WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court said former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman can go free while appealing a bribery conviction, and his lawyer said the former governor has agreed to testify before Congress about possible political influence over his prosecution.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Siegelman had raised "substantial questions of fact and law" in challenging his conviction.
The once-popular Democrat began serving a sentence of more than seven years in June on his conviction on six bribery-related counts and one obstruction count. He has been serving the sentence at a federal prison in Oakdale, La.
"It's a sweet day. He's an innocent man and he's been in prison for nine months," said Siegelman's attorney, Vince Kilborn.
Kilborn said that he and other attorneys were working to have Siegelman released from prison as soon as they can deliver a certified copy of the court's order to prison officials. It was not immediately clear when that would occur.
Congressional inquiry proceeds
A spokeswoman for the House Judiciary Committee said Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, wants to hear directly from Siegelman because lawmakers are having trouble getting information elsewhere, particularly from the Justice Department.
"The chairman has determined it would be appropriate to hear from Mr. Siegelman himself and believes he would have a lot to add to the committee's investigation into selective prosecution," spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said.
Democrats last year began reviewing Siegelman's 2006 corruption conviction as part of a broader investigation into allegations of political meddling at the Justice Department by the Bush administration.
Video: Political prosecution in Alabama? The Justice Department and the federal prosecutors who handled the prosecution have denied any political influence, emphasizing that Siegelman was convicted by a jury. But critics, including about 50 former state attorneys general, have called for a review and said the case raises a number of questions.
The effort gained momentum after a Republican lawyer who had volunteered for Siegelman's re-election opponent — current Republican Gov. Bob Riley — said she overheard conversations suggesting that former White House adviser Karl Rove was talking with Justice officials about Siegelman's prosecution.
Last month, CBS's "60 Minutes" reported that a key witness against Siegelman said that prosecutors met with him some 70 times and had him repeatedly write out his testimony because they were frustrated with his recollection of events.
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Contributions to lottery campaign
Siegelman was elected governor in 1998 and served one term. He was convicted in 2006 on six bribery-related and one obstruction of justice charge.
Federal prosecutors accused Siegelman, 62, of appointing Richard Scrushy, HealthSouth CEO at the time, to a hospital regulatory board in exchange for Scrushy arranging $500,000 in contributions to Siegelman's campaign for a statewide lottery.
Scrushy, who was tried along with Siegelman, also was convicted on bribery counts and is serving a sentence of nearly seven years. The 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, has ruled that the multimillionaire Birmingham businessman is a potential flight risk, but that Siegelman is not.
Siegelman was also convicted of a separate obstruction of justice charge concerning $9,200 he received from a lobbyist to help with the purchase of a motorcycle. His attorneys have said it was a legitimate transaction.
U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller of Montgomery had refused to allow Siegelman to remain free on appeal while challenging his conviction. But the 11th Circuit said Thursday he met the legal standard to be freed in the "complex and protracted" case.
Appeal delayed for months
The appeals process had been delayed for months after the court reporter during the trial died and the transcript was not completed as it normally would have been.
Appellate court Judges Susan Black and Stanley Marcus said Siegelman could be released under the same conditions that he was allowed to remain free for about a year after his June 2006 conviction.
Chief prosecutor Louis Franklin said he was "very disappointed" by the ruling but still expects the appellate court to rule against Siegelman's appeal.
"I don't view this as a setback. The order is very short and concise and only deals with whether he is entitled to bond pending appeal," Franklin said.
Scrushy attorney Art Leach said the order releasing Siegelman makes him optimistic about Scrushy's chances for release on bond.
"My belief is that there are substantial issues and in my opinion it requires reversal of the conviction," Leach said.
Siegelman has maintained that certain Republicans targeted him after he was elected governor in 1998 in an attempt to derail his political career.
Kilborn said the former governor has agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating allegations of political meddling in Justice Department affairs by the Bush administration. The committee hopes to hear from Siegelman in May.
The department and the federal prosecutors who handled Siegelman's prosecution have denied any political influence, emphasizing that he was convicted by a jury. But critics, including a group of former state attorneys general, have called for an independent review and said the case raises questions.
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