Go To Prison, Get A Nightline Puff Piece? Does Ted Koppel Know About This?

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.

Richard and Leslie Scrushy, coming to a softball interviewer near you.
Richard and Leslie Scrushy, coming to a softball interviewer near you.

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.

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."


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.  

Andrea Canning, ABC journalist
Andrea Canning, ABC journalist

"I about threw up -- I think Nightline missed the point," says Doug Jones, the former US Attorney for the northern district of Alabama. "Scrushy was saying the judge should take the effect on his wife into account. Well, that dog's not going to hunt. Maybe it was Scrushy who should have thought about his family before he did what he did.

"The story didn't really tell the whole story about the Scrushy case," he adds. "Fifteen executives of HealthSouth pled guilty to cooking the books. People lost tons of money. Life savings went down the tubes. The whole thing had been a fraud."

But Scrushy, Jones says, went into a charm offensive to sway potential jurors. Where, he asks, was anything in Canning's report about Scrushy's metamorphosis, as Jones calls it, "from country singer to CEO to evangelist black preacher?"

"Honestly, if I didn't keep a sense of humor, the Scrushys' narcissistic antics would have driven me crazy a long time ago. I thought that the Nightline piece was ridiculous," says Weston Smith, HealthSouth's former chief financial officer who served his own 14-month sentence and testified that he personally discussed the company's fraud with Scrushy numerous times. "For one thing, they presented the Scrushys as though they were ministering while he was still working at HealthSouth. Richard found religion only after being implicated in the fraud. He then gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to black churches in what was viewed by many as an attempt to buy sympathy within the community."

And today, that's exactly what we're seeing on Nightline, Jones says -- just another calculated attempt by Scrushy to sway public opinion. "What you're seeing is a concerted effort by Scrushy's PR people to raise sympathy in a different way. They know now that Richard garners no sympathy whatsoever. So the only way he can try to rehab himself in some way is through the effect on his family. But the point that was completely missed -- why didn't Scrushy consider the consequences when he was doing all this?"

Jones says he's certain Leslie Scrushy knew nothing about the fraud going on at HealthSouth. But there's no doubt there's a coordinated effort by the two of them now in a new charm offensive. "She's been on Fox recently doing the same thing. There's been an effort in the last six months or so. I think it's directly tied to the civil case. They can't post a bond for it. The plaintiffs' lawyer is seizing his assets."

With relish, it turns out. "Thousands of people lost millions in HealthSouth stock," says that attorney, John Somerville. "Employees lost their jobs, and Richard Scrushy was the CEO and was responsible for the fraud. Every penny he derived from HealthSouth should be taken from him."

As for Fox, Leslie Scrushy did make a similar appearance in August on Fox Business News, where she was interrogated with hard-hitting questions by Neil Cavuto.

"Was it open season on people with wealth?" Cavuto asked.

She, in turn, blamed the media's "focus...on what people have and what people spend."

Poor little rich girl.

"Hang in there, OK?" Cavuto pleaded.

But that's Fox News. Sucking up to the wealthy -- even wealthy felons or their wives -- isn't really surprising for the likes of Cavuto.

But Nightline?

We weren't familiar with Canning, who didn't really strike us as the Koppel type. But we didn't want to rush to judgment. So we dug deep into her background (er, went a few pages into a Google search on our lunch hour), and learned her journalistic bona fides.

Fortunately, she'd provided a vitae of sorts while on assignment for Good Morning America, when she assembled "25 Things About Andrea Canning" back in February. Some highlights...

"1. I worked on Baywatch as an intern for David Hasselhoff ... Don't Hassle the Hoff!"

"2. I shared a house with Ryan Seacrest (before he was famous) and two other roommates"

"9. I worked as an extra on dozens of movies and television shows"

"13. I love the Real Housewives of Atlanta, NYC and Orange County ... meow!"

"20. My favorite story was interviewing the last surviving Munchkins"

OK, so maybe in Ted's wake, Nightline is borrowing reporters from the likes of GMA to help with that whole looking-for-younger-viewers situation. When we called the program, the very helpful spokeswoman apologized for not getting back sooner because there was so much excitement around the office about how the program had just won "sweeps."

It's maybe understandable that such a formerly hard-hitting investigative show, now more concerned with demographics and ratings, might get bamboozled by a well-coordinated PR campaign by a multimillionaire couple on their latest charm offensive.

So we asked if the Scrushys had reached out to the program for coverage.

No, we were told. The idea for Canning's story was Nightline's own.

And that, we have to say, is the saddest part of this story.

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