Sunday, March 25, 2007

Free the DOJ 8!

This story on NPR last week got me curious about the Carol Lam story, so I went looking. This is what I found:

Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., revealed fresh evidence in which Lam notified Washington of search warrants in a Republican corruption case there last year that quickly prompted a top Department of Justice official in Washington to describe a "real problem we have right now with Carol Lam."

"As the evidence comes in, as we look at the e-mails, there were clearly U.S. attorneys that were thorns in the side for one reason or another of the Justice Department," said Feinstein, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "And they decided, by strategy, in one fell swoop, to get rid of them."

Another Judiciary Committee member, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed that the San Diego investigation, along with a parallel GOP corruption investigation in Los Angeles, may have been directly linked to Lam's ouster.

"The most notorious is the Southern District of California, San Diego," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "In the middle of the investigation, she was fired."
This is what the Senator is talking about:

“In this district, it's hard to ignore the border,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Irma Gonzalez. “You can't.”

Border crime prosecutions in the past had made San Diego the busiest U.S. Attorney's Office in the nation. Lam tried to remake the office's role along more traditional lines, where federal prosecutors go after big fish.
"But," as the article drily notes, "that policy may have alienated key law enforcement constituencies." For instance, maybe the Border Patrol Union:

T.J. Bonner, head of the Border Patrol union, was not convinced by Lam's rationale.

“I understand you can only do so much with what you have,” he said. “But you need some leadership. . . . You need someone to say you need more resources if you expect us to do the job.”
Lam went for "quality prosecutions over sheer quantity." This was intentional:

One corrupt Border Patrol agent could be responsible for letting hundreds of illegal immigrants into the country, Lam said. Investigating and prosecuting that agent – Lam's office had seven such cases – could reduce illegal entries into the country but be counted only as a single effort.
My own representative is still screeching about two Border Patrol agents who were convicted of shooting an unarmed man in broad daylight. Either Culberson never thought to ask for John Sutton's head, or he doesn't have that much clout. But that this matter is still a cause celebre among conservatives speaks volumes about the Lam case.

As helpful as it is, the NPR timeline obscures a few facts that make this firing even more interesting. As Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." And more and more, it looks like Ms. Lam violated that unwritten law:

By the close of 2005, amid a series of San Diego scandals, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam had quietly become one of the most powerful people in the region.

That summer, her office had secured the convictions of two City Council members on extortion, fraud and other charges in a bribery case involving a strip club.

A grand jury was wrapping up its investigation into the city's billion-dollar pension deficit debacle and would hand down indictments at the start of 2006.

And in a case that reverberated across the country, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges. He admitted accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.
Lay that NPR timeline alongside the one at TPM, and you begin to see that "local politics" in D.C. were probably what brought Lam's case to the boiling point in the White House. But what started it? That became the political question of the week. In Josh Marshall's detailed response to Tony Snow's comment about Lam, he argues that the e-mails suggest a "paper trail" was being created, not pursued, in order to justify the firing. According to the NPR timeline, the proposal to fire Lam (and others) began in March, 2005 (all the incidents JMM refers to are in 2006).

What's truly curious, however, is why anyone (other than Brad Cummins in Arkansas) was fired:

The March 2, 2005, memo from Sampson came in response to a proposal floated by Miers to remove all U.S. attorneys during Bush's second term. Fitzgerald was placed in a middle category among his peers: "No recommendation; have not distinguished themselves either positively or negatively."

Although the ranking meant Sampson was not recommending those prosecutors for removal at the time, two U.S. attorneys who received the same ranking were fired last Dec. 7: Daniel G. Bogden of Nevada and Paul K. Charlton of Arizona.

Two prosecutors who were listed in the top category on Sampson's chart were also fired: David C. Iglesias in New Mexico and Kevin V. Ryan in San Francisco.

Two administration officials said Fitzgerald was never included on later lists of U.S. attorneys targeted for removal by Sampson. Administration officials and documents have portrayed Sampson as being in charge of the firings effort.
There just doesn't seem to be rhyme or reason to this, except local politics. Iglesias was fired after two New Mexico Republicans called him personally. Lam was clearly annoying the very political White House (and no coincidence Karl Rove, whose only job is politics, was in on this process ab initio), but what did Kevin Ryan do? And why did Iglesias annoy Domenici and Wilson so badly? It seems the only answer to these firings is politics, but the politics of the firings seems, well, questionable.

But all bad decisions look truly bad in hindsight. By now, even the Washington Post seems to have figured that out:

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald was ranked among prosecutors who had "not distinguished themselves" on a Justice Department chart sent to the White House in March 2005, when he was in the midst of leading the CIA leak investigation that resulted in the perjury conviction of a vice presidential aide, administration officials said yesterday.

