted up with the news that Bedford had sold Harbor
much of the land to be improved by the water line, and done so just months
before the funding went through.
            Harbor didn’t recuse himself from voting on the project and, amazingly, didn’t
tell authority members he stood to benefit from it.
            Blackledge's story presented all the key elements of a serious ethics violation. An 
official using his influence to promote the spending of public funds in a way that would benefit 
him; failing to disclose the conflict; and voting for the project.
            Huntsville lawyer Dean Johnson cited the story in filing an ethics complaint
against Harbor. The commission, as is its normal practice, assigned the matter to
one of its investigators.
            Complaints determined to have merit are presented to the five-member
commission. The commission’s lawyer, Hugh Evans, serves as prosecutor, which
must encourage defendants. Evans is one of those poor souls frequently seen not inside 
but outside office buildings, dragging for dear life on a cigarette. Nothing about him
suggests a prosecutor with fire in his belly.
            The commission’s chief investigator, Charles Aldridge, got his first job with
the state when then-attorney general Siegelman hired him in the late 1980s.
(Aldridge was in charge of the Siegelman legal fees case).
            It doesn’t help that the commission operates under a weak law. It doesn’t have
subpoena power and can’t compel witnesses to testify. Its hearings are held behind closed doors.
            As a result, there’s no way to gauge the eectiveness of the sta or
learn the first thing about evidence for and against a government official. (Note: For the reasons stated there, I believe that ethics commission "trials" should be open to the public.)
            Defendants are present and represented by lawyers who can call witnesses, argue their client’s case, and invariably dwarf Evans’ skills and vigor.
            After the hearing, the doors are opened. Commissioners cast their votes in
public, though without comment. They don’t determine guilt or innocence, but
rather a finding of probable cause – much the same as a grand jury. If the commission finds probable cause, the case is forwarded to a local district attorney or the Alabama attorney general’s oce for potential prosecution.
            Many commission cases aren’t pursued because prosecutors, especially those in
the attorney general’s oce, have such low regard for the legal and investigative
skills of the sta and the strength of the cases it does produce.
            Defense lawyers love to say of grand juries that they will “indict a ham
sandwich.” One could say of the Alabama Ethics Commission that it would indict
a ham sandwich, but not a steak.
            The process is a crooked politician’s dream, made all the more so by the sta’s
failures of talent and courage.

State Sen. Roger Bedford,
Democrat from Russellville --
 friend and business partner of Dennis "Blue" Harbor

