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The Governor of Goat HillDon Siegelman, the Reporter who Exposed his Crimes, and the Hoax that Suckered some of the Top Names in Journalism
By Eddie Curran
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Eddie Curran
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGolden Flake
"He's been focused on getting here for a long time. I don't know exactly what drives people like that, the types that were just destined for public service. But he's one of them, and I'm glad there are people out there like him."
- The late Jim Hayes, a college friend of Siegelman's and a member of his cabinet, before the onslaught of G.H. Construction and other scandals.
"Don Siegelman, in my opinion, is one of the greatest con artists who ever served in the annals of government. He's cold, mean, ruthless and vindictive, and he wants all the power."
- Democratic state representative Alvin Holmes of Montgomery, in July 1999, two years before scandals overwhelmed the administration.
Tacked on the press room wall in the Alabama Statehouse among dozens of political cartoons and furled, yellowed photos of reporters interviewing governors and presidents is an ad from the 1998 gubernatorial campaign. "What's The Difference Between Bill Clinton And Don Siegelman?" reads the caption.
On the top left is a photo of Siegelman. Across the page, a grimacing Clinton. Below are categories - Military, Political, Civil Rights and Drug History - with brief expositions that, when compared to that in the other man's column, suggests twins separated at birth.
At the bottom are six head shots, the one on the far left, Siegelman, on the far right, Clinton, with those in between reflecting a gradual metamorphosis, Siegelman's face becoming Clinton's.
"The More They Change, The More They Stay The Same," declares the big print at the bottom.
The ad's obvious intent was to transfer the almost pathological hatred of Clinton among so many white Alabamians to Siegelman. And there are remarkable parallels in the lives of the two men born six months apart, with Siegelman the elder. Both are Southerners from modest backgrounds, extroverts for whom the drive for public office - high public office - seems to have formed in the womb.
The most unfair of the frequently voiced criticisms of both men, to my mind anyway, is that they're "career politicians."
Is that really so terrible? Didn't your parents or your first grade teacher or both or in any event someone tell you that in this great country, anyone can "grow up to be president" and "change the world?" And when you heard that, didn't you, if for only a moment, but maybe for a day or a week or a year, secretly imagine, and with little person seriousness, your destiny as ... President of the United States?
Washington, Lincoln, Me?
Is it really so terrible if a little boy or girl actually takes it to heart, and says, "I can and I will?"
One imagines something like this happening to the young Clinton in Arkansas, and down in Mobile, the boy Siegelman.
* * *
Don Eugene Siegelman was born in Mobile on Feb. 24, 1946, the second and last child of Leslie Bouchet and Andrea Siegelman. Father Les was the manager of a well-known downtown music store; mother Andrea worked as beautician, starting at 16 and retiring at 72.
Les Siegelman Jr., three when Siegelman was born, would in adulthood serve as one of his brother's most trusted advisors, if also his least visible.
Siegelman's father suffered three heart attacks by age 55, but lived a full life. He died in July 1999 at age 85, seven months after seeing his son become governor. Andrea Siegelman died the following year after a long battle with Alzheimer's.
The elder Siegelman's early heart troubles and the family's history of heart disease may explain Don Siegelman's legendary exercise regime. As governor and before, he was known to arrive at the Montgomery YMCA at 5 a.m. It was closed at that hour, but no matter. He had his own key. A physical during his third year as governor showed the 6-1, 190-pound governor with a resting heartbeat of 50, or about what you'd expect from a marathon runner. He also holds a black belt in Kyokushin-style karate.
In many ways, Siegelman's youth paralleled my father's, though my dad is 14 years his senior. Both grew up in the shadow of downtown Mobile, their childhood homes within a mile of one another, and at a time when downtown was still the city's center, commercially and otherwise. Siegelman, like my father, attended Leinkauf Elementary School, junior high at Barton Academy, and finished up at Murphy, still the largest high school in the city.
An old friend recalled Siegelman as being "very politically oriented" in middle school and never looking back. At Murphy, the handsome, sandy blond teen was elected class president as a sophomore and served on the student council his junior and senior years. He was a class favorite, homecoming escort and, perhaps most impressively, the first president of Mobile's Junior Jaycees. In short, he amassed the sort of extra-curricular resume one might expect from a young man with his eye on political prizes.
Siegelman graduated from high school in 1964 and that fall enrolled at the University of Alabama. Like my father before and many of my friends since, Siegelman "pledged Deke," which is to say he was asked to join the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, long-known for its many Mobile members, a reputation for partying, and its ties to "the Machine." That's the voting bloc of fraternities and sororities that's long dominated politics at the university and has served as a training ground for many of the state's leading politicians.
