Political leaders saddened by news of sentencing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 30, 2007

DEMOPOLIS &8212; Local reaction to the sentencing of former Gov. Don Siegelman and fired HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy was gloomy Friday.

Coplin said he didn&8217;t know if the he agreed that the sentencing was fair, saying he didn&8217;t know all of the facts and, therefore, should not make a judgment.

Coplin said he expects the appeals process to be interesting.

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Siegelman and Scrushy spent their first day in custody Friday at the federal prison in Atlanta as their attorneys sought to free them while they appeal their bribery convictions.

Led from the courtroom, shackled and driven by U.S. marshals to Atlanta for processing and evaluation, the once-popular Democratic governor and multimillionaire executive will be assigned to a federal prison to serve their sentences.

While U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller rejected a Thursday night bid to allow them to remain free on appeal, defense lawyers said they would turn to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with emergency bids to free them now and challenge their convictions.

Siegelman, 61, was sentenced to seven years and four months and Scrushy, 54, was sentenced to six years and 10 months in the federal bribery case.

Legal experts said the tough sentences and immediate imprisonment reflect a growing intolerance in federal courts for white-collar crimes and government corruption. Federal prosecutors also disputed speculation that Scrushy&8217;s conviction in Montgomery was payback for his stunning acquittal when tried in Birmingham on criminal charges in HealthSouth&8217;s $2.6 billion accounting fraud.

Attorneys for Siegelman filed notice in federal court in Montgomery Friday that they plan to appeal the former governor&8217;s conviction to the 11th circuit and said an emergency appeal to free them will be filed there next week.

Fuller on Friday turned down a motion filed by Scrushy asking that he be released on an appeal bond.

Aaron Beam, who was HealthSouth&8217;s first CFO and who served a three-month federal sentence after pleading guilty in the fraud, said he believes Scrushy is being punished partly because of the Birmingham case.

The U.S. Attorney in Birmingham, Alice Martin, denied that the two cases were related.

Siegelman and Scrushy were convicted last year of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud. The government claimed Siegelman appointed Scrushy to a hospital regulatory board in exchange for $500,000 in donations to Siegelman&8217;s 1999 campaign for a state lottery for education. Scrushy defense attorney Art Leach said Friday the appeal will argue in part there was no &8220;quid pro quo&8221; and no crime.

Siegelman also was convicted of obstruction of justice for trying to hide money given by a lobbyist for a motorcycle. The defense contends it was a legitimate transaction.

Legal experts said the stiff sentences and abrupt imprisonment is part of a pattern.

Wallance is a former assistant U.S. attorney who was one of the prosecutors in the ABSCAM investigation, which led to convictions of six U.S. congressmen and one senator. He said the sentences given to Siegelman and Scrushy were more severe than the punishment to the defendants in the ABSCAM investigation.

Federal prosecutor Steve Feaga said Siegelman and Scrushy were not treated unfairly and that Fuller did the right thing when he ordered them to prison.

He said there was no connection between Scrushy&8217;s sweeping acquittal in Birmingham and the Montgomery case. He said the original grand jury indictment in Montgomery was returned in May 2005, before the jury in Birmingham announced its verdict in the HealthSouth fraud case the next month. The Montgomery indictment was not unsealed and made public until that October.

Miami defense attorney Michael Pasano, a former federal prosecutor who defends white-collar crime cases, said the climate in court has gotten tougher for white-collar defendants like Siegelman and Scrushy.

In his 28-page motion rejected by Fuller no Friday, Leach said Scrushy should remain free on bond because his appeal will raise &8220;substantial questions&8221; that could result in his being released on appeal.

The motion raises several issues, which Leach said he believes could cause the conviction to be overturned on appeal, including accusations there was misconduct by jurors, who allegedly did research on the Internet and communicated by e-mail during the trial.

BOB JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer contributed to this report.