            On April 2, commission investigator David Green wrote Dean Johnson, the
complainant, to report that the Harbor case “has been closed after an initial inquiry.”
            Green informed Johnson that the commission sta found “no evidence that
Mr. Harbor benefited from the Highway 25 water project any more than any other
member of the class of property owners along the highway.”
            Nothing could have been further from the truth. No other property owners
along the road had holdings to compare to Harbor’s home, his timber business
and 200 undeveloped lots. To refresh, I re-read Brett’s first story. It bolstered my impression that the Harbor decision could gut the state’s ethics law. I made my case to (my editor) Paul Cloos that we do an in-depth piece analyzing the decision. He agreed and I went to work.
            I called some of the authority members and was surprised to learn that no one
with the ethics commission had contacted them. No wonder the commission hadn’t
found any evidence that Harbor benefited more than others – it hadn’t looked!
            The decision was so bad as to make me wonder if Melvin Cooper -- the
commission’s director from its inception in 1974 until his retirement in 1994 –
would comment. Cooper said, as we reported, that he’d made it his policy never
to criticize his successors in the various military and civilian positions he’d held.
But the Harbor decision threatened the ethics law and for that reason, he would
make an exception.
            He said the commission sta had disregarded “the clear wording of the ethics
law prohibiting public ocials and employees from voting on matters in which
they have a financial interest or they were not fully cognizant of the future eects
of such a poor decision.”
            We quoted other experts saying much the same thing.
            As its rationale for killing the case, the sta reached out to a 1985 state Supreme
Court ruling pertaining to the innumerable Alabama legislators who hold jobs in
public education. The court had been asked to decide if those lawmakers could
vote on raises for teachers and educators if such votes would increase their own
pay. It ruled that educator-legislators could cast such votes.
            The Supreme Court concluded that the prohibition against voting on matters
of “personal or private interest” was intended to prevent public ocials from
using their influence to help themselves either individually or “as a member of a
small group.”
            The ruling noted that courts in other states had decided that lawmakers could
vote on matters in which they might benefit as long as the class of those benefiting
was  substantial.  In the educator pay raise case, the size of the class that would
benefit from the lawmaker votes was in the tens of thousands.
            The story ended what had been a cordial relationship with Ethics Commission
Director Jim Sumner. Until then, it wasn’t unusual for him to see me in the
lobby reviewing ethics reports and invite me into his oce. But he was angry that
friendly Eddie would scrutinize the commission and livid to learn that Cooper
had commented on the case.
            The Harbor decision that Sumner signed off on put him in a corner and he
knew it. I simply wanted him to explain to our readers the potential impact of his
actions on the ethics law. His bristling tone suggested he’d rather do anything but.
            I asked him at what point a class became small enough so as to prohibit an
ocial belonging to it from taking actions that would benefit the group. Sumner
said there was no specific answer. It was possible, he said, that a class could contain very few people. “The more local the entity, the smaller those classes become,” he said. “But our general rule is if a matter affects you in a particular way, you shouldn’t vote on it.”
            In a state crawling with politicians blind to conflicts of interests, shouldn’t is
an invitation to steal.
           Alabama's ethics sheriff tried to dodge a central question that I basically insisted he answer: Must a public official with a financial interest in a matter recuse himself
or, failing that, inform his fellow board members of the potential conflict?
            Sumner said that while he recommended that public ocials refrain from
voting on projects that would benefit them financially, in many if not most cases,
it’s allowable for them to cast such votes.
            He further said that ocials don’t necessarily have to reveal that they could
benefit from a project, though out of caution and because it’s the right thing to
do, they should.
            If it wasn’t so pitiful it would’ve been funny.
            I didn’t believe for a moment that Green, the investigator, came up with the
“member of the class” excuse.
            I suspect that this novel pretext for giving Blue Harbor a pass came from
outside the commission sta, that pressure was exerted and that Sumner, possibly
out of fear of losing his job, caved in. But it matters not. Nothing can excuse the
Harbor decision or Sumner from signing o on it.
            The writing was on the wall. Siegelman had nothing to fear from this gang.

           End of Excerpt
       I think legislators should ask Sumner if any commissioners exerted pressure on him and the commission staff to kill the Harbor case; if his staff came up with the "class" defense, and if not, who did; and if he considers the decision to have weakened the ethics law.
           Does it, in other words, continue to represent the position of the commission and as such, can public officials act similarly as Harbor and not fear being found in violation of the state ethics law?
            If pressure was exerted from outside, did he and the staff act in accordance with the ethics statutes in caving into that pressure?
            If pressure came from outside (it should be obvious that I believe it did), and Sumner caved into the pressure, does he feel he is qualified to serve in a position that requires considerable will and courage?
            Did he place his desire to hold on to his job above the requirements of his job to enforce Alabama's ethics laws?
            If he caved in, does he feel he is fit to lead the commission? (I am, as is probably clear, of the opinion that he is not.)

             Here is a link to a story, published Dec. 2 in the Montgomery Advertiser, under the headline: "Autauga sheriff violated ethics law, Alabama Ethics Commission says."    Though the sheriff apparently won't receive harsh punishment, the fact that he even came before the commission -- whereas Harbor did not -- supports my argument that the Ethics Commission  would indict a ham sandwich, but not a steak; and I'm not sure what improvements to the law can change that.


Monday, December 6, 2010

The Final Perjury Count: Blaming Noel Hillman

Noel Hillman

      This is the last of five installments from the chapter, "Creative Perjury," in my book, "The Governor of Goat Hill," and that address testimony by Jill Simpson to lawyers for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. As stated prior to the previous installments, the chapter is somewhat complex, and in parts, probably requires of the reader that he/she know what came before. Still, I think it's understandable without having done so. However, you will probably need to read the previous installments, of in any event, the first one. 
      This final installment addresses the attempt to connect highly-respected former Justice Department official Noel Hillman to the alleged order by Karl Rove that the Justice Department prosecute Siegelman. It is the strongly argued position of my book that no such order was ever given in any form or fashion, and that news organizations who gave credence to the existence of such an order have an obligation to correct the record and apologize to a long list of people, including Noel Hillman. (ie. The New York Times, Time magazine, "60 Minutes," Harper's magazine (employer of Scott Horton), the Talking Points Memo, and many others as well.
       As previously noted in related posts, I broke up the case for perjury by Jill Simpson -- with, I allege, the help of others -- into charges. This is the sixth of sixth charges, and, with the author's note at bottom, is the conclusion of the chapter.

