Did Karl Rove Help Send an Innocent Man to Jail?
November 15, 2007 | by Lou Dubose
THE HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE INVESTIGATION into the political prosecution and conviction of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, briefly discussed in the November 1 issue, leads inevitably to former senior White House aide Karl Rove.
Although Rove has left the White House and is living in Texas, and would probably try to assert executive privilege were his White House records regarding the Siegelman case subpoenaed, he shouldn't be allowed to walk. The only party to testify under oath in the case described Republican campaign aides setting up Siegelman for prosecution in Alabama while Rove pushed the Justice Department in Washington to ensure that Siegelman's prosecution moved forward.
This wouldn't be the first time that Rove used contacts within the Justice Department to destroy the career of a political adversary. Siegelman's prosecution bears a striking familiarity to the FBI investigation of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower in 1990, and the conviction of two of his aides.
Like Siegelman, Hightower was the "golden boy" of Democratic politics in his state. Until he decided to run for re-election, Hightower was his party's best hope to unseat U.S. senator Phil Gramm. He had cultivated a national following, national funders, and was an effective voice for the progressive wing of the national Democratic Party. In 1990, Hightower was an incumbent who couldn't be beat—until two federal agents with search warrants walked into his Austin office the same day he was kicking off his re-election campaign in a small rural town in the Panhandle. Hightower's Republican opponent was Rick Perry, currently the governor of Texas. Perry's campaign was directed by Karl Rove.
Indictments at the Texas Agriculture Department weren't announced by a Justice Department spokesperson or in a DOJ press release, but at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser by a political consultant. Karl Rove told reporters that Hightower and several aides "faced the possibility of indictment in June or July."
How could Rove have known? He knew because of his contacts with an FBI agent who began investigating statewide elected officials in Texas in the late 1980s, when all statewide offices were occupied by Democrats. FBI agent Greg Rampton moved from the office of one Democratic official to another, issuing subpoenas, downloading computer files, and photo-copying contributor lists. Rampton investigated the Democratic lieutenant-governor while Rove was working on the campaign of his Republican opponent, the Democratic land commissioner while Rove was working on the campaign ofhis opponent. The same was true of Democratic ag commissioner Jim Hightower; Rampton was investigating him while Rove was working for his opponent.
KARL UNDER OATH—It wasn't until Rove was questioned under oath that part of the truth regarding his relationship with Rampton emerged. In 1991 Rove was appointed to a state board. The appointment required state Senate confirmation. Democrats on the nomination committee took advantage of the opportunity.
"How long have you known an FBI agent by the name of Greg Rampton?" one senator asked during the testimony.
"Senator, it depends. Would you define know for me?
When pressed, Rove said: "Ah, I know, I would not recognize Greg if he walked in the door. We have talked on the phone var— a number of times. Ah, and he has visited my office a number of times. But we do not have a social or personal relationship whatsoever."
Not recognize someone he met a number of times? Caught off guard, Rove stuck his foot in a rather obvious perjury trap and then retreated to the truth. He had been more specific in a written response regarding a different federal appointment. "This summer  I met with agent Greg Rampton of the Austin FBI office at his request regarding a probe of the political corruption in the office of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower," he said. Rove wasn't required to explain why an FBI agent was meeting with the political consultant directing the campaign of Hightower's opponent.
In their book Bush's Brain, Austin journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater catch something that most of us following Rove's Texas Senate testimony missed. Rove said he became involved in the campaign of Rick Perry in November of 1989. "At that point," Rove told the Texas Senate committee, "there was already an FBI investigation ongoing of the Texas Department of Agriculture, prompted by stories, which had appeared in August and September, I believe, in the Dallas Morning News."
The problem with this account is that in November 1989 no subpoenas had been issued. No one at the Ag Department was aware of an investigation. Yet Rove was. In the end, two of Hightower's aides—Pete McCrae and Mike Moeller—were sentenced to prison for illegal fundraising for Jim Hightower. Hightower escaped indictment. But he was damaged goods and lost to Rick Perry by 50,000 votes.
REPEAT PERFORMANCE—Returning to this would amount to beating a dead horse or reworking biographical information—if the similarities between the prosecution of Don Siegelman and Hightower aides McCrae and Moeller were not so evident. So evident, in fact, that an attorney who worked at the Texas Ag Department in the late eighties told me in casual conversation last week that he wanted to get McRae and Moeller in front of the House Judiciary Committee—to help committee members understand "precisely how Don Siegelman was set up."
Rove was clearly inside the 1989 investigation of Jim Hightower. And it's Rove whom Alabama attorney Jill Simpson describes as driving Siegelman's prosecution from inside the Justice Department. When she testified in September before the House Judiciary Committee, Simpson talked about a November 18, 2002, conference call in which, she alleges, the prosecution of Siegelman was discussed with gubernatorial candidate Bob Riley's son Rob.
Q. Okay. And did Rob ask something about if they were sure that Bill Canary's girls could take care of Don Siegelman?
CANARY SINGS—The 2005 investigation, prosecution, and conviction of Don Siegelman while he was preparing to challenge the Republican who defeated him by 3,000 votes in 2002 might be the focus of a parlor game called "Six Degrees of Separation From Karl Rove."
Bill Canary is a transplanted New Yorker and the most prominent Republican political consultant in Alabama. He has worked with Rove for more than ten years, and they are friends. He directed the gubernatorial campaign of Bob Riley, who defeated Siegelman by the narrowest margin in the history of the state's gubernatorial elections.
Bill Canary's "girls," according to Simpson, were Leura Canary and Alice Martin, two U.S. Attorneys appointed George W. Bush.
