Thursday, December 2, 2010

Author's Lone Interview with Siegelman While he was Governor

This is the beginning of a chapter called, Friction.

   Nick Bailey and Don Siegelman

The interview described below followed roughly a month after our first stories on G.H. Construction and the announcement, within days of that story, of a state and federal criminal investigation. Nick is Nick Bailey, the faithful Siegelman aide, driver and, state budget officer and lastly, head of ADECA. Bailey pleaded guilty for crimes, including those related to the warehouse case, testified against Siegelman, and served prison time.
As noted before, all chapters begin with two quotes.

    “Our press office has spent late nights and weekends answering your questions, which
are not related to any emergency. We have gone above and beyond the call of duty attempting
to satisfy your requests, but only seem to have caused you greater frustration.”
     -- Portion of May 31, 2001, e-mail from Siegelman’s press office, which was headed by Carrie Kurlander.

   “I apologize for any friction that has developed with what I acknowledge are
frequently difficult and touchy questions. As I’ve told you before, I may ask tough
questions, but I don’t stick surprises in my stories. No sucker punches, as I’ve said,
probably one too many times. The alternative would be to ask sweet questions, then
stun you with the printed word.”
  -- From my response to the above e-mail.

   On May 29, I learned that Siegelman was to be in Mobile the next day to
make a business development announcement at the Alabama State Docks. I’d
been writing about his administration for five months without speaking to him
once. Even in the heyday of the Carrie Kurlander Openness Experiment, the
person I most wanted to interview was off limits. Carrie would say something
like, “That’s our job, to answer questions on the governor’s behalf.”
     Well, now he was coming my way. Tension had understandably developed in
my relationship with his staff , but communications remained for the most part
cordial. Open warfare was still two months away. I told (my editor) Paul Cloos I wanted to
go, he said sure, and the next day it was off to the Docks.
     It was exceptionally bright out, which created problems. I had just undergone
Lasik surgery, the chief side effect being temporary but acute post-surgical sensitivity
to light. This is why, as a going away present, Lasik doctors give patients a pair of black,
over-large sunglasses. More like goggles, really. Goofy as hell looking, but remove them
outside on a sunny day and you’re going to cry. Nothing you can do about it.
     I pulled up to the loading dock chosen for the governor’s appearance and first
thing I saw was Siegelman, Carrie and Nick stepping out of a car. The latter could
have passed for a Secret Service agent. He was slim, clean cut, wearing shades and
the trademark Secret Service style earpiece. I want to say he was packing heat.
     Years later at trial, Hamrick (Siegelman chief of staff Paul) lawyer Jeff Deen made
snide references to Bailey’s secret service dress code in an attempt to belittle him before
jurors. Had I not gone to the Docks that day, I’d not have known where Deen was coming from,
and don’t think the jurors got it.
     The three saw me and, fi guratively speaking, wet their pants. Don’t ask me
how I know, I just do. Could smell the panic. Nick vanished. He didn’t accompany
Siegelman to the announcement, and unless he was prostrate in the back seat,
wasn’t in the car when it departed.
      I arrived with a proposal identical to the one presented by Carrie when she
walked over to me.
     The deal: The governor will make his announcement with local leaders then
take questions from the TV folks. I agreed not to muck up the dog and pony show
by asking warehouse questions with the cameras rolling. In return, Siegelman
pledged to grant me a solo interview.
     Good to his word, as the television crews packed up, Siegelman ambled over,
shook my hand and smiled. Though we’d met, it was always brief, a handshake
and hello when he visited the newsroom for sessions with our editorial board. This
was my first and only interview with him during the two years of my near fulltime
coverage of his administration. It would be almost five years later, at trial,
before we spoke again.
     Carrie joined the governor, as did a large, silent man hunched down and
toting a long boom stick, crowned with a fuzz-covered microphone that hovered
below whoever was talking. He wasn’t introduced, and I joined Siegelman and
Carrie in pretending he wasn’t there. After a bit I couldn’t help but notice he was
struggling. The contraption was heavy, the sun strong and hot, not to mention
bright. There was not a strip of shade on the expansive loading dock.
      The governor began by telling me of our many shared friends and of their high
opinion of me and my work. I replied with pleasantries, but the real conversation was