       Count Six: The relationship between the Rileys and Rove, and the latter’s directive
to the Justice Department that it eliminate the threat that was Don Siegelman.
       Horton’s fabrication of a White House-issued directive to ruin Siegelman naturally
required someone at the Justice Department, for not even he could claim that Rove
investigated the case himself. The natural link was the Public Integrity Section, the
group of lawyers within Justice that focuses on public corruption cases.
      Public Integrity’s role in the Siegelman case had been widely reported on since
2003, and section chief Noel Hillman came to Montgomery when Siegelman’s
indictment was announced. Horton simply connected fantasy (Rove’s role in the case)
with reality (the involvement of Hillman and Public Integrity) to create conspiracy.
      In a July column, “Noel Hillman and the Siegelman Case,” Horton stated as fact
the Simpson-generated wives’ tale that, “Leura Canary’s husband, William Canary”
was “actively engaged in efforts to take down Governor Siegelman.” From there, to
the next dot: That Bill Canary “bragged about bringing Rove into the eff ort to ‘get’
Siegelman, and how Rove had involved the Justice Department in the process.”
Horton’s source for Canary’s bragging was an unidentified and in all likelihood
imaginary, “Republican lawyer working on the Riley campaign.”
       Having established Rove’s participation with Simpson and the unidentified
Republican lawyer, Horton next drew a line from Rove to Hillman, or as he
described the latter, a “loyal Bushie.”
       And then, uncharacteristically, humility.
       “Now we still don’t know all the specifics of Karl Rove’s manipulation of
matters in the Department of Justice. We do know that he was feverishly involved
… It seems reasonably clear that one of Rove’s key levers at Justice throughout this
period was the Public Integrity Section (PIN).”
    Here, Horton is admitting that he lacks proof connecting Rove to Hillman.
    If he was worried for the lack of it, he needn’t have been. Help was on the way.
    Two months after that column Simpson testified that Rob Riley had
complained to her (baby pictures) about Alice Martin’s “having messed up” the
 Bobo case. With the Bobo rap beaten, Siegelman was “definitely running” again,
Riley told her.
     "And then he proceeds to tell me that Bill Canary and Bob Riley had had a
conversation with Karl Rove again and that they had this time gone over and seen
whoever was the head of the department of — he called it PIS, which I don’t think
that is the correct acronym, but that’s what he called it. And I had to say, ‘What is
that?’ And he said, ‘That is the Public Integrity Section…And I read in the paper
since they call it PIN, but he called it PIS.”
      Simpson’s use of PIS instead of PIN was an endearing touch. Just like it might
have gone down had it really happened.
      She appears to be saying that Bob Riley and Bill Canary met with Rove,
then joined Bush’s senior advisor in a visit to the Justice Department. There, they
met with the head of “PIS,” who pledged to “allocate whatever resources” were
necessary to prosecute Siegelman.
      With that testimony – under oath, mind you – Simpson had done it. She’d made
the final connection – from the Rileys and Rove to the Justice Department.
     After release of Simpson’s transcript Horton wrote two columns that employed
her testimony to solidify the Rove-Justice Department link. They were called: “Karl
Rove linked to Siegelman Prosecution,” and, “The Noel Hillman connection.”
     Simpson either hadn’t been able to recall Hillman’s name or pretended she
couldn’t. After all, it wouldn’t be realistic for her to remember everything. But of
course Noel Hillman was head of Public Integrity at the time. No one needed her
to fill in that blank. Hillman had led the public corruption unit from 2002 to
2006, to considerable praise from the press and Democrats.
       “Let’s plug in a bit more information,” wrote Horton, filling in the void for
Simpson. “The head of Public Integrity during this period is named Noel Hillman.
He’s a New Jersey politico, and came to Justice as Michael Chertoff ’s sidekick.”
      In the other column he congratulated himself for being right all along.
      “As noted in the past, all available evidence so far had already pointed to Noel
Hillman as the principal vehicle through which Karl Rove tasked and pursued
the Siegelman case. And now we have a Republican attorney testifying under oath
about the Rove-Hillman links in relation to the Siegelman case.”
       The italics are mine, the lies and innuendo his, and, in keeping with the pattern,
the Judiciary Committee’s as well. Simpson’s testimony was the footnoted source
for this segment from the April 2008 majority report on selective prosecution by
the Bush Justice Department:
        Most significantly, Ms. Simpson described a conversation in early 2005 in which
Governor Riley’s son Rob, a colleague and friend of Ms. Simpson, told her that his
father and Mr. Canary had again spoken to Karl Rove who had in turn communicated
with the head of the Department’s Public Integrity Section about bringing a second
indictment against Don Siegelman since the first case in Birmingham had been
dismissed. According to Ms. Simpson, Mr. Riley also told her that Mr. Rove had asked
the Department to mobilize additional resources to assist in the prosecution.

