“It’s much like a puzzle. It started with this one voice saying somebody needs to look into this G.H. Construction matter.”
-- Montgomery-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin, during October 2005 press conference announcing indictment of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, former HealthSouth Corp. chairman Richard Scrushy, and two Siegelman cabinet members.
“Due to the bias and unprofessional behavior of this Mobile Register reporter, the Governor’s Press Office does not respond to his requests. While we respect the Mobile Register, its other reporters and its editors, we regret the paper’s decision to endorse Eddie Curran’s unprofessional behavior. Among other inappropriate actions, Mr. Curran cursed a member of the governor’s staff for almost five minutes, repeatedly calling him a ‘fucking piece of rat shit’ Such behavior is inappropriate and unprofessional. We will not dignify it by continuing to communicate with this reporter.”
-- Statement that the Siegelman administration asked the Register to include in each story by me and involving the governor, and in lieu of comments or responses to questions.
Years ago, a girlfriend and I rented a place on one of the small islands along the approach to Key West. As something of a bonus, our landlord taught me how to catch the Florida spiny lobster. This requires mask and snorkel, a net, a “tickle stick,” and patience.
One takes a deep breath, submerges, and scours the man-made canals looking not for claws, since the Florida species has none, but for the two long thick antennae poking from their ocean insect heads. Our landlord made it look easy, rising from his second or third submersion with a thrashing lobster in his net. He said goodbye, wished me luck, and handed over the net and tickle stick.
In the next hour I dove down dozens of times, each time rising to blow water from my snorkel, suck in a lungful of air, and repeat, without once seeing a lobster. When finally I spied antennae protruding from the rock crevices, the finding bit became easy. It was like one of those patterns shown to children that suddenly reveals itself as something else entirely, and from that point on, reveals itself again and again.
Catching them is the fun if most difficult part. Lobster, Florida’s anyway, don’t so much see as sense, and this they do with their antennae. The trick is to goad the nocturnal creatures from their safe havens. One reaches over or around them, and often around rocks as well, to gently tap their tail with the tickle stick. Tap too rough, and dinner whooshes away. Play it right, and the confused lobster eases into open water and out of its element.
Hunter again reaches around prey, this time with the net, placing it open-faced and inches behind the tail. Quick, like setting a hook in a fish, you bop it in the nose with the tickle stick. The lobster, now a rocket in reverse, propels itself backwards and, one hopes, deep into the net, which must be twisted sharply to prevent the hyped up crustacean from escaping. Burning for air, you emerge from the blue water, holding high the squirming trophy.
That evening, our landlord told us how to cook the lobsters, an uncomplicated process easily summed up by saying they’re boiled alive. But they should be cleaned before being dropped in the roiling water. Our landlord demonstrated how this was done. He ripped off one of the spiny antennae, shoved it in the lobster’s rear, twisted it and carefully removed the vein or colon or whatever it was that, if left in, mars the taste. Then the landlord dropped it in the water. The lobster issued a high-pitched whine as it perished.
Then our landlord chuckled. “I’ve got this recurring nightmare,” he said. “A giant lobster catches me, rips my arm off, sticks it in my behind, then throws me in boiling water.”
We laughed along with him. But the image. It was hard to shake.
The final days of July 2001 were the worst of my professional life. I was as I deserved to be on the receiving end of a sharp reprimand from my editors. My only defense, that I’d been provoked, paled in comparison to my response -- an astonishing, explosive and vulgarity-laden tirade directed at a young Siegelman press aide, Rip Andrews. For several minutes, or before our city editor pried the phone from my hands, the newsroom looked on in shock as I invented cuss-word combinations at rock concert decibels
I soon found myself in the big corner office of Mobile Register Editor Mike Marshall, who was about as angry at me as I’d been moments before with Rip. But Mike seethed where I’d shouted. The short version: If I ever did that again, or anything close to it, I was gone. Fired, finished, no matter what.
