The Nation's Pulse

Alabama’s Sewer of Corruption

Democratic problems extend far beyond Washington.

By 5.24.06

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When we last examined Alabama's criminal justice system (here and here), several public officials had been indicted for allegedly misusing the public trust.

So far, jurors in Birmingham have found eight people and companies guilty of offering bribes to public officials to win $500,000 in no-bid contracts in Jefferson County's $3 billion sewer project. Only one public official, Chris McNair, was convicted in this phase of the trial for taking bribes, ranging from cash to lucrative gifts. Five other public officials or contractors had previously pled guilty to testify against the others.

A former Jefferson County Commissioner who oversaw the sewer project, McNair was convicted on one count of conspiracy and ten counts of receiving bribes. His indictment had shocked the Birmingham community. A small business owner, McNair was considered a conscientious public official who never exploited what everyone knew: he was the father of a little girl killed in the in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.

Federal judges are not bound by Alabama's mandatory minimum law, which would result in prison time. McNair is 80 now and it is not likely he'll be jailed, but fines and restitution are likely.

The winner at this stage of the trial is U.S. Attorney Alice Martin. The clear loser so far is Doug Jones, who defended McNair. A Bush appointee, Martin replaced Jones as U.S. Attorney. Ironically, Jones prosecuted the now elderly men who bombed the church and killed Denise McNair and the three other little girls.

Three retired sewer managers who are accused of taking bribes and the contractors who are accused of giving them money under the table are yet to be tried. Before the alleged bribes, it was estimated Jefferson County's sewer project would run about $1 billion. Now not only has the project cost tripled, so have sewer rates.

Down in Montgomery, the corruption trial has started for former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, his chief of staff and a cabinet official. Siegelman has been indicted for taking campaign contributions and gifts for doing favors, including accepting $500,000 from former Health South CEO Richard Scrushy in return for a seat on the board that makes decisions about hospital equipment.

Scrushy had previously been acquitted of cooking the books at HealthSouth. Always a big donor in the predominantly white community where he lives, Scrushy is finding fewer willing to accept his gifts now. He has built bridges to the black community and recently added Fred Gray to his defense team. Gray represented Montgomery bus objector Rosa Parks in 1955.

Amazingly for someone on trial for extortion, bribery and obstruction of justice, Siegelman is still a candidate in the June 6 Democratic primary. The trial might not be over by then.

A Mobile Register/University of South Alabama poll taken before the trial began showed Lieutenant Governor Lucy Baxley leading Siegelman 38 percent to 35 percent among likely Democratic voters, with 27 percent undecided. Siegelman leads overwhelmingly among poorer citizens, African Americans and those for whom high school is the highest level of schooling. Baxley leads among whites and those with education beyond high school. Not surprisingly, Siegelman trails Baxley badly in fundraising.

Siegelman maintains he is the victim of Republican prosecutors trying to harm his candidacy. His attorney has said that the prosecution is based on crooks and thieves. Yet they include a former Siegelman aide and a donor.

In principle, a Siegelman acquittal could catapult him to primary victory. He has had weeks of free media exposure and his name identification is almost 100 percent. Siegelman could tap into Democratic hatred of President George W. Bush.

In reality, though, polls show incumbent Republican Governor Bob Riley beating Siegelman easily, with a narrower lead over Baxley. If there really were a Republican conspiracy, the Siegelman trial would not have started until after the November election.

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About the Author

Mark G. Michaelsen writes frequently about public affairs.