A House of Mirrors in Birmingham
After two court cases a piece, Don Siegelman and Richard Scrushy were sent to prison. Siegelman was the former governor of Alabama and Scrushy was the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of HealthSouth, the company he had founded, the company which made a meteoric rise from a handful of guys with an idea and virtually no capital to a achieving Fortune 500 status powered by the ill-used faith of investors and stockholders, only to slide down the other side of the mountain, having the stock fall to pennies a share after the FBI kicked in the doors, in March 2003.
On the way to sharing the defense table, in a courtroom, Scrushy and Siegelman have always been on a strange twisting ride that found them both going in and out and in and out of favor for very different reasons as both big business and politics are on a rollercoaster when it comes to perceptions and public opinion. This is particularly true now that the fortunes of public figures have become a spectator sport on an increasingly media-driven landscape. And both Scrushy and Siegelman found themselves subjected to external pressures and crusades that had them answering for things that may or may not have been their fault, or may or may not have been part of their agenda, or may or may not have been the end-result of the downside of their meteoric rides and the high expectations that went with them. In The House of Mirrors, many things look clear at least for a moment or two, but before the exit is reached, they refract into multiple images of what may or may not have happened, what may or may not have been true.
When Bill Massey, Scrushy’s former personal accountant was found shot to death a couple of miles from his office at the Scrushy compound, it put a shadow over the case that has lingered to this day. He was supposed to have been stealing from Scrushy who was supposed to have been stealing from HealthSouth. There were verified reports that Scrushy’s head of security at HealthSouth, and confidante, Jim Goodreau had been acquiring weapons, and in the aftermath of the fraud scandal, after Goodreau had been fired by HealthSouth, he was kept on by Scrushy who continued to pay his large salary. And coupled with the seemingly illogic paranoia of people associated with the Scrushy’s and ex-employees of HealthSouth, of stories about the depths Scrushy would go when he was cornered or when was confronted with bad news, there have always been questions about the how far Scrushy’s HealthSouth-era depravity would go, and if his charisma, that radiated outward from his core supporters, translated into far-reaching power. But on the other hand, Massey’s death was ruled a suicide, a plausible end for a thief and an adulterer, and in the mish-mash trial of Richard Scrushy for fraud, the jurors reached the only logical conclusion in front of them. The House of Mirrors.
The defense claimed a stunning victory, and it was indeed masterful in it’s design and execution, but at the same time, the prosecution could not have assembled a more disorganized team of career prosecutors, who when they were not busy clashing with the local US Attorney, were making repeated inept mistakes and annoying Karon Bowdry, a homegrown inexperienced judge. But in The House of Mirrors, what did the prosecutors have to work with and how much evidence did they really have on Scrushy? There was no question, either before the fraud was exposed, during the investigation or in the aftermath, that the management of HealthSouth was out of control, that the company was hemorrhaging money; and that the high-level managers were involved in an elaborate scheme to “borrow” a little money to prop-up their numbers, money they thought they would be able to put back before anyone noticed. But was Scrushy, a successful manager of a small healthcare company, delusional and incompetent when he was riding on the back of the HealthSouth behemoth. And in the House of Mirrors, did the big-money financiers who were populating the HealthSouth Board have any responsibility to reign in the out of control management, or did their obsession with the bottom line and their own investments give free license to the company to spin out of control. In the end, it wasn’t clear if Scrushy did it or didn’t do it, but about the only thing that came into focus was the tag-team brick wall the defense put up to face down the prosecutions flailing at the air and trying to parlay “Fix it,” into a nearly $3 billion fraud. When his non-conviction flung Scrushy into the same orbit with Siegelman, the very nature of American justice would be reflected in the mirrors. Do we put people in jail because we don’t like them, because they are unlikeable or un-trustworthy, because they made money from a business while other people suffered losses attributed to out-of-control business practices; or should jail only be for those whom it can be proved have broken legal statutes. But which is it anyway? One side or the other side or both?
Ahead of the first trial, there was also the business of deposed CEO Scrushy joining an African American Church, and subsequently spreading money around in various local churches. Was this a cynical attempt to influence the jury by playing the race card in the mostly African-American community, or was the recently unemployed Scrushy just reintensifying his earlier faith, perhaps encouraged by his preacher’s daughter wife. This might have been The House of Mirror’s lightening rod because the possibilities flip-flop back and forth between the real, the imagined and depraved cynicism. Scrushy would certainly not be the first to have a jail-house conversion, accepting Jesus a few ticks after he was caught and facing trial although he may have been the first to seemingly steep his conversion in a calculated ethnic choice. But faith is in the heart of the believer. In the four years since he found solace in the church and became a preacher, he has steadfastly built a ministry with his wife, and many people would say that his faith is the real thing. Could it have been both: Initially driven by a utilitarian purpose but evolving into a heart-felt calling and dreams of a wider ministry?
After his initial church-jumping activities, Scrushy’s conversion further raised eyebrows when he broadcast religious-themed shows in both of the markets where he would coincidentally be standing trial, and these shows were on television stations owned by his son-in-law. Regardless of what his motivations actually are, some people will always believe that they are dark and sinister because appearances matter. Even for true believers who squint into the mirrors, it is hard to ignore appearances or to forget faith-denying memories that suggest a completely different Richard Scrushy. But both the bible and history are full of stories of people who took a circuitous route to faith, and were not only able to perform good works in spite of their past, but were even able to accomplish great things because of the route they took to the pulpit. On the other hand, every jail and prison has a share of murders, rapists and thieves who’s true-belief dates back to their crime or incarceration. However it was manifested, the nature of Scrushy’s religious convictions and the timing of his interactions with the African-American churches would be a backdrop to both of his trials, and would offer either side an easily accessible fast-track to clarity, either as proof of his goodness or proof of his evil intentions. But there is also evidence that Scrushy’s involvement with the African-American churches may have been only part of a deeper but more subtle plan. Donald Watson, one of Scrushy’s attorneys and his chief legal image-czar had his finger on the pulse of Alabama sensitivities and the post-OJ/post-CourtTV methods of American Justice. Scrushy may not have played the race card as much as he played the Alabama card, and government attorneys Richard Weidis, Colleen Conry and Richard Smith never had much of a chance in Birmingham. As crystal clear as it is to some the last three years have proved that nothing is all that clear in The House of Mirrors.
Whereas Scrushy’s legal team pulled off a masterpiece of criminal defense, in the fraud trial; when the wheel took another spin and Scrushy was named in another indictment, it was the DOJ’s turn to execute a masterstroke. Grafting Scrushy onto the five year odyssey to bring down former governor Siegelman was a solution to all of the government’s problems. They could piggy back the public’s angst and anger over Scrushy’s acquittal into a single case that could: a) [Finally] Get Siegelman; b) Get Scrushy and have the Middle District of Alabama accomplish what the Northern District had failed to do; c) Appease a public still seething over Scrushy’s acquittal; d) And if they’re lucky, have the public ignore the political overtones and the dearth of evidence in the case, in the Siegelman matter, allowing their sense of justice and unfinished business to override their beliefs in fairness and the American System of justice that says we don’t put people in jail because we don’t like them, believe in them or are otherwise offended by them.