MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Former Gov. Don Siegelman will be trying to convince a jury that he is innocent of corruption charges during the very weeks he is asking voters in the Democratic primary election to return him to office.
Siegelman is due to appear in federal court Monday for trial on bribery and other charges alleging he abused his power in schemes with Richard Scrushy, the former HealthSouth chief executive, and two members of his Cabinet.
In spite of the trial, Siegelman — who was governor from 1999 to 2003 — appears to have a fighting chance at the ballot box, said Merle Black, professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta. Statewide polls have shown Siegelman about even with his chief opponent, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley.
"For most politicians, being indicted would mean they wouldn't be making a serious political race," Black said. "His strategy seems to be to get a well-publicized acquittal right before the election. It might work in Alabama for the Democratic primary."
Siegelman has extremely high name recognition, having served as secretary of state, attorney general and lieutenant governor besides the executive post. He has promised, if elected, to fund education programs with a statewide lottery.
The former governor acknowledges that the outcome of his campaign will be in the hands of the jury.
"The most important vote is going to be the vote of those 12 people," he said.
Also on trial are Scrushy, who last year was acquitted of criminal charges stemming from accounting fraud at the Birmingham health services chain he founded; Siegelman's former chief of staff, Paul Hamrick; and former state transportation Director Mack Roberts.
Siegelman is accused, while governor, of accepting $500,000 in disguised contributions from Scrushy in return for appointing him to a state board that approves hospital construction projects, accepting almost $300,000 from two developers in return for favorable state action, soliciting $250,000 from a Montgomery businessman whose product was used by the state Transportation Department, and trying to hinder the federal investigation by writing a check to one of the developers.
Scrushy is accused of arranging the $500,000 in donations, Hamrick of getting money from a developer in return for state help. Roberts is accused of improperly using his state post to help Siegelman and a toll road operator.
Siegelman and Hamrick also are charged with racketeering.
In May 2004, a federal grand jury indicted Siegelman on charges of conspiring to rig bids on state Medicaid contracts while he was governor. A judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to continue with that case.
Thad Beyle, political science professor at the University of North Carolina, said Siegelman's predicament is unique.
"I can't recall anyone who's been in that much trouble and running at the same time," Beyle said. He said he expects Siegelman's legal troubles will make it hard for him to raise money and continue to wage an effective campaign.
It's true that the charges have made fundraising difficult, Siegelman said, and he is trailing the other major candidates for governor in contributions. Baxley had raised $384,000 in the most recent reporting period compared with Siegelman's $82,000, according to campaign finance records.
Still, he said he believes his campaign is in good shape, despite the fact that most of his days until the election will be spent in court.
Siegelman has promised to continue campaigning during the trial, saying he will attend meetings, greet workers at factory shift changes and participate in other campaign events that can be done at night, after court recesses for the day.
Chief prosecutor Louis Franklin said that the upcoming election would not effect his approach to the case and that Siegelman's candidacy was not a factor in seeking the indictment last October.
"The timing had nothing to do with him running for office," Franklin said. "We got the indictment as quick as we could."
The primary is June 6. U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller has told jurors the trial could last four to six weeks.
Five other minor Democratic candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination in the primary. On the Republican side, Gov. Bob Riley faces former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
Siegelman is not the first Alabama governor to be tried on criminal charges. Former Gov. Guy Hunt was forced to leave office in 1993 after an ethics conviction.