Siegelman immersed himself in campus politics upon arrival in Tuscaloosa. A partial list of his activities and accomplishments includes: winning election as a senator in the Student Government Association as a sophomore and junior; member of Jasons; Who's Who in American College Students; and, his senior year, as SGA president.
"All the girls tore his campaign posters down and put them in their rooms. They loved his blond hair and green eyes," said Danny Sheridan, the sports oddsmaker and a friend since childhood.
Socially, Siegelman knew how to enjoy himself but was not regarded in high school or college as a big partier. "He was a conservative guy. Not to say he never had a drink and never got drunk. He may have," said Sheridan. "But there were people you knew who raised hell, and he was definitely not one of them. Every day he woke up with his blinders on saying, 'I think I can make a difference.'"
Having risen to the greatest heights possible for a politically-minded collegian in the state of Alabama, Siegelman took the next logical step, law school. For someone intending to practice in Alabama, the university's law school was the place to go. That's where you met the people who'd become the attorneys and judges you'd practice with, against and in front of.
But Siegelman had no intention of making a career of the law. And in choosing Georgetown (where Clinton had just completed his undergraduate degree) he killed two birds with one stone. He got a law degree and spent three years near that big white house of his dreams, building connections with national-level Democrats. He served as a part-time staffer in the office of Allard Lowenstein, an anti-war Democratic congressman from New York, and worked briefly as a Capitol Hill police officer (which he later cited in campaigns to burnish his law enforcement credentials.)
He enlisted in the Alabama Air National Guard and served 19 months before being discharged for medical reasons in 1969, at age 23.
Former attorney general Charlie Graddick tried to make an issue of the discharge in the 1994 lieutenant governor's campaign, but to no discernable effect. Graddick claimed Siegelman was released for "severe psychiatric" problems. Siegelman countered that it was an honorable discharge due to severe stress. He said his father was suffering health problems and had lost his job and that concerns about his family probably brought on the stress.
"Twenty-five years ago, as an airman, I had some physical symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, high blood pressure and extreme physical discomfort," he said during the 1994 campaign. "On one occasion, I blacked out while driving a fuel truck."
One has to believe that if Siegelman had sought high national office - say, the vice presidential slot on a Democratic ticket or straight to the big-time from a perch as governor or headline-making U.S. Senator - that the circumstances of his release would have been fleshed out. Even if all else had fallen into place, Siegelman's characterization of a war-time discharge due to stress would seem sufficient to prevent voters from placing him in the White House or within a heartbeat of it.
In March 1971, the 24-year-old law student married a Mobile woman his same age and, like him, a Catholic. The union didn't last long, was annulled, and was never an issue in Siegelman's political career.
He graduated from law school in 1972 and returned to Alabama to serve as state coordinator for George McGovern's presidential campaign. After McGovern's defeat Siegelman studied at Oxford, though not, like Clinton before him, as a Rhodes Scholar. He focused on international law, one imagines for the purpose of adding foreign policy creds to the political curriculum vitae.
He returned home in 1973 and for the next five years served as general counsel and executive director of the state Democratic Party. He also worked part-time prosecuting minor crimes for the city of Vestavia Hills, a high-income outpost of Birmingham.
In 1978, the 31-year-old Siegelman made an unusual choice for his inevitable first run at public office. In 1944, when there was almost no such thing as women holding state office, Alabamians elected Sybil Pool as secretary of state. For the next 35 years, the office whose primary function is overseeing elections was run by a woman. That streak ended when Siegelman captured 71 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, and faced no Republican opposition in the general election.
It was also an important period for him personally. That year Siegelman stepped into a Birmingham elevator and met Lori Allen, a pretty, 27-year-old social worker with an artistic bent. They wed two years later, in October 1980, in a small ceremony at Siegelman's home in Montgomery. He must have been smitten, for in Alabama, the marriage promised risk for a young man whose sole ambition was high office. Siegelman is a Catholic in a state that had never elected a Catholic governor, and Lori Allen is Jewish.
It's a credit to the public and his opponents that religious affiliation, his or his wife's, was not an issue for him politically. Though it is not widely known, the Siegelmans raised their two children in the Jewish faith.
* * *
The new secretary of state hit the ground running. He transformed the office, adding staff and cajoling the legislature into providing budget increases. His critics accused him of spending too much on public relations staff and furniture, but acknowledged that he modernized the small agency. He advocated for increased voter registration and election turn-out and backed legislation to purge Alabama's voter rolls of the dead, incarcerated, and other ineligibles.