in my head: “He’s trying to charm you. Fight it. Don’t forget what you’re here for.”
     Then Siegelman said, “I’d like to look you in the eyes and tell you how much
I appreciate what you’ve done for the state.”
     He was already looking me in the eyes, or in any event, where one would
suspect them of being behind the Lasik goggles. So was he saying, in effect,
“Could you please remove those funny glasses so we can make uninhibited eye-toeye
contact?” Since that’s what he seemed to be saying, I couldn’t very well refuse.
    I mumbled that I’d recently undergone Lasik surgery, thus the unusual shades, but
removed them so I could deliver the requested mano-on-mano eye contact. The
sunlight and its reflection off the white cement pierced my eyeballs like squirts
from a lemon. It was all I could do to fight recoil. I squinted into Siegelman’s eyes
for as long as I could stand it, maybe 30 seconds.
      With torture and banter behind us, I came out with the real stuff , starting with
the warehouse and the involvement of his friends, Lanny and Blount. Siegelman
surprised me by railing against the pair.
       “I did not know until you called the office that Lanny Young and Bill Blount
were involved in this project,” Siegelman said. “As I told them, it breaks my heart.
It was extremely disappointing that so-called friends would seek to take advantage
of the state in that way.”
      Blount and Young “knew better, somebody knew better,” and he was “outraged
and disappointed” to learn of their involvement. “It’s embarrassing to me and
embarrassing to my administration, and hurtful,” Siegelman said, in a comment
that, like the others, was presented in the next day’s paper.
        The governor bemoaned that the warehouse deal “hurts people’s trust in
        Then, with a conspiratorial nod, he said, “The full story is not over yet.”
         What did he mean by that? It was clearly intended to indicate that the real
story was going to get worse, but surely he meant for others, not him. When I
asked him to elaborate, he grinned and said something cryptic to the effect that
in time I would understand.
           Siegelman wasn’t merely lying, he was acting. You didn’t need to be Hercule
Poirot to deduce that neither Lanny nor Blount could have secured a spot on the
G.H. money train without his say so. To accept the governor’s tale, one had to
believe that Nick took off on a solo run. He assembled the warehouse team without
running it by the boss. Then, not once in months of 10 hour days at Siegelman’s
side, had Man Friday made a peep about the involvement of Lanny and Blount.
It was illogical that Bailey would conceal their roles, since both Lanny and
Blount were longtime friends and supporters of Siegelman.
          But here was the governor, looking me straight in the goggles, declaring he
had no idea that Lanny or Blount had the first thing to do with the warehouse
project. This man who gloried in his reputation as a detail man and micromanager
expected me to believe he knew next to nothing about a $21.5 million project
that, among other things, would revamp the means used by the state to process
its liquor operation.
          Siegelman either knew I’d recognize this tale as malarkey or he was a victim of
self-hypnosis, having convinced himself of his ability to persuade others without
regard for their common sense or the absurdity of his claims. Here was the power
of positive thinking taken to an extreme where fantasy trumped reality.
         G.H. wasn’t the only topic that day. I’d been trying for weeks to nail down
the circumstances regarding the highway department’s contract with Quality
Research and the Camber subcontract.
       A year later I would have expected his answer to my question about Quality
Research, but at this stage, some measure of respect remained.
       “Who are they?” he asked, all wide-eyed innocence.
        If I had been a hard-ass like one of those Washington D.C. reporters grilling
the president or his spokesman, I would have told him in so many words to cut
the nonsense, that I knew he knew about the company. Instead, I was polite if
persistent, and tried to approach it from diff erent angles. Carrie stepped in to say
the governor had to go. Siegelman said he had more time, but the most I could get
out of him was a sham pledge to fi nd out about this Quality Research business.
        From the Docks announcement to then we’d been in the blistering sun a
good 45 minutes. With the exception of Siegelman, everyone, myself included as
I scribbled down the great man’s words, was sweating. It was in the 90s, steamy
humid, and Siegelman looked like a man in an air-conditioned room.
       He was different. Heat? Lying with his every word? No sweat. I left thinking
he could convince a lie detector he was born on Pluto.
       If I hadn’t fi gured it out by then, I did that day. Driving back to the paper, I
was thinking: Th is man deserves serious watching.

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