Don Siegelman and Richard Scrushy hear about their jail time, and I remember my days with Don

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Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman found out Wednesday that he could be spending more than 10 years behind bars for appointing former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to a state hospital regulatory commission in exchange for a $500,000 Scrushy contribution to Siegelman’s unsuccessful campaign for a state lottery. Scrushy, the federal judge in Montgomery said, could get more than eight years.

This case has gotten a bit of national attention lately because Karl Rove reportedly urged U.S. attorneys in Alabama to pursue Siegelman. But I think a bunch of stories by Eddie Curran in the Mobile Press-Register played a big role, too.

As for the merits of the case, I’m conflicted: If giving money to a political campaign in exchange for getting appointed to government office is a federal offense, then scads of government officials (including most of our ambassadors overseas) belong in jail. But putting Scrushy on a panel whose decisions affected HealthSouth’s business seems pretty dodgy. And a jury did convict the both of them.

The reason I’m blogging about the topic, though, is because it makes me sad that this is Don Siegelman’s moment in the national spotlight. His unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1990 was the first political campaign I ever covered (I was a reporter for The Birmingham News). He was a frustrating candidate to follow–very good at staying on message, and very simplistic in his message. And that campaign was the beginning of a two-year stint in Montgomery that disabused me of a long-held desire to become a political journalist.

But Siegelman was and is nonetheless a remarkable figure. He was a Catholic kid (Alabama isn’t exactly swarming with Catholics) who rose to the top of the famous/infamous student government “Machine” at the University of Alabama, then ended up marching in anti Vietnam War protests there. While at Georgetown Law he adopted lefty Long Island Congressman Allard Lowenstein, of all people, as his political mentor. He spent some time studying at Oxford. He ran George McGovern’s Alabama campaign in 1972. He married a Jewish woman. He earned a black belt in karate. These are not things known to win a person political points in Alabama (well, maybe the karate was okay).

And yet, somehow or other, Democrat Siegelman was after all that able to persuade the people of an increasingly Republican state to elect him to statewide office (secretary of state, attorney general, lieutenant governor, governor) again and again and again. The guy was, in his own strange and lonely way, a political genius. Presumably he won’t be able to get elected yet again after this. Although in Alabama, you never know.

As for Scrushy, his acquittal on 85 fraud charges in 2005 was, as best I can tell, a travesty. So at least they got him for something this time.

Update: Siegelman got seven years and four months. And the more I think about it, the more that bothers me. This (out-of-date) post by Mark Kleiman (via Matty Yglesias) gets at part of the reason why:

If you had any doubt that the fuss about Libby’s sentence is largely a matter of Washington insiders, political and journalistic, rallying to the defense of one of their own, consider the contrasting silence about the Siegelman case. A highly popular Democratic Governor of Alabama was indicted by a highly political U.S. Attorney’s office, which is now seeking a thirty-year sentence. He was convicted of appointing someone to a state board that the same man had been appointed to by three previous governors, in return for a contribution in support of a referendum campaign. If that’s a crime, then what are we to say about the system of rewarding campaign contributors with plum Ambassadorships?

Siegelman got far less than 30 years. He got less than the sentencing guidelines called for. But sending a politician to jail for seven years for doing something that (a) was pretty much standard practice and (b) did not involve any kind of personal enrichment seems kinda, you know, wrong. And since nobody in the Washington political or media elite is standing up for Don, as a satellite member of the New York media elite I’ll say this for him: He wasn’t in politics to get rich. As far as I could tell, he was mainly in politics to … be in politics. And that ain’t a crime.