Thanksgiving 2010 Reflections on Our Political Prisoners

Thanksgiving is an apt time for those of us enjoying family and freedom to reflect about those being prosecuted in the United States primarily for political purposes.

Let’s examine the Justice Department’s crusades against former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, a Republican, and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, his state’s leading Democrat. They are among those in the nation’s two million under lock-and-key who are punished far out of proportion to any offense. Victims include Siegelman’s Alabama co-defendant Richard Scrushy, shown at a right in a family photo of a visit at prison. The former HealthSouth CEO is a Republican businessman and father of nine imprisoned on a seven-year term solely because he donated in 1999 and 2000 to Siegelman’s favorite non-profit, the Alabama Education Foundation.

Recent developments in the Kerik and Siegelman/Scrushy cases last week underscore the Obama administration’s shameful efforts to torment defendants, their families and whistleblowers at vast taxpayer expense, thereby extending and covering up previous abuses. The Kerik Case
As context, the U.S. House last week censured former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, right, for tax and other ethics violations.  The shame prompted tears from the New York Democrat. But there is no report of a criminal investigation of the charges, which are arguably more serious than those that imprisoned Kerik last spring on a four-year term.

This holiday season, Kerik is in a Maryland federal correction center under a term that exceeds both his plea bargain agreement and federal sentencing guidelines. Meanwhile, his savings and other ability to provide for his wife and two young daughters has been destroyed by more than $4.6 million in legal bills, creating massive debt.  He is portrayed at left with his wife Hala shortly after his sentencing in a photo provided us by his friend Maxine Sussele.

Each case is different, of course. But it’s obvious that Kerik’s prosecutors and his Democratic judge bullied him into his plea with abusive tactics that still infuriate Kerik’s largely voiceless and otherwise powerless 5,000 Facebook supporters around the nation, some of whom have contacted our Justice Integrity Project (JIP).

The pre-trial smears of Kerik by authorities have been so effective that JIP has found virtually no one in the mainstream media willing to cover the irregularities aside from the cutting-edge reporting of Geraldo Rivera at Fox News and the writers at Newsmax, along with several websites run by progressives and conservatives who are willing to reprint JIP’s material. Even experienced journalists take the position that a defendant who pleads guilty forfeits any review by journalists aside from routine coverage of appeals.

We have documented in Nieman Watchdog reports here and here outrageous tactics by authorities who jailed Kerik in pre-trial solitary confinement until he agreed to plead.  Earlier, they smeared him pre-trial leaks to the press, stripped him of his attorneys, and secretly prevented him from obtaining exculpatory testimony.

Further illustrating the vast discretion wielded by authorities, the Obama administration permitted U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a former president of the New York Federal Reserve, simply to pay his $34,000 in back taxes upon his appointment. Geithner’s father had supervised the Indonesia work of Obama’s mother during the 1980s, and Geithner himself began his career at Kissinger Associates, the consultancy for longtime Rockefeller family retainer Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state.  From there, Geithner has gone on to oversee much of the nation’s financial well-being, including collection of income taxes from the rest of us.

The Siegelman/Scrushy Case

Also last week, Florida federal judge Richard Hinkle continued Siegelman’s decade-long ordeal by postponing a ruling on whether the former governor’s trial judge, Mark Fuller, should have recused himself because of bias or the appearance of bias. Fuller is Alabama’s chief judge for the middle district and is portrayed at right in a rare photo by Phil Fleming. He helped the Bush Justice Department railroad the former governor and Scrushy into prison, as shown by JIP and others.

The DOJ claims not one reasonable person in the nation would think Fuller might be biased, a preposterous claim. For one, Alabama legal commentator Roger Shuler criticized Fuller this week, as others have many times:

The record in the Siegelman case is filled with grounds that require Fuller's recusal. In fact, the law requires Fuller to make that ruling on his own. But he shuffled it off to another judge.

The Huffington Post published our exposé of Fuller in May 2009 under the headline, “Siegelman Deserves New Trial Because of Judge’s ‘Grudge’, Evidence Shows….$300 Million in Bush Military Contracts Awarded to Judge’s Private Company.” The “grudge” is from a separate case stemming from the judge’s long-secret, controlling ownership of Doss Aviation, Inc., a closely held company that refuels Air Force planes and trains Air Force pilots.

