Why was Paul K. Charlton, the man appointed by George W. Bush in 2001 as U.S. attorney in Arizona, fired from his job in the immediate wake of the 2006 election? Charlton was pursuing a corruption investigation into G.O.P. Congressman Rick Renzi. Karl Rove and his acolytes in the White House were deeply concerned that information about the investigation could cost the G.O.P. a vital seat in the House. That fact seems clearly to have played a major role in the decision to fire Charlton. But it seems that political meddling with the Renzi case was not limited to Charlton’s firing.
Significant new information concerning the political shenanigans surrounding Charlton and the Renzi case has just surfaced. In October 2006, weeks before the election, Charlton got the go-ahead from Attorney General Gonzales to seek a wiretap of Renzi. The case against Renzi is now in the trial phase, and observers say that the wiretap does not appear to have yielded much to support the government’s case. Now it appears that there’s a reason for that. Murray Waas reports in The Hill:
In the fall of 2006, one day after the Justice Department granted permission to a U.S. attorney to place a wiretap on a Republican congressman suspected of corruption, existence of the investigation was leaked to the press — not only compromising the sensitive criminal probe but tipping the lawmaker off to the wiretap. Career federal law enforcement officials who worked directly on a probe of former Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) said they believe that word of the investigation was leaked by senior Bush administration political appointees in the Justice Department in an improper and perhaps illegal effort to affect the outcome of an election.
The leak went out at roughly the same time to a number of major newspapers covering the matter. Here’s how one of them—the Phoenix-based Arizona Republic reported it, quoting an unnamed senior Justice Department official. The Renzi case, he said,
“is not a well-developed investigation, by any means. A tip comes into the department. The department is obligated to follow up … and we do that. People are assuming there is evidence of some crime,” even though that is not necessarily true. The official added, “Be careful. I can confirm to you a very early investigation. But I want to caution you not to chop this guy’s (Renzi’s) head off.”
The newspaper noted that “the federal official would not discuss whether the Justice Department was being manipulated for political purposes. However, the official said it is unusual for the department to publicly acknowledge concerns about the accuracy of media reports.” The unnamed Justice official seems to have been a very busy beaver. The Arizona Republic story notes that he had contacted two other newspapers to persuade them that their stories about Renzi were wrong.
Except that the newspapers had accurately reported what was going on. It’s the unnamed Justice official whose account was wrong. He had claimed that the investigation had barely begun and did not rest on anything substantial. In fact the investigation had been going on for more than a year and had compiled a sufficient quantum of evidence to warrant seeking the attorney general’s okay for a wiretap. It’s obvious that the Justice official in question was spreading false accounts in order to save Renzi’s scalp in a closely-fought election campaign. It worked. Newspapers on the scent of the probe that led to Renzi’s indictment dropped it, suggesting the whole matter was simply “campaign trickery.” Renzi was reelected in 2006.
But there’s another aspect to these politically motivated leaks of fake information: they also clued the target to the existence of the criminal investigation. Here’s how Charlton put it in an interview with Waas: “Any time you have a wiretap up and the subject or the target becomes aware that there is an investigation, the value of the information you glean from that wiretap will almost certainly be greatly diminished.”
This means that the “Justice official” who leaked to the newspapers in question did not simply breach Department protocols, he may very well have committed a crime: obstruction of justice.
That leaves a big question: who is the leaker who disseminated disinformation to the papers to help out Renzi? The circumstances suggest that he was someone well versed on dealing with the press, who actually had information about the Renzi case and had partisan political motives. Waas notes that sources involved in the Justice Department’s internal probe of the U.S. attorneys firings, conducted jointly by the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Inspector General, concluded that the person must have been a political appointee. Their report casts suspicion directly on one individual: Brian Roehrkasse. The report notes that Roehrkasse approached then-head of the Criminal Division Alice Fisher and secured her authorization to be briefed about the probe. Roehrkasse was a highly partisan figure who later disseminated false information in a botched cover-up of the U.S. attorney scandal. (A flavor for Roehrkasse’s political guttersniping can be gleaned from this collection of emails exchanged with his friends Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling; I summarize issues with his conduct in “Fire Brian Roehrkasse.”) However, Attorney General Mukasey was so delighted with Roehrkasse’s facility with dissembling that he promoted him to Director of Public Affairs in 2007. Maybe it’s time for Mr. Roehrkasse to answer some further questions. Was he the “Justice official” who called the Arizona Republic, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post in a successful effort to get them to backtrack on their accurate reports about the Renzi case?