The initial investigation of Siegelman was undertaken by Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, whose campaign for statewide office was directed by Rove. In April 2003 George W. Bush used a recess appointment to put Pryor on the federal bench, circumventing Senate Democrats who objected to Pryor's extremist views on abortion and homosexuality. Pryor was ultimately confirmed by the Senate. Rove worked to keep Pryor's nomination alive.
Noel Hillman worked the Siegelman prosecution in the Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity unit, where he was acting director. When the prosecution was wrapped up, Hillman was appointed to the federal bench in New Jersey. Rove was involved in the screening of Bush's judicial appointments, and he would have been intimately involved in one as controversial as Hillman's. Hillman was moved out of Justice and onto the federal bench while he was directing the investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which pulled him off a case that involved corruption at the highest level of the Republican Party. Rove was in contact with Hillman while he was acting chief of the DOJ's Public Integrity unit in Washington—and while he was pursuing an appointment to the federal bench.
The ethical conflict—a political appointee at DOJ working on the prosecution of a former elected official while waiting in line for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench—was so evident it required no elaboration during an October 23 House Judiciary subcommittee hearing. At the hearing, Alabama Democrat Artur Davis questioned former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who as a private attorney was involved in Siegelman's defense:
REP. DAVIS: Does the name Noel Hillman register to you?
Noel Hillman might be the most Solomonic jurist ever to sit as a federal district judge in New Jersey. But while coordinating the prosecution of Don Siegelman, he was also a job applicant whose performance was evaluated by Karl Rove.
Don Siegelman's federal prosecutors were so closely associated with Karl Rove that there was enough conflict of interest to justify a change of venue to the Hague. Yet when Siegelman's defense attorneys raised the "conflict" issue, they were gaveled down. The judge refused to hear arguments that the prosecution was political. The only deference to partisan and ethical conflict was Leura Canary's recusal—and the assignment of the case to a junior attorney she supervised.
With odds like that, only an unbiased federal judge would have kept Siegelman out of a federal penitentiary. Mark Fuller was not that judge. Even if Fuller never promised to "hang" Don Siegelman, as Simpson says she was told by Governor Riley's son Rob, the judge represented something less than blind justice.
COMPROMISING POSITIONS—As I reported in the November 1 issue, Fuller earns millions in contracts with the Navy and Air Force. While he presided over Don Siegelman's trial, Fuller was collecting as much as $1 million a year from stock holdings derived from federal contracts—earnings far greater than his salary as an Article III judge. According to Simpson, Rob Riley told her that Fuller was both a federal judge and a federal contractor—an arrangement that might lead the judge to cultivate the favor of an administration whose executive departments issued contracts and wrote checks that provided his stock dividends. For Mark Fuller, the federal government wasn't just his employer; it was his profit center.
And there is more.
In her testimony, Simpson says she was told that Mark Fuller hated Siegelman. According to Simpson, Fuller believed that Siegelman had him audited while Fuller was a district attorney and Siegelman was governor. "[Rob Riley] also told me about a backlogging case, which is what you call the salary spike," Simpson said. "He called it the 'backlogging.' . . . I'd never heard the term 'backlogging.'"
The correct term is "backloading"—inflating an employee's salary as he approaches retirement. Whether Governor Siegelman initiated the investigation or not, Fuller was guilty. According to theMontgomery Advertiser, investigators from Alabama's State Employee Retirement System discovered that as district attorney, Fuller had increased the salary of one of his investigators from $80,307 to $152,014. The forty-nine year-old county investigator who received the generous raise was preparing to retire. Beyond the pay increase, the $152,014 salary scale would have provided the inspector with an additional $1,000 a month for the rest of his life. Or as employment system actuaries calculated it, a lifetime benefit increase of $330,000. The investigation—and reduction—of the inspector's salary embarrassed Fuller.
And while it's not unusual for federal judges to have a political life before life on the bench, Mark Fuller had served on the Alabama Republican Party's Executive Committee before Bush appointed him.
Dickens's Mr. Bumble observed that "the law is an ass." And it often is. So perhaps Inmate 24775-007 at the Federal Corrections Institute at Oakdale, Louisiana, is guilty of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud—even if a motive isn't evident. HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy contributed $500,000 to a fund Governor Siegelman created to pay for a campaign to establish a state lottery to fund college tuition for all Alabama high school graduates. Then Siegelman appointed Scrushy to a vice-chair position on the hospital Certificate Need Board, to which Scrushy had already been appointed by three other governors. (Scrushy was also convicted and is in prison in Texas.)
Jill Simpson was a volunteer on Bob Riley's campaign and as a lawyer had worked with his son Rob. What she saw inside the campaign engaged her gag reflex, and she came forward to testify. She has been the target of protracted attacks in the Alabama media. Much of what she said under oath has been denounced as fabrication. Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes wants her investigated by the Justice Department. The parties she claims participated in the conference call say it never occurred—although in sworn affidavits they will only say they don't recall the phone call. (Simpson's phone bills support her account down to the minute.)
The prosecution of Don Siegelman is the flip side of the U.S. Attorney scandal that sent Alberto Gonzales looking for honest work and a legal-defense fund in Texas. Gonzales, famously, recalls nothing. Gonzales aide Monica Goodling admitted she "went over the line" in examining the political background of applicants for U.S. Attorney positions. Gonzales aide Kyle Sampson wrote that certain U.S. Attorneys were fired because they were not "loyal Bushies." The Siegelman scandal involves cases brought by the loyal Bushies who remain in office.
Siegelman's case is currently on appeal. And the House Judiciary Committee is investigating—despite protestations of committee Republicans who complain that the investigation represents the politicizing of the judicial process.