BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Alone in his office at his home in Birmingham, he sits in reflection, remembering the pure hell he feels he’s lived through the past 11 years.
Donald Eugene Siegelman, 71, was once at the mountaintop of Alabama politics, arguably the most successful politician in state’s storied history. To date, Siegelman is the only person to be elected as secretary of state, attorney general, lieutenant governor and governor. A Democrat, Siegelman is the only progressive to capture Alabama’s top job in more than 30 years – elected in 1998.
Siegelman’s platform for governor nearly 20 years ago was the promotion of a state lottery system for Alabama. He won his election with 57 percent of the vote, but voters shot down a lottery vote just a few short months after he was sworn in as the state’s 51st governor.
The lottery which Siegelman had hoped would allow high school graduates to attend college for free, and the campaign to promote it, would come back to haunt him several years later. Convicted on federal felony corruption charges, Siegelman served time in federal prison for appointing a major donor to the campaign on the state’s hospital board.
He and his supporters argue that it was a bogus crime and a witch-hunt to derail his political career.
He looked tired, worn out, as he stepped from the tarmac at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport on the afternoon of Feb. 8, 2017.
Family, friends and longtime supporters met Don Siegelman there.
Earlier in the day Siegelman had been released from Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Oakdale in Oakdale, Louisiana, a low-security federal prison located about an hour north of Lake Charles. He arrived at the airport still wearing his gray prison uniform shirt, with his inmate number, 24775-001, printed on the left side of his chest.
“I feel like a refugee coming into New York,” Siegelman was reportedly heard saying to friends and family at the airport by AL.com at the time.
While out of prison on that February day, Siegelman was still not free. He finished his sentence with six months of house arrest and couldn’t speak to the media until his sentence ended on Aug. 8.
Now, Siegelman is ready to talk.
Politics came easy for the boy born and raised in Mobile. Doing right and helping those in need was easy to understand.
“My parents raised me in a way to be sensitive to people and their needs,” Siegelman said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Sentinel. “I can remember my dad sitting around the kitchen table discussing and cussing about politics.”
He graduated from the University of Alabama, in 1968, in the time of the Vietnam War and love and peace. During his time in Tuscaloosa, Siegelman served as president of the student government association.
“I identified with an activist professor at Alabama,” said Siegelman, where he says he got his first taste of working politics helping people register to vote.
Siegelman earned a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., where he learned how politics worked, and he studied international law at the University of Oxford.
After school, he was ready for the world of politics. In 1978, Siegelman was elected secretary of state, serving two terms. He was then elected attorney general in 1986 and later lieutenant governor in 1994.
No person before nor other person has yet to be elected to all four offices in the state of Alabama.
In 2002, Siegelman lost his bid for re-election as governor by 3,000 votes to Republican Bob Riley.
On the night of the election, the Associated Press had declared Siegelman the winner. However, a voting malfunction in Baldwin County changed history, after a recount put Riley in the governor’s seat, where he would also win a second term four years later. The recount changed no other race or proposition on the ballot.
Siegelman’s legal troubles came to light two years later, when he was indicted for fraud. A day after the trial started, though, the judge threw out most of federal prosecution’s case.
Just over a year later, Siegelman was indicted again; this time on bribery and mail fraud in connection with Richard Scrushy, founder and former CEO of HealthSouth in Birmingham.
On June 29, 2006, a federal jury found both men guilty on seven of 33 felony counts. The convictions centered on Scrushy’s $250,000 donation to Siegelman’s 1999 campaign for a state lottery fund, and $250,000 payment to help repay the campaign debt after the measure failed in a statewide vote. Prosecutors claimed the donations had been made in a quid pro quo exchange for a seat on the state’s hospital regulatory board.
Scrushy had previously been appointed to the board by the preceding three Republican administrations.
Siegelman maintained his innocence as he was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison and literally ushered out of the courtroom that same day.
Appeals through the years brought him a lower sentence but never the new trial Siegelman hoped to get.
Through the prison sentence, Siegelman and his supporters never wavered that he was wrongly convicted.
