President Obama must pardon Don Siegelman

President Obama must pardon Don Siegelman

CW / Kylie Cowden

One of the most towering figures of the 20th century has passed away at age 90. Fidel Castro had surrendered power to his brother in 2008, but his reign as Cuba’s “maximum leader” was one of the longest of any ruler in any nation’s history, and at one point brought humanity the closest we have ever been to meeting our end. Since his revolution in 1959, Castro made moderate improvements to the lives of some Cubans at the cost of horrific human rights abuses. His brutal rule was marked by countless executions, atrocious incarceration rates and a swath of political prisoners.

But Americans who stress these facts after his death are throwing stones inside the world’s most expensive glass house. While the manners of Castro’s crimes against humanity are indisputably worse than anything that happens here, the practices themselves are not. The United States executed more prisoners last year than any other Western nation, rivaled only by the human rights graveyards of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Yale professor Carlos Eire recently wrote in The Washington Post that Castro incarcerated “a higher percentage of his own people than most other modern dictators, including Stalin,” but neglected to mention that no dictator has ever imprisoned the percentage of his people that the United States does today. One area in which we should stand unquestionably apart from Castro’s Cuba should be the matter of political prisoners – but we don’t, because former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman remains behind bars.

Governor Siegelman was the last Democratic Governor of Alabama, serving from 1998 to 2002. Just months into his term, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor was investigating Siegelman for ostensible corruption; he found nothing. Siegelman lost his reelection bid to Governor Bob Riley after thousands of votes in Baldwin county were inexplicably switched from Siegelman to Riley’s column in the middle of the night. The same Attorney General – Bill Pryor – personally ordered that no recount be conducted, effectively making Riley the winner. Two years later, Siegelman was indicted on fraud charges, which federal Judge U.W. Clemon called “the most unfounded indictment that (he) saw in (his) nearly 30 years on the federal bench.” Siegelman was indicted yet again in 2006, by a U.S. Attorney who happened to be married to his opponent’s campaign manager. This time the charges stuck, and he was convicted by Judge Mark Fuller, who had previously been exposed by Siegelman for misappropriating state retirement funds. The Governor has been in and out of prison for the better part of the last decade, and former Attorney General Bill Pryor – who initially investigated Siegelman – is now a judge on the circuit court that denied his appeal. A bipartisan group of over 100 former states attorneys general have come forward with a letter alleging that prosecutorial misconduct resulted in his conviction.

A nation that was so unbelievably concerned with the potential conflicts of interest of Hillary Clinton’s charity would be remiss to ignore these blatant abuses of our legal system, but the politically motivated prosecution isn’t even the main reason Siegelman should be freed. A system in which Republican administrations prosecute corrupt Democrats (and vice versa) is undesirable, but it would at least succeed in putting those who take advantage of the public trust behind bars. Don Siegelman should be free today not just because he was convicted by his enemies, but because he never committed a crime in the first place.

The charge that brought Siegelman down involved former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, who was appointed by Siegelman to a non-paying role on the state hospital regulatory board. The prosecution alleged that Siegelman appointed Scrushy in exchange for a $500,000 campaign contribution, ignoring that Scrushy had served in this role under three previous Republican administrations. Most importantly, though, Scrushy did not donate to Siegelman’s gubernatorial campaign; he donated to a campaign for a state lottery to fund education: an issue Siegelman happened to support. The United States Supreme Court ruled in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision that money translates to speech, and that political speech in the form of contributions to super pacs cannot be limited. I personally don’t agree with that decision, but if a corporation can donate millions of dollars to a group supporting a specific candidate for office without penalty, how could donating to a campaign for education funding not be protected speech? The Supreme Court in 2016 unanimously overturned the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for similar charges, and even former Alabama Governor Guy Hunt, who actually stole $200,000 from his campaign for personal use, never spent a day in jail. The fact that Don Siegelman is currently incarcerated is a grave miscarriage of justice, and only one man has the power to right this wrong before Jan. 20.

President Obama has granted clemency to more prisoners than any of his predecessors, and presidents traditionally make most of their pardons in their final months in office. Many of these have benefitted non-violent drug offenders who were serving absurd sentences as a result of draconian “tough on crime” laws, and that has been a tremendous step towards addressing the deeply rooted problems in our legal system. Those who call for a pardon for Governor Siegelman yet criticize these decisions are wrong to do so; anyone seriously interested in criminal justice reform – as President Obama is – would not start with the plight of a white man in his seventies. However, allowing this particular travesty of justice to go unchecked before handing the reigns of power to one of the most vindictive men to ever seek the office of president is a recipe for disaster. If we fail to correct the precedent of political imprisonment set by the Siegelman conviction, we risk losing the moral high ground in calling out potentially worse abuses of power by the next administration. Pardoning Don Siegelman is the right thing to do for his family, for our country and for the legacy of an innocent man and remarkable public servant. I urge President Obama to make this crucial choice before it is too late. 

Kyle Campbell is a senior majoring in political science. He is the Opinions Editor of The Crimson White.

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