Dominating the discussion at this weekend's Netroots Nation conference in Austin was the urgent need to restore the rule of law now under withering assault by the Bush administration. From the suspension of habeas corpus and detainee torture to warrantless wiretapping and the politicization of the Justice Department, session after session detailed the unaccountable lawlessness of the Bush White House. And to be sure, no speaker made that case more personally than former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.
Siegelman, sentenced to 7 years in prison on trumped-up bribery charges brought by the Rove-directed DOJ, came to Netroots Nation with a simple message. Just days after Bush's Brain was a no-show before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter, Siegelman insisted Congress must hold Rove in contempt:
"If you believe all roads lead to Rove, this is the shortest route to get there."
On Friday, I had the opportunity to catch up with Governor Siegelman after his main-stage interview with Air America Radio host Sam Seder. Throughout our conversation, Siegelman was clear about the stakes:
"This is not about Don Siegelman. It's about restoring justice and protecting our democracy."
No doubt, Siegelman's tale is a horror story. Seder detailed the ten-year war waged by Karl Rove and the Alabama Republican Party against the Democratic Governor dating back to the mid-1990s. After denying his 2002 reelection courtesy of election night ballot counting irregularities, the U.S. attorney's office in Alabama finally succeeded in prosecuting Siegelman in 2006. (Back in February, CBS 60 Minutes detailed the case, involving businessman Richard Scrushy's appointment to a state board after his contribution to a state education lottery fund.) His legal fees have already reached a staggering $2.5 million.
For his part, Siegelman believes the issue in his case is "the preservation of our democracy" which "cannot exist if the government can prosecute people they don't like." And one of his greatest challenges has been getting the American people to come to grips with a seemingly unimaginable nightmare scenario:
"No one wants to believe the President lied to get into war, that elections can manipulated or stolen, and that the Department of Justice was used as a political weapon. People just don't want to believe it."
But with the growing outcry over his case, revulsion over Rove's snubbing of Congress and the launch of his new web site ContemptforRove.com, Siegelman sees a tipping point at hand. "We're getting really close to getting this cracked open," he said. Thanks in part to "pressure coming from the blogs", Siegelman added, "the balloon is about to burst."
Surprisingly, Siegelman showed a grudging admiration for Karl Rove in much the same way one might respect a master thief. Bush's consigliere, Siegelman claimed, learned two critical lessons from Richard Nixon's experience during Watergate. First, "you don't need a secret unit in the White House" when you have the DOJ at your disposal. And second, as the missing Bush administration emails suggest, "you don't leave evidence around like Nixon did with the tapes."
Moving on from Rove's modus operandi, Siegelman insisted Congress needs to act and act now. Failing to hold Karl Rove in contempt immediately risks sending the "wrong message that some people are above the law." If people see that "Rove did it and he didn't get caught," the Governor warned, "it could become part of American political culture likely to happen again." And to get to the bottom of Rove's involvement in this episode and the broader prosecutor purge by Alberto Gonzales, Siegelman sees just one path:
"Congress is the only hope. It's the only place people can turn to give them the truth. They deserve to know what happened."
Last week, Rep. John Conyers' House Judiciary Committee rejected Karl Rove's assertion of executive privilege by a 7-1 vote. As Sam Seder suggested, to make that claim, Rove necessarily must have discussed the issues at the heart of the Committee inquiry with President Bush. When I pressed him on that point, Siegelman said simply, "only Karl Rove can answer the question."
Despite his conviction, his prison sentence and being initially branded on appeal as a "special prisoner" barred from out-of-state travel (a designation usually reserved for organized crime figures or potential terrorists) - despite it all - Don Siegelman sees signs of hope for his case and his country. "John Conyers has reaffirmed my faith," he said. He also praised House members Robert Wexler (D-FL), Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Republican Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) for their efforts to hold Rove and the Bush administration accountable. A bipartisan group of 54 state attorneys general signed a letter in his defense. Looking ahead, Siegelman believes not only that the "DOJ must be sacrosanct," but that it will be, provided we have "an attorney general and U.S. attorneys who see their duty to this country first, not a political party."
Still, time is running out. "The longer we wait, the less important" getting to the truth about the hijacking of the Justice Department will be to the American people consumed by the fall election, the slowing economy and the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Siegelman's liberty rests with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, he says ours depends on Capitol Hill. Sensing his own fierce urgency of now, Governor Don Siegelman issued a final call to action to pressure Congress:
"We've got Rove against the ropes. It's time to deliver the knockout punch. Bring him in and put him in a chair."