Si Newhouse (above), the head of the Newhouse media company that owns, by way of Advance Publications, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and newspapers throughout the country, including, in Alabama, the Mobile Press-Register, the Birmingham News, and the Huntsville Times. Among the many ludicrous claims by Horton was his frequently declared allegation that the Newhouse papers in Alabama conspired to go after Siegelman. The "Newhouse conspiracy" -- supported by not one iota of evidence -- figures into the following post.
This is the fourth 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.
Count Five: A 2003 poll in the Mobile Press Register.
Every Sunday for years, the Mobile Register published a poll, usually on a topic in the news. Not infrequently, ideas ran short and our pollsters were asked to query citizens on an arguably meaningless subject. So it was for the poll published Nov. 16, 2003, a year after the 2002 gubernatorial election and three years before the next one.
Two months earlier voters had crushed Riley’s proposed billion dollar tax increase. He’d received national acclaim for trying to reform Alabama’s tax code but angered many voters, especially his fellow Republicans. It was for such reasons that his popularity was at an ebb.
According to the poll, at that moment in time, Roy Moore held a 17 point lead over Riley among likely Republican candidates in 2006. Were there to be a repeat of 2002, Siegelman could expect about 46 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Riley, with the remainder undecided.
In 2007, this insignificant, long-forgotten poll found itself playing a critical role in the conspiracy. It served as the must-have motive that prompted Karl Rove, Bob Riley, the Justice Department and others to employ extreme and illegal methods to
take out Siegelman. The poll established that a Siegelman candidacy in 2006 was simply too grave a threat to trust to the electorate. The Democratic behemoth had to be – must be – vanquished. That, in any event, became the story.
The poll’s relevance to the Siegelman prosecution was first reported in Horton’s columns. Time (magazine) and others whose idea of research was reading what Team Siegelman gave them followed.
In one of his July 2007 columns, Horton wrote that the 2003 poll “set off alarm bells” and “was cause for a number of meetings and discussions about how to deal with the ‘Siegelman problem.’” He wrote that unidentified “sources within the Alabama GOP” told him about the poll and the response to it within the Riley camp.
“Before long, I believe, a solution to that problem manifested itself in the form of an indictment,” Horton wrote.
The 2003 poll was published almost two years before the charges were brought in Montgomery and six months before the Bobo indictment. Riley’s fortunes improved dramatically from November 2003 onward, as shown by subsequent polls that Horton, Time, the House Judiciary Committee and others ignored.
A May 2004 survey by the polling arm of the state teachers’ association and taken before the Bobo indictment showed Riley leading Siegelman 50 percent to 37 percent. The same poll showed Lt. Gov. Baxley topping Riley by two points, indicating that she was the only Democrat with a chance of beating the
Republican incumbent. If it wasn’t already the case, the poll all but assured that when donation time came, the Democratic power structure would back Baxley, not Siegelman.
The Associated Press reported on the poll so it would have been available, from a simple Nexis search, to Horton, Time, the Judiciary Committee or anyone else with the slightest interest in being thorough.
This two-minute search of polls pitting Siegelman against Riley would have also turned up three other polls, all with far greater time relevance to Siegelman’s actual chances of defeating Baxley or Riley.
In late January 2005 – after the dismissal of the Bobo case and well before the Montgomery indictment – the Register published two polls. Both were carried on the wire by the AP. The first had Riley beating Siegelman 46 percent to 34 percent.
The next week’s survey was limited to likely Democratic voters. It showed the cheerful, responsible, much-liked Baxley pounding Siegelman 45 to 31 percent.
The state’s top-ranked Democratic official had a sky-high favorability rating of 70 percent. Her negative rating, of 7 percent, was so low as to seem like a typo.
Siegelman’s negatives were in the 40 percent range, and that according to self-described Democrats.
“(Baxley) comes into this with very little baggage … It’s hard to imagine what kind of strategy Siegelman could be thinking of as far as attacking her,” our pollster, Keith Nicholls, said of the Democrat liked, if not supported, even by most Republicans.
In early October 2005, a Register poll -- the last taken before Siegelman’s indictment – showed Riley crushing Siegelman 46 percent to 31 percent.
Translation: Siegelman, pre-indictment, was political toast. The notion that he had to be indicted to secure Riley’s and the GOP’s hold on the governors’ office is a joke.
I don’t think it unreasonable to propose that if these later polls showed Siegelman advantages then they, not the grey-haired 2003 poll, would have been cited by Horton, Time, et. al.
Now, the relevance of the 2003 poll to the claim being made here that Jill Simpson committed perjury.
She told the Judiciary Committee lawyers that she and Rob Riley also discussed the 2006 election. They talked about Lucy Baxley’s “weaknesses and how we could hit her, you know, with what we could run with on that.”
With Baxley thus dismissed, Riley told Simpson that Siegelman “was the biggest threat that we had ... and also we talked about a little fact that Don had – there had been a poll done somewhere in 2003. And based on communications I had with Rob … Don had decided to run (in 2006)…”
With that testimony, Simpson displayed familiarity both with the ancient Mobile poll and its place in making the case for what Horton, two months before, called the “Siegelman problem.”
But there was no Siegelman problem. It was a con conceived by Horton and his Alabama sources to manufacture a motive that never existed. Only those without an understanding of the Alabama political situation – such as dupes with certain national media outlets – could have believed and then promoted the nonsense.
By now, the pattern should be familiar enough so that you already know what Harper’s on-line star did next. In one of his columns after release of Simpson’s transcript he wrote: “At the moment when, according to Simpson’s testimony, Rove was being approached and encouraged to make the prosecution of Siegelman
happen, a poll in … the Mobile Press-Register was showing Siegelman defeating Riley in a rematch.”
One person not buying the Siegelman as Democratic Goliath story was David Prather, the editorial page editor with the Huntsville Times. In a column dismissing the burgeoning national conspiracy, Prather wrote that at that point in Siegelman’s career he “wasn’t worth Rove’s trouble.”
"The Don had bet the ranch on the education lottery that anti-gambling folks detested and people who believe in tax fairness had to hold their nose to support. When that failed, the rest of Siegelman’s administration was without a map, and degenerated
into cronyism and lethargy. Can you name another governor who named his driver to head a state agency?
Siegelman’s career was on the skids, but the idea that someone is being persecuted strikes a chord in the public heart, and Siegelman and Scrushy know how to raise questions, innuendoes and uncertainty better than most."
Horton went apoplectic. The ink wasn’t dry on Prather’s column before he told Harper’s readers that the Huntsville writer was a “Kool-Aid Drinker” whose column “perfectly demonstrates the mental integrity of his paper.”
The Huntsville Times, like the Mobile and Birmingham papers, is owned by the Newhouses. Up until then it had escaped Horton’s fury, one assumes because it did little investigative reporting or editorializing on the Siegelman case. But after Prather’s column, Horton tossed the Times in with its sorry sister papers. He wrote that big hitters in the national media were forever shaking
their heads at the “very sorry landscape of the Alabama print media … The worst species are the Newhouse papers which control the market, of which Prather’s paper is one.”
He completed the thrashing by diagnosing Prather with something called, “Tolstoy syndrome.”
To show just how wrong Prather was, Horton again brandished the 2003 poll in declaring as fact that Siegelman had remained the state’s Democratic colossus.
Though the New York Times did not cite the poll in its editorials or news coverage, the same notion of Siegelman as the great threat to Riley was embedded in the paper’s opining and news stories.
The 2003 poll entered the public record when the House Judiciary Committee cited it to establish the required motive-related case that Siegelman was at the time of his indictment a “major political force” in Alabama.