Dana Siegelman was once Alabama’s first daughter, but she will always be Don’s first daughter.
by Jesse Chambers, Photo by Liesa Cole
The media routinely shines klieg lights on the central players in legal and political scandals, people like former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and Birmingham health-care magnate Richard Scrushy, who were convicted of bribery and other charges in 2006 and sentenced in 2007.
Less attention is paid to the friends and family members of those central players and the collateral damage they face.
Siegelman’s wife Lori, daughter Dana and son Joseph have certainly paid a heavy price for the former Democratic governor’s legal travails — facing financial problems, depression and even strained relationships with friends and family members.
“Joseph and I went through depression when dad was sentenced the first time [in 2007] and dragged away to prison,” Dana told Joan Brunwasser at opednews.com in August. “We lost our faith in government, particularly the Justice Department. We worried about our mom, and we felt ashamed to really show our faces in Alabama. It helped that I lived overseas and out of state for most of it.”
I met Dana recently at a coffee shop in Five Points South to hear more about the effect of her father’s case on her and her brother, her arguments for her father’s innocence and her online campaign to have him exonerated by President Obama (www.free-don.org).
She and other defenders of her father allege that he was wrongfully convicted by politically motivated Republican judges and prosecutors acting on orders from George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove. But regardless of your opinions about Don Siegelman, his guilt or innocence, or any Republican conspiracy to take down a popular Democratic politician, this outspoken young woman’s story is compelling.
I met Dana in mid-September, only two days after Dana, Joseph and Lori drove Don to Oakdale federal prison in Louisiana.
First, some background:
Siegelman’s legal problems began with a May 2004 indictment on corruption charges. The judge threw out most of the evidence, and prosecutors dropped the case, but the former governor’s problems were just beginning.
He was indicted on bribery and other charges, this time in connection with an alleged deal with Scrushy, in October 2005.
A federal jury found Siegelman and Scrushy guilty on several counts in June 2006, finding that the former governor sold the HealthSouth CEO a seat on a state hospital board in exchange for $500,000 in donations to Siegelman’s campaign to create a state lottery to fund college educations for Alabama residents.
Both men were sentenced in 2007, with Scrushy completing his sentence and being released in July 2012. Siegelman served nine months of an 88-month sentence before being released in March 2008 on appeal.
An appeals court threw out some of the charges against Siegelman, hence the need for another sentencing hearing in August 2012.
U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller sentenced Siegelman to spend almost six more years in prison, in addition to the nine months he had already served.
The politician’s daughter is now in fight mode. “I’ve had five years to be depressed and sad and to leave my hope with the U.S. government, and when that didn’t work, anger took over, and that anger needs to be channeled into productivity and positive outcomes,” Dana says.
She strongly defends her father. “There could be a new trial based solely on misconduct by the judge, prosecution and jury,” Dana says, referring to Fuller, a Republican appointee, who the Siegelmans and others sympathetic to their case say was biased against Siegelman and other Democrats, to federal prosecutors who had ties to Siegelman’s political rivals, and to alleged improper contacts between the prosecutors and the jury.
“But the significant point is that what he was charged with has never been a crime in this country,” she says. “He was charged with an implied quid pro quo… an inferred bribe. There was no explicit proof of a bribe, yet the judge and the prosecution allowed the jury to infer that a bribe took place.”
She adds, “There was no proof of enrichment [or] an enrichment scheme.”
She says her dad’s case “raises a red flag because it sets a precedent that anyone donating to any political candidate seeking to benefit in any way, whether there is an explicit agreement for self-enrichment, could be prosecuted.”
Dana hopes that President Obama, should he be re-elected, will pardon her father. She also hopes that Obama will appoint a non-partisan “truth commission” to investigate what she calls the many “political prosecutions” of Democratic office-holders by Republican U.S. Attorneys during the Bush administration.
According to Dana, now 27 years old, her father had money put aside to pay for tuition for Dana and her younger brother, Joseph, now 24. “He always told us we could go to school wherever we wanted,” Dana says. However, the former governor’s legal costs intervened.
“Our college fund was wiped dry my freshman year,” says Dana, who was 19 and a freshman at California State University at Long Beach at the time of Siegelman’s May 2004 indictment.
Fortunately for Dana and, eventually, Joseph, who was only 16 at the time, they were both able to earn scholarships. Dana nearly moved back to Alabama to attend UAB but was able to establish California residency and obtain a state scholarship in time for her junior year in 2005. Joseph attended the University of Alabama, where he now attends law school, on a presidential scholarship,
Dana earned a degree in communication studies at CSULB, then a Master’s in international relations with an emphasis on the Middle East at Cambridge. She later moved to Cairo to pursue a Master’s in Middle East studies at the American University but has put that degree on hold because of her dad’s case.
The ordeal has taught the governor’s kid some lessons about human nature. “It’s amazing how many people think that politicians are not human,” Dana says. “I’ve gotten comment after comment… ‘Well, if he’s a politician, he must be corrupt,’ which is sad. It discourages good people from going into politics, thinking that the word ‘politician’ comes with such a negative tone.”
She says that some people even dehumanized her and Joseph. “A lot of people just saw us as politician’s kids and not as human beings who were persecuted and threatened and embarrassed and hurt, which was disappointing, but a good learning experience for me,” she says.
The scandal also affected some of Dana’s friendships. As the scandal broke, she did not hear from some of her Alabama friends. She took solace in the fact that she had developed relationships with people in California who knew her as an individual, not a politician’s daughter. They were people, Dana says, “Who loved me as I was, and didn’t know anything regarding the case until I had to tell them.”
Beliefs about the case and her father’s culpability among members of her extended family have been interesting to track the last few years, according to Dana. “There are people in my family who’ve never stopped to research the case, because… people don’t have time for this, so they chose to believe that dad was guilty, but they loved him anyway,” she says.
Dana says that some of these family members have come to view the case differently. “It’s interesting now to see their disposition change,” she says. “It’s almost like they have five years of apologizing to do, and they’re just coming back into my life and my mom’s and brother’s life. ‘We wish we had known earlier that you had been railroaded.’ She adds, “It’s incredible and wonderful, and I’m so grateful, but it is almost overwhelming.”
The effort to free her father from jail is “very much a family affair this time,” according to Dana. She credits Joseph with putting his legal training to work. Her brother, she says, is a “huge asset” as he helps her write letters and sifts through court transcripts for hints of misconduct by the judge or jury or prosecutor, for what she calls “things that don’t line up in the transcript but should he appealable.”
Dana described the drive to Oakdale with her father, which included a stop for a final lunch at Newk’s in Tuscaloosa. “Anybody who knows my dad knows that he’s really goofy and is always trying to put people at ease, so the trip down was relatively enjoyable, because Dad was in the car cracking jokes and keeping us all entertained and assuring us that everything would be OK,” she says.
The light atmosphere would not last, however. “As soon as we dropped him off, his absence was so heavy that we literally couldn’t say a word to each other for about four hours,” Dana says. “We sat in silence.”
Dana describes the feel of those last few minutes the family spent together outside the prison. “Silence, everybody in quiet meditation in themselves,” she says. “Dad, when he walked across the lawn to the prison, we were still in the parking lot watching him, and he turned slowly and waved, then he turned around slowly and blew kisses, then walked inside.”
Dana hopes a freshly re-elected Obama will let Don out of jail, thereby allowing her to return to academic life in Cairo. “God willing, I will return to the Middle East and continue my degree in January, after Dad is exonerated,” she says. She is also applying to PhD programs in political science or Middle East studies and wants to teach.
As for Joseph, Dana says, “He would like to pursue opportunities out of state, but admits that leaving his mother alone would be incredibly difficult if our dad is still in prison.”
