EDITORIALS>>U.S. attorney scandal widens
A sheaf of Justice Department memos that arrived on Capitol Hill Monday confirmed what had only been a strong suspicion: The White House intended to fully consolidate the entire federal criminal justice system into its political operation. The primary duty of every United States district attorney was to move along the Republican political agenda and see to it that Republicans were elected in the next election.
Not even lip service was given to the faded ideas of the independent prosecutor and impartial justice under the law. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ chief of staff, whose name appeared most often on the telltale correspondence with the White House, promptly resigned.
White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers, who it turned out had told Gonzales two years ago that President Bush wanted him to fire all 93 district attorneys, each of them appointed by Bush, and install more loyal Republicans, had resigned in January soon after the purge of “disloyal” Republican prosecutors but before her role was known.
Even Republican senators were hinting that Gonzales himself should resign, and yesterday he took the blame for the mess but said he would stay on and fix things. He had one small defense.
He had spurned Bush’s desire to fire all the district attorneys in the United States. Indeed he did, but his explanation at the time was that it would be “disruptive,” not that it would be unconscionable. It is hard to see how Gonzales and the Department of Justice can recover a semblance of trust that they will be the impartial tribunes of justice across the land.
One other resignation or dismissal ought to be imminent: Tim Griffin, the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas, a former political operative for Karl Rove and a mastermind of Republican voter suppression activities in Florida and elsewhere in 2000 and 2004.
Miers had told the Justice Department last year that she and Rove, Bush’s political director, wanted Bud Cummins fired and Griffin installed in his place. Griffin and seven other men dedicated to the White House agenda were appointed in December under an until-then-unknown provision of the USA Patriot Act that allowed the White House to appoint district attorneys on an emergency basis and bypass the Senate, which historically has confirmed the prosecutors.
A memo said the White House wanted to avoid having Arkansas Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor review Griffin’s credentials. “Getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.,” the memo said.
The correspondence between the White House and Justice Department suggested that Bush was mad because his chosen D.A.s were not trying to purge Democratic voters whose registrations might be illegal and prosecuting Democrats for it.
Several of the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired had been prosecuting Republican congressmen and friends for bribery and other crimes, and one was blamed for not speeding up an indictment of a low-ranking Democratic official in New Mexico in order to give Re-publicans a talking point before the close 2006 election there.
Tim Griffin apparently was the prototype of the men the White House wanted. Emails from Griffin to the Bush re-election campaign in 2004 about suppressing Democratic votes in Florida found their way into the wrong hands because he typed in the wrong domain.
The BBC network did a story about Griffin’s “caging” lists to discourage Democratic voters. Griffin has refused to answer questions about his activities and told the White House that if it was going to send the new attorneys to the Senate for confirmation after all, it should not submit his. He insisted again this week that he would not answer questions.
Until 2001, the Justice Department and its district prosecutors worked under the creed so eloquently expressed in 1940 by Attorney General Robert Jackson, later the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and a great justice of the Supreme Court. All the district attorneys were assembled, and he told them what the great American mission of equal justice expected of them.
“The federal prosecutor has been prohibited from engaging in political activities,” Jackson said. “I am convinced that a good-faith acceptance of the spirit and letter of that doctrine will relieve many district attorneys from the embarrassment of what have heretofore been regarded as legitimate expectations of political service.
“There can also be no doubt that to be closely identified with the intrigue, the money raising, and the machinery of a particular party or faction may present a prosecuting officer with embarrassing alignments and associations.”
He warned of the danger of picking targets based on their ideas or politics and looking for wrongdoing by people who hold “the wrong political views.”
One may only look at the record of recent Arkansas D.A.s to see how they adhered to Jackson’s creed. Paula Casey, a Democrat appointed by President Clinton, zealously prosecuted a half-dozen Democratic state lawmakers and their allies for fraudulent dealings with the state prison or a legal advocacy program.
Her predecessor, Republican Chuck Banks, rejected White House pressure to publicly start an investigation of Gov. Bill Clinton weeks before the 1992 presidential election to tarnish him in that race.
Now a study of 375 federal prosecutions of elected officials in the United States since 2001 shows that almost 80 percent of them were of Democrats, only 18 per cent were Republicans and 2 percent were independents. Sadly, that was not high enough for the White House and, sure enough, Republicans took a drubbing in the general election.
In Arkansas, Cummins in six years had nailed only two Democrats, a couple of black city council members at Pine Bluff. You can bet that Tim Griffin, given any chance, will get those numbers up, sharply, by 2008.
The Justice Department said last month that it would be nominating someone to replace Griffin, and he said that he would serve until then. But White House and Justice Department emails that were revealed yesterday prove that they were lying. They plan to drag the process out by seeking candidates and slowly considering all the recommendations — gumming it to death was the phrase — and keep Griffin in office through 2008. Griffin is cooperating in the deception.
Whatever integrity can be mustered in the Department of “Justice” should be marshaled today to fire Griffin and assure the people that pure and evenhanded justice will be the creed in the eastern district of Arkansas.