We’ve written a couple of times about the 60 Minutes story last Sunday that claimed former Alabama governor Don Siegelman was the victim of a Republican conspiracy that sent him to prison for bribery and mail fraud. The story implicitly accused the career prosecutors who handled the case of complicity in the alleged conspiracy, but the real focus of CBS’s account was Karl Rove. The network’s star witness was a small-time Alabama lawyer named Jill Simpson, who claimed she was a life-long Republican, but had stepped forward to tell what she knew about events in 2001 and 2002.
The centerpiece of Simpson’s account, as presented on 60 Minutes, was her claim that she did “opposition research” for the Republican Party in Alabama at the request of Karl Rove. She said that in 2001, while Siegelman was still governor, Rove asked her to follow Siegelman around and try to get photos of the Governor in bed (“in a compromising sexual position”) with one of his female aides. Not only that: Simpson said that this request by Rove didn’t surprise her, because Rove had asked her to carry out other secret missions in the past.
Put aside for a moment the inherent stupidity of this account. CBS aired it without disclosing the fact that Simpson has told her story several times before–without mentioning that she had ever met or spoken to Karl Rove, let alone that he asked her to spy for him.
Simpson first came to public attention last summer, when she signed an affidavit about a conversation that she allegedly had with Rob Riley, son of soon-to-be Republican Governor Bob Riley and several others, in November 2002. The affidavit, 22 paragraphs long, purported to set out Simpson’s recollection of a phone conversation that was then five years in the past. It says that “Karl” was mentioned in the phone conversation, and she understood “Karl” to be Karl Rove. The affidavit does not say that Simpson had ever met Rove, spoken with Rove, or been asked by him to spy on Governor Siegelman.
This affidavit brought Simpson to the attention of Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee. Democrats on the Committee’s staff set up a formal interview with Simpson, under oath, as part of their “investigation” into whether Siegelman had been railroaded by Alabama Republicans. Staff Democrats pre-interviewed Simpson before her sworn testimony was taken, on September 14, 2007.
The transcript of the interview is 143 pages long. Ms. Simpson was asked about her work on various Republican campaigns. She was obviously a low-level volunteer; she described “my general way I help, which is putting up signs and things of that nature.” At no time did she claim to have done any opposition research in connection with any campaign.
In fact, while the whole point of the interview was to try to show that in 2002 Republicans, including Karl Rove, conspired to destroy Don Siegelman with a trumped-up prosecution, Simpson never suggested that she knew Rove; that she had ever spoken to Rove; or that Rove had asked her to spy on Siegelman–all facts that would have been highly relevant to the Committee’s inquiry. Obviously she never disclosed these claims to the Democratic Committee staff, or they would have asked her about them in the interview. Nor did they come up when a Republican counsel cross-examined Simpson, establishing that her claims were all hearsay and not based on personal knowledge.
The conclusion seems inescapable that Simpson fabricated her story about Rove asking her to spy on Siegelman some time after September 2007. At a minimum, 60 Minutes certainly owed it to its audience to ask Simpson, on camera, why her alleged memory of a passing reference to “Karl” in a phone conversation more than five years ago has suddenly morphed into the claim that she had such a close relationship with Rove, one of the most senior officers of the Executive Branch, that he would ask her to spy on the Governor of Alabama–a claim for which, CBS might have noted, she offers zero evidence.
This is not the only respect in which CBS’s presentation of Simpson’s story was less than honest. In fact, what Simpson has alleged is a “conspiracy so vast” as to be self-refuting. CBS failed to disclose the extent of Simpson’s wild claims so as to conceal from its viewers the fact that Simpson is, to put it bluntly, a nut.
Let’s start with Terry Butts. By her own account, Simpson started getting involved in the Siegelman prosecution in large part because of her purported concern about Butts’s “conflict of interest.” She alleges that Butts was one of the participants in the November 2002 conference call that is the centerpiece of her tale. She says further that on November 18, 2002, Butts went to Don Siegelman and compelled him to drop his challenge to Bob Riley’s election victory by threatening to disclose the blockbuster information that Simpson herself had developed (more about this later). Butts then surfaced as one of the lawyers representing Richard Scrushy, former chairman of HealthSouth and Siegelman’s co-defendant. Simpson’s affidavit emphasizes the importance of Butts’s alleged conflict:
The reason I did this is because I believe everyone has a sixth amendment right to have an attorney who does not have a conflict and I believed that Mr. Butts did.
The problem for Simpson (and CBS) is that Terry Butts is not, like Simpson, an unknown lawyer of uncertain mental health. He is a former Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He unequivocally denies that the 2002 conversation alleged by Simpson ever took place: “Absolutely not true.”
Then there is the trial judge, Mark Fuller. Simpson alleges that Judge Fuller is part of the conspiracy, too. She concocted a bizarre theory that Fuller–to my knowledge, a competent and respected federal judge–had a conflict of interest (like Butts), in that he is an investor in an aviation company that has federal contracts, and one of the Assistant U.S. Attorneys handling the Siegelman prosecution is an Air Force Reserve officer. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to get your mind around that one; in my professional opinion, the claim is frivolous.
Actually, every single person whose name Simpson invokes as she spins her stories says that she is either lying or deluded. Even Don Siegelman. Simpson says that she signed her affidavit after repeated urging by Siegelman, whom she spoke with several times on the telephone. Untrue, says Siegelman. As the Justice Department wrote in a letter to John Conyers’ Judiciary Committee:
The alleged conversation described by Ms. Simpson has been denied by all of the alleged participants except Ms. Simpson. Indeed, even Mr. Siegelman states that Ms. Simpson’s affidavit is false as it relates to him. Moreover, according to Ms. Simpson, she met with Mr. Siegelman and his co-defendant Richard Scrushy for several months before signing the statement at their urging. She also claims to have provided legal advice to them. She contends she drafted but did not sign a motion filed by Mr. Scrushy seekung to have the federal judge removed from the case.
All of which is sheer madness. There are only two alternatives: either Ms. Simpson is a liar (or perhaps insane), or else every other person with knowledge of her allegations, including a former Alabama Supreme Court Justice and Don Siegelman himself, is lying. Yet CBS offered Ms. Simpson as a credible witness without disclosing these basic facts.
Which brings us, finally, to Ms. Simpson’s core narrative: her account of what happened in November 2002.
Here again, CBS has demonstrated a remarkable lack of that critical faculty which once was attributed to newsmen. Here is their account of Simpson’s story of the phone call, in its entirety:
Simpson says she was on a conference call in 2002 when Canary told her she didn