Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

An oldie but goodie

The Bush prosecutor purge scandal, revisted

An oldie but goodie

 

 

We tend to get so caught up in the news of the moment that even the recent past recedes all too quickly. But sometimes there is value in looking backward, if only to square accounts with history, to flesh out the details of events that seemed somewhat sketchy at the time - and to better determine whether the people in power lied to us.

The Bush administration ended just seven months ago, yet dipping into its archives already seems akin to tuning in an '80s rock station and hearing A Flock of Seagulls, or maybe The Thompson Twins singing "Hold Me Now." Nevertheless, this morning there are newsworthy reasons to blast the archival political music - if only to better determine whether the Bush people in power lied to us.

Well, they did. Their own sworn testimony and emails, harvested by the House Judiciary Committee and released yesterday, prove that they did.

This isn't about Iraq; those deceptions have been well documented for years. This about another scandal that has receded all too quickly, the Bush team's firing of nine U.S attorneys back in 2006 - known on this blog as the prosecutor purge scandal. The clear suspicion at the time was that the Bush team had seriously politicized the once-independent U.S. Justice Department, that federal prosecutors around the country were getting pressure to conduct themselves as partisan lackeys for the Republican party, and that their jobs were being jeopardized if they refused. And now, thanks to the release of 700 pages of sworn testimony and 5400 pages of emails, we have proof that this was indeed the Bush agenda.

The White House claimed at the time that these federal prosecutors were fired because they performed poorly on the job. As Bush press secretary Tony Snow insisted on March 15, 2007, "It's pretty clear that these things are based on performance and not on sort of attempts to do political retaliation, of you will." And as President Bush himself insisted five days later, "There's no indication whatsoever, after reviews by the White House staff, that anybody did anything improper." And as Bush political guru Karl Rove has repeatedly insisted ever since, he had no role in whatever did happen.

Before I cite the new evidence that exposes the falsity of those denials, it's important to explain the significance of this scandal. The firing of nine U.S. attorneys, midway through a president's tenure in office, is unprecedented. Once appointed, they traditionally stay on the job until a new president arrives to clean house. Repeat: Federal prosecutors are replaced at the start of a president's term, not in midterm. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has found that, of 486 federal prosecutors appointed between 1981 and 2006, only three were fired in midterm, apparently for documented performance reasons. (For instance, a Bill Clinton appointee was forced to quit under pressre - after he'd lost a big drug case and had subsequently gone to a topless bar. Where he bit a dancer on the arm. That was too much even for Bill.)

Secondly, the Justice Department mission statement does not remotely suggest that U.S. attorneys are supposed to serve the partisan interests of the ruling political party. Rather, the apolitical statement makes it clear that "each United States attorney exercises wide discretion in the use of his/her resources to further the priorities of the local jurisdictions and needs of their communities."

As evidenced by the sworn testimony of Karl Rove and Bush counsel Harriet Miers (testimony that was taken in private, after both had repeatedly resisted congressional subpoenas), and by the White House emails (which were finally extracted after a long legal struggle), it's now clear that David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney for New Mexico, was fired by the White House in 2006 precisely because he resisted Republican pressure to prosecute cases that would help the GOP win elections. A Republican appointee, Iglesias sought to exercise "wide discretion," and he paid the price.

In the House's document dump, the Iglesias case is by far the most substantiated. As early as June 28 2005, Rove deputy Scott Jennings complained in an email to one of his Rove office colleagues that Iglesias was refusing to play ball with New Mexico Republicans, that Iglesias was refusing to prosecute Democrats in vote-fraud cases. Said Jennings, "I would really like to move forward with getting rid of NM USATTY." The Jennings email dovetailed nicely with a Miers email, which indicated - also in June 2005 - that a "decision" had been made to dump Iglesias.

Top New Mexico party leaders, most notably Senator Pete Domenici, kept complaining. So did Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson, who was locked in a tight 2006 re-election race against Democratic challenge Pat Madrid. The New Mexico GOP, hoping to give Wilson a much-needed boost that autumn, wanted Iglesias to bring a corruption case that would ensnare Madrid. But he didn't. Jennings emailed his boss, Rove, to complain that Iglesias was being "shy about doing his job on Madrid."

It should be noted that, throughout this time frame, Iglesias was getting high marks for his performance in office; in writing, the Justice Department lauded his "exemplary leadership." But apparently that didn't cut it with Rove - at least not according to Harriet Miers.

Miers sat for a 10-hour House deposition a few months ago; nearly 150 times, she claimed that she could not recall key events. But she did recall one phone conversation with Rove in September 2006. In her sworn testmony, she described Rove as "very agitated," and she came away believing that Rove wanted Iglesias taken down: "It was clear to me that he felt like (Iglesias) was a serious problem and that he wanted something done about it. He was just upset. I remember him being upset."

Miers relayed Rove's sentiments to a deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty. The documents also show that Rove went directly to attorney general/Bush loyalist Alberto Gonzales with his complaints about Iglesias. Maybe it's just a wild and crazy coincidence, but within weeks, Iglesias' name was added to the official list of prosecutors who would be fired. (Iglesias, interviewed after he was fired, said that he and his bipartisan task force had spent two years probing allegations of Democratic-inspired voter fraud in New Mexico, but, in the end, "we didn't have any prosecutable cases.")

Nothing in the new document dump is particularly shocking, given what we already knew about the previous regime. More than two years ago, for instance, we learned that Rove had suggested to Kyle Sampson, a top Justice official, that perhaps the U.S. attorneys should be screened for partisan loyalty and that those who failed the test should be purged. Sampson subsequently told a White House aide that 15 to 20 percent of the prosecutors could not be considered "loyal Bushies." As for the purge idea, Sampson wrote that "if Karl thinks that there would be a political will to do it, then so do I."

The House document dump is not the final word on this chapter in history, however. All the evidence is being forwarded to a federal prosecutor who is conducting a probe into whether anybody should be criminally charged with making false statements or obstructing justice in connection with any of the firings. There are serious unanswered questions about the firing of a U.S. attorney in Arkansas, and the fact that was replaced by Rove loyalist Tim Griffin. There was also a report last year, by the Justice Department's inspector general, which found that highranking loyal Bushies had made "misleading" and false statements to Congress about the firings.

So even as we continue to dwell on all things Obama, there may well be fresh newsworthy reasons to spin this particular Bush oldie. Even if we have already overdosed on the tune.

 

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
About this blog

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected