Tuesday, June 30, 2009

EARLY EDITION. GUEST ARTICLE. Democratic Plan To Woo Karl Rove’s Alabama Friends With Justice Post May Backfire

Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, the current favorite to become the state's Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, reportedly advocates retention of Republican Middle District U.S. Attorney Leura Canary to woo business and Republican support for his candidacy.

Sources report that the plan to let Canary keep her job at least temporarily is gaining traction among Washington's Democratic power brokers as a brilliant centrist strategy to help the Harvard-educated Davis win election as state's first African-American governor.&

But critics believe the plan would ultimately doom the Davis campaign and further erode confidence in Alabama's already disgraced federal court system. Perhaps even more important, it would create a national embarrassment for Democratic leaders who would end up snookered yet again by the master Republican strategist Karl Rove, whose Alabama ties run deep and dark This is because retention of Canary -- wife of Rove's close friend Alabama Business Council President William Canary -- would inflame Alabama's progressive community.

Progressives regard her as a central villain in the 2006 federal conviction of former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman on hoked-up corruption charges that made his seven-year prison sentence an international disgrace. Many of the state's progressives have since rallied around Siegelman along with outside legal experts, helping to make Siegelman's case the most controversial U.S. criminal prosecution of the decade.

To ignore those grassroots passions and widespread allegations of official misconduct by the Justice Department would thus undercut confidence in the Obama administration's political acumen and his campaign promises of change In this scenario, state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks and a new entrant progressive African-American candidate would peel off support from Davis in a highly divisive Alabama gubernatorial primary. Davis, funded in part by business community dollars promised by Bill Canary, would probably still win the primary. But that Davis victory would come with lasting animosities that ensured Republican victory in the general election.

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Congressman Davis said that she's authorized only to say that Alabama's Republican Senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby have rejected the congressman's two initial nominees, Michel Nicrosi of Mobile and Joseph Van Heest of Montgomery.

Theoretically, the case for Leura Canary's retention is plausible, especially for the gung-ho, fast-rising, ever-confident Davis -- and especially given the typical Democratic response to defer to Republicans who want to control the federal justice system as much as possible despite their party's recent election losses.

As background on Davis, he is a Montgomery native whose Harvard Law School education overlapped for a year with President Barack Obama's. Davis has parlayed their relationship then and since into a centerpiece of his political persona.

Davis has won his congressional re-election campaigns by huge margins in a district gerrymandered to assure large voting blocks of urban Birmingham voters. Republicans cleverly manipulate the federal Voting Rights Act to assure that African American voters in Southern states are concentrated in a few districts. The ostensibly pro-minority strategy was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. That kind of gerrymandering helps some minority office-holders such as Davis, while concentrating likely Democrats into a few districts and thereby keeping majority power concentrated in Republican hands.

But if Davis can build on his black support and his Obama relationship by neutralizing the business interests represented by William Canary, according to this rosy view, then Democrats could have a real shot at winning the state's governorship.

Additionally, conventional wisdom in national Democratic circles for many years has been that the party's voters aside from prospective office-holders care little about appointments to the lower federal courts and Department of Justice offices.

Instead, Democrats usually focus their rhetoric and media muscle on battling Republicans on Supreme Court appointments. These battles provide a win-win for activists in both parties who concentrate on abortion, gay rights, flag-burning and reverse discrimination (such as the Court's Ricci decision this week on white New Haven firefighters) and similar hot-button issues that distract the public.

Republicans, meanwhile, have quietly packed the lower courts and Justice Department political and career posts with "Loyal Bushies" recruited from the Federalist Society and other ultra-right breeder farms. These activist ideologues provide reliable, result-oriented jurisprudence on the full range of criminal and civil litigation.

In this context, letting an Obama-friendly Davis, one of Alabama's few remaining Democratic office-holders of significance, pursue his centrist campaign strategy as he sees fit seems relatively inconsequential to Democratic wonks in Washington. Alabama has become increasingly Republican anyway since Siegelman's re-election loss in a disputed 2002 election where his Election night victory by 3,000 votes suddenly disappeared. Late night voting machine changes in rural Baldwin County enabled enough vote switches for a 3,000-vote victory by the current Republican Gov. Bob Riley.

