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U.S. Attorneys Scandal—Minneapolis

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Tom Heffelfinger, the U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis who was replaced by one of Monica Goodling’s best 30-something friends, Rachel Paulose, has continued to be something of a mystery case. Was he a part of the purge? Or did he just decide to go? Initially, of course, all of the dismissed U.S. attorneys took the position that they had made up their own minds to go. Who, after all, wants to go job hunting acknowledging to new employers that he was dismissed from his last position?

Then documents began to surface making clear that Heffelfinger was on several earlier lists of U.S. attorney targets. But the questions persisted: why exactly?

Today the Los Angeles Times offers a careful review of the story that hits paydirt. Heffelfinger was purged. The decision came out of Karl Rove’s office. And the reasoning was simple. Minnesota has in the last several elections been a “down to the wire” state, in which the break between Democrats and Republicans is about as close as it gets. The state’s Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer decided on a strategy of cracking down on Native American voters–who constitute a considerable part of the total voting population of the state and are arguably the most dependably Democratic identifiable voting bloc.

But Heffelfinger, who was serving on the Attorney General’s committee on Native American issues and who had taken a strong genuine interest in engaging the particular crime issues faced by the Native American population, wasn’t prepared to play along in this effort.

Goodling said she had heard Heffelfinger criticized for “spending an excessive amount of time” on Native American issues. Her comment caused bewilderment and anger among the former U.S. attorney’s supporters in Minnesota. And Heffelfinger said it was “shameful” if the time he spent on the problems of Native Americans had landed him in trouble with his superiors in Washington.

But newly obtained documents and interviews with government officials suggest that what displeased some of his superiors and GOP politicians was narrower and more politically charged–his actions on Indian voting.

About three months after Heffelfinger’s office raised the issue of tribal ID cards and nonreservation Indians in an October 2004 memo, his name appeared on a list of U.S. attorneys singled out for possible firing. “I have come to the conclusion that his expressed concern for Indian voting rights is at least part of the reason that Tom Heffelfinger was placed on the list to be fired,” said Joseph D. Rich, former head of the voting section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Rich, who retired in 2005 after 37 years as a career department lawyer—24 of them in Republican administrations—was closely involved in the Minnesota ID issue. He played no role in drafting the termination lists, which were prepared by political appointees.

This case is significant for several reasons. One is that it casts a light on the assault on Native American voting rights, which was a specific element of the Karl Rove “voting fraud” fraud across the country–in Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota, for instance. In South Dakota, John Thune mounted two senatorial campaigns in which the GOP wailed loudly about voting fraud among Native Americans–with the usual GOP surrogates in the media, especially on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal joining in to create a stereophonic effect, giving an illusion of reality to claims that were purely artificial. The claims were bogus. But in the end they allowed Thune to claim a senate seat–that of Democratic leader Tom Daschle. It was Karl Rove’s sweetest victory of 2004, and the Faustian bargain for the soul of the Justice Department is now revealed as a key element in its achievement. Heffelfinger resisted, and paid the price.

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