Appeals to President Barack Obama to pardon Siegelman went unheard. When President Obama pardoned 64 individuals, and commuted the sentences of 209 others, before leaving office on Jan. 20, 2017, Donald Eugene Siegelman’s name was not on the list.
Today, Siegelman’s supporters are calling on President Donald Trump to pardon the former governor.
In prison, the former governor of Alabama was just a number – 24775-001.
“Prison is prison,” said Siegelman. “Inmates are not the same. Each inmate lives out his (sentence) in his own way.”
It was very early each morning when Siegelman would begin his day with exercise. Breakfast might have been cereal or grits.
“Nothing too terribly exciting,” he said.
After 6:30 a.m., it was time to work, which included landscaping, kitchen work and cleanup duty.
Lunch came at 10:30 a.m. followed by head count was at 11 a.m. It was then back to work until 2:30 p.m.
The schedule continued with dinner at 3 p.m., a slice of pizza or breaded chicken or fish on most days.
“You could live off of it,” said Siegelman. “You figured out how to stay alive.”
Siegelman said he spent a lot of time in the prison’s library. Siegelman said he read a lot.
“It was a very small room,” he said. “There were maybe 1,000 books in there, a lot left by inmates. It was adequate. I read a lot of things that I normally wouldn’t have read. I read a lot of biographies.”
There was no access to the internet. Siegelman spent a lot of time writing and helping other inmates with legal work.
Siegelman said he was involved in a couple of incidents but no serious altercations.
The federal prison in Oakdale was like a camp, he says. There were no walls.
“At camp, most inmates don’t want to fight,” said Siegelman. “People showed respect to others.”
Prison is prison, he said. You make it day by day, doing what you must.
For five years and eight months, Don Siegelman made it day by day.
In Birmingham, in February, Siegelman said he approached his prison release cautiously.
“It was a little spooky,” he said. “I didn’t notify anyone I was getting out.”
Siegelman said it was nice to get a few hugs, but he felt constrained under a gag order at the airport. When he got home, Siegelman said it all came into perspective quickly.
Before he went to prison following the appeals, Siegelman bought his wife, Lori, a chocolate Labrador puppy, named Kona.
“I was kind of curious how Kona would recognize me,” said Siegelman. “I opened the door, and Kona was wagging his tail and jumping up and down. He was so glad to see me, licking my face.”
A little later, someone was at the door. The canine’s reaction was similar.
“My dog treats her the same way,” laughed Siegelman.
Until August 8, Siegelman wore an electronic shackle. He wasn’t allowed to leave his residence without permission. Though no longer in prison, he was almost free, but not there yet.
The first months at home were an adjustment.
“You readjust to a different reality,” said Siegelman. “You have to readjust to things that were once familiar. You work yourself back into a freer world.”
On Tuesday, August 8, 2017, Siegelman ceased being a federal inmate. He still has three years of probation to serve, including 500 hours of community service, and must get permission to travel. But there are no longer shackles, chains or bars to confine him.
“I’m doing great,” Siegelman said. “I am blessed that I have my physical attributes.”
Currently, Siegelman said he’s working on a book. A documentary titled “Atticus v. The Architect: The Political Assassination of Don Siegelman” was recently released.
According to documentary.org, The documentary, produced and directed by Steve Wimberly, alleges that leaders of the Republican Party nationwide, led by well-known GOP operative Karl Rove, and federal prosecutors conspired to derail Siegelman’s political career because of his success as a Democrat in conservative Alabama, and the possibility that he could have been a factor in the 2004 presidential race. Rove has denied any involvement over the years, and several involved with the case and its prosecution maintains that the charges were legitimate.
“It’s a shocking eye-opener for those that naively think that justice can always prevail,” said Siegelman.
The film is being played in selected theaters throughout the state this fall.
Siegelman said he hopes to make selected speeches around the country.
“I hope the book’s published the first of the year,” he said. “I want to take trips around the country and say ‘thanks.’ I want to make an effort to make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Siegelman said he expects to spend a great deal of time in Washington. He said he would also look for clients who might want his political advice.
“I’m looking forward to the rest of my life,” the former governor says.
Don Siegelman is, once again, a free man.
Information from: The Daily Sentinel – Scottsboro, http://www.thedailysentinel.com