Leader Blues

Monday, March 19, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Disillusioned Republican

Harry E. “Bud” Cummins III was as hardy a Republican as you could find and probably still is although his career in the Grand Old Party is surely over. He carried the party’s banner in a tough race against U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder in 1996, worked for the slate in every election and was one of the six George W. Bush electors from Arkansas in 2000.

He was rewarded with the job of U.S. attorney in 2001. When they called from the Justice Department to fire him last June, Cummins quietly and graciously acceded, even to the Washington strategy of delaying his “voluntary” resignation until after Congress went into its winter recess so that President Bush could appoint his successor without having to get the Senate’s concurrence. When his and the firing of seven other district attorneys created a ruckus in December Cummins steadfastly defended the president’s prerogative to replace them even on a whim.

This week Bud Cummins is a chastened man, disillusioned that the leaders of his party would try to make legal justice a function of political loyalty. First a telephone call in February from the Justice Department warning of nasty consequences if the fired prosecutors did not lay low and then the release of a sheaf of memoranda between the Justice Department and the White House persuaded Cummins that he might have been too charitable about his bosses.

“This is the kind of thing you convince yourself only happens in the other party,” Cummins told a Memphis newspaper this week. “But the truth is, from time to time it is no longer a question of party, it is just a question of right or wrong.”

The emails among Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ chief of staff and top White House aides, including the president’s secretary and chief counsel, Harriet Miers, indicated that Cummins and the other attorneys, all Republicans, were not sufficiently loyal or else “chafed” at the White House agenda.

They were not “loyal Bushies,” as one email described the better U.S. attorneys although the disloyalties of the eight were never identified. Most of the fired attorneys had been investigating Republican officials for public corruption and had gotten a conviction or two or else they did not nail Democratic officials in time to influence the election last year.

At first, those political failings did not seem to apply to Cummins, who had not prosecuted Republican officials in Arkansas and had prosecuted two minor Democrats, a couple of Pine Bluff aldermen. He tried and failed to convict a Tennessee state medical examiner of fraud in a bizarre case where the U.S. prosecutor was disqualified for a conflict of interest.

Cummins did not have the stunning record of his predecessor, Clinton appointee Paula Casey, who had sent senators, a representative, a prominent prosecuting attorney and other Democrats to prison or fined them for corruption. The whole phalanx of Clinton U.S. attorneys appointed in 1993 produced rafts of convictions. In Chicago, the new Democratic prosecutor expanded the investigation of the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and indicted him on 17 counts.

But this week, after all the revelations, Cummins was not so sure that the White House’s desire to replace him with Tim Griffin, an aide who had been engaged in opposition research on Democrats for most of eight years, was not motivated by the same politics.

Early last year Cummins went to Missouri to supervise an investigation of government contracting under Republican officials. There were allegations that the Republican governor, Matt Blunt, had rewarded political supporters with lucrative contracts to run state drivers license offices, including the wife of a Republican U.S. attorney. Both U.S. attorneys recused because they had conflicts and Cummins was brought in to direct the investigation.

Cummins said Washington never asked him to whitewash Blunt in spite of a critical Senate race in that state. But he did get a call from the governor’s attorney asking about the investigation and wanting to put out a public announcement before the election that Gov. Blunt did nothing wrong and was not a target.

Following Justice Department policy, Cummins refused to discuss the investigation. Soon afterward, he got a call from the Justice Department telling him that the White House wanted him to quit later in the year. Now, he told the Kansas City Star this week, he is beginning to think the Blunt investigation was the reason.

Two weeks before the election, violating old Justice Department policy of keeping mum on investigations unless there is an indictment, Cummins issued a public statement exonerating Blunt. It made no difference.

On Dec. 15 the Justice Department appointed Griffin to his job under a provision of the Patriot Act giving the president powers to skip the Senate in emergencies. Cummins resigned the next day.

Cummins has not gone the next step and demanded that his successor, now so terribly tainted by the injection of politics into the prosecution of justice, resign. But that is the only way to restore confidence that justice will be administered impartially in the eastern district of Arkansas.