No Comment — September 5, 2007, 12:15 am

Team Chertoff and the Art of Political Prosecution

Current and former Justice Department officials I have interviewed have consistently identified Michael Chertoff, his successor Alice Fisher, and his protégé Noel Hillman, as figures with a strong interest in political prosecutions. Each apparently took an interest in the Siegelman case for all the wrong reasons, I am told, and each had regular communications with the White House throughout this period.

But the Siegelman case was only one of many cases with political overtones which were closely dogged by loyal Republican Party activists at the top of the criminal process at Justice. Today the Los Angeles Times is offering more evidence linking Chertoff to political vendettas using the prosecutorial resources of the Department of Justice. David Savage and Tom Hamburger report:

Shortly after President Bush took office in 2001, Michael Chertoff, then head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, met with the conservative group Judicial Watch. It wanted criminal charges brought against Hillary Rodham Clinton in connection with a lavish fundraising event in Los Angeles the year before.

“Chertoff personally assured us he would pursue it,” the group’s president, Tom Fitton, said recently, recalling the meeting with several top Justice officials. “They said they weren’t afraid of taking on the Clintons.” Justice did not pursue a case against the senator from New York, but instead went after one of her fundraisers, David Rosen, who eventually was acquitted.

Now Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has announced his resignation, brought down in part by allegations that he let politics influence Justice Department decisions. And Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is a prominent candidate to succeed him. Justice Department officials say pressure from Judicial Watch — which made its name by suing the Clintons in the 1990s — played no role in the decision to prosecute Rosen. Chertoff will not discuss the case. But it seems to be an early example of department actions under Bush that critics say were tinged with partisanship.

The key to Chertoff’s politicization of the prosecutorial service lay in placing a key political protégé in a key position: Noel Hillman was put in charge of the Public Integrity Section, the Justice Department’s division responsible for investigating and prosecuting public officials.

When Chertoff took over the criminal division, one of his first targets for change was the Public Integrity Section. This unit, established after the Watergate scandal, handled corruption cases involving public officials and others with political ties. It had a reputation as nonpartisan, professional and cautious.

Chertoff demoted career prosecutor Lee J. Radek, who had headed the section for many years, and eventually brought in a New Jersey protege, Noel L. Hillman. “There is a new sheriff in town,” Hillman told a lawyers’ group shortly after taking over…

Others… said they were concerned that the unit’s traditional insulation from partisan pressures had become frayed under Chertoff and Hillman. Hillman raised eyebrows by seeking — and eventually getting — a White House appointment to a federal judgeship. According to one veteran prosecutor, there was “a new intensity of interest among top officials like Chertoff in what cases were pursued or not pursued.” The prosecutor requested anonymity because he remains in government service and is not authorized to speak to reporters.

Noel Hillman took an extraordinary and aggressive role in pushing the Siegelman case forward around the same time that, according to an affidavit submitted by a Republican attorney and campaign volunteer for his adversary, Jill Simpson, Karl Rove was speaking with senior Alabama G.O.P. figures about using the Justice Department to “get rid of” Siegelman. Hillman then proceeded to apply for and obtain a judicial appointment—to the U.S. District Court in New Jersey. He acknowledges spending several months in discussions with the White House about his judicial appointment. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to think of other topics that might have figured in these discussions, conducted with the man who was handling the Abramoff case as well as the Siegelman prosecution.

Hillman was touted throughout this period as the “Abramoff prosecutor,” though that’s a title that requires quite a bit of qualification. Indeed, the Public Integrity Section did go after Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and a number of other key figures. But a study of the way their investigation trailed off in Alabama raises strong suspicions. Evidence pointed to the funneling of millions of dollars in Mississippi Choctaw Indian money into the campaign of Don Siegelman’s adversary, Bob Riley. The project involved a significant number of Riley’s Congressional and campaign staff, many of whom had direct links to Abramoff. However, instead of looking into these connections, Hillman began to channel his investigative and prosecutorial resources into an amazing quest to “get Siegelman.” And that assured that the Alabama leads of the Abramoff case were dropped and went dead. In fact they seem to have been dropped right about the time that President Bush decided to have a secret meeting with judicial candidate Hillman.

Considering these facts, it’s little wonder that the White House dropped Hillman’s nomination to the Third Circuit just as the U.S. attorneys scandal surfaced.

The Los Angeles Times report concerning the highly political vendetta prosecution of Rosen greatly strengthens the accusations made by a Michigan attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, in a case with strong parallels and similar political circumstances. It also casts a strong light on the mindset and working relationships within Justice at the time the chase after Alabama Governor Siegelman began.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Season 5 of Louie (FX), Louie is a new kind of superhero. Like Wonder Woman, the canonical superhero he most resembles, Louie’s distinctive superpower is love.”
Illustration by Demetrios Psillos
Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today