Furthermore, Alabama's black population is a lower percentage than in its neighboring Deep South states. To an outsider, this lower population of a reliably Democratic constituency argues even more for an innovative "centrist" strategy that will be applauded by the multimillion-dollar-per year leaders of Washington's media class of talking-head TV commentators, whose mantra is always that Democrats must accede to Republicans to show bipartisanship.

So why not retain a U.S. attorney that almost no one's ever heard of? Canary, who's that? Especially deference to Republicans would help Davis foster a centrist image and build support for Democratic Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor by persuading Sessions to lower his rhetoric a bit as the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee?

The answer is that still-unresolved prosecution misconduct allegations regarding the Siegelman conviction exploded nationally in 2007 along with revelations that the Bush administration orchestrated the firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons, supposedly leaving Bush loyalists in place to serve the administration's goals. Congress failed to obtain testimony from those accused of wrongdoing. More recently, the Obama administration has stressed bipartisanship in failing to follow the country's tradition of requiring resignations of politically appointed U.S. attorneys en masse following a change of administration.

Indeed, the Obama administration (whether prompted by holdover Bush officials or by incoming top Obama appointees) recently asked for 20 years in prison for Siegelman at his upcoming resentencing. The Justice Department has declined to release specifics of its reasons to escalate prison time for Siegelman.

The former governor is now free on bail after serving nine months of his seven-year sentence for 2007 conviction on bribery-related charges. The charges primarily stemmed from Siegelman's 1999 reappointment of HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to a state board after Scrushy arranged the first $250,000 of what became $500,000 in donations to the Alabama Education Foundation's efforts to improve Alabama public schools. Siegelman, Scrushy and 75 former state attorneys general from around the U.S. have argued that no one has ever been prosecuted in such a situation, and that both Alabama's current governor and Obama himself frequently appoint donors to major positions, not simply the kind of volunteer post that Scrushy received.

Indeed, Siegelman and Scrushy filed legal papers in recent days seeking a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence showing misconduct by Leura Canary, her Justice Department colleagues in Alabama and Washington, and Chief Middle District U.S. District Judge Mark E. Fuller. Fuller was a member of the Alabama Republican Party's Executive Committee before his nomination by President Bush to the federal bench in 2002.

In Fuller's confirmation hearing, Sessions and Shelby backed Fuller without notifying their Senate colleagues that Fuller held a full-time CEO job of a military contractor at the same time that he was supposedly working as a full-time Alabama state prosecutor from 1997-2002. By July 2003, that double-dipping led to claims by Missouri attorney Paul B. Weeks that Fuller should be impeached and indicted for in a blackmail scheme prompted by Fuller's military contracting work. In a 180-page binder of evidence, Weeks claimed that Fuller sought to appease blackmail pressure by conspiring to defraud Alabama's pension system of $330,000 for a subordinate who knew his secrets as a state prosecutor.

Weeks delivered his complaint to Fuller, to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and to the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Justice Department seeking action to protect the public against a judge that Weeks claimed was unfit to serve over any future litigant. Interviewed this spring, Weeks says no one has ever contacted him to pursue the allegations and that he is astonished that the same Public Integrity Section that should have been investigating Fuller was aggressively prosecuting Siegelman in cooperation with Canary's Alabama office on charges far less serious than those involving the judge.

The Justice Department has denied any misconduct on its part or bias by Fuller against Siegelman. Fuller has said complaints of his work as a state prosecutor are "politically motivated." He has since been promoted to run the court system in his district with a track record of highly controversial decisions approved by the heavily Republican Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Atlanta.

In this situation, Alabama's relatively small progressive community may be as doomed politically as the last Texans at the Alamo. But asking them to play nice with Karl Rove's friends such as Bill and Leura Canary may become a line in the sand -- equivalent to one that Col. Travis, according to legend, drew with his sword on the ground at the Alamo seeking volunteers for an all-out battle.

The former governor is now free on bail after serving nine months of his seven-year sentence for 2007 conviction on bribery-related charges. The charges primarily stemmed from Siegelman's 1999 reappointment of HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to a state board after Scrushy arranged the first $250,000 of what became $500,000 in donations to the Alabama Education Foundation's efforts to improve Alabama public schools. Siegelman, Scrushy and 75 former state attorneys general from around the U.S. have argued that no one has ever been prosecuted in such a situation, and that both Alabama's current governor and Obama himself frequently appoint donors to major positions, not simply the kind of volunteer post that Scrushy received.