      Though the report didn’t identify him by name, Hillman, as the head of Public
Integrity, was, or so it would appear, implicated by the Judiciary Committee as a
key player in the scheme to destroy Siegelman.


     In early 2006, about five months before the Siegelman trial, I called Justice to request
an interview with Hillman. I was thinking of doing a feature on him and the Public Integrity
Section. This small sub-section of Justice was I assumed little known to our readers – I’d
never heard of it before the Siegelman case – and Hillman was receiving much praise,
including from Democrats, for Public Integrity’s aggressive prosecution of public corruption,
especially for its work on the Abramoff case.
     Hillman seemed distracted, something less than thrilled to talk to a reporter,
or in any event one from Mobile. He was polite enough, but I could see I wasn’t
going to get a story out of his yes-no and one-sentence responses.
    This was pre-Simpson and thus, pre-Rove. Siegelman was of course still telling
anyone who would listen that Bob Riley was behind his prosecution. It was a
ludicrous claim but deserved a response from Hillman, so I asked.
      He paused. “I’m – this just shows my ignorance – but is he the current
      That was all the answer I needed but informed Hillman that, yes, Bob Riley
was Alabama’s current governor.
     More than two years later, I called Hillman again, this time to ask about the
accusations made by Simpson, Horton and others. By then he was a federal judge
in New Jersey, and I was surprised when he took my call.
     “Yeah I am mad,” he said. “Horton and others have slandered and libeled me
and the good people at (Public Integrity)… When this case started I did not know
and did not care what party Siegelman called home.
      “I've never spoken with, met with, communicated in any way with, Karl Rove
or anyone I knew to be acting on his behalf. Th e notion that he would call a career
section chief who himself reports to a career deputy assistant attorney general
(Jack Keeney) about a pending case is absurd and everyone at DOJ thinks it’s the
biggest joke ever.”
      He expressed incredulity at the level of hearsay that’s been allowed to fuel
the fantasy that Karl Rove directed Public Integrity to prosecute Siegelman. “She
(Simpson) said he (Rob Riley) says my father (Bob Riley) says that someone else
said that they said that Karl Rove talked to Public Integrity – it’s at least four layers
of hearsay and there’s a reason why courts don’t allow hearsay as evidence. And
everybody along the line has denied it.
     “I’ve been sitting here scratching my head and wondering why this isn’t clearly
unreliable,” Hillman said. “No one who asserts these things has ever bothered to
call me and ask.”
   Leura Canary made no eff ort to infl uence the Public Integrity Section’s
decisions on the case, nor did she seek to have any input, he said. “The single
biggest force pushing the case was Louis Franklin, with Feaga to a lesser degree.”
    Scott Horton, said Hillman, “literally makes stuff up.”


       Simpson had testified for an entire day, concluding at about 4:30 p.m. If one
accepted her testimony at face value, she’d done much to advance the case that
Siegelman was the victim of a political hit. She’d established motive for Bob Riley
and the Republicans to seek the prosecution of Siegelman; a motive for Fuller
to “hang” the former governor; and most critically, she’d sealed the Riley-Canary-
Rove-Hillman nexus.
     Her next appearance, or so it seemed, was coming soon, before the
entire Judiciary Committee. This time it would be in public, for all to see.

        Author’s Note: As is probably clear, I think Simpson was coached, probably by
Scott Horton, who she referred to, at least on occasion, as “Professor Horton.”
In October 2009 I e-mailed questions to Horton and Simpson regarding,
among other things, Simpson’s testimony. I asked Horton: “Did you coach and/
or assist Jill Simpson in the preparation of her September 2007 testimony?”
     Neither he nor Simpson replied to my questions. I don’t think they like me,
so their failure to answer shouldn’t be seen as proof of my suspicions.