A Whistleblower’s Tale

A Whistleblower’s Tale

Republican lawyer Jill Simpson was the absent star of Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on selective prosecution.


Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, one of the most popular progressive governors in Southern political history, is cleaning toilets in a Louisiana jail today, convicted on bribery charges in what may be one of the worst abuses of the federal courts by the executive branch during President Bush’s tenure. Siegelman’s case, among others, was taken up October 23 in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on selective prosecutions.

Siegelman was indicted by US Attorney Leura Canary, whose husband is a close friend of Karl Rove, and his seven-year sentence–the second-longest ever given to a politician convicted of bribery in this country–was doled out by Mark Fuller, a Republican judge who owes his lifetime appointment on the federal bench to the President. The bribery charges have nothing to do with personal enrichment but rather with donations Siegelman helped secure for a campaign to pass a lottery bill that would have increased funds for Alabama’s ailing public schools.

Yet his case would probably never have been investigated by Congress if it weren’t for the sworn statements of a lawyer and Republican Party operative from Alabama–statements, introduced into the public record at Tuesday morning’s hearing, that have been the subject of much contentious debate among members of the committee.

The attorney, Dana Jill Simpson, was a longtime Republican player whose sworn affidavit alleges that Siegelman was tried and convicted as part of a conspiracy to keep him from running for political office in the future.

Simpson grew up in rural northern Alabama in a small town called Rainsville, in the foothills of the Appalachians, a place known mostly for its tasty tomatoes. In a state that once voted solidly with the Democrats, she comes from a long line of Republicans, at least on her mother’s side.

Her father, an accountant and a Democrat, knew five-term Alabama Governor George Wallace well enough to get a letter from Wallace advocating her admittance to the University of Alabama law school in the early 1980s. Once admitted, however, she followed her mother’s family tradition and got involved with the Moral Majority in antiabortion campaigns, supported Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid in 1984 and went on to work as a volunteer for many Republicans over the years, including the Ten Commandments Judge, Roy Moore.

It was there at the university in Tuscaloosa that she came to know another ambitious Republican lawyer, Rob Riley, son of future Alabama Governor Bob Riley, who has been as loyal to Bush as any Republican governor in the nation. The two even share the habit of wearing cowboy boots with their dark suits.

Simpson ran against Rob Riley for president of the school’s student government in 1987. Riley, as the fraternity machine candidate, won, but the two developed a friendship anyway and went on to try legal cases together for years.

Serving as president of the Alabama Student Government Association is a long tradition for those who want to be governor of the state, just as joining Yale’s Skull and Bones has been for many Presidents, and Siegelman himself had served as its head in the late 1960s. Over the next three decades, Siegelman successfully ran for just about every public office in the state. He served as secretary of state and lieutenant governor, and after losing his first run for governor in 1990 he won in 1998 against a social conservative, Fob James–despite the fact that the state had long since turned red.

The people of Alabama split their tickets in the 1998 election, electing conservative Republican lawyer William Pryor as Attorney General. And almost from the day they each took office, Pryor began to plot a way to get rid of Siegelman–through the courts.

Siegelman, with his good looks, charm and willingness to compromise with the business crowd, was a popular governor at first, who fulfilled his campaign promise to rid the state’s public schools of shoddy portable classrooms. But his biggest pledge, to pass a state lottery to fund public education, went down to defeat–largely due to the efforts of out-of-state gambling interests tied to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who used the Christian Coalition to turn out the religious vote against legalized gambling.

When Pryor’s initial corruption investigation of Siegelman failed to uncover enough evidence to bring state charges–and after George W. Bush won the White House–he began to communicate with federal investigators. (In 2004 Bush granted Pryor an interim appointment to a federal judgeship on the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.)

During the early Bush years, Jill Simpson was still trying cases with Rob Riley. Together, the two hatched a plan to defeat Siegelman in 2002 by running Rob’s dad for governor. Then a three-term Congressman, Bob Riley tossed his hat into the race and beat Siegelman by the slimmest of margins, 3,120 votes, in the closest election in Alabama political history. (The race, according to a study out of Auburn University, may have been marred by voting irregularities; an electronic recount moved thousands of votes from Siegelman’s column to Riley’s, though no vote counts for other candidates changed.)

The election was so close that a week and a half later, on November 16, Simpson took part in a political dirty trick to get Siegelman to concede the election rather than fight for a recount. Riley asked her to photograph a rally of the Ku Klux Klan in Scottsboro, Alabama, where she caught images of a lawyer aligned with the Democratic Party putting up “Riley for Governor” signs. It turned out later that the lawyer was likely set up by the Riley campaign.

