Friday, March 02, 2007


Prosecutorial "Abuse"

A few weeks back, we discussed the firings of various U.S. attorneys around the country. At the time, the blatant politics of the issue seemed to be around the fact that the administration wanted to push aside the professional prosecutors in favor of padding the resumes of some political flunkies.

Well, of course, it turns out that
it's worse than that:

Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico pressured the U.S. attorney in their state to speed up indictments in a federal corruption investigation that involved at least one former Democratic state senator, according to two people familiar with the contacts.

The alleged involvement of the two Republican lawmakers raises questions about possible violations of House of Representatives and Senate ethics rules and could taint the criminal investigation into the award of an $82 million courthouse contract.

The two people with knowledge of the incident said Domenici and Wilson intervened in mid-October, when Wilson was in a competitive re-election campaign that she won by 875 votes out of nearly 211,000 cast.

David Iglesias, who stepped down as U.S. attorney in New Mexico on Wednesday, told McClatchy Newspapers that he believed the Bush administration fired him Dec. 7 because he resisted the pressure to rush an indictment.

According to the two individuals, Domenici and Wilson called to press Iglesias for details of the case.

Wilson was curt after Iglesias was "non-responsive" to her questions about whether an indictment would be unsealed, said the two individuals, who asked not to be identified because they feared possible political repercussions. Rumors had spread throughout the New Mexico legal community that an indictment of at least one Democrat was sealed.

Domenici, who wasn't up for re-election, called about a week and a half later and was more persistent than Wilson, the people said. When Iglesias said an indictment wouldn't be handed down until at least December, the line went dead.
Meanwhile, job evaluations of the other canned prosecutors were all seemingly positive.

With subpoenas sent out to
four of the dismissed attorneys, next week's congressional hearings could be rather intersting.

UPDATE: Slate's Dahlia Litwick assesses the major points in the controversy:
But there's one other theory worth putting out there—one I have heard from folks on the Hill who are following this battle quite closely. This was merely a monumental screw-up. The DOJ never expected these firings to turn into a scandal. Indeed, many folks there still can't quite figure out what they have done wrong.
A few data points:
1) The DOJ is currently staffed by its C team, all of its best members having left long ago for better-paid jobs in the private sector. And C teams, particularly C teams with little political
experience, make mistakes.
2) This scandal may not have gone anywhere had McNulty not testified that the U.S. attorneys were canned—with the exception of Cummins—for subpar "performance." This misstep forced Lam, Iglesias, and other very loyal Republicans to come forward and defend themselves. Had McNulty not publicly questioned their effectiveness, most would probably have packed up and
left without a word.
3) The White House is unaccustomed to real oversight. It's been virtually bulletproof for so long that it has almost forgotten how to account for its blatant ideological acts of jiggery-pokery. It wasn't until control of Congress changed over in November that anyone even began to look
askance at executive overreaching. As a result, this administration simply misjudged the amount of likely blowback from these firings.
The U.S. attorney purge probably exploded into a scandal as a result of a perfect storm that the
White House never anticipated: Players at the highest levels were making strategic, ideological decisions to consolidate executive power and reward party loyalists while folks on the ground at the Justice Department bungled the firings with inflammatory comments and false ("performance-related") statements.
Incumbent U.S. attorneys surprised the White House by punching back, just as a Congress under new Democratic control decided to exercise meaningful oversight.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the purge isn't that the Bush administration puts ideology above the rule of law. That isn't exactly news. The real point may be that between inexperienced fumblers at Justice, energized Democrats in Congress, and a public that seems finally to have awoken from its slumber, it's just become harder for the administration to
get away with it.
Still, the key strategic decision that led to this was not made by the "C team." It was by, at the least, the "B team" -- the premeditated plan to use the Patriot Act to inhibit the power of both the legislative and judicial branches in the U.S. attorney selection/replacement process. A tool supposedly used to enhance the power of the president in fighting terror has, shockingly, been used for narrow bureaucratic power games. And, inevitably, you reap what you sow.

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