I asked whether she and the former governor’s other supporters have received any inkling, any hint, as to whether Obama would be predisposed to pardon her dad. “There’s no way to know,” she admits. “We have not spoken to the President.”
What if nothing works and her dad has to serve his sentence? “I will camp out in front of the White House, and people will see my face, and they will know my name,” she says. “This is so much bigger than about my Dad, [with] the judge benefiting in defense contracts from the war on terror.”
She is referring to allegations found on liberal blogs and other outlets that Judge Fuller, while still on the bench, had an interest in an aviation company that received no-bid contracts from such federal agencies as the Department of Defense.
“If you think I am going to lie down and serve under that judge’s verdict, you’re wrong,” Dana says. “I believe Americans deserve better and are better. Prejudice in the courtroom has to end.” She also says, “I won’t stop informing people about what’s happened to my father.
Sidebar: Dana Siegelman / Karl Rove
Dana Siegelman, as part of her efforts to win freedom for her father, accompanied him and her brother to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., from September 3-6.
While at the Time Warner Cable Arena, site of the DNC, Siegelman had a sudden, unexpected encounter with the powerful Republican that she and other supporters of her father allege played a role in his conviction and imprisonment on corruption charges.
It was Karl Rove, who served as a senior advisor and deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush and was at the DNC working as an analyst for the Fox News Network.
Siegelman told me that just before she encountered Rove, she had an odd feeling of anticipation. “Do you ever feel that something’s going to happen, and you know you’re in the right place at the right time to make something happen?” she asked.
She was standing in a hallway or concourse waiting for a media person — a young man, she said, also named Carl — who had spoken to her on the phone and wanted to introduce her father to some other people.
While she waited for Carl, Don and Joseph were over against the wall charging their cell phones.
It was then that chance or fate brought her face to face with Rove, viewed by many liberals as the nearly demonic mastermind of all sorts of Republican mischief.
“From the arena floor, here come Karl Rove with his security, and I just knew that this was my moment,” Siegelman told me.
“I smiled at him, and he probably thought I was a reporter, and when I stuck out my hand, he probably thought I was trying to get an interview, because otherwise why would he talk to me if he thought I was a member of the Democratic Party or something” Siegelman said.
“I stuck out my hand and said, ‘I’m Dana Siegelman, Don Siegelman’s daughter,’ and his disposition changed immediately,” she said. “He got really angry really fast. At the same time that he was trying to get away from me, he was yelling at me, and pointing his finger in my face, so much so that I could smell his breath. He said, ‘I have a message for your father. You tell your father to stop using my name to make money or I’m going to press charges.’ “
Siegelman said she had to process Rove’s reaction. “I was kind of shocked and weirded out by that comment, so I had to stop and think about it,” she said. “I didn’t really have anything to say. And he was also running away from me, so I decided not to chase him, because that would have been silly.”
Upon reflection, Siegelman said she believed that Rove was “projecting” when he accused her dad of using his name to make money, at least in part, she says, because “everything [Rove] does is about making money.”
Siegelman says that in Rove’s book — Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (2010) — he included a chapter about her father in which Rove tried to defend himself against allegations that he targeted the Alabama Democrat.
”And he does a horrible job doing so,” she says. “It makes him sound more guilty, because it makes it sound more important — his involvement in this whole affair — and the fact that he says he wasn’t involved doesn’t work, so that’s why he had to say, ‘I’m not guilty of anything.’”
She adds, “He’s capitalized on Dad’s name.”
While at the DNC, Siegelman, her father and her brother spoke to members of the press, convention delegates, and other members of the party in order to raise awareness regarding the former governor’s plight.
According to Siegelman, she, Don and Joseph received what she called “a brilliant reception” at the DNC. “These people are very aware of the political prosecutions taking place” she said. “Many, many of these senators and governors and congressmen and women have been investigated, threatened, some indicted and prosecuted, and some were convicted.”
She added, “Not a single person shunned away from us.”