In the days to come, Siegelman’s people would call Mike to ask that he remove me from covering the administration. To my everlasting gratitude, he did not. Upset that I wasn’t being removed or better yet, fired, the administration told Mike that it was putting together a list of other sins I’d committed and which it intended to present to Mike’s boss, Register publisher Howard Bronson. Siegelman was in effect appealing Mike’s decision to the paper’s highest court.
Mike said I should chill out for several weeks, work on other things, and wait.
Siegelman, I knew, had skilled, ruthless opposition researchers at his disposal. These are the guys used by politicians to scour the backgrounds of opponents in search of misdeeds for use in negative campaign ads and the like. But instead of, say, Fob James, Siegelman’s researchers were targeting me, or so I imagined.
The shoe’s on the other foot, turnabout’s fair play, call it what you want. To my way of thinking, I was being stalked by the Giant Lobster. The hunter turned prey, and not liking it one bit.
About two weeks later I was at my cubicle in the Register’s stuffy, ages-old downtown Mobile newsroom when word came that Mike wanted to see me. I instinctively knew what for and shuffled to his corner office, wondering if a career in pizza delivery could support a wife and two young children.
Mike greeted me with a grin, and my paranoia melted away. Before he uttered the first word I knew I wasn’t going to be fired or -- and it would have been equally awful – pulled off covering the administration and the bottomless pit of juicy stories waiting to be unearthed in Don’s World.
“Most of this stuff is silly,” Mike said, handing me the letter.
The letter, with a one-page attachment, was addressed to Mr. Bronson from Siegelman’s new chief of staff, Jim Buckalew. A summary of the letter might be: “If the Mobile Register has an ounce of journalistic integrity, it will fire Eddie Curran.”
Buckalew was an outsider, brought in the month before to provide maturity and an ethical compass to an administration lacking both. The exodus of Siegelman’s first chief of staff Paul Hamrick, highway director Mack Roberts, and the demotion and eventual resignation of Nick Bailey -- gubernatorial driver, confidential assistant, state budget officer and a few other titles as well – followed a barrage of stories under my byline that began six months before and ignited a state and federal criminal investigation.
Five years later, Siegelman and former HealthSouth Corp. Chairman Richard Scrushy were found guilty of charges including bribery and extortion. Several witnesses -- most notably Bailey and the ubiquitous landfill developer/lobbyist Clayton “Lanny” Young -- had by then already pleaded guilty to bribery and other crimes. All, Scrushy included, appeared in my stories well before they were named in guilty pleas or indictments, as did Waste Management Inc., by a long shot the worst corporate actor in this story.
But in August 2001, I was the defendant. I sat down and with reddened face and bouncing knee, read the letter, then the second page entitled, “Personal and Confidential.” This sheet of paper contained what amounted to a seven-count indictment against Edwin Jerome Curran III, DOB 10/21/61, WM, 6-3, 230 lb., brown hair, blue eyes.
The charges, in their entirety:
• Mr. Curran helped edit an ethics complaint filed against the governor and then reported on that complaint the next day. The Governor’s Office has kept on file an edited copy of an ethics complaint Mr. Curran sent to the office and a copy of the final complaint filed with the Ethics Commission. The final version includes handwritten edits, some of which mirror the edits made by Mr. Curran. The following day, Mr. Curran wrote to Ted Hosp, in an attempt to justify this matter. In doing so, he admitted that he had discussed the contents with Jim Zeigler, who filed the complaint, before it was filed.
• Mr. Curran engaged in an extreme display of temper during a conversation with a member of the governor’s staff. He cursed at the staff member so loudly and for such a long time that another Mobile Register reporter felt compelled to express his embarrassment the next time he called the office. Mr. Curran’s verbal attack lasted non-stop for more than five minutes. He called the staff member a “f—ing piece of rat s—t.”
• 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.
• 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.
• Mr. Curran once commented to Mr. Hamrick about the breast sizes of women working in the Governor’s Press Office.
• Mr. Curran called Press Secretary Carrie Kurlander at her home on a Saturday night after 9:30 p.m., in a non-emergency situation.
• After having the opportunity to interview members of the governor’s staff for hours, Mr. Curran continued a pattern of harassment against certain staff members, including calling Nick Bailey once after midnight.
