Six of the eight US Attorneys fired by the Justice Dept testified all day yesterday, first in the House and then in the Senate, describing in detail how their dismissals came about. There wasn’t all that much that was new, frankly. Most of it simply confirmed what had been written in the press and a lot of the speculation in the blogosphere.
Six fired U.S. attorneys testified on Capitol Hill yesterday that they had separately been the target of complaints, improper telephone calls and thinly veiled threats from a high-ranking Justice Department official or members of Congress, both before and after they were abruptly removed from their jobs.
In back-to-back hearings in the Senate and House, former U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico and five other former prosecutors recounted specific instances in which some said they felt pressured by Republicans on corruption cases and one said a Justice Department official warned him to keep quiet or face retaliation.
Pretty much what we figured had happened, knowing the Bush Administration as well as we do at this point. What’s been more interesting have been the responses from Justice as the case has opened up – and the lack of response from anybody higher than Assistant Attorney General William Moschella. Why don’t we start with him before we go on to Domenici and Heather Wilson, since he testified yesterday as well.
The JD has been doing the Reagan Three-Step:
- Offer a minimal explanation that quickly gets knocked down – in this case, “bad performance reviews”, demolished when Pelosi got hold of the actual reviews, which were all very positive, not to say glowing.
- Concentrate on admitting a single action to the exclusion of the others, in this case –
The Justice Department has said that seven of the prosecutors were dismissed for failing to follow Bush administration policy on multiple issues, and acknowledged that one was sacked to make way for an ally of White House political adviser Karl Rove.
– while continuing to insist that the remainder were fired for “performance-related issues”.
- And finally, acknowledging a major “error” that you then blow past as quickly as possible as if it were a minor mistake anybody could have made, really, and let’s not get all bent out of shape about it, meanwhile adding new excuses –
The Justice Department said initially that the prosecutors had “performance-related” problems, but more recently it asserted that they had not adequately carried out Bush administration priorities on immigration, the death penalty and other issues. The department has also acknowledged that Cummins, the Little Rock prosecutor, was asked to resign solely to provide a job for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove.
“In hindsight, perhaps this situation could have been handled better,” Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella said in prepared testimony yesterday in the House. ” . . . That said, the department stands by the decisions.”
– finally finishing up by digging in.
This is the political damage-control procedure the Reagan Administration used to great effect when Iran/Contra exploded on the front pages. Even when it went to court – and some Admin members went to jail – the ones truly responsible for Ollie North’s activities slipped out from under the accusations by back-tracking until they could erect a wall of deniability.
But that isn’t going to work here. For one thing, we’re smarter now. For another, their excuses are impossibly lame.
Take Pete Domenici. He called Iglesias in October.
Domenici’s chief of staff, Steve Bell, called Iglesias at his home in New Mexico and “indicated there were some complaints by constituents.” Domenici then got on the phone for a conversation that lasted “one to two minutes,” Iglesias recalled.
“Are these going to be filed before November?” Domenici asked, Iglesias testified, referring to the kickback case. Unnerved by the call, Iglesias said he responded that they were not.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Domenici replied, according to Iglesias, who added that the senator then hung up.
Pete’s response to this?
Domenici stressed in a statement issued yesterday that Iglesias “confirmed” that the senator never mentioned the November election and that he had no idea why the prosecutor felt “violated.” (all emphasis added)
Apparently, Republicans don’t think anybody can so much as add 1 + 1 and get 2. He mentioned November but because he didn’t use the word “election”, he thinks he’s off the hook? I mean, really. How dumb do these clowns think we are? He doesn’t honestly expect that to fly, does he? I mean, what’s he going to claim next? That he forgot the election was in November?
Wilson wasn’t much better.
Iglesias testified that Wilson called him while he was visiting Washington on Oct. 16 to quiz him about an investigation of a state Democrat related to kickbacks in a courthouse construction project.
“What can you tell me about sealed indictments?” Iglesias said Wilson asked him.
Iglesias said “red flags” immediately went up in his mind because it was unethical for him to talk about an ongoing criminal investigation, particularly on the timing of indictments.
I don’t know whether or not Wilson is a lawyer but then again, I’m not and even I know you don’t ask a prosecutor anything about sealed indictments. THAT’S WHY THEY’RE SEALED, Heather, you pinhead. Duh.
