Rove Named in Alabama Controversy

  • Share
  • Read Later
George Bridges / MCT / Landov

White House advisor Karl Rove.

In the rough and tumble of Alabama politics, the scramble for power is often a blood sport. At the moment, the state's former Democratic governor, Don Siegelman, stands convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges and faces a sentence of up to 30 years in prison. Siegelman has long claimed that his prosecution was driven by politically motivated, Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys.

Now Karl Rove, the President's top political strategist, has been implicated in the controversy. A longtime Republican lawyer in Alabama swears she heard a top G.O.P. operative in the state say that Rove "had spoken with the Department of Justice" about "pursuing" Siegelman, with help from two of Alabama's U.S. attorneys.

The allegation was made by Dana Jill Simpson, a lifelong Republican and lawyer who practices in Alabama. She made the charges in a May 21 affidavit, obtained by TIME, in which she describes a conference call on November 18, 2002, which involved a group of senior aides to Bob Riley, who had just narrowly defeated Siegelman in a bitterly contested election for governor. Though Republican Riley, a former Congressman, initially found himself behind by several thousand votes, he had pulled ahead at the last minute when disputed ballots were tallied in his favor. After the abrupt vote turnaround, Siegelman sought a recount. The Simpson affidavit says the conference call focused on how the Riley campaign could get Siegelman to withdraw his challenge.

According to Simpson's statement, William Canary, a senior G.O.P. political operative and Riley adviser who was on the conference call, said "not to worry about Don Siegelman" because "'his girls' would take care of" the governor. Canary then made clear that "his girls" was a reference to his wife, Leura Canary, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, and Alice Martin, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

Canary reassured others on the conference call — who also included Riley's son, Rob, and Terry Butts, another Riley lawyer and former justice of the Alabama supreme court — that he had the help of a powerful pal in Washington. Canary said "not to worry — that he had already gotten it worked out with Karl and Karl had spoken with the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice was already pursuing Don Siegelman," the Simpson affidavit says. Both U.S. attorney offices subsequently indicted Siegelman on a variety of charges, although Leura Canary recused herself from dealing with the case in May 2002. A federal judge dismissed the Northern District case before it could be tried, but Siegelman was convicted in the Middle District on bribery and conspiracy charges last June.

William Canary called the allegations "outrageous" and "the desperate act of a desperate politician." Terry Butts said, "I do not recall this telephone conversation — this whole story must have been created by a drunk fiction writer." A White House spokesman told TIME that since the case of former Governor Siegelman remained before the courts, it would have no comment.

Rob Riley said, "I do not recall making the statement attributed to me." He added: "Neither I nor anyone on our campaign staff have been a conspiracy to bring a criminal case against Don Siegelman." Louis Franklin, who prosecuted Siegelman, said he did confer on several occasions with Justice Dept. officials in Washington, but that "nobody ordered me to bring this case, and we handled it just like any other."

Canary was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to serve in the White House as special assistant for intergovernmental affairs, and then named chief of staff of the Republican National Committee. Later in the 1990's he also worked closely with Karl Rove in a successful series of campaigns to get Republicans elected to Alabama's state courts.

In an interview with TIME, Simpson confirmed that the "Karl" cited in her sworn statement was Karl Rove. "There's absolutely no question it was Karl Rove, no doubt whatsoever," she said. She also said she has phone records to back up the date and duration of her phone calls.

Though Simpson's legal work primarily involved research for companies seeking federal government contracts, she says she also did "opposition research" on Siegelman as a volunteer in Riley's campaign in 2002. A lifelong G.O.P. supporter, she says she has long been friendly with Riley's son, Rob Riley, whom she met at the University of Alabama and worked with on various legal cases.

In her interview with TIME, Simpson said the participants in the conference call expressed growing concern that Gov. Siegelman would refuse to give up his challenge to the vote count. According to Simpson, Rob Riley said, "Siegelman's just like a cockroach, he'll never die, what are we going to do?" At that point Canary offered reassurance by citing Rove's news from Justice Department.

Simpson said she had long been troubled by the conference call conversation, and even consulted an official of the Alabama State Bar Association to determine whether she could disclose it publicly without violating her obligations as a volunteer working for the Riley campaign. She was told, she said, that she was free to speak of the matter.

Simpson said she grew more concerned about the matter after Siegelman's conviction last June. She says she told several friends about the conference call ; one of them, Mark Bollinger, a former aide to a Democratic attorney general in Alabama and in the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, has given his own affidavit, obtained by TIME, swearing that Simpson had told him of the conference call and Rove's alleged statements.

The federal investigation of Siegelman culminated in a criminal prosecution that became public not long after Siegelman announced that he would run again for governor of Alabama in 2006. Partly because of the investigation, Siegelman failed in his bid for the Democratic nomination.

Siegelman, together with former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, was convicted on bribery and conspiracy charges and faces sentencing June 26. Lawyers for Siegelman and Scrushy told TIME they were considering whether to use Simpson's affadavit in expected motions to dismiss charges against their clients, or in some other phase of what is likely to be a protracted appeals process.

Siegelman was convicted of appointing Scrushy to a hospital regulatory board in exchange for a $500,000 contribution to a campaign for a state lottery to fund education. Defense lawyers have argued that Siegelman drew no personal financial benefit from Scrushy's donation to the lottery campaign, and they note that Scrushy had served on the hospital regulatory board under three previous governors, before Siegelman reappointed him. The reappointment, they have argued, offered little of value to Scrushy except more work.