“Sometime ago, I publicly announced that I personally would waive any compensation for my involvement in this litigation, but those who hold public office and who have refused to prosecute our state’s claims against tobacco companies continue to suggest that this litigation is somehow designed for my own personal financial benefit. My withdrawal from this lawsuit should terminate these politically motivated criticisms.”
-- Portion of October 1997 letter Siegelman sent to Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price.
“Don has never been shy about asking for money, or about the degree of prestige his name carries with it.”
-- Mobile lawyer Chris Peters, in explaining Siegelman’s reason for demanding that Peters’ law firm pay him a severance package in the neighborhood of $800,000.
On a Sunday night in June 1996, Todd Cunningham ran out of gas on Interstate 85 just east of Montgomery. Leaving his wife and two young sons in the car, the 30-year-old contractor took off with a plastic jug in hand. It was close to 9 p.m. and dark when Cunningham started walking down a service road to the nearest gas station.
Later that night, Howard Fitts, an inmate from the Montgomery Work Release Center, told prison officials that the blood on the van came from a deer he’d run over. His story didn’t survive the subsequent discovery of Cunningham’s body.
The next morning, Cunningham’s parents returned home from comforting their daughter-in-law to find among their many phone messages one from Nick Bailey. He’d introduced himself as an aide to the lieutenant governor, left a number and asked the Cunninghams to call Siegelman.
“We were getting lots of calls of condolences, and it was one of the first ones,” said Todd Cunningham’s mother, Cheryl. “I really thought it was something more to do with the actual accident, and was thinking, ‘OK, the state has some more information about what actually happened.”
That afternoon or the next day, Cheryl’s husband, J.C. Cunningham Jr., received a call from Siegelman.
“He said he would like to talk to us about our son’s death and that the state owed us a lot of consideration,” said Cunningham, a retired Montgomery police officer. “At that time I wasn’t really interested in suing anybody and getting money. I was very hurt and very sad, and my interest was in comforting my wife and daughter-in-law. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I had other things on my mind.
“I told him I’d have to think about it. It was before he was buried.”
Cheryl Cunningham was so incensed she took notes of the message left by Bailey and Siegelman’s subsequent efforts to recruit them as clients.
“I was furious that someone like that would use a death like that for profit. It was beyond hurt – I was furious,” she said years later. She said Siegelman’s calling so soon after her son’s death and offering to sue the state he’d been elected to serve was “off the charts.”
Later, J.C. Cunningham received a short hand-written letter from Siegelman. The envelope bore the seal of Alabama, as did the stationary, which in all aspects but one appeared to be the official stationary of the lieutenant governor’s office. The lone difference was the tiny print at the bottom, which stated, “Not printed at government expense.”
“Last year I sued the State (Alabama Dept. Dept. of Agriculture) for the death of a state employee,” Siegelman wrote, the parentheses his. “If I can be of any help to you in any way please do not hesitate to call.”
Siegelman signed it and provided Cunningham with his private pager number.
When Cheryl Cunningham told her daughter-in-law’s attorney about the letter, he asked for the date. He wanted to know, she said, because state bar association rules require lawyers to wait at least 31 days before sending solicitation letters to accident victims.
“We received his handwritten letter 32 days after the accident, and that just infuriated me,” she said. “It was so devastating. I just looked at it and said some most un-ladylike comments, and I said it will be a cold day before I call him.”
The state settled the case without ever being sued. Bill Gray, the legal advisor for then governor Fob James, told a reporter at the time that the state agreed to pay almost $1 million to Todd Cunningham’s widow and children because the “facts in the case were very bad.”
Siegelman’s attempt to represent the Cunninghams isn’t directly related to the Register stories that examined more than $1.3 million in legal fees paid to him while he was governor. The Cunningham case is, however, an indication of the sort of law Siegelman practiced, to the extent he practiced law at all.
He was an ambulance chaser. And when the chase produced a client, he handed it off to another lawyer. A real one.