Wilson insists there was nothing wrong with what she did and offers the kind of hair-splitting explanation that’s become standard Pub fare whenever they’re caught with their hand in the cookie jar.
Wilson denied allegations from former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias that she pressured him to speed up a political corruption investigation involving Democrats in the waning days of her tight election campaign last fall.
“I did not ask about the timing of any indictments and I did not tell Mr. Iglesias what course of action I thought he should take or pressure him in any way,” Wilson said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The conversation was brief and professional.”
“Professional”. Right. So because she didn’t explicitly threaten him, there was no threat. And if you buy that, I’ve got a swamp in my backyard that’s full of GOLD and I’m willing to let you take it home for a mere $100K.
Neither Wilson nor Domenici has yet offered any explanation whatever for WHY THEY CALLED IN THE FIRST PLACE. What other purpose besides intimidation could such calls have? It’s none of their business how those prosecutions were coming along. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. As Iglesias said yesterday, they were unprecedented. No member of Congress had ever called him about on-going investigations before. Mary Jo White went even further.
“The whole series of events has been remarkable and unprecedented,” said Mary Jo White, who served for nine years as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Clinton and Bush administrations. “It’s not a matter of whether they have the power to do it; it’s a matter of the wisdom of the actions taken. It shows a total disregard for the institution of the U.S. attorney’s offices and what they stand for.”
And what of the JD? Elston’s a lawyer, and he called Bud Cummins and –
– warned him on Feb. 20 that the fired prosecutors should remain quiet about their dismissals. Cummins recounted in an e-mail made public yesterday that the official cautioned that administration officials would “pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully.”
“It seemed clear that they would see that as a major escalation of the conflict meriting some kind of unspecified form of retaliation,” Cummins wrote in the e-mail, which he sent as a cautionary note to fellow prosecutors.
Elston defended himself by insisting to the Senate
that he never intended to send a threatening message in his talks with Cummins. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that “a private and collegial conversation” was “being twisted into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress.”
Oh, pul-leease. Gimme some credit here. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck last night. None of these prosecutors volunteered to testify and only Cummins made a public statement when the JD tried to justify his dismissal with a bogus attack on his ability. Roehrkasse sounds like a corporate lawyer blaming a worker who got hurt because he had to use shoddy equipment: “It doesn’t matter that the straps of the safety harness we provided were worn through. He shouldn’t have moved around so much. Now he’s twisting the truth so he can collect Workman’s Comp, the fraud.” That kind of bullshit explanation is only going to play to the faithful or the brain-dead (if there’s a difference). You’re going to have to do better than that, buddy-boy.
But they haven’t. It appears that Republicans have gotten away with inadequate, lame, even nonsensical explanations of their criminal behavior for so long, and fallen so deeply into their latent authoritarianism, that they now think all they should have to do is deny everything and the rest of us are supposed to go, “Uh. Okay then,” and move on to something else.
Note to Pete, Heather, Mike, and the rest of the Bushies: Uh-uh. Not no more, guys. Them days is history.
Update: The NYT has an editorial today (3/8) in which it, too, finally asks the same question I asked about the Domenici and Wilson phone calls:
Americans often suspect that their political leaders are arrogant and out of touch. But even then it is nearly impossible to fathom what self-delusion could have convinced Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico that he had a right to call a federal prosecutor at home and question him about a politically sensitive investigation.
Domenici isn’t stupid and he’s been around a long time. He knows better than that. But he is also a good little GOP hack. The most obvious answer is that somebody told him to make that call – or “requested” it – who was much higher up on the Pub food chain. The question is, who? Gonzales? Cheney? Inquiring minds want to know.
After going through yesterday’s testimony, it concludes:
Congress must keep demanding answers. It must find out who decided to fire these prosecutors and why, and who may have authorized putting pressure on Mr. Cummins. And it must look into whether Senator Domenici and Representatives Wilson and Hastings violated ethics rules that forbid this sort of interference. We hope the House committee will not be deterred by the fact that Mr. Hastings is its ranking Republican. The Justice Department also needs to open its own investigation. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s claim that these prosecutors were fired for poor performance was always difficult to believe. Now it’s impossible.