Thursday, March 29, 2007

US Attorney dismissals

Republican Politics, American Style
Published March 29th 2007 in Metro Eireann
By Charles Laffiteau

A major controversy over the Bush Administration’s dismissals of several US Attorneys last December has been in the news headlines lately in the United States, so I will now attempt to explain why this has suddenly become a major issue in the US some 3 months after the fact.

To begin with, the national news media was slow to grasp the significance of the dismissals of 8 of the 93 Republican US States Attorneys on December 15th of last year. It is common practice for new presidents to replace all of the US Attorneys shortly after they take office. Presidents Regan, Clinton and Bush Sr. all did this shortly after taking office as did President Bush in 2001.

What was unusual about these dismissals was that they came with only 2 years remaining in President Bush’s term in office. While appointments as US Attorney typically are for 4 year terms, when Presidents Clinton and Regan were re-elected they did not dismiss the US Attorneys they had appointed 4 years earlier. Nor did they dismiss almost 10% of their US Attorneys after mid-term elections just 2 years before they were to leave office.

Keep in mind that all of the US Attorneys that were fired on December 15th, were prominent Republican lawyers who had first been nominated for their positions by the Bush administration after it first took office in 2001. Their appointments were then confirmed by the US Senate while the Republican Party still held a majority in Congress. Why were they being so abruptly replaced with just 2 years remaining in their and the Bush administration’s term of office? Why would the Bush administration want to nominate replacements who would have to be vetted and confirmed by a new US Senate controlled by the Democratic Party?

The answer to the last question, rested on an obscure provision which had been secretly inserted by a Republican congressional staffer into the US Patriot Act before it was renewed by Congress last year. Unbeknownst to most Republican and Democratic Senators, this new provision allowed “interim” US Attorney nominees to serve indefinitely without Senate approval, instead of for only 120 days.

Once these Senators discovered that they had unknowingly approved giving such authority to the Executive Branch of government, they rebelled en masse, Republicans and Democrats alike. As more and more evidence began to emerge that the firings were politically motivated, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to rescind that provision and force President Bush’s new US Attorney nominees to go thru the confirmation process.

As for why they were being so abruptly replaced, initially the US Department of Justice (DOJ), for whom the US Attorneys work, said nothing. When pressed for an explanation, the DOJ finally said it was a just a personnel matter related to performance issues. This explanation understandably didn’t sit well with the US Attorneys in question or some of their Republican supporters back in their home states.

It also sounds funny, because 5 of the 8 attorneys had received glowing DOJ evaluations for their work throughout their terms in office up to and including their most recent evaluations in 2006. One of them had even been asked to conduct a seminar for other federal prosecuting attorneys because of his excellent work setting up a task force to address an area of particular DOJ concern. At this point, other members of the news media took notice and began to investigate whether or not some of these terminations were in fact politically motivated.

The DOJ began fumbling with its explanations as more media investigation and attention was brought to bear on these US Attorneys dismissals. The DOJ’s initial story about them being strictly performance related and not political in nature slowly began to unravel. A case in point was the DOJ’s acknowledgement that the US Attorney for eastern Arkansas, Bud Cummins, had not been dismissed for performance issues, but rather to make way for Tim Griffin, a protégé of Karl Rove, the President’s chief political advisor.

Tim Griffin was an attorney from Arkansas who had very little experience as a prosecutor. But from 1999 to 2006 he had worked as a Republican Party opposition researcher digging up dirt on Democrats for the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Karl Rove. While at the RNC he also put together a “caging” scheme to wipe out the voting rights of 70,000 likely Democratic voters who were poor, black or serving in the military prior to the 2004 election. Nice resume for a potential US Attorney.

Then e-mails by the US Attorney General’s Chief of Staff, alluding to the fact that Karl Rove and Harriet Miers wanted Tim Griffin to take Bud Cummins job were released. Tim Griffin wanted this particular US Attorney’s position as a favour from the White House for his political research work, so he could burnish his resume back home in Arkansas prior to his run for political office as Arkansas’ State Attorney General in 2008 0r 2010.

This news really stimulated the national news media because now there was apparently a direct link between the political wing of the White House and the DOJ’s termination of at least one of these US Attorneys. This did not go down well with many Republicans or Democrats in Congress, since the DOJ is supposed to function as an independent federal government agency, not as an extension of the White House.

The President and the Attorney General finally admitted that the dismissals and subsequent conflicting explanations had been handled poorly and that “mistakes had been made.” Members of both parties began to complain about the conflicting explanations coming from the Attorney General’s office and the DOJ and started calling for Attorney General Gonzales to resign and for a Congressional investigation to find the truth.

The DOJ then released over 3000 pages of e-mails between the DOJ and the White House concerning the terminations, in an effort to show that they were not politically motivated. However there was a gap of 16 days from November 15th until December 2nd (just before the firings) where there were no e-mails. Hmmm, this reminds me of the “missing” White House recordings back in the days of the Watergate scandal.

As I write this, the White House and Congress are now heading for a constitutional showdown over the President’s right to “executive privilege”. Congressional Committees in both the House and Senate are issuing subpoenas to Karl Rove and other White House officials to testify under oath regarding their role in the firings of these US attorneys and the White House is refusing to allow this.

Welcome to the world of divided government in the United States.

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