Go To Prison, Get A Nightline Puff Piece? Does Ted Koppel Know About This?
Here's a challenge: try to imagine a major network television news program -- one with a long, storied reputation for hard-hitting journalism -- assigning a reporter to follow around OJ Simpson's current love interest (whoever that might be), in order to drum up sympathy for how difficult life is while her man is locked up in prison, and giving OJ himself the airtime to complain that the negative effect on his girlfriend should have been taken into account in his sentencing.
You can't do it, can you?
So what could possibly have motivated Nightline, Ted Koppel's former bastion of serious newsgathering, to do something nearly as stupefyingly insane?
OJ Simpson, you'll remember, was accused of a horrific crime but managed to escape a criminal conviction in part because of his charismatic effect on a friendly jury. He was, however, found civilly liable for that same crime and was ordered to forfeit $33 million as a result. Ultimately, he did end up in prison -- but for something that was not only completely unrelated, but also far murkier and less cut-and-dried than the crime he managed to be acquitted for.
OK, so Alabama's Richard Scrushy was never accused of killing anyone. But the people in Birmingham will tell you that the former wealthy business leader devastated far more lives than Simpson ever did when his HealthSouth company cratered seven years ago as a result of widespread financial fraud in one of the country's most egregious examples of corporate crime.
Like Simpson, Scrushy faced a criminal trial with what appeared to be insurmountable evidence of his guilt -- managers who worked for him had admitted to defrauding Medicare and lying about the company's profits for years -- and Scrushy's only hope was to convince a jury that somehow, the micromanaging CEO had been unaware of a massive crime going on just under his nose. In black Birmingham, Scrushy improved his odds with a local jury by going on a charm campaign, joining a nearly all-black church and suddenly becoming very visibly religious.
Richard and Leslie Scrushy, coming to a softball interviewer near you.
It worked. Scrushy managed to get himself acquitted. But like OJ, he was subsequently found civilly liable, and was ordered to repay HealthSouth's investors $3 billion. To satisfy that judgment, the man who at one time aimed to be the country's highest-paid CEO was forced to give up property, fancy cars, and other accoutrements of his high-flying life.
And, just like Simpson, Scrushy did eventually go to prison -- but for an unrelated and murky bribery case involving Alabama's former governor, Don Siegelman. Plenty of legitimate questions were raised about that prosecution -- just as they were about OJ Simpson's crazy case of stealing his own possessions in Las Vegas -- but the result was similar. Scrushy is serving a 7-year sentence at a prison in Beaumont, Texas. OJ is serving 33 years in Lovelock, Nevada.
Sucks to be them, no doubt.
But why was Nightline last week trying to make us feel sorry for Leslie Scrushy, the wife of a man who will go down in history as one of the country's most efficient destroyers of wealth? And doing it by letting Richard Scrushy himself bash the judge who put him in prison?
"Sometimes I wonder if the judges realize that they punish the families many times more than they punish the inmate," Scrushy told Nightline correspondent Andrea Canning by telephone from the prison in Beaumont. "You're in a horrible situation in here, and the other thing people don't realize, we only have 10 minutes a day to talk to our family. I mean, it averages -- we have 300 minutes a month. Every second is precious. Every second, every minute is precious and when you get a child on the phone and you talk three-four minutes... Those little children I have raised -- you know, my little boy came in, he was in diapers. He was just 2 years old. And I've watched him -- now he's 5 years old."
Did you get that, America? Do you see what a service Nightline has provided? It can now be revealed that prison is not, in fact, a pleasant place, and that if you get sent there, you get separated from your family.
Is that outrageous, or what?
If you aren't already in tears over the Scrushy family's plight, just let Canning fill you in on the rest:
"Their life literally went on the auction block: furniture, boats, priceless artwork, all sold to the highest bidder. But perhaps even more painful was the social backlash. Friends turned their backs. The Scrushys were even asked to leave a function at their own church."
Nooo. Asked to leave a function at church? What kind of sick people are these Scrushy-haters, humiliating the couple like that? And for what, a little thing like being found liable for a $3 billion defrauding of Medicare and thousands of investors?
But that's not all. Get your handkerchiefs ready, because Canning has more...
"Now the visiting room at the federal correctional complex in Beaumont has basically become their family room. Scrushy and her kids try their best to make it feel like home."
Leslie Scrushy then comes through with the Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week Moment...
"It's where we have our family time," she said. "They have this salad you can order -- well, buy, from the vending machine. And so I'll fix it up for Richard and crunch up some Fritos and cheeses chips and make those croutons and cook for my husband."
CUE THE WATERWORKS, PEOPLE!
But that's still not all. Not by a long shot. For Canning has dug deep to deliver us a real journalistic scoop at the end of the segment. She learns that Richard Scrushy, who was a country music performer before his rise as a businessman, is spending his time in prison to write a new album.
"Lord, I can't live without you," Scrushy sings over the telephone from the prison. "Such pain we suffer when we're lost. Man leading man is not the answer. Your love and grace, that's all. 'Cuz victory is a choice we make."
Let that sink in a moment. Nightline may be onto something here. Wouldn't America like to know if Bernie Madoff has golden pipes? Can't someone get Charlie Manson on the line for some creepy warbling of "Helter Skelter" over the telephone? Can Jack Abramoff carry a tune? Doesn't Dennis Kozlowski look like he'd be a decent baritone?
Well, until Canning can continue her look into Felon Idol, we thought we'd call up a few folks who were conspicuously missing from Nightline's remarkable tear-jerker -- namely, Scrushy's prosecutors and former business colleagues.