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Six Questions (with a nod to Ken Silverstein) for James Moore, Author of Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential and The Architect: Karl Rove and the Dream of Absolute Power.
A Texas Republican campaign manager I know, who cut his teeth working in the Lone Star State, and often with Karl Rove, told me that Rove owed his reputation to two things: “direct-mail marketing and an uncanny ability to manipulate federal prosecutors into going after the officeholder his client was trying to unseat.” Texans are familiar with the story of Rove and the curious FBI agent who always did his bidding. And now, as a controversy surrounding Karl Rove and his covert dealings with federal prosecutors takes center stage in Washington and raises concerns in prosecutions around the country—from Milwaukee to Montgomery—we have asked the Emmy Award-winning journalist James Moore to look back to Rove’s involvement in a series of campaigns in Texas in 1990 and the federal investigations and prosecutions that moved seamlessly in the background. What clues do they offer in the current scandal?
1. Rove was hired to run the campaign of Rick Perry, the current governor, for the powerful Texas office of Commissioner of Agriculture, then held by Democrat Jim Hightower. Shortly thereafter, it was clear that a major FBI investigation had been launched into the workings of the Texas Agriculture Department (TDA), focusing on Hightower and his senior lieutenants, who had been pursuing a populist, anti-corporate agriculture and pro-small-farmer agenda. The investigation resulted in the prosecution of Bob Boyd, a longtime friend and consultant to Hightower, who was at the time under contract with the TDA. The charges against Boyd accused him of soliciting farmers, during official state inspection trips, for donations to a PAC that would help Hightower’s hand-picked successor become the next Texas Commissioner of Agriculture. The charges against Boyd were hyped aggressively in the media. Did you think the charges against him were very strong? Had there been a track record of this sort of prosecution in the past?
The charges against Boyd were weak and without real merit. He was doing something that almost every state employee in a significant role had been doing since the dawn of the Republic of Texas. It is still happening today. Often, when state employees or consultants working for a specific agency are sent on regular trips, they use their off-hours for political purposes. In Boyd’s case, he thought he could curry favor with Hightower and secure future contracts by raising money for him. Hightower and his assistant agriculture commissioner, Mike Moeller, and his top assistant Pete McRae, were unaware of what Boyd was doing. When Moeller found out, he ordered it stopped. Moeller, who was next in line for the TDA job as a Democratic candidate, and McRae, ended up being indicted under specious claims that they had offered Boyd contracts in return for fundraising, which was not ever proved in court. The inescapable irony of all this is that senior staffers who worked for Rick Perry when he became governor, and Perry himself, continued the practice of political fundraising while on state business trips. It is, in fact, a practice that was happening about 1000 times a day back then and continues to this day. President Bush and other presidents travel on government business and then turn to political endeavors in their after hours. And, ultimately, nobody was better at making this happen than Karl Rove.
2. A key role was played in the TDA investigation by FBI Special Agent Greg Rampton. Rove first met FBI Agent Rampton during the investigation into the “bugging” of Rove’s office back in 1986. How would you describe the relationship between Rampton and Rove? Texas Land Commissioner Gary Mauro stated, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that he [Rampton] and Karl had lunch on a regular basis and had telephone calls on a regular basis. I think it was fairly common knowledge and they did it in public so it wasn’t like they were that secretive.” Is there any other evidence exists to suggest a special relationship between Greg Rampton and Karl Rove?
We only know that Rove and Rampton met during the bugging investigation. However, we also know that Rove has always been very good at utilizing the political inclinations of his contacts while also turning government institutions into political tools. Rampton made no secret of the fact that he thought all politicians, especially Democrats, were on the take. Karl would have found a way to make use of this fervent conviction. A few years prior to the bugging, Rampton had been a lead investigator out of the Austin FBI office in a legislative sting operation called BriLab. Since Democrats held almost every office at that time, they were his targets. By the time Rampton was called in to investigate the bugging of Rove’s office, Rove knew Rampton by reputation. Karl would have certainly offered any information he had to assist Rampton in his goal of bringing down politicians, who, conveniently for Rove at that time, were Democrats. Both Rampton and Rove have suggested they only “think” they may have had contact with each other during that time period, which is patent nonsense.
3. You mention that Greg Rampton [the FBI agent in charge of investigating the Texas Department of Agriculture] was viewed by the Democrats as a “mad dog.” That term implies instability, but also independence. Is there any evidence to suggest that Karl Rove was involved in guiding Rampton?
