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A Primer in Political Persecution


A United States Attorney, an embittered Republican who has been defeated in a series of election contests, had a meeting with attorneys for a criminal defendant, a prominent Democrat, at the outset of the case. “I know your client thinks he’s innocent. He’s offered to take a lie detector test. I’m not interested in that. In fact, I’m sure he’d pass the lie detector test. And in fact, I don’t have the evidence to make out my case. No matter. I just plan to throw shit at the wall and sit back and watch as some of it drips down on him. We’ll get him.”

This egregious breach of responsibility by a law enforcement officer, who is essentially admitting that he’s using his office for political persecution, is not drawn from a gothic novel. It happened just a few years ago. And the victim was actually convicted and is now sitting in prison–thanks in significant part to the extremely dubious conduct of the federal judge who oversaw the case. A federal judge who, moreover, was openly tantalized with the prospect of a judicial promotion by the Bush Justice Department as the case was running. We’ll hear more details on this story in a later post. But it furnishes a good glimpse into the total depravity of political prosecutions that stains the Bush Justice Department. And it relates to a case which wasn’t discussed in yesterday’s hearings in the House Judiciary Committee–one of many.

Yesterday, John Conyers’s Judiciary Committee conducted hearings into a slew of politically motivated prosecutions brought by the Bush Justice Department. Decent overall coverage of the hearings in today’s New York Times and on the AP wire. The Times editorializes this morning:

Every time we take a look at the United States attorney scandal, more evidence emerges that Alberto Gonzales politicized the Justice Department to the point where it sometimes seems like a branch of the Republican National Committee. Yesterday, for example, Richard Thornburgh, a former Republican attorney general, told a Congressional hearing that his client, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Democratic officeholder in Pennsylvania, was indicted on federal charges that should not be federal charges by a United States attorney who targeted Democrats.

At the same hearing, more evidence emerged that the prosecutions of Don Siegelman, the former Alabama governor, and Paul Minor, a prominent Mississippi Democrat, may have been political hits. And a University of Missouri professor testified that his statistical analysis showed that the Justice Department engaged in “political profiling. . .”

Mr. Siegelman’s lawyer, Doug Jones, said the investigation of the former governor was very limited until it turned around “180 degrees” in late 2004, after Washington officials told local prosecutors “to go back and look at the case, review the case top to bottom.” That is consistent with the account of Dana Jill Simpson, a Republican lawyer who says she was on a phone call in which Republican operatives said Karl Rove was involved in the prosecution.

But perhaps the most appalling thing in this hearing was the infantile behavior of several of the committee Republicans. They refused to treat the charges as serious. They viciously assailed the nation’s most prominent former Republican Attorney General, who led the charge at the hearing, apparently viewing him as a traitor to their highly partisan cause. And they committed the most serious offense a Congressman can commit: they were uninformed. Egregiously ignorant. About all of the cases that came before them. They wound up looking like willing participants in a politicized justice process. And some of them may well turn out to be just that.

Here’s my take of the most dramatic moments:

  • Dick Thornburgh, Bush’s (41) Attorney General, gave conclusively damning testimony about politically motivated prosecutions in Pittsburgh. He focused on the case of Dr. Wecht, but noted two others. His testimony went completely uncountered by the Justice Department. Catch the video of his testimony here. Paul Kiel has a good summary of the whole interchange here. U.S. Attorney Buchanan went after prominent Democrats and she always took great care to line up her cases with the election season. And she only went after Democrats. When a series of very serious allegations appeared in print concerning federal campaign violations and misappropriations concerning Republican Senator Rick Santorum, she did absolutely nothing. She did not even pretend to investigate them. For Buchanan, the office of U.S. Attorney was a political tool, there to advance the electoral interests of the G.O.P. Which helps explain her rise to favor under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

  • Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who advised Gov. Siegelman early in his case, described how the prosecutors in Montgomery told him the case was over in 2004 because they had no evidence to make it out. And then, they said, Washington ordered them to go back and put it together anyway. From that point, it was completely obvious that political appointees in Washington were running the case at every step. Laura McGann has a good summary of the Jones testimony here. Note how Jones’s testimony lines up perfectly with the testimony of Republican lawyer Jill Simpson’s account of the intervention of Karl Rove in the case. And note the remarkable failure of the U.S. Attorney in Montgomery, Leura Canary, to appear and contest the charge. Along side her refusal to turn over the documents that would shed light on the case. Indeed, Canary’s own recent conduct condemns her all by itself.