Last spring, as she watched the legal case against Siegelman proceed, Simpson was asked by the Rileys to conduct further “research” she considered to be unethical and illegal about a powerful member of the state legislature. For this longtime Republican ballplayer, it was the last straw. In May Simpson signed a sworn affidavit in which she asserted that she was in on a telephone conversation in which she overheard members of the Riley campaign plot to get Siegelman to concede the election.

Simpson’s affidavit tells of a conference call she was on just two days after that Klan rally, whose topic was the 2002 recount battle. She has phone records that prove the phone call took place. Also on the call were Bill Canary, a senior GOP political operative and adviser to Governor-elect Riley; the governor’s son, Rob Riley; and Terry Butts, a former member of the Alabama Supreme Court who worked for Riley’s election in 2002 (he later ended up representing Siegelman’s co-defendant.)

According to Simpson’s affidavit, Canary said “not to worry about Don Siegelman” because “his girls” would “take care of him.” Canary made it clear “his girls” was a reference to his wife, Leura Canary, the US Attorney who first brought the case against Siegelman in the Middle District of Alabama, and Alice Martin, the US Attorney for the Northern District of the state, whose own case against Siegelman was later thrown out by a federal judge. Both “girls” were recent Bush appointees and past members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal fraternity.

During the conference call, Rob Riley asked if he was sure “these girls” could “take care of” Siegelman and get him out of the way of any future political race. Canary told him “not to worry” and that he had already worked it out with Karl Rove, who had spoken to the Justice Department, which, he said, was already “pursuing” an investigation of Siegelman.

Simpson testified that Butts said he could get Siegelman to concede and that “it would all be over,” including future prosecutions, if Siegelman would just step aside. That same day, Siegelman withdrew his recount request.

Four months after testifying in that affidavit, Simpson went to Washington and gave a sworn deposition to the House Judiciary Committee in which she shared further details about the call, including discussion of a plan to keep Siegelman out of future elections for governor–by threatening him with legal action if he ever ran again.

At Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on three cases of selective prosecution involving the Bush Justice Department, Siegelman’s conviction and Simpson’s evidence were center stage.

Former US Attorney Doug Jones, now in private practice in Birmingham, testified about what he called “a disturbing trend” of selective prosecutions on the part of the Bush Justice Department. “There is no question in my mind that the Department of Justice in Washington was behind the investigation,” Jones told the committee. And he said there is no question in his mind that it was “driven by politics.” That trend was documented by University of Missouri communications professor Donald Shields, who spoke Tuesday about his findings, in a peer-reviewed study, that the Bush Justice Department has investigated and tried far more Democrats than Republicans. “There is no question” that politics has been involved, Shields testified Tuesday. “The numbers don’t lie.”

Artur Davis, a Democratic Representative from Birmingham, echoed the view of Jones and Shields. “At every turn we see partisan politics, Washington politics, Karl Rove politics,” Davis said.

Siegelman, whose case is now under review by a federal appeals court in Atlanta, has charged that the federal prosecution of him was “political” since he was first indicted in Birmingham by US Attorney Alice Martin, a Bush appointee, on corruption charges. He continued to say it after that case was thrown out of court in 2004, and when he was indicted again in 2005 by Leura Canary. Her husband, Bill, a key player in that fateful 2002 conference call, is president of the Conservative Business Council of Alabama and previously worked in Washington as a special assistant for intergovernmental affairs for George H.W. Bush. It was Canary who invited Rove down to Alabama back in 1994 to help orchestrate a Republican takeover of the Alabama Supreme Court.

The next political prosecution worked. A federal grand jury indicted Siegelman and ex-HealthSouth chief Richard Scrushy in October 2005 on what prosecutors called a “widespread racketeering conspiracy” including bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and mail fraud. The case centered on two $250,000 checks Scrushy wrote to a political group to pay off the debt it had incurred supporting Siegelman’s campaign for a state education lottery. Prosecutors alleged that Scrushy wrote those checks in exchange for reappointment to a state hospital regulatory board on which he had served under previous governors.

After a long deliberation and indications that the jury was hopelessly hung, and after the judge issued a charge telling the jurors he had “a lifetime appointment” and could wait as long as it took for them to reach a unanimous verdict, some jurors started reading online news coverage and communicating by e-mail, pressuring others to come to a guilty verdict so they could all go home. On June 29, 2006, they found Siegelman not guilty of all twenty-five racketeering charges but found him guilty on one count of bribery and five instances of mail fraud. They found both Siegelman and Scrushy guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

But no one listened to Siegelman’s claims of a political prosecution until May, when Simpson came forward.

