What the Justice Department Is Hiding
by Scott Horton
November 14, 2008 | 4:22pm
When a former Alabama governor was convicted for selling public offices, it set off an investigation into improper conduct at the Justice Department that leads directly to the White House.
The most dramatic political prosecution in the 21st century-involving a former governor in Alabama, the U.S. Attorney's office, and the Bush White House and Justice Department-has been rocked by incriminating new disclosures by a knowledgeable career Justice Department staff member who has provided information charging serious misconduct by the prosecutors.
Among other disclosures shattering the credibility of the case, U.S. Attorney Leura Canary's "recusal" for conflict of interest is revealed as a sham. Moreover, The Daily Beast has learned, the matter has touched off concerns within the Justice Department over efforts to sweep accusations of unethical conduct under the carpet.
With the Obama transition in full swing, the Justice Department is rushing to conclude a number of internal probes dealing with serious questions about the conduct of political appointees. One of the most troubling of these comes out of Montgomery, Alabama, where a U.S. Attorney with close ties to Karl Rove and her husband, then advising a Republican candidate for the Alabama statehouse, undertook one of the most audacious political prosecutions in recent history: knocking off the Democratic opponent, former Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman.
Before his prosecution and conviction on federal charges, Siegelman was the most successful Democrat on Alabama's political stage in the era after George C. Wallace. He was convicted more than two years ago on political corruption charges after a jury deliberated nine days and was initially deadlocked. Siegelman is now set to argue his appeal in Atlanta on December 9.
Siegelman accepted a campaign donation from Richard Scrushy, a health care executive he appointed to a state oversight board. The U.S. Attorney, Leura Canary, argued this was tantamount to sale of a public office and brought charges. (By comparison, the Bush Justice Department never examined any of the 146 donors of $100,000 or more to the Bush-Cheney campaign who were later appointed by President Bush to federal sinecures-taking the view that this was "politics as usual.")
Canary's husband, William Canary, is Alabama's leading Republican political consultant. At the time Canary launched the Siegelman case, he was advising one of Siegelman's Republican adversaries for the governorship. He later came to advise then-Congressman Bob Riley, a Republican who defeated Siegelman in the closest gubernatorial contest in Alabama's history.
After ethics complaints were brought to the Justice Department, Leura Canary was nominally removed from the case. But in a circumvention of normal Justice Department rules approved by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, she was allowed to pick one of her deputies to manage the case against Siegelman in her stead. Canary represented to Congress that she removed herself from the case "before any significant decisions" had been reached. Now internal communications have been disclosed within Canary's own office calling into question these claims.
Beginning in the summer of 2006, after the conviction was obtained, information emerged in the public domain that lent credence to Siegelman's charges that the case was the result of a politically motivated conspiracy and quickly caused the prosecutors' case to unravel. The judge who tried the case, George W. Bush-appointee Mark Fuller, was revealed to have held a longstanding grudge against Siegelman and been active in Republican campaigns against him-facts Fuller failed to disclose.
Fuller issued a notably harsh sentence against Siegelman and ordered him to be taken from the courtroom in manacles. A Republican political operative with close ties to Rove, Jill Simpson, disclosed in a May 2007 affidavit that she had been present during a telephone conference at which Canary's husband, Karl Rove protégé William Canary, stated that he had spoken with "Karl," that "Karl" had spoken with Justice, and that "his girls" would "take care of" Siegelman. An exposé by CBS 60 Minutes later charged that the prosecution had relied on false evidence and that exculpatory documents had been suppressed-what would amount to potentially criminal conduct by the prosecutors.
Fifty-two former state attorneys general-led by former Republican Arizona attorney general and McCain for President national co-chair Grant Wood-petitioned Congress demanding that it investigate troubling irregularities in the case. The House Judiciary Committee convened a series of hearings, but the Justice Department and the White House stonewalled requests for documents and demands that the prosecutors submit to questioning. Then the Court of Appeals intervened with a dramatic and extraordinary order setting Siegelman free.
In the weeks that followed, the U.S. attorney's efforts to defend the case were steadily eroded, as evidence surfaced that career prosecutors had recommended against a prosecution of Siegelman but had been overruled by political appointees. Rove first agreed to testify about the matter, but refused to appear when he was subpoenaed to testify. The New York Times's Charlie Savage reported this week that the Bush White House was eagerly looking for reasons to block probes of its meddling in the Siegelman matter after Bush leaves office on January 20.
Now a member of the Siegelman prosecution team has leveled serious charges against her colleagues, specifically challenging the truthfulness of Canary's claims to have taken herself out of the decision-making process surrounding the Siegelman case. In a series of complaints filed with the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility, Office of Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel, Tamarah T. Grimes suggests that Leura Canary's "recusal" from the Siegelman case was a sham and that she continued to direct the case.