Attorney Scandal: Gonzales and White House's Lying to Congress Has Consequences

Top White House aide Karl Rove continues to portray the U.S. Attorney scandal as "a lot of politics," something for Congress to "play around with." But the continuing allegations of wrongdoing and dishonesty are placing heavy pressure on senior Bush administration figures. "Republican officials operating at the behest of the White House have begun seeking a possible successor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales," whose support among conservative lawmakers has "collapsed," The Politico reported last night. It is a "now a virtual certainty that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, whose incomplete and inaccurate congressional testimony about the prosecutors helped precipitate the crisis, will also resign shortly." Rove's spin cannot paper over the serious ethical and legal questions raised by the U.S. Attorney purge, and the administration's subsequent effort to cover up its deeds.

The Ethics Problem: Several members of Congress -- including Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Reps. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Doc Hastings (R-WA) -- have acknowledged that they or their offices contacted a U.S. Attorney about an ongoing case, which may violate congressional ethics rules. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleges that Domenici's call to U.S. attorney David Iglesias violated an ethics rule stating that "Senate offices should refrain from intervening in such legal actions…until the matter has reached a resolution in the courts," and that "Senators are not to communicate with an agency regarding ongoing enforcement or investigative matters." Wilson and Hastings may have violated similar House ethics rules.

The legal problem -- lying to Congress: There are at least two instances where Bush administration officials may have violated federal law in the course of this scandal. One involves testimony to Congress by Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty that the Justice Department would never fire U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Subsequent Justice Department e-mails have shown that to be untrue. It is illegal to lie to Congress, and the relevant provision "is very broad." Gonzales has blamed their inaccurate testimony on his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week after Gonzales said Sampson had provided "incomplete information" to senior Justice Department officials. But as CREW explains, "Federal law provides that if Sampson knew that he was causing DOJ officials to make inaccurate statements to Congress, he can be prosecuted for the federal crime of lying to Congress even though he did not personally make any statements to Congress." Now Sampson's lawyer now says other top Justice Department officials knew of the White House's role. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said last week that "Kyle Sampson will not become the next Scooter Libby, the next fall guy."

The legal problem -- obstructing an investigation: Secondly, "if the attorneys were fired to interfere with a valid prosecution, or to punish them for not misusing their offices, that may well have been illegal." "Fired San Diego U.S. attorney Carol Lam notified the Justice Department that she intended to execute search warrants on a high-ranking CIA official as part of a corruption probe the day before a Justice Department official sent an e-mail that said Lam needed to be fired," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said on Sunday. Feinstein "said the timing of the e-mail suggested that Lam's dismissal may have been connected to the corruption probe." Congress has also called for an investigation of the removal of Frederick Black, the U.S. attorney in Guam, who was fired after he began investigating criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "Anyone involved in firing a United States attorney to obstruct or influence an official proceeding could have broken the law. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said last week that if an attorney is fired "to stop an ongoing investigation, then you do get into the criminal area."

The independence problem: E-mails show that the Bush administration rated the "performance" of U.S. attorneys on whether or not they were "loyal Bushies." The White House is now justifying its prosecutor purge by arguing that since these attorneys are "political" appointees who "serve at the pleasure of the President," there's nothing objectionable about them being fired for political reasons. But as Feinstein has pointed out, "political" means only that they are appointed by the President. "[O]nce that prosecutor takes the oath of office, that prosecutor must become independent," she said. "That prosecutor must be objective and what I worry about most of all in this is the chilling effect this has on objectivity of the American U.S. attorney who is the main prosecutor for the federal government of big cases under federal law." Likewise, Leahy noted that while there is nothing illegal in a president firing a U.S. attorney, the message it sends to law enforcement is, "You either play by our political rules -- by our political rules, not by law enforcement rules, but by our political rules -- or you're out of a job. What I am saying is that that hurts law enforcement, that hurts fighting against crime." Atlee W. Wampler III, chairman of a national organization of former United States attorneys and a prosecutor who served in the Carter and Reagan administrations, agrees: "People who understand the history and the mission of the United States attorney and Justice Department they are uniformly appalled, horrified," he said. "That the tradition of the Justice Department could have been so warped by that kind of action -- any American should be disturbed."


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