Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was charged with bribery and sent to prison because, prosecutors said, a wealthy hospital executive gave him $500,000 in exchange for appointing him to a state hospital planning board. But this half-million-dollar “bribe” did not enrich Siegelman. Instead, the disputed money was a contribution to help fund a statewide referendum on whether Alabama should have a state lottery to support education, a pet cause of the governor’s. The Supreme Court is set to decide as soon as Monday whether to hear Siegelman’s final appeal, which raises a far-reaching question: Is a campaign contribution a bribe if a politician agrees to do something in return, or is it to be expected that politicians will do favors for their biggest supporters?
Prominent election law experts and more than 100 former state attorneys general have urged the justices to review Siegelman’s case. They say the law in this area is hazy, with the result that aggressive prosecutors can bring charges against political enemies. Siegelman was the rare Democrat who could win in Alabama. He had also won election as Alabama’s secretary of state, attorney general and lieutenant governor. But his career ended when Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys charged him with corruption. Siegelman’s supporters noted that Leura Canary, the U.S. attorney in Montgomery, was the wife of William Canary, a prominent GOP operative and an ally of Karl Rove, PresidentGeorge W. Bush’s chief political strategist.