BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It was a homecoming befitting a returning hero. On February 8th, 2017, former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman descended the escalator at the Birmingham airport to the cheers and hugs of family and friends. More than one person shouted a "welcome home" to Siegelman. He was hugged multiple times.
That wasn't however, a victory homecoming. Don Siegelman came home to Alabama after 6 years in a federal prison. He was there because of a conviction on corruption charges. "I'm glad to be back," said Siegelman on that day in 2017.
Now that more than a year has passed Don Siegelman appears to be a man at ease. These days he spends much of his day at an office in downtown Birmingham. Among other things, he's working on a book. He says it's essentially the story of how he became who he is today.
That office is where we sat down for a one on one interview with the former Governor. It was just three days before he had to have emergency heart surgery. On the day we spoke, the 71-year-old looked trim and healthy.
He also looked happy, as he told us his life since getting out of prison, is good. "Well, it's like a birthday present. It's like you know, an anniversary where you, where one celebrates. Whether it's a marriage or a birthday. So yeah, it's a good feeling to have that behind me. Being home with family, my daughter is here, my son is here, my wife, my dog is here. It's the first time we've been together as a family since my daughter graduated from high school. It's really been a blessed experience for me. It's probably one of the best times in my life," said Siegelman
Of course, the only man to be elected in Alabama to the Secretary of State, Attorney General, Lt. Governor and Governor's office hasn't forgotten his time in prison. He was prosecuted after accepting a $500,000 contribution to his campaign for a state lottery. That money came from former Health South Executive Richard Scrushy, and in exchange for the money, Scrushy was played on an influential state hospital board. Scrushy would also go to prison in this case.
For Siegelman, there would be an appeal and a lessening of his sentence, but he remains a convicted felon. We asked him if he was guilty. "Well of course, I say I'm innocent. There is no evidence," said Siegelman. He added, "This is the first time in the history of American jurisprudence that anyone has been sent to prison for a bribe, where I did not benefit by a single penny."
The former Governor cites problems with the judge in the case, and the main witness against him. He mentions other irregularities. He brings up a petition from more than 113 former state's Attorney's General that his conviction was wrong. Make no mistake, Don Siegelman isn't happy with what happened. It did happen though, and he was punished.
We asked him if his time in prison did anything to him? Was he traumatized? Does he have any emotional scars? "I was in a high school fraternity and we had to go through initiation. I was in a college fraternity and we had to go through an initiation. I was in boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base, and we had to go through that initiation. I knew what was going on, the guard yelling and making demands and things like that. Those things I understood. it was part of the process and you know, just dealt with it," said Siegelman.
No smiles from the Governor as he talks about handling prison life, but there is a moment of satisfaction when he talks about what he received from his time behind bars. "It was like God said to me, Okay...Governor, you've seen what is wrong, now do something about it," said Siegelman. He believes the problem is recidivism, repeat offenders.
His new passion is working to change that. Working with officials on a Federal and state level to fix the problem. "It's societies best and last chance when you are dealing with someone who is likely to commit another crime. So we need to start the day a person enters prison, working with them to teach them life skills, math skills, language skills, job skills," said Siegelman.
Once his book is finished, Don Siegelman says the work will begin in earnest on changing the criminal justice system. He also has plans to travel and thank all the people who have supported him over the years. He wants to spend more time with his family. He definitely wants to live in the present. "You know, look...I'm blessed. We're all blessed, I feel like I'm over blessed. An old friend of mine, Colonel Stone Johnson, who was Reverend Shuttlesworth's bodyguard, told me...when you're blessed by the best, you don't worry about the mess. So I haven't been worried about the mess," said Siegelman.
The mess is what he considers the past several years, and now he's thinking of the future. According to a family member, he is recovering nicely from his heart surgery. He'll likely be back in his office working on his book in the very near future, and of course, getting ready to work on reforming the criminal justice system.