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The Irony of Public Integrity

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The Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section may well stand as a sort of icon for the Bush Administration. On the surface, it promises to uphold the integrity of the nation’s political process by rooting out corrupt politicians. But, like the opening scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when we take a closer look at the lawn we discover an awful lot of nasty bugs hidden from the public view. Over the past two years we’ve documented how Public Integrity brought a stream of dubious cases to assail the administration’s political adversaries. Moreover, the Public Integrity program suspiciously overlapped with Karl Rove’s electoral master-scheme–victims of Public Integrity’s political shenanigans in the Bush era have included Governor Don Siegelman in Alabama, Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield in Mississippi, Cyril Wecht in Pennsylvania, and Georgia Thompson in Wisconsin. Conversely, Public Integrity’s management of the biggest political scandal in U.S. history—surrounding Jack Abramoff and his helpers—ran into a mysterious brick wall and went nowhere.

Justice has been quick to cite successful prosecutions of Republicans as evidence that accusations of its partisanship are overblown. One of those is the prosecution of the Senate’s senior Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska, on corruption charges. Almost from the outset of the case, there were signs that something wasn’t right in the Stevens prosecution, when the judge expressed his anger over the prosecution’s efforts to keep a witness away from the trial. A whistleblower charged that the prosecution of the case had been managed unethically. Now the identity of the Stevens prosecution whistleblower has come out: he is an FBI special agent, and his complaint has been published in a heavily redacted form. Among the more amazing accusations leveled are a recounting of how Public Integrity lawyers schemed to block a key witness from giving testimony that would aid the defense and charges that individuals involved with the case “accepted multiple things of value from sources,” including “artwork/drawings,” which, of course was precisely the accusation that launched the investigation and ultimately successful prosecution of Stevens.

The accusations suggest a work environment in Public Integrity where petty corruption and unethical conduct are the order of the day. Complaints about these matters to the Department’s internal policing organs produce no action–and are apparently swept under the carpet (or back onto the lawn). The new attorney general will want to make a clean sweep at Public Integrity, and he will benefit from a careful review of some of the section’s more suspicious prosecutions and the dynamics which produced them. Public Integrity is long overdue for an investigation which will get to the bottom of its eight years of mismanagement.

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