The news today bears witness to the Bush Justice Department and its commitment to public integrity.
In Alaska, the McCain campaign turns to desperation measures to block a legislative inquiry—initiated and supported by Alaska Republicans—into the involvement of Governor Sarah Palin, members of her family, and senior staff in the firing of Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.
Although the inquiry long antedates Palin’s presence on the G.O.P. ticket, the McCain camp charges that it is “politically motivated.” It’s worth taking a close look at how the McCain team is attempting to shut the investigation down. As Mike Isikoff reports at Newsweek, the project has been entrusted to Edward O’Callaghan, who only days ago was a senior official of the Justice Department, with responsibilities in national security and counterterrorism. O’Callaghan has approached the problem with a perfect replay of the stall-and-run-out-the-clock tactics that the Justice Department uses today to thwart Congressional oversight.
First, Palin has asserted that her records and communications are protected by executive privilege. Second, her senior assistants have been instructed not to cooperate with the probe. Third, the Alaska attorney general (a Palin appointee and confidant who faces conflict-of-interest charges himself) has issued a series of opinions designed to bar the way for the probe. So how does the McCain team deal with accusations that it is attempting a cover-up of Palin’s involvement in a matter which, at the very least, raises severe questions about Palin’s credibility? They argue that the inquiry should be handled by the Alaska Personnel Board, not by the legislature. The Personnel Board, of course, is dominated by Palin’s cronies and reports to her. If it works in Washington, why not in Juneau?
The next example comes in the investigation surrounding Jack Abramoff. For years now, the Department of Justice has responded to criticism of its public integrity section by pointing to the high-profile investigation into Jack Abramoff. The corruption scandal which finds Abramoff at its center has been labeled by Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two seasoned observers of Beltway banditry, as the greatest political corruption scandal in the nation’s history. And the Justice Department’s management of it merits close study. Thus far it has been an amazing exercise in slow-walking and containment, not a demonstration of zealous pursuit of public integrity concerns.
The Department’s major objective has evidently been to get to the end of the Bush Presidency with a minimum number of prosecutions while keeping what prosecutors have learned under wraps. The Abramoff investigation should have touched on the White House, Karl Rove, and dozens of prominent Republican leaders, who benefited financially from Abramoff’s tactics. However, most roads of inquiry were shut off by Justice Department minders. And today the Associated Press helps us understand why the Justice Department was so eager to keep the wraps on the Abramoff investigation.
Two senior Bush Justice officials, former Solicitor General Paul Clement and David Ayres, the chief of staff to John Ashcroft, are revealed to have had serious dealings with Kevin Ring, one of Abramoff’s key players. Ring was a former senior Ashcroft staffer and is close to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he profiled in a biography. Ring’s ties with Robert E. Coughlin, a senior figure in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, were revealed last year, leading to Coughlin’s resignation.
It’s unclear at this point exactly how Clement and Ayres are involved, but the disclosures highlight what was earlier taken as a given: Abramoff had regular access to key figures across the Administration, including those at the pinnacle of the Justice Department. And the Justice Department remains most eager to keep this fact quiet.