  • An update from the university professors who issued a prior explosive study showing that the Justice Department was bringing cases against Democrats rather than Republicans all across the country. With officeholders roughly equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, the DOJ brought 5.6 prosecutions against Democrats for every one against a Republican. What were the chances of this ratio coming out of random selection? “One in 10,000.” In other words, the deck has been politically stacked and dictated.

  • Virginia Republican Randy Forbes, with what looks like a pile of clippings from the Birmingham News in front of him, claims that Jill Simpson had no independent evidence demonstrating that she was in on the phone call with Rob Riley’s office and points to three affidavits submitted by Riley and two cohorts saying she wasn’t on a call. He presses for a Justice Department investigation of Simpson. (Indeed, I’m sure it’s underway; the Bush Justice Department reflexively attempts to criminalize anyone who criticizes it.) Alabama former federal prosecutor Artur Davis then turns Forbes into a grease spot in his own chair by pulling out the telephone records that establish that Simpson was, indeed, on the phone. (Someone was lying. Indeed, it looks like three people were lying. Forbes, Riley, and his friends made the mistake of relying on the Birmingham News and its consistently bogus reporting on the case. They forgot that there’s “no news in the B’ham News.” Just political propaganda.)

  • Rep. Hank Johnson discussed the prosecution of Georgia State Senator Charles Walker. “I wondered about his innocence before I even became a congressman,” Johnson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A few observations:

  • Perhaps the most astonishing thing is the defense mustered by the Department of Justice. There wasn’t one. Evidently they’ve decided, in light of the problems faced by prior Justice Department officials–who testified there were no problems in the U.S. attorneys scandal and are now hoping to avoid perjury prosecutions–that silence is the best policy.

  • Another point that may be increasingly obvious is that the Birmingham News was given the job of preparing the Republican defense to the Siegelman accusations. The B’ham News editorials and articles were simply parroted by several Republicans on the committee (when they could recover from their apoplexy over the fact that Attorney General Thornburgh was leading the charge). In particular, look at the News’s editorial today and its laundry list of pathetic excuses. “The Justice Department is a political creature,” writes the Pravda of the South in its half-hearted attempt to justify the shenanigans in which it, as a newspaper, was fully engaged. Of course, Comrade Vyshinsky would fully agree.

  • But this meant that the Republicans got tripped up by the B’ham News’s gross mistakes, in particular their inept reporting team’s failure to examine the backup documentation that Simpson produced, including the telephone records–not to mention the incoherent logic of the attack line it has developed. (There are quite a few other nuggets there, by the way, which back up Simpson on other critical statements. And that’s not getting into the corroborating witnesses, who are also waiting in the wings.)

  • Note some of the more absurd arguments: “the war on terror” is cited as a defense for political prosecutions, and was mentioned by the Mobile Press-Register. Of course: if you’re at war, you’re entitled to persecute the opposition political party by bringing bogus prosecutions. What is this nation sinking to when mass-circulation newspapers and members of Congress publicly utter such rubbish?

This is what happens when partisan politics becomes the be- and end-all, and when the notion of dispassionate justice is left in the dust. In the words of the great Cicero, we all have a duty to stand ground against injustice whenever we see it. Injustice done by one human against another is bad. But when the injustice corrupts the very apparatus of the supposed administration of justice–the prosecutors, the courts–then there is a duty to scream bloody murder, to expose the wrongdoing, and to bring it to an end. As Cicero said, those who fail in this duty are no less culpable than if they betrayed their own parents, their friends or their country. For that is precisely what they are doing. The hearings convened by the Judiciary Committee are a test of this nation’s mettle and of its commitment to its most fundamental values. Will these injustices, now exposed, be allowed to stand? The Bush Administration rests its hopes on its ability to stonewall, on inertia, and on the insidious call to inaction, like the voice that emanates each day from the Birmingham News. But its conduct is an act of betrayal which cannot be allowed to stand.

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