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U.S. Attorneys Scandal–Los Angeles and San Diego


When the U.S. attorneys scandal first surfaced, concerns came to focus very quickly on criminal investigations into a group of close friends among the California G.O.P. Congressional delegation. The case of “Duke” Cunningham had gotten broad press, and it was clear that Carol Lam, the U.S. Attorney in San Diego, had run afoul of the White House by carrying it through to a headline-grabbing conviction. The Cunningham prosecution was, in fact, the single most spectacular corruption conviction in U.S. Congressional history, and the “Dukester’s” mendacity made terrific copy for newspapers and magazines.

Another case in which Lam had been involved with her colleague in Los Angeles, Debra Yang, was an investigation of Redlands, California-based Rep. Jerry Lewis on corruption allegations. After Congressional investigators began looking at the Lam case they noticed some very strange things regarding Yang. She likewise seems to have bothered folks in the White House–in fact, Harriet Miers wanted her gone. However, she appears to have been furnished with a golden parachute, when—through the miraculous intervention of former Bush Solicitor General (and current Attorney General prospect) Ted Olson—she landed a seven-figure partnership with Olson’s own law firm. Moreover, it is the very same firm that was representing Rep. Lewis in the investigation. That’s a pretty amazing series of coincidences.

Of course, not a few people looking at it are convinced that there are no coincidences here at all. They think that this was a plan to put a stick in the wheel of the Lewis investigation. And if that was the purpose, those behind the plan may now be privately celebrating “mission accomplished.”

A number of publications have been looking at the Lewis matter—including the Wall Street Journal piece by Scott Paltrow that I discussed last week–and they’re all coming to the same conclusion. As soon as Yang was out the door and a Gonzales-designated replacement stepped in, the brakes got slammed on the Lewis investigation. (Similarly, the change in Phoenix seems to have produced an almost immediate end to a probe of former Rep. Kolbe, and many questions around the investigation of Rep. Renzi, both Republicans in hot water). Here’s how the Los Angeles Daily Journal puts it:

a 25-year veteran of the U.S. attorney’s office who just recently took over the probe of Rep. Jerry Lewis must exit the office for good by the end of September, marking the third significant departure from the office’s corruption unit since Lewis first came under suspicion last year. Michael Emmick, who first joined Los Angeles’s U.S. attorney’s office in 1982, has been serving under one-year appointments since 2004, after he triggered a contractual clause that will allow him to collect retirement benefits immediately upon leaving the office.

“I was under the impression I could continue to work as long as I liked” after taking early retirement status, Emmick said. “The [Los Angeles U.S. attorney’s] office made requests, but DOJ said three years is enough.” Interim U.S. Attorney George S. Cardona said internal policy is designed to limit extensions. The Justice Department “extended it for important cases, but it finally got to the point that it was no longer willing to extend the temporary appointments,” he said.

Isn’t that convenient? Just invoke some civil service rules—which the DOJ could easily waive if it wishes—and that nasty investigation will just languish for a few more years.

The San Bernardino County Sun takes a look at the facts and agrees: a tad too convenient. They see all of this in the context of the U.S. attorneys scandal.

Emmick’s ouster comes on top of congressional investigation into the Justice Department’s abrupt firing of eight U.S. attorneys late last year. Among those fired was Carol Lam of the San Diego office, who led the investigation and successful prosecution of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Escondido – now serving eight years in prison after admitting he accepted more than $2.4 million in bribes from businessmen seeking federal contracts.

The Cunningham case spurred the ongoing probe of Lewis and his use of earmarks in connection with lobbyists and contractors. Lam stepped down Feb. 15. Federal investigators had subpoenaed financial documents linked to Lowery’s now defunct lobbying firm – Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton and White – and to Lewis in spring 2006. The firm and its clients contributed more than a third of the $1.3 million raised by Lewis’ political action committee between 2000 and 2006. Subpoenas went out to at least half a dozen local agencies, including San Bernardino and Riverside counties, Cal State San Bernardino and the cities of Redlands, Loma Linda, Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley.

He has also been dogged by a seeming revolving door of his staffers becoming high-paid lobbyists only to later rejoin his staff as well as major campaign donors who have won substantial federal contracts. Lewis also has come under fire for his practice of earmarking legislation to the tune of millions of dollars to benefit special interests. The fact that Emmick has now been suddenly yanked from the case has caused alarm for local politicians who have questioned Lewis’ practices over the years. Emmick’s unexplained ouster is cause for concern, said Tim Prince, a San Bernardino Democrat who has expressed interest in Lewis’ seat.

“Is the U.S. Attorney’s Office backing off its mission to clean up Congress?” he asked. There are many documented ethical problems in relation to Lewis, Prince said.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, shortly after the U.S. attorneys scandal was placed on the Congressional front burner Alberto Gonzales told an assembled group of U.S. attorneys that he intended to proceed full speed ahead with plans to make U.S. attorneys more accountable to political concerns. I’d say that things are continuing according to plan. His replacements are doing exactly what they have been instructed to do: squelch or slow down criminal investigations concerning Republicans, and mine frantically for new ones concerning Democrats. This nightmare is demolishing the reputation of the Department of Justice, and even with Gonzales leaving, it isn’t going to end any time soon.

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