Like so many national stories these days, the deepening scandal surrounding the Bush administration's unforgivable politicization of the U.S. Department of Justice seems to pass Georgia right by.
While reporters and public officials in most of the rest of the nation look for the local "angle" on the news that the Bush White House and its political appointees at Justice tried to turn the nation's national law enforcement agency into a tool of political campaigning, the conduct of the Bush Justice Department here in Georgia has received little scrutiny. That should change.
Next door in Alabama, a political storm is raging as the national press corps and congressional investigators take a microscope to the federal prosecution that put former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman in prison. Federal prosecutors convicted Siegelman of taking a bribe, and former HealthSouth Chief Executive Richard Scrushy was convicted of paying it. The charges that led to Siegelman's and Scrushy's convictions were based on allegations that Siegelman had reappointed Scrushy to an unpaid post on a health-related state board and had received a $500,000 contribution from Scrushy for his failed campaign to pass a 1999 referendum allowing a state lottery.
What really got the scandal juices flowing about the Alabama matter is the possible involvement of Karl Rove, who until earlier this year was President Bush's right-hand man. Rove took a special interest in Alabama, working with several Republican candidates there, and at one point in the 1990s went so far as to open a branch office of his political consulting firm in Montgomery.
According to sworn affidavits signed by a Republican lawyer who participated in conference calls on the matter with Republican operatives, Rove, at the request of family members and political associates of current Republican Gov. Bob Riley, leaned on Justice Department officials to indict Siegelman before the 2006 gubernatorial election. Riley had defeated Siegelman by an eyelash in 2002 and viewed a planned comeback bid by Siegelman as the toughest challenge to his re-election.
Not surprisingly, the Bush administration and Alabama Republicans vehemently deny any improper mixing of federal prosecutions and politics and say that a jury heard the evidence and decided there was an illegal quid pro quo between Siegelman and Scrushy.
What's happening in Alabama should be raising eyebrows here in Georgia. As you may recall, it was reported last year that our Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Atlanta mega-developer Stan Thomas to the powerful state Board of Economic Development. There is no dispute that the board seat is of great value to Thomas, who speculates in land and tries to build upscale, huge retail and residential complexes in areas with growing, affluent populations. His seat on the board gives him an inside, early look at the state's development plans and no doubt gives his real estate bets better odds.
Applying the Siegelman-Scrushy standard to the Perdue-Thomas relationship, it is hard to imagine why the U.S. Justice Department, namely Atlanta-based U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, is not closely scrutinizing it. Thomas and his development companies have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Perdue and the state Republican Party (through which Perdue funded much of his re-election campaign). Perdue uses Thomas's fleet of aircraft practically as a private air force. To top it off, Thomas carved off a piece of land inside a massive development he's building near Disney World in Orlando and sold it to Perdue as an investment opportunity.
So, in short, Perdue gives Thomas a seat on the Economic Development Board, giving him a leg up on making money in real estate. Thomas gives Perdue hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash, the use of Thomas' airplanes and helicopters and a sweetheart chance to invest in one of Thomas' gigantic developments near Disney World.
Siegelman got seven years in the slammer for what he did. If the Bush Justice Department, as it claims, was not playing politics in pursuing the Siegelman prosecution, then Perdue's relationship with Thomas at least bears a thorough investigation, if not a chance for a jury to decide whether an illegal quid pro quo was going on here in Georgia.
Let's not forget that Bush and Co. have taken a special interest in the rise of Republicanism here in Georgia. Many Georgia Republicans have had prominent roles in the Bush administration, and the president campaigned vigorously for Perdue and Sen. Saxby Chambliss in 2002, even when both were considered underdogs against Democratic incumbents.
If Rove's special interest in Alabama could lead the Bush White House to demand the prosecution of the state's most prominent Democrat, couldn't the same sentiment lead to the improper protection from scrutiny of Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction?
Maybe, and maybe not. But the total silence from Nahmias certainly means someone should be asking questions.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org