“Mike! This is crazy! That night at …” I went on and on, which wasn’t really necessary, as Mike didn’t appear concerned with the case against me.
A month later, after the Siegelman administration changed the state’s public records policy to prevent me from seeing certain documents, the above charges were aired in a story in our paper. And lots of fun that was.
You can be sure that I will be addressing the charges, especially the one that troubled me most – that I helped edit an ethics complaint against the governor.
This is neither a biography of Don Siegelman nor a complete history of his first and only term as governor. It’s a first person account of covering, or rather, uncovering, activities of the Siegelman administration that the governor never expected the public to learn about, much less be reported on with the level of detail and depth allowed me by my editors. It’s the story of Siegelman’s dark side, of the implosion of his obsessively crafted political career and in the end, of the disintegration of his character.
It’s about at least $1.37 million in legal fees paid Siegelman during his four years as governor, and the use of a straw man to buy his Montgomery home for twice its value. It’s about landfill giant Waste Management’s use of serial briber Lanny Young to win millions of dollars in concessions from the governor and his aides and the hick judge who ran Cherokee County, and the cynicism that had to exist for a company called Goat Hill Construction to steal from the state by forging a bogus receipt two days before it even incorporated itself.
It’s the story of a New South Governor as disseminating shakedown artist.
As the scandals piled up in the final two years of his administration, one was forever hearing folks declare that Siegelman had wasted so much talent and promise. “It’s such a pity,” they’d say. “Don was going to be our New South governor.” Or, “Don was the most talented politician of his generation.”
Siegelman’s fall was a greater tragedy for himself, his family and a handful of associates than for the people of Alabama. The state has not suffered in his absence.
I expect that readers will wonder if I was out to get Don Siegelman. It’s a question I asked myself many times. Certainly I developed a distaste for the man. Over time these feelings mellowed into pity and a skewed admiration, or rather, astonishment that someone could day in and day out be as willfully full of it as he. At some point it becomes an accomplishment and a source of wonder.
For most of the period covered in this book, I viewed him as less man than machine – open his skull and you’d find wires. To my surprise, he and I got along well during his 2006 trial. Not until then did I witness the side I should have realized existed all along, given his success with voters over three decades.
I came to see the former governor as part Peter Pan, part Pinocchio, a 62-year-old boy whose life is a perpetual campaign, for votes and reflections of love from as many people as he can reach, whether with a handshake and a smile or a television interview. I saw a man who could no more walk past a television camera without stopping than he could answer a pointed question with the truth. Whoppers ushered from his mouth without hint of shame or recognition at the absurdity of his declarations.
After the trial, one of his co-defendants, four-time former highway director Mack Roberts, described Siegelman as being among “the nicest people I’ve ever been around.”
“Personally, I really, really like him and he’s smart, and I hope things work out for him, but we disagreed on a few things,” said Roberts, putting it gently. “Most governors I worked for were kind of stand-offish – Wallace, Folsom, Governor Hunt – they were the governor and kind of stand-offish, but Siegelman was a lot more personable.”
This won’t be an exercise in modesty. I will go ahead and declare that, were it not for my stories, Don Siegelman would have won a second term as governor. Of that there is, in my mind, in many others’ and I feel sure in Siegelman’s as well, no question. Nor, though, will I minimize my mistakes and excesses. I will defend myself, but hopefully not in a way that prevents you from making up your mind about the reporter as well as the governor.
My hope is that you will come to understand not just Siegelman’s descent into corruption, but also the process of researching and writing investigative news stories. Because of Watergate, most people assume there’s a Deep Throat behind every such piece. Even when there is, sources rarely take a reporter all the way to the well, as Deep Throat most assuredly did not for Woodward and Bernstein.
Some of the Siegelman stories originated with tips, such as those on the G.H. Construction warehouse scandal. Others, including the reports on the sale of Siegelman’s house and the series that led to Scrushy, began with hunches.
With none of those stories, regardless of origin, could the finished product have been foreseen from the initial tip or hunch.
With each there was an adventure, or in any event, my idea of one.