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Here’s some cogent advice for Michael Mukasey. If he wants to demonstrate that he’s determined to do something to rebuild the reputation of the Department of Justice, he should start by issuing walking papers to some of the people who have done the most to destroy the Department’s reputation. And DOJ press spokesman Brian Roehrkasse must stand pretty much near the top of that list.
Last week I had a discussion with some network media colleagues who are working on a story I have been covering heavily. At one point they relayed a series of statements from a DOJ spokesman. It must have been Brian Roehrkasse, I offered, because virtually every statement made was either a rank falsehood or a conscious distortion. And indeed, it was.
Roehrkasse has a well formed reputation with the media, namely, as a political hack and shameless dissembler.
And the advice to fire him is being freely dispensed now. In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered” broadcast on Saturday, here’s what Bush’s former U.S. Attorney in Little Rock, the highly regarded Bud Cummins, had to say:
Former Arkansas U.S. attorney Bud Cummins, who was among those fired, had a bit of advice for Michael Mukasey, who was sworn in Friday as attorney general. Cummings said it’s nothing personal, but he thinks Mukasey should fire Brian Roehrkasse, the Justice Department’s communications director.
“This guy, frankly, intentionally misled and deceived the press and the public on a number of occasions, and just told outright lies,” Cummins said. Cummins said that when you speak for the Justice Department, you have a higher ethical standard to speak the truth.
Back at the end of August, Paul Kiel surveyed some of Roehrkasse’s more spectacular whoppers up through that point. It’s worth reviewing them to get an idea of just how much of a disgrace this man is:
The Justice Department’s initial strategy in dealing with the U.S. Attorney’s scandal was to describe any former U.S. Attorney who spoke candidly and accurately about what had happened a “disgruntled former employee.” Roehrkasse is at the center of this disinformation campaign. Indeed, Alberto Gonzales wrote a famous op-ed calling the firings an “overblown personnel matter,” and it’s widely rumored that Roehrkasse was behind that chronic whopper too. Typical of the preliminary Roehrkasse lies at the early phase is this statement in the Washington Post on March 7:
The senior official, Michael J. Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, wrote in a letter to the Senate that he never intended to send a threatening message in his talks with Cummins. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that “a private and collegial conversation” was “being twisted into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress.”
Lies About Little Rock
Here’s what Roehrkasse told the Arkansas Gazette-Democrat about Cummins’s firing and replacement:
“We are hopeful that by working with the two U.S. senators from Arkansas, we will make a nomination that the senators support and the Congress approves.” Roehrkasse explained, “When a U.S. attorney resigns, there is a need for someone to fill that position.” He noted that often, the first assistant U.S. attorney in the affected district will serve as the acting U.S. attorney until the formal nomination process begins for a replacement. But in this case, “the first assistant is on maternity leave,” he said, referring to Jane Duke, who gave birth to twins earlier than expected the same week of the announcement.
Almost every element of this statement was subsequently evolved to be a lie or conscious dissembling. Just for starters, a large part of the friction over the change in Little Rock came from the fact that the Arkansas senators were circumvented—not allowed to provide input—because a determination had been made to appease Karl Rove by installing one of his “voter caging” dirty tricksters as the U.S. attorney. But here’s Kiel’s summary:
First, it was no secret to Bud Cummins, the former U.S. attorney for Little Rock, or others in the Department that he had in fact been asked to step down. So he was fired and did not resign (a fact that was not public at the time). And second, it was similarly no secret that Griffin would replace Cummins. Emails show senior Department aides Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling working back in August of that year on installing Griffin.
The notion that the Department ever considered replacing Cummins with his first assistant is simply not true. “Clearly, nobody ever considered appointing her,” Cummins told me. “There was a plan in place, and it was obvious from September that Tim Griffin was going to become the U.S. attorney. In light of everything that was known by all of us, this was a ridiculous statement.”
It’s a good example of the Roehrkasse style: figure out what standard policy was and insist that it was followed, even when he knows that it absolutely was not. Lie tenaciously and aggressively throughout.
If you know what’s good for you, you’ll zip it
The practice of omertà was another essential element of the U.S. Attorneys scandal. Terminated U.S. attorneys were cautioned to keep silent about what had happened, and were threatened that their reputations would be sullied if they didn’t. On March 6, the McClatchy newspapers broke the story of the key role played in this process by the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General McNulty:
According to one of the fired U.S. attorneys, Elston made the comments during a telephone conversation after Democrats began questioning whether the administration was attempting to purge more independent-minded Republican appointees in order to replace them with more partisan candidates.
According to the former U.S. attorney, Elston made a “pointed comment that indicated that somehow anyone who talked might become more embarrassed if the story continued on.”
“The inference was that they were holding themselves back from saying more about why people were fired – that it was likely the department was going to step up the defense of their actions,” the fired prosecutor said. “It could have been construed as friendly advice or a casual prediction. But I think it was expected that everyone would be told about the call.”
Here’s how Roehrkasse responded:
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse criticized McClatchy for running the story. “It is unfortunate that the press would choose to run an allegation from an anonymous source from a conversation that never took place,” he said.
Roehrkasse wants the media to think that the allegations stem from a source in the shadows and that they’re therefore not credible. So he piles one false insinuation on another. In fact, before Roehrkasse spoke Cummins had given sworn testimony on the subject, backed up by a produced contemporaneous email. Shortly thereafter three other witnesses had spoken under oath to confirm the account, which could never seriously be controverted by Justice.
These allegations are extremely serious matters, involving a potential obstruction of justice. And Roehrkasse’s response is to aggressively disseminate lies about them, all as official statements of the Department of Justice.
Political Prosecutions in Albuquerque
A critical allegation with respect to the dismissal of the Albuquerque U.S. Attorney David Iglesias is that Senator Pete Dominici was part of a partisan conspiracy seeking his ouster because he failed to use his office to advance bogus claims of voter fraud and a corruption charge against a prominent New Mexico Democrat in a state that sits, electorally speaking, on the edge of a knife. The Senate began an inquiry, the charges have been strongly corroborated by numerous sources, and under pressure, Dominici was forced to announce he would not seek re-election to the Senate. Here’s how Roehrkasse responded to the allegations:
The Justice Department said last night that Domenici called Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty during the first week of October to discuss Iglesias. This followed three calls to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in September 2005, January 2006 and April 2006 during which, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said, Domenici “expressed general concerns about the performance of U.S. Attorney Iglesias and questioned whether he was up to the job . . .
“At no time in those calls did the senator mention this corruption case,” nor did he specifically ask for Iglesias’s ouster, Roehrkasse said.
Again, the basic thrust of Roehrkasse’s statements and the specific denial that the corruption case was mentioned are all lies. Alberto Gonzales subsequently admitted that Domenici had in fact discussed corruption cases in his call.
This isn’t an attempt to comprehensively survey the Roehrkasse record, but it goes a long way towards showing his style and approach. He views himself as a political plumber, and he thinks that the media can be kept in line by pumping a steady stream of lies. This is standard fare for electoral politics in America. But institutions like the Department of Justice are badly damaged when this sort of political hucksterism replaces honesty and candor in its relations with the public.
At this point, the Justice Department has extremely serious credibility problems. And Brian Roehrkasse has contributed to them in a big way.
More from Scott Horton:
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”