"Siegelman supporters down here aren't like others," says one political observer who's never voted for Siegelman in his decades of being one of the state's most popular Democrats, beginning with his 1978 election as state Attorney General. "It's like a religion. He used to reach out and hug these voters no matter who they were, even a garbageman in uniform. And lots of them are going to stand by him forever, through thick and thin."

Just last week, two events helped illustrate explosive potential of Leura Canary's role as a federal prosecutor. First, retired Chief U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Alabama's Northern District said told a National Press Club audience in Washington, DC that the Justice Department's 2004 prosecution of Siegelman on corruption charges was the most unfounded criminal case that Clemon had presided over in nearly 30 years on the federal bench.

Speaking at a forum on selective prosecution and similar Justice Department misconduct by the Bush Administration, Clemon said federal prosecutors ultimately had to withdraw their much-publicized corruption charges against Siegelman for lack of evidence before announcing new charges a year later before Fuller just as Siegelman was gearing up for a re-election effort for the 2006 election.

The retired judge, a Democrat who holds the distinction of being the first African-American ever appointed to the federal bench in a Deep South state, said that he wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this spring to urge an investigation of Siegelman's prosecution in the second case. Siegelman was convicted in 2006 in large part based on the testimony of witness Nick Bailey, who denied wrongdoing by Siegelman in the 2004 case. But Bailey was reportedly coached in more than 70 interview sessions for the second trial without delivery to the defense of interview notes as legally required, helping Canary's office deliver a conviction in what whistleblower Tamarah Grimes described as "The Big Case" in middle district parlance in which no expense against Siegelman was to be spared.

The remarks by Clemon at the June 26 forum were cablecast nationally, as were those of legal experts and victims of purported political prosecutions by the Bush administration. Then white House strategist Karl Rove allegedly urged Justice Department officials to embark on a plan that would ultimately lead to hundreds of investigations of elected officials, who were Democrats by a 7:1 margin according to a leading study. The story has been largely ignored by the mainstream press for the past year, but C-SPAN has aired the June 26 program at least five times so far, and makes it available also on its website. http://www.c-spanarchives.org/library/index.php?main_page=product_video_info&tID=5&src=atom&atom=todays_events.xml&products_id=287304-1 Rove has denied any wrongdoing, and is scheduled to testify to House Judiciary Committee staff on the claims sometime soon after nearly two years of fighting testimony.

As noted above, Scrushy filed an 85-page motion on Friday seeking a new trial. In it, Scrushy alleged that newly discovered evidence showed misconduct by federal prosecutors and the trial judge. For example, Scrushy cited evidence from a whistleblower in Leura Canary's office that Canary continued to monitor and indeed oversee Siegelman's prosecution even though she claimed to be recused because of her husband's longstanding friendship with Karl Rove as they sought to eliminate Democrats from elected office in Alabama throughout the 1990s. During that time, they worked with Alabama's Republican Party Executive Committee, working much of that time with Judge Fuller before President Bush nominated him to the bench in 2002.

Washington masterminds may consider such seldom-reported court filings as irrelevant to a nation pre-occupied, with war, the economy, the Supreme Court and, until recently, the fate of the ever-titillating Miss California.

But those planning on an Artur Davis victory via addition of voting blocs should remember that political math also includes subtraction. And to paraphrase the orator Daniel Webster in another context, Alabama may be a small place, but "there are those who care about it."

In Alabama, state politics remains a blood sport, as any review would show of the Siegelman court filings, a 2008 CBS 60 Minutes exposé on the Siegelman case, and the ongoing congressional investigation of Karl Rove.

It's the state where the young George W. Bush went on leave from the National Guard to campaign for a Republican Senate candidate, and to make lifelong friends. Also, it's where Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chief of Staff Bill Canary developed, in effect, a laboratory in the 1990s for controversial election tactics. These tactics reportedly include expertise in election software, disputing close elections and other by-now standard practices that would prove successful elsewhere nationally in the first part of this decade.

Washington operatives and pundits might regard Alabama as so reliably Republican in Presidential races that nothing of national significance could arise there statewide -- except perhaps an inspirational Democratic gubernatorial victory by the Obama centrist protégé Davis as a pioneering African American. But stay tuned for potential surprises. And as they say, if it bleeds it leads.