Rampton’s “mad dog” reputation came from his determination to launch investigations without justification simply to see what he might turn up. During the political ascent of Karl Rove in Texas, Greg Rampton had every statewide officeholder (all Democrats) under investigation. To suggest there was no connection between him and Rove is to ignore the juxtaposition of events. The day that Agriculture Commission Jim Hightower was announcing his reelection campaign, Rampton made a point of visiting his office to deliver subpoenas. That was a bigger news story that day than the announcement of reelection. Rampton spent 9 months inside of Democratic Land Commissioner Gary Mauro’s office, copying phone records and files, and came away with nothing incriminating. When other individuals in various state agencies were about to get subpoenaed, Rove knew about it before anyone else in town and called reporters, including me, to tip us off in advance. A reporter for one of the major newspapers confirmed to me that all of his stories about the investigation of Hightower’s office were prompted by tips from Rove, who consistently knew what direction the investigation was heading before such knowledge became public. When Rove was asked under oath by a Texas State Senate committee if he knew Greg Rampton, Rove responded with a locution that was to later be made famous by President Clinton. “Ah, Senator, it depends on what your definition of ‘know’ is,” Rove said. Initially, Rove said he only had heard of Rampton and then he said they may have had a phone conversation and, eventually, he conceded it’s possible they had met somewhere. Rampton has displayed the same sort of inclination for playing with facts as does Rove. Rampton was a key investigator for the FBI at the Ruby Ridge Shootout in Idaho who admitted on the stand that he had tampered with evidence. His testimony ultimately was the key reason the federal prosecution lost its case.
4. Are there any other routes by which Rove might have caught wind (in November 1989) of the FBI investigation, and upcoming subpoenas of the Texas Department of Agriculture other than through his relationship with Greg Rampton?
Obviously, I looked for these. The U.S. Attorney in charge of the district that included Austin at that time was a Reagan appointee, though he had a solid non-political career as a person with respect for the law. It should be noted that in the wake of all the Rampton investigations of Democrats, a federal judge wrote a letter to the Justice Department under George H.W. Bush requesting that Rampton be reassigned. He was later sent to Idaho, though his supervisor at the FBI during those years told me that Rampton had requested the move to be closer to family. There is also the possibility Rove might have developed a relationship with a federal court clerk, though that seems unlikely, as well. In short, there simply were not that many Republican appointees or officeholders for Rove to acquire information from during those years and it is unlikely that a US Attorney, regardless of political inclinations, is going to risk violating federal law by providing Rove such knowledge.
5. In 1990, the media failed to take notice of Rove’s extraordinary relationship with the FBI agents and prosecutors handling the investigation into the Department of Agriculture. What did they miss? Did they take prosecutorial independence for granted?
Not to make excuses for reporters, but the case against Karl was a bit easier to prove in hindsight. Also, Rove was a new kind of animal, one that Texas political reporters had never seen as a Republican political operative. We did not believe it was possible for the things to be happening that we suspected were happening. Further, finding proof or corroboration of our suspicions was difficult, if not impossible. Prosecutorial independence was assumed and we thought that if the case were weak, it would be tossed out. Reporters also needed Rove as much as he needed them. He was responsible for a lot of frontpage and top-of-the-newscast stories for a number of reporters, and the quid pro quo became a toxic formula that killed fairness. I recall standing on Rove’s back porch the day he held his news conference on the bugging. I laughed at how silly and obvious it all appeared that he had set things up. But then I realized I had no proof and he had me. There was no way I could avoid reporting what I had just seen. I laced my story with skepticism, but I was still compelled to report Rove’s allegations against the Democrats and their defensive denials.
6. Assuming that Karl Rove did in fact crystallize the accusations that prompted the FBI investigation and press for an investigation of the TDA, do the events surrounding the Texas 1990 election seem similar to the allegations coming out of New Mexico, Wisconsin and Alabama, and particularly the case of Governor Don Siegelman in Alabama?
Karl Rove does not view the institutions of government as anything other than instruments of political power. He has always used government to expand political power bases and punish enemies. His association with Rampton was the beginning of this practice. I think the various US attorney replacements, the recent testimony of the former Surgeon General, and all of the other incidents are abundant evidence of this practice. Rove will use any institution at his disposal. In Alabama, he tried to destroy the reputation of Supreme Court Justice Mark Kennedy by using the University of Alabama Law School to spread rumors that Kennedy (who had been photographed holding hands with children in a group he had helped) was a pedophile. Kennedy’s opponent was a Rove client. Rove can certainly be expected to have used federal prosecutorial powers to attack former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman; especially since the governor was contesting the election results. There is a striking parallel between the Siegelman case and what happened in Texas involving Jim Hightower’s staffers. They were prosecuted for an accepted, conventional approach to political fundraising, which Rove’s many clients still employ. In the Siegelman prosecution, he is accused of providing an office in state government to Robert Scrushy, a health care CEO and a Siegelman political donor. Of course, most US ambassadors are ultimately major political donors to presidents, as are often heads of agencies, boards, etc. This has been the way our government has worked for a long, long time. The difference for Governor Siegelman is that he was indicted and convicted of bribery and his case has all the earmarks of political prosecution. A raft of other charges against him were dropped, which is also what happened in the Texas case involving the Hightower staffers. There is a predictable pathology to all of Rove’s political moves. You simply have to know what to look for . . .
Get the detail on how Rove made his name and rose to the White House in James Moore’s two books:
- Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential
- The Architect: Karl Rove and the Dream of Absolute Power
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”