Saturday, March 10, 2007

Another Watergate, Er, Watershed Moment?

McClatchy reports that the inquiry into the Bush administration's federal prosecutor purge scandal has reached into the White House:

WASHINGTON - A congressional investigation into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys reached into the White House on Friday, with Democrats saying that they'll call in President Bush's former counsel Harriet Miers and other unidentified White House officials for interviews with the House Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers have been asking whether the federal prosecutors' offices have become tainted by partisan politics. Until Friday, the official inquiry had ended with the Justice Department.

The decision to extend the inquiry to Bush's inner circle suggests that lawmakers believe there may have been some level of coordination of the firings from inside the White House last December.

Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., chairwoman of the subcommittee directing the inquiry, sent a letter Friday to Miers, a longtime Bush loyalist who left her post in January, requesting that she submit to an interview.

They also sent a letter to Miers' replacement, Fred Fielding. That letter asks that deputy counsel William Kelly and other White House officials yet to be named also agree to interviews.

The committee also is seeking all e-mails and paperwork between the White House and the Justice Department or any members of Congress related to the investigation.

"Until we get a clear and credible answer from the Bush administration on who made the decision to fire these U.S. attorneys and why they did it, we will continue our investigation," Conyers said in a statement.

Said Sanchez: "The threshold for cooperation in Washington used to be `Trust, but verify.' We are sending these letters today because, at this point, we'd be happy just to verify."

In another article published Friday, Ron Hutcheson of McClatchy Newspapers asks the important question surrounding the Bush administration's abrupt firing of eight federal prosecutors:

Has the Bush administration tried to use the federal government's vast law enforcement powers against its political enemies?

"It would be enormously problematic if, in fact, the Justice Department or the White House were trying to use U.S. attorneys for political purposes," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "The questions are now hanging in the air."

Some Democrats hear echoes of Watergate in the administration's dismissals of the prosecutors and suggest that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign. Others want to know whether Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, played a role in the firings.

Justice Department officials say politics had nothing to do with the firings, but some of the ousted U.S. attorneys and outside legal experts think otherwise. Congressional Democrats say they're determined to find the truth.

Lawmakers in both political parties have expressed concern about evidence of political meddling in the weeks prior to last November's elections, when it was becoming clear that Democrats might take control of Congress for the first time in 12 years.

Justice Department officials have acknowledged that former U.S. Attorney H.E. Cummins was booted from his post in Little Rock, Ark., to make room for a former Rove aide. Other fired prosecutors handled politically sensitive investigations that angered Republicans during the run-up to the November elections.

"U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys take an oath to exercise their authority without fear or favor. It would be a gross abuse of power to allow partisan political considerations to enter into their decisions," said Bruce Green, a former U.S. attorney and a leading expert on legal ethics.

This much isn't in dispute: Eight U.S. attorneys, all of them appointed by President Bush, were forced to resign with little explanation. Most got their walking papers in December.

Justice Department officials say that, with the exception of Cummins, the fired prosecutors were ousted for poor performance.

"I want to reassure the American people that we in no way have made decisions to politicize these offices," Gonzales said Friday.

Skeptics remain unconvinced.

In some cases, the possible role of politics is easy to spot. Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias thinks he lost his job in New Mexico because he refused to speed up an investigation of a prominent local Democrat. Republicans were hoping for an indictment before last fall's election, but so far no one's been charged.

White House political guru Rove was in Albuquerque, N.M. on Sept. 30 and kept a low public profile. He attended a $5,000 a plate fundraiser at the house of the state Republican Party chairman. Also present and seated next to Rove was Paul Kennedy, a prominent Republican and former judge who'd gotten involved in Iglesias's investigation after another lawyer handling the case died.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that Rove was there to help boost Rep. Heather Wilson, who was facing a tough fight for re-election.

Wilson and Sen. Pete Domenici, both New Mexico Republicans, have acknowledged that they called prosecutor Iglesias about his investigation before the election. A scandal involving a local Democrat could have helped Wilson politically, although the lawmakers insist that they didn't push for a quick indictment. The White House said Rove didn't encourage them to make the calls, and Wilson won anyway, by 875 votes.

Iglesias told Congress that he felt "leaned on" by the two lawmakers.

Legal experts agreed that the calls were out of bounds even if the lawmakers didn't demand action.

"The problem is that there is implied pressure," said Monroe Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University. "What we're talking about here is the abuse of prosecutorial power for political purposes."

In California, ousted U.S. Attorney Carol C. Lam ruffled Republican feathers by indicting and convicting Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham on corruption charges. In western Washington, former U.S. Attorney John McKay said he felt pressure over an investigation of alleged voter fraud by Democrats. McKay angered some Republicans by declining to file charges.

"Nobody who objectively looks at this is going to think, oh, what a coincidence," said former prosecutor Green, now a Fordham University law professor who's on leave at New York University.

Tobias, the University of Richmond professor, said the Justice Department might have had good reason to fire some of the prosecutors, but probably not all of them.

"Most of the U.S. attorneys had pretty good evaluations, and some of them had stunningly good evaluations. Some did not," he said. "It's not that all eight of them were incompetent and should have been fired."

It is important that Dems actually won the election last November.

If the Republican Rubber Stamp Congress had retained control of the House and/or Senate, there is little doubt that the federal prosecutor purge story would never have seen the light of day.

But with Dems safely in control, we are going to learn much more about the actions of Justice Department officials including Attorney General Abu Gonzales and White House officials including former White House counsel Harriet Miers, current White House counsel (and former Nixon aide) Fred Fielding and chief Bush political adviser Karl Rove. We will also learn much more about the actions and/or misdeeds of Representative Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico), Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), the ranking Republican on the House Ethics Committee Representative Doc Hastings (R-Washington), and any other Republican lawmakers/staff members involved in placing political pressure on federal prosecutors.

The more we learn about the purge, the more this scandal is starting to look like the administration's/GOP's Watergate moment.

And as I say, it's just lucky we have a Democratic Congress to investigate it.

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