No Comment — June 1, 2007, 12:48 pm

U.S. Attorneys Scandal—Little Rock and Kansas City

The more we track the still-unfolding U.S. attorneys scandal, the more it appears to be in its essence something different: a massive scheme to corrupt the elections process. Today’s National Journal offers another one of those ground-breaking reports by the excellent Murray Waas which seems typically both deeper into the detail and at a higher level of macro appreciation of the issues than most journalists.

We now know that two U.S. attorneys were ousted in the region around the Ozarks and the Missouri, in Little Rock and in Kansas City. And it seems all but conclusively shown that there are a number of ties between these cases. Waas approaches them through a new route: he looks at the Republican election campaign, and specifically at its fine-tuned voter suppression operation, an approach that puts a shadowy figure named Mark (“Thor”) Hearne at center stage.

Although the actions of the two U.S. attorneys were unconnected, they shared a common denominator: Mark (Thor) Hearne, a Republican Party operative who had served as national election counsel for the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign and played a behind-the-scenes role in both cases. Hearne’s role provides a window into how a Republican activist was pushing Bush administration officials — and perhaps in some cases working in concert with them — to use the Justice Department for partisan purposes.

Last year’s neck-and-neck Senate race in Missouri between Republican incumbent Jim Talent and Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill was a high-profile contest for both political parties. Democratic and Republican operatives were looking for any edge they could find in the race, which McCaskill ended up winning narrowly. Republicans feared that an investigation of the Blunt administration by the U.S. attorney in Arkansas, Bud Cummins, could tar Blunt and hurt Talent and other GOP candidates on the ballot. Blunt himself was not up for re-election. The investigation was spurred by allegations that the Blunt administration had improperly awarded state contracts to political contributors to run privately operated bureaus where Missouri residents obtain driver’s licenses and register their vehicles. Because of potential conflicts of interest, the U.S. attorneys in Missouri weren’t handling the investigation.

Hearne, Waas infers, is the man at the center of this entire operation. Bradley Schlozman, another GOP voting suppression huckster, was his go-between, and ultimately the means through which Hearne and his White House friends suppressed a potentially dangerous criminal investigation.

So far, the Little Rock – Kansas City case seems one of the starkest examples of direct political manipulation of the prosecutorial machinery for electoral results. Both career U.S. attorneys resisted these overtures, and, in consequence, both were removed and replaced with partisan political hacks of the crudest sort(one being Schlozman himself). But Waas looks at the role that Bud Cummins played in this process and comes to some critical points. In particular, Cummins’s management of an investigation touching on a senior Missouri Republican official seems to have been rushed to a conclusion in advance of the election, and Cummins seems to have crossed the line in public statements designed to exonerate the Republican:

On October 4, 2006, about a month before Election Day, Cummins said in a statement: “Normally, a United States’ Attorney’s Office does not comment on or even confirm the existence of any investigation unless or until formal charges result…. There are, however, exceptional circumstances where it becomes appropriate to disclose certain information…. Earlier in the year, the existence of the investigation was disclosed to the media and has since become a topic of substantial public interest and discourse in the State of Missouri. In light of that unfortunate disclosure and the publicity it spawned, it is appropriate to confirm certain facts. First, the matter has been closed with no indictments sought or returned. Second, at no time was Governor Blunt a target, subject, or witness in the investigation, nor was he implicated in any allegation being investigated.”

Within the U.S. attorney’s office in Little Rock, some prosecutors objected to Cummins’s statement. They said they believed it violated the Justice Department guideline that prosecutors not comment on investigations, and that clearing a Republican governor so close to an election might raise questions about whether Blunt received preferential treatment in contrast with others who almost never receive statements exonerating them.

Certainly the suspicion is that main Justice, being pushed by the White House, made this happen. In any event, it contrasts sharply with the handling of prosecutions against Democrats which fell apart after the elections and seemed to be on prosecutorial life-support to get them across the election finish line.

In any case, the stench of political corruption in these prosecutions is overpowering. And the aim of Gonzales’s action in cashiering U.S. attorneys on December 7 appears to have been to make this sort of conduct the new national standard. Is it any wonder that the Justice Department is no longer able to recruit qualified candidates for service as assistant U.S. attorneys? On the other hand, all the evidence suggests that the Gonzales Justice Department has its own ideas of how new prosecutors are to be “qualified,” and the old performance standards hardly matter. The new requirements are partisan political fidelity and having a blind eye for ethics.

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