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Justices reject former Alabama governor’s appeal on bribery charge

By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman’s challenge to his bribery conviction, preserving rulings that say prosecutors and jurors can decide when a favor linked to a campaign contribution amounts to a bribe.

Monday’s decision means Siegelman is likely to be sent back to prison. In 2007, a judge in Alabama sentenced him to seven years, but he was released a year later to appeal his conviction.

He had won the support of more than 100 former top state attorneys as well as prominent election law experts. They had urged the court to hear his case and to clarify the line between a legal campaign contribution and an illegal bribe.

In the past, the high court has said that the process of seeking campaign contributions is protected by the First Amendment. But the law has also allowed officials to be prosecuted if they make an “explicit promise” to take action as a reward for a campaign contribution.

In Siegelman’s case, jurors agreed with prosecutors that the governor had appointed a wealthy hospital executive to a state hospital board as a reward for his $500,000 contribution to a campaign fund backing a statewide education lottery. Siegelman supported the lottery proposal, which voters rejected.

Siegelman’s lawyers disputed the bribery charge and said none of the campaign money had enriched the governor.

Former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams called the court’s decision “most unfortunate. … Overzealous prosecutors with questionable motivations will be able to indict and convict officials who appoint people to non-salaried boards, ambassadorships and other positions.”

Richard Scrushy, the founder and chief executive of HealthSouth, had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to several Republican governors, who in turn had appointed him to the hospital board. When Siegelman, a Democrat, was elected, aides to the two men met and reportedly agreed the new governor expected similar support from Scrushy.

A week after Scrushy wrote a $250,000 check to support the lottery campaign, Siegelman reappointed him to the hospital board. The U.S. attorney in Montgomery, Ala., charged both Scrushy and Siegelman with bribery, and they were convicted in 2007.

Siegelman said in a statement, “My heart is broken. Not for me, but for my family and friends who have stood by me during this struggle. … I pray that something positive will come of this in our future.”

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