CBS’s 60 Minutes has interviewed Simpson for a show to air in the next few weeks. In that interview, she tells much of her story and documents her own close connections to the Bush White House and Karl Rove. But I was the first reporter to do an in-person, on-the-record interview with her, back in June.

“The reason I did what I did is because I believe everybody has a Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial,” she said then. “I did not believe Mr. Siegelman or Mr. Scrushy got a fair trial.”

Since Simpson came forward in May, she has not exactly been embraced as a truth-teller by the local press in Alabama–and she has been isolated and assaulted by the very Republicans she once helped. In September she told House Judiciary Committee staff that her law practice and her family members have suffered a backlash. “It has been very stressful,” she testified, “and it’s been difficult for my family.” She says business at her law firm has dried up since she went public about political collusion in the prosecution of Siegelman.

Several Alabama newspapers have quoted Rob Riley disputing Simpson’s version of events and attempting to discredit her. Not long after the story broke on June 1, Riley told a Birmingham News reporter that he had not seen her in years and never tried cases with her. But she has boxes of records proving they tried many cases together over the years, some of which she provided to the House Judiciary Committee. It became evident at Tuesday’s hearing that Riley filed an affidavit with the House Judiciary Committee denying that the 2002 conference call ever took place, but Representative Davis said it should be discounted by the committee, since Simpson’s phone records clearly corroborate the call.

Terry Butts, the State Supreme Court justice who claimed on the call that he could get Siegelman to concede, hurled insults at Simpson, saying her affidavit was written “by a drunken fiction writer.” In a story October 23 on National Public Radio, Rob Riley called her charges “crazy.”

Did the attacks go beyond mere words? On February 21, just after Simpson began to leak what she knew about the phone conversation with the Alabama Bar Association, one of Siegelman’s lawyers and lawyers for Richard Scrushy, Simpson’s family home in Rainsville burned down. A cursory investigation of the house fire by the Rainsville Fire Department and Simpson’s insurance company turned up no evidence of arson.

Then on March 1, as Simpson was returning from Birmingham after a meeting with Scrushy and his legal team, a car followed her “for a long way” on state Highway 431 before swerving into her lane, twice and running her off the road. The driver turned out to be a former police officer working as a private investigator. The state trooper who investigated the accident said he saw no evidence of foul play. Police officers in Attalla and Gadsden who know the investigator say they doubted foul play in the wreck.

But the coincidental timing of the incidents scared her, nevertheless. “I made the decision in May to speak truth to power,” Simpson said in an interview. “Anytime you speak truth to power, there are great risks. I’ve been attacked,” she says, but she felt a “moral obligation” to speak up.

Meanwhile, the Canarys continue to deny any political plot, as has US Attorney Louis Franklin, who claims he was the sole person behind Siegelman’s prosecution.

Yet there is ample evidence that Siegelman’s case was reviewed by the Public Integrity Division of the Justice Department in Washington, which issued an order to bring the case to court no matter what the evidence showed. Former US Attorney Doug Jones, who as a lawyer in private practice represented Siegelman briefly in 2004, has said the case against Siegelman appeared weak and indications were it would not be pursued back in 2004–until a “top-down” review was ordered in Washington. He testified before the House Judiciary Committee October 23 and said that the Siegelman prosecution was “driven by politics.”

“There is no question in my mind that the Department of Justice in Washington was behind the investigation,” he said, adding, in response to questions from committee members, “there is no question” there were people in the Justice Department who were “out to get Siegelman.”

“I’m no fan of Rove. I think he is a disgusting political animal,” Jones said in an earlier interview. “I don’t like the way he has interfered, and I do think his fingerprints are on a lot of the prosecutions that have gone on around the country. No question about that. Congress ought to investigate that, because it’s wrong.

“Once you become Attorney General you are supposed to leave the partisan politics at the door,” he continued. “It does not appear that this Justice Department has done that, whether it’s with Siegelman or some of the other cases around the country.”

It is unclear yet whether Simpson will be called to testify in future hearings before Congress. And House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat, has not yet indicated whether he will continue to pursue charges against Karl Rove, who resigned in August while defying Congressional subpoenas in a broad claim of White House executive privilege. But Simpson’s affidavit got a bit of sunshine this week.

Simpson said she hopes people understand how hard it is to speak out against the Bush/Rove political machine and to abandon party loyalty to serve the law.

“But I’ve done it, now,” she says. “And I will take whatever consequences that may come from it, because it was the right thing to do. I just couldn’t walk away from the fact–and there’s no doubt about it–it was a political persecution.”

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