Our project’s website is the only known public location for the 180-pages of evidence filed in federal court in 2003 calling for Fuller’s prosecution and impeachment for attempting to defraud Alabama’s retirement system of $330,000. [Editor's Note: A technical difficulty impedes access but will be corrected shortly.] is making thIn 2003, courthouse staff in Montgomery removed the evidence from the federal electronic filing system, thereby keeping it secret from other litigants (including Siegelman and Scrushy attorneys). No evidence exists of the DOJ ever calling witnesses or otherwise examining the allegations against Fuller.

This is one of the irregularities that surfaced only after courageous Alabama whistleblowers stepped forward to document how the Bush DOJ convicted Siegelman and Scrushy on corruption charges in 2006. Alabama attorney Dana Jill Simpson, for example, swore in 2007 that she’d been on a planning call in 2002 whereby fellow Republicans predicted how they’d remove the governor from politics by an indictment. She later testified also how another well-connected Republican told her in 2005 that Republican insiders were arranging for their fellow Republican, Fuller, to try Siegelman because the judge “hated” Siegelman and would “hang” him.

After Simpson’s revelations the judge ruled that he was clearing himself from any claims of bias. He then sentenced the defendants to seven-year terms, and had them hauled from court in shackles to begin serving their terms immediately without the appeal bonds normal for white-collar defendants. Siegelman, at left, was put in solitary confinement. The imprisoned Scrushy, who had refused a deal to testify against Siegelman, has seen his fortune disappear from civil fraud litigation led by well-connected Alabama attorneys. One of those attorneys seeking Scrushy's money was also one of Siegelman’s criminal defenders and highly influential also with the Justice Department.

In part because of a 2008 expose by CBS portrayed above, the case has become an international human rights disgrace even without its long-suppressed paramilitary overtones. The Bush DOJ created a special anti-Siegelman task force headquartered at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force base, where a trial team led by an Air Force reserve colonel that pressured witnesses with threats verging on blackmail, including exposure of homosexual activity if the proper testimony wasn’t provided at trial.

Prosecutors operated under the overall supervision of Washington’s Bush DOJ headquarters and Alabama’s middle district U.S. attorney Leura Canary, whose husband, led the campaign for Siegelman’s gubernatorial rival Bob Riley. Remarkably, Obama has continued Canary, a Bush appointee who took office in 2001. 

As partial explanation for the extra-legal forces at work, JIP has tied the Siegelman prosecution to the projected $40 billion Air Force tanker refueling contract in a bidding war between Boeing and EADS North America, a subsidiary of the European manufacturers of Airbus planes.
EADS has lined up support from Alabama’s powerful Republican congressional delegation by promising to build its parts assembly plant in Mobile. The contract has been delayed for years. Earlier this year, Alabama Sen. Dick Shelby (R), left, put a hold on all Obama administration nominations to extract an Obama administration promise for fair consideration for EADS, a request made also by top European leaders seeking U.S. taxpayer funding for jobs and raw materials involved in the contracts. This month, the DoD disclosed that it has mistakenly distributed confidential bid data to unauthorized recipients, thereby requiring yet another postponement of the award.

Regarding Siegelman, the Obama DOJ asked Fuller to impose 20 additional years in prison for the defendant, now 64 and free on bail.  Attorney Gen. Eric Holder and Solicitor Gen. Elena Kagan resisted Supreme Court review of Siegelman’s case, but the court in June vacated most of his convictions pending appeals court review.

Meanwhile, Holder has stepped up law enforcement against whistleblowers. Also, all three of DOJ’s major internal investigations of misconduct (political prosecutions, torture and hiding evidence in the prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens) have absolved government personnel of criminal liability.

Summing Up 
Rob Kall, the gutsy publisher of the progressive site OpEd News that carries many of JIP’s top stories, wrote a column in August calling for a Democratic primary against Obama in part because of such DOJ abuses.  At this time of thanksgiving, those of us who remain free can at least be grateful our system permits us to remember in these ways all of our political prisoners and their long-suffering families.

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