Leader Blues

Monday, April 02, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Integrity counts

If none of his superiors at the Department of Justice understood it, Bud Cummins at least knew the majestic principle that was at stake in the purge of U.S. attorneys who were not deemed to be “loyal Bushies,” in the immortal words of one of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s lieutenants. It was the integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in that system.

Cummins was the young Republican firebrand who was installed as U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas after President Bush’s victory in 2000 and then fired last year to make way for an operative from the White House political office and the Republican National Committee.

Cummins had loyally covered for his bosses until they publicly suggested that the other seven district attorneys who were fired for political reasons after the 2006 election were let go because they were incompetent.

It turned out that the Justice Department’s own records had ranked them among the top performers in the country until Karl Rove and Harriet Miers of the presidential staff were heard from.

The prosecutors were either pushing too hard on Republican graft or not hard enough to nail Democrats before the ’06 election.

Speaking at the Clinton School for Public Service, Cummins said the attorney general had a sacred obligation to “firewall” the prosecuting attorneys from party pressures, whether from the White House Office of Political Affairs or from members of Congress.

By failing to do so and by obliging those partisan interests, Cummins said, the attorney general has caused the public to wonder if politics lies behind every prosecution. He said he was sure that was plaguing federal prosecutors now in federal courtrooms across the country.

He said he and thousands of other Bush supporters won government appointments in 2001 and that there was nothing wrong with that system.

But once sworn to impartially enforce the laws, he said, his obligation was to the public and not to his party or to the peculiar political interests of the president and his political staff.

We never had an occasion to be so proud of Cummins or to lament his departure. But we think he was wrong in one assessment.

He said no one should blame Karl Rove, the president’s political director, for wanting to fire prosecutors who weren’t doing their political bidding or for pressuring the Justice Department. “Karl Rove gets paid to think up silly ideas,” he said. That’s what political consultants like Rove, Dick Morris and James Carville do, he added. The attorney general just has to shield American prosecutors from them.

But there is a difference between Rove and the others. Rove is a salaried employee of the public; the others were private political consultants. Rove and his staff, regardless of the name of the office, and the White House counsel’s staff cannot be paid to use government power to affect election outcomes. The federal Hatch Act prohibits it. It also raises questions about obstruction of justice.

While top Justice Depart-ment officials were squirming this week from revelations of their electronic correspondence, the point was made even clearer at hearings in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about abuse of the General Services Administration by the White House political operation.

Rove’s top aide and the GSA administrator, Lurita Alexis Doan, held a Power Point videoconference with 40 GSA regional administrators where the White House man identified key Democrats in Congress that Republicans thought they had the best chance to beat in 2008 (our Mark Pryor, who is up in ’08, was almost certainly on the list) and key Republicans who were considered weak and vulnerable to Democratic opponents.

Doan wanted everyone to think about how the government contracting agency could help undermine the Democrats and strengthen the Republicans.

That violates the Hatch Act or nothing does. Doan, a wealthy government contractor until Bush hired her last May to run the government contracting agency, said she didn’t exactly remember all of that happening but there were ample witnesses.

Bud Cummins was too charitable about electioneering by government employees, including those in the White House. We don’t think he really meant it. But he knows that it has no place in American jurisprudence and it is too bad that his principles are not universally shared.

—Ernie Dumas