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More Prosecutorial Mischief in Mississippi

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Washington pundits anticipate significant Democratic pick-ups in the upcoming senate races in which a largely Republican class faces a hostile electorate. One of the surprising vulnerabilities for the Republicans is in Mississippi. Senator Trent Lott resigned his seat before his term expired, with his resignation closely linked in time to the announcement of charges against his brother-in-law Dickie Scruggs. To fill out the remaining year of Lott’s term, Governor Hailey Barbour tapped Roger Wicker, who is now seeking to win the seat in his own right. He’s being challenged by former Governor Ronnie Musgrove, who is given strong odds at picking off the seat for the Democrats.

But Wicker has a very powerful ally. His name is Jim Greenlee, and he is a prior donor to Wicker’s congressional campaign. Curiously, Greenlee neglected to note his position when he made the donation. He is the U.S. Attorney appointed by President Bush in northern Mississippi. But as the campaign season opens in earnest, it seems that no one is providing Wicker’s campaign with more valuable support than Greenlee.

The Greenwood (Mississippi) Commonwealth reports:

This past week’s developments in the four-year-old investigation into the failed Mississippi Beef Processors plant seem timed to help derail Democrat Ronnie Musgrove’s bid to snatch one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats from Republican hands. Three Georgia businessmen, one by one over the course of four days, entered guilty pleas to federal charges arising out of the Yalobusha County beef plant’s quick and costly demise.

The three, all executives with The Facility Group of Smyrna, Ga., were largely left off the hook on the more serious charges that they had swindled the state out of at least $2 million and had left the plant’s vendors and contractors holding the bag. Instead, they were allowed in a plea bargain to confess to trying to buy influence with Musgrove by steering $25,000 to the then-governor’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2003.

The orchestrated guilty pleas — and the prosecutors’ suggestion that more indictments could be forthcoming — are a boon to the campaign of Republican Roger Wicker, who was appointed to the vacant Senate seat in December but is considered vulnerable. They leave a cloud over Musgrove in voters’ minds and provide more fodder for negative campaign ads from the G.O.P. camp, even though Musgrove has not been charged with any wrongdoing and there’s nothing in the court records to document he did anything illegal.

The editor of the Commonwealth, Tim Kalich, notes that for the last year he has greeted claims of politically motivated prosecutions by the Bush Justice Department with skepticism. But careful study of this case caused him to change his mind. There is simply no explanation for the bizarre course charted by the prosecutors except partisan political manipulation.

The Mississippi Daily Journal came to the same conclusions:

The political cronyism at the Department of Justice under the Bush administration has been well documented. Even the current U.S. attorney general concedes it has taken place. A federal appeals court was so concerned about claims that the prosecution and conviction of former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama was political in nature that it released him from prison while the issue is being explored… Federal prosecutors have an obligation not to use their office to try to influence an election.

In other states, fired U.S. attorneys have said that is exactly what they were asked to do.

Federal prosecutors in the Northern District of Mississippi should want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. If they have a case against a public official – particularly Musgrove, who is in the middle of a heated campaign – they should proceed with due haste. If they don’t, they should admit it.

The Daily Journal points out that if the campaign contribution to Musgrove was prosecutable, then most of the state’s Republican office holders would be facing prosecution as well. It notes the curious pattern of selection in the Mississippi U.S. attorney’s offices that consistently investigate and target only Democratic candidates and usually right in the middle of an election cycle.

In his speech last week to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Mukasey delivered this promise:

If anyone… is found to be handling or deciding cases based on politics, and not based on what the law and facts require, there will be a swift and unambiguous response.

The developments in Mississippi show exactly what Mukasey’s promise is worth.

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