No one should be charged without evidence

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 14, 2004

Commentary by Hank Sanders

I was sitting on the dais during a luncheon at Tuskegee University, waiting to give the keynote speech at a health conference when the cell phone vibrated. The cell phone number of Former Gov. Don Siegelman flashed. Even though it was embarrassing to talk on the cell phone sitting in front of every one, I answered.

“Hello,” I whispered. “This is Don,” the voice said in a strong confident tone; “I just wanted you to know the Government moved to dismiss all the remaining charges and the judge granted the motion with prejudice.” I said, “I’m so glad for you, Lori and the children.” We did not talk long, but it was a memorable moment. I thought, “No one should be burdened with a criminal indictment unless there is real evidence.”

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For me, this saga began one day in late May. An FBI agent and an investigator from the Office of the Alabama Attorney General came by my law office in Selma. Among the questions asked was the following: Did Governor Don Siegelman ask you to put $550,000 for the Fire College in the Education Budget?” My response was “No.” They then posed the same question about Siegelman’s former Chief of Staff, Paul Hamrick, Senator Phil Poole and lobbyist Amy Herring. My response to each of the follow-up questions was “No.” I thought that was the end of the matter.

Several days later, I received a phone call from Sharon Wheeler informing me that Siegelman and Hamrick had been indicted by a federal grand jury in Birmingham. The aforementioned $550,000 was at the heart of the charge. I immediately called Siegelman and Hamrick. I did not get Siegelman, but I did get Hamrick. Paul said, “I didn’t know it. I haven’t done anything illegal; I am innocent.” In a couple of hours, the indictment became public, confirming the earlier message. I thought, “No one should be charged with a criminal indictment without real evidence.”

The FBI agent and state investigator had specifically asked me about two items in the budget of the Fire College at Shelton State Community College, one for $200,000 and the other for $352,800. After they explained their interest, I told them that these two items could not possibly be the $550,000 because: (1) both amounts had been in the Education Budget the previous year under the EMS (Emergency Management Service) line item; and (2) each was clearly earmarked for a specific purpose. I further explained that the Examiner of Public Accounts would not allow earmarked money to be moved around without serious consequences. Others involved in the budget process told them the same thing. They were so determined that this was the $550,000 that they could not really hear us. No one should be charged with a criminal indictment without real evidence.

Many leaders, Democrats and Republicans, voiced suspicions about the indictments. Concern increased as judge after judge was forced to recuse him/her self from the case through open attacks. Finally, Judge U.W. Clemon was selected by lot as the fourth judge on the case.

I watched as intense and repeated efforts were waged to also remove Judge Clemon. I knew if Judge Clemon had a conflict, he would quickly remove himself. If he did not, he would not recuse himself no matter how much he was attacked. He is ramrod straight, brilliant of mind and has the courage of his convictions.

As I talked to people knowledgeable of the legal and legislative processes, it was clear to me that the Government would have an almost impossible challenge in making their case stick against Siegelman and Hamrick. No one should be charged by criminal indictment without real evidence.

I was told that the Government did not intend to call me as a witness. I did, however, receive a subpoena from lawyers for Siegelman and Hamrick. When Judge Clemon threw out the substantive count about the $550,000 well before trial, I thought I would not have to testify. However, I was informed that my testimony might still be needed.

I should not have talked with the FBI and state investigator because when I saw a written summary of what they claimed I said, I was surprised. At the time, however, I did what too many do: I figured the following: (1) I knew for certain that I had not done anything illegal; and, (2) I felt certain no one else had done anything illegal with the Education Budget. I viewed the agents’ questions as fishing expeditions. Now, I realize that the indictments must have already been decided before these agents talked to me. No one should be charged by criminal indictment without real evidence.

The phone call revealed a triumphal Don Siegelman. Yet he and Paul Hamrick have paid very high prices. They and their families have suffered. Attorney fees costing hundreds of thousands of dollars were incurred. Political and other careers may be forever impacted. No one should be charged by criminal indictment unless there is real evidence. In my opinion, there was never such evidence in this case.

EPILOGUE – When we are indicted or otherwise charged, most people presume we are guilty. Even after a verdict of not guilty, the presumption of guilt still lingers. That’s one more reason why no one should bring a criminal indictment on flimsy evidence.