By BOB JOHNSON, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Following years of appeals and a vocal campaign by supporters, ex-Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman is heading back to prison after being sentenced Friday to more than six years for bribery and other convictions.
Siegelman and former HealthSouth chief Richard Scrushy were convicted in 2006. They arranged $500,000 in contributions to Siegelman's campaign for a state lottery to fund education programs in exchange for the governor appointing Scrushy to an important hospital regulatory board.
Before his sentencing that his lawyer called "cruel and unusual," the 66-year-old Siegelman told a judge that he "deeply regrets" the things he has done.
"I apologize to people for the embarrassment my actions have caused," Siegelman said.
U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller said the case has been hard on everyone, including Siegelman's family. He acknowledged the good things Siegelman had accomplished in his years of public service that spanned nearly three decades. But he said they did not justify the crimes for which he was convicted. He allowed Siegelman to remain free and turn himself in by Sept. 11.
"It's been a long seven years," Fuller said. "Good luck to you."
Siegelman made his apology in front of the court after a line of character witnesses praised many of the former governor's good deeds, including helping friends through hard times and teaching children karate. The children called him "Sensei Don."
But prosecutor Louis Franklin asked Fuller to consider the laws Sielgleman was convicted of breaking as well.
"We ask that you hold him responsible for the conduct he engaged in that you heard about at trial," Franklin said.
Afterward, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the sentencing six years after the trial ended shows the government's resolve to bring the case to a conclusion.
Franklin said the case has "energized my faith in our legal system and renewed my commitment to prosecute politicians who commit bribery, honest services mail fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice."
Siegelman told Fuller he hoped the judge would one day believe that Siegelman did not know he was getting close to crossing the line between a campaign contribution and a crime. "I had no criminal intent. I was raising money for the lottery of Alabama," he said.
Siegelman argued for leniency by saying, "I'm a felon who has been in prison, a felon who lost his reputation, lost my law license."
His voice broke as he talked about what he had lost.
"I speak today to plead for your mercy."
Siegelman, who served one term as governor from 1999 to 2003, was originally sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Fuller sentenced him to 6 1/2 years. He served about nine months before being released pending his appeals. Fuller said those months will be subtracted. He also ordered him to serve two years on probation and pay a $50,000 fine.
"I never expected my career of public service to end in a federal courtroom," Siegelman told reporters gathered outside the courthouse.
Asked if it was the worse day of his life, Siegelman said: "I can't think of one that would be closer to the top."
His sentence is about equal to that of Scrushy's. He recently finished his nearly five-year prison sentence.
His attorney, Art Leach, said the 10-month reduction that Siegelman got was similar to the year reduction for Scrushy. He declined comment beyond that because he was not in the courtroom. He said he had not talked to Scrushy, who now lives in a Houston suburb.
Siegelman and his lawyer, Susan James, said they haven't decided whether to appeal the sentence, but James said she took steps in court Friday to lay the groundwork. She said she was disappointed Siegelman's sentence wasn't reduced more.
Several character witnesses took the stand in Siegelman's behalf, including his adult daughter, Dana Siegelman.
She called her father a "wonderful man" and said he felt guilty when he had to go to prison the first time.
"He was devastated that he had let us down," she said referring to herself, her mother, Lori, and her brother, Joseph.
Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods also testified on the ex-governor's behalf.
Siegelman served as Alabama's attorney general before he was governor, and 90 or so of his former colleagues had filed court briefs urging that he not be sent back to jail. They did so because they know and like their former colleague and many questioned whether campaign contributions constitute bribes.
Woods said it would serve no good purpose for Siegelman to be back in jail and that the public would be better off if he served community service.
Fuller said the Bureau of Prisons will decide where Siegelman will serve his time, but that he would recommend a prison close to Siegelman's home in Birmingham.
Over the years, supporters have blasted Siegelman's prosecution, claiming it was driven by partisan politics. Backers have waged an aggressive Internet campaign to get Siegelman's conviction overturned, with some suggesting President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, should pardon him.
The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year refused to hear his case.
One of the character witnesses was Sephira Shuttlesworth, the widow of the late civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth. She said Siegelman spent a lot of time with her husband in the days before he died.
"The Don Siegelman that I know is not one who intentionally would do the things I'm hearing about," she said.
Besides governor and attorney general, Siegelman had been secretary of state and lieutenant governor in Alabama.
Alabama Democratic Party chairman Mark Kennedy, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice, called the sentencing "a sad day" for Siegelman, his family and the state.
"Attorneys General and political officials around the country have raised serious questions about the few remaining charges – questions which remain unanswered after this sentencing."
Associated Press writer Philip Rawls contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A headline on the site previously misidentified Siegelman as a Republican. He is a Democrat.