Siegelman used the office as a bully pulpit, slinging arrows at the legislature and the governor (first Fob James, then George Wallace) and grabbing headlines with blistering commentaries on issues that strayed from his office's purview, including one with hypocrisy relevance for this story.
The secretary of state has no role in the regulation of landfills, but that didn't stop Siegelman from making Chemical Waste Management Inc., his personal whipping boy. He accused the Waste Management subsidiary of violating environmental laws at its hazardous waste landfill in Emelle, and of paying kickbacks to un-identified politicians.
More about the southwest Alabama landfill will be said later, in the chapter chronicling ChemWaste's payment of half-a-million dollars to Lanny Young. That sum was bestowed upon Young after a secret state ruling by the Siegelman administration that slashed the taxes ChemWaste paid to bury waste at Emelle. A month after the ruling, Waste Management donated $50,000 to Siegelman's lottery campaign.
As secretary of state, Siegelman pushed hard for campaign finance reform. He made passage of the Fair Campaign Practices Act the centerpiece of his 1978 and 1982 campaigns. The much-needed legislation, when finally it did pass, required candidates to disclose their contributions and expenditures before an election, rather than at year's end, when such revelations did voters little good.
"Politics costs too much," Siegelman told a reporter during his 1978 campaign. "Not only have we priced the average person out of politics (but) people perceive politics as a dirty game."
He declared that the legislation must include "strict and severe penalties for anyone who either tries to bribe or use a public official to their own advantage and to punish people who abuse public office."
"We don't need to be sending people to Maxwell Air Force Base to play tennis" after being found guilty of public corruption, he said.
Siegelman's adherence to campaign finance laws as governor was abysmal, but he flouted them even while touting them as the state's top elections officer.
In 1985, he began unofficially campaigning for the U.S. Senate, which suggests that early on, his goals were national in scope. Senators, after all, rarely come home to be governors. It was no secret that Richard Shelby, then a Democratic congressman from Tuscaloosa, planned to challenge vulnerable Republican incumbent Jeremiah Denton. Shelby had amassed a war-chest in excess of $1 million. The federal campaign law required candidates to disclose their contributions once they accepted more than $5,000. Siegelman raised far more than that but neglected to file a report. A Shelby relative tattled on him to the Federal Elections Commission and the media.
"Don Siegelman, who has pushed for stricter financial disclosure laws for political candidates, was accused of violating federal election laws in a complaint filed Monday by his Democratic opponent's nephew," began an Associated Press story on Siegelman's unreported fundraising.
Siegelman's response should be familiar to anyone who's followed his career: He was unavailable for comment, but had an aide criticize the source of the complaint rather than its merits. It was later revealed that Siegelman raised $199,400, or about 40 times the reporting threshold.
Siegelman reluctantly faced up to Shelby's towering advantage in campaign cash, lowered his sights, and ran for attorney general.
* * *
Siegelman has done much to advance the notion that his convictions are skin deep, but even his harshest critics don't question his sincerity on one issue.
On a Saturday morning in February 1984, he and his wife loaded up their dogs for a drive to his parents' beach house on Dauphin Island. Wallace Manning, a career criminal with a history of drunken driving arrests, was heading north on Dauphin Island Parkway. Given his blood alcohol level of almost 3.0, it's a wonder Manning could drive at all.
As Manning approached the Dog River Bridge he jerked into the southbound lane, directly into the Siegelmans' path. Manning's car climbed theirs, his bumper crashing through the windshield on the passenger side and flush into Lori Siegelman's face. Her survival was a miracle. The front of Manning's car shattered almost every bone in her face, knocked out 17 teeth, and crushed her left eye. Siegelman suffered minor injuries, and one of the dogs was killed.
It was six weeks before Lori Siegelman could return home from the hospital, and then, with a glass eye. She eventually regained her health and both the couple's children were born after the wreck.
In years to come, as attorney general, lieutenant governor, then governor, Siegelman fought for stronger DUI laws.
* * *
Cal Franklin met Siegelman in the 1970s and the Democratic Party chief made a big impression on the teenager. In the mid-80s, Franklin took a break from his job editing a weekly paper to join Siegelman's campaign for attorney general. Franklin served a position known in politics as "the body man," whose job it is to "make sure the candidate gets where he's supposed to be," Franklin said.
"I enjoyed my relationship with Siegelman. He instilled a work ethic in me that still carries on. There's nobody that works harder than Don Siegelman. We were like daylight to dark, and his schedule was meticulous. He had his appointments down to every 15 to 30 minutes, the drive time, how long we were going to stay there - he taught me about organization in that 1986 race," Franklin said.
Excerpted from The Governor of Goat Hill by Eddie Curran Copyright © 2009 by Eddie Curran. Excerpted by permission.
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