Overblown Personnel Matters
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Nobody is surprised to learn that the Justice Department was lying when it claimed that recently fired federal prosecutors were dismissed for poor performance. Nor is anyone surprised to learn that White House political operatives were pulling the strings.
What is surprising is how fast the truth is emerging about what Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, dismissed just five days ago as an “overblown personnel matter.”
Sources told Newsweek that the list of prosecutors to be fired was drawn up by Mr. Gonzales’s chief of staff, “with input from the White House.” And Allen Weh, the chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, told McClatchy News that he twice sought Karl Rove’s help — the first time via a liaison, the second time in person — in getting David Iglesias, the state’s U.S. attorney, fired for failing to indict Democrats. “He’s gone,” he claims Mr. Rove said.
After that story hit the wires, Mr. Weh claimed that his conversation with Mr. Rove took place after the decision to fire Mr. Iglesias had already been taken. Even if that’s true, Mr. Rove should have told Mr. Weh that political interference in matters of justice is out of bounds; Mr. Weh’s account of what he said sounds instead like the swaggering of a two-bit thug.
And the thuggishness seems to have gone beyond firing prosecutors who didn’t deliver the goods for the G.O.P. One of the fired prosecutors was — as he saw it — threatened with retaliation by a senior Justice Department official if he discussed his dismissal in public. Another was rejected for a federal judgeship after administration officials, including then-White House counsel Harriet Miers, informed him that he had “mishandled” the 2004 governor’s race in Washington, won by a Democrat, by failing to pursue vote-fraud charges.
As I said, none of this is surprising. The Bush administration has been purging, politicizing and de-professionalizing federal agencies since the day it came to power. But in the past it was able to do its business with impunity; this time Democrats have subpoena power, and the old slime-and-defend strategy isn’t working.
You also have to wonder whether new signs that Mr. Gonzales and other administration officials are willing to cooperate with Congress reflect the verdict in the Libby trial. It probably comes as a shock to realize that even Republicans can face jail time for lying under oath.
Still, a lot of loose ends have yet to be pulled. We now know exactly why Mr. Iglesias was fired, but still have to speculate about some of the other cases — in particular, that of Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for Southern California.
Ms. Lam had already successfully prosecuted Representative Randy Cunningham, a Republican. Just two days before leaving office she got a grand jury to indict Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor, and Kyle (Dusty) Foggo, the former third-ranking official at the C.I.A. (Mr. Foggo was brought in just after the 2004 election, when, reports said, the administration was trying to purge the C.I.A. of liberals.) And she was investigating Representative Jerry Lewis, Republican of California, the former head of the House Appropriations Committee.
Was Ms. Lam dumped to protect corrupt Republicans? The administration says no, a denial that, in light of past experience, is worth precisely nothing. But how do Congressional investigators plan to get to the bottom of this story?
Another big loose end involves what U.S. attorneys who weren’t fired did to please their employers. As I pointed out last week, the numbers show that since the Bush administration came to power, federal prosecutors have investigated far more Democrats than Republicans.
But the numbers can tell only part of the story. What we really need — and it will take a lot of legwork — is a portrait of the actual behavior of prosecutors across the country. Did they launch spurious investigations of Democrats, as I suggested last week may have happened in New Jersey? Did they slow-walk investigations of Republican scandals, like the phone-jamming case in New Hampshire?
In other words, the truth about that “overblown personnel matter” has only begun to be told. The good news is that for the first time in six years, it’s possible to hope that all the facts about a Bush administration scandal will come out in Congressional hearings — or, if necessary, in the impeachment trial of Alberto Gonzales.