The ranking placed Fitzgerald below "strong U.S. Attorneys . . . who exhibited loyalty" to the administration but above "weak U.S. Attorneys who . . . chafed against Administration initiatives, etc.," according to Justice documents.

There is still a legitimate question lurking: what did these bozos think they were doing? Mark Schmitt runs the possibilities down fairly well. The simple fact that the grand jury indicted Foggo after Lam was forced out shows that firing a prosecutor doesn't immediately stop a prosecution. It may be be evidence of obstruction of justice, but it's not terribly clear evidence. Stanley Brand on NPR seemed to think there was rather stronger evidence of obstruction, and a US Senator simply calling a US Attorney could be grounds for such charges, especially if the call was meant to pressure the US Attorney about how to handle a pending case. Feinstein is right; these 8 attorneys were "thorns in the side" of the White House. But why? Ideological purity? Control? I know of US attorneys under Eisenhower who were Democrats, and yet appointed by a GOP President. It really did used to be about competence, not about "serving at the pleasure of the President." Maybe part of the scandal here is less what this White House did, and more about how our politics has changed in this country in 50 years.

Josh Marshall, not surprisingly, has the best summation of this in his response to Michael Kinsley's inablity to grasp the issue:

There are many people in this conversation trying to avoid the issues, confuse the issues or just ignore them. And more than a few people are just plain confused. But it's not that complicated. Administration officials have repeatedly and demonstrably lied about the firings. And there is now abundant evidence of a pattern of using the president's power to hire and fire US Attorneys to stymie public corruption investigations of Republicans and use the Justice Department to harass Democrats by mounting investigations of demonstrably bogus 'voter fraud' claims. It's really that simple.
And as the week wrapped up, we were to this:

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales approved plans to fire several U.S. attorneys in an hourlong meeting last fall, according to documents released Friday that indicate he was more involved in the dismissals than he has claimed.

Last week, Gonzales said he "was not involved in any discussions about what was going on" in the firings of eight prosecutors that has since led to a political firestorm and calls for his ouster.

A Nov. 27 meeting, in which the attorney general and at least five top Justice Department officials participated, focused on a five-step plan for carrying out the firings of the prosecutors, Gonzales' aides said late Friday.

There, Gonzales signed off on the plan, which was drafted by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Sampson resigned last week. Another Justice aide closely involved in the dismissals, White House liaison Monica Goodling, has also taken a leave of absence, two officials said.

And more importantly, this:

Since 2005, McClatchy Newspapers has found, Bush has appointed at least three U.S. attorneys who had worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division when it was rolling back longstanding voting-rights policies aimed at protecting predominantly poor, minority voters.

Another newly installed U.S. attorney, Tim Griffin in Little Rock, Ark., was accused of participating in efforts to suppress Democratic votes in Florida during the 2004 presidential election while he was a research director for the Republican National Committee. He's denied any wrongdoing.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the four U.S. attorneys weren't chosen only because of their backgrounds in election issues, but "we would expect any U.S. attorney to prosecute voting fraud."

Taken together, critics say, the replacement of the U.S. attorneys, the voter-fraud campaign and the changes in Justice Department voting rights policies suggest that the Bush administration may have been using its law enforcement powers for partisan political purposes.
This one takes us beyond Josh Marshall's famous caution, and Michael Kinsley's infamous mendacity. Now we can understand what Brad Cummins was worried about; and once again, Rove has been hiding in plain sight:

Last April, while the Justice Department and the White House were planning the firings, Rove gave a speech in Washington to the Republican National Lawyers Association. He ticked off 11 states that he said could be pivotal in the 2008 elections. Bush has appointed new U.S. attorneys in nine of them since 2005: Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico. U.S. attorneys in the latter four were among those fired.

Rove thanked the audience for "all that you are doing in those hot spots around the country to ensure that the integrity of the ballot is protected." He added, "A lot in American politics is up for grabs."

The department's civil rights division, for example, supported a Georgia voter identification law that a court later said discriminated against poor, minority voters. It also declined to oppose an unusual Texas redistricting plan that helped expand the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. That plan was partially reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Frank DiMarino, a former federal prosecutor who served six U.S. attorneys in Florida and Georgia during an 18-year Justice Department career, said that too much emphasis on voter fraud investigations "smacks of trying to use prosecutorial power to investigate and potentially indict political enemies."
Now we know what they've been up to, and why they've been doing it. It is, actually, a logical outgrowth of the idea that "the personal is political." When everything is about politics, politics is about everything; and when politics is divorced from the polis, the public square, the good of the community, then it is about power and rule. John Bolton told Jon Stewart this week that the President is obliged to represent those who elected him. Message: screw everybody else! Losers! As Molly Ivins often said: these people don't want to govern, they want to rule. As we used to say in my childhood: You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

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