No Comment — September 19, 2008, 1:43 pm

Public Integrity, Redefined

Last week the public learned through an inspector general’s report about the antics of a group of Bush political appointees in senior positions at the Department of the Interior. One of the subjects, Gregory W. Smith, managed relations with the oil and gas industry and was found to have taken gifts from clients. The IG report also detailed Smith’s illicit sexual relationships with subordinates, his purchases of cocaine at his office, and improper outside consulting deals that allowed him to earn more than $30,000. The IG report suggested a pattern in which bribes and sexual favors were used to help secure valuable government contracts.

So the ever vigilant Public Integrity Section at the Bush Justice Department is right on top of this matter, prosecuting the wrongdoers to uphold standards of public decency, right? Wrong. To the shock of the Inspector General, the Justice Department has decided that it will take no action in the case involving Smith and another senior political appointee at Interior. Why? The Justice Department believes it doesn’t owe the public any explanations, and it has the power to prosecute or not to prosecute as it sees fit.

Similar good news is arriving at the doorstep of former Florida Representative Mark Foley, whose sexually suggestive text messages to House pages stirred a national sensation in 2006. Foley refused to waive his legislative privilege, making it very difficult for law enforcement officials to probe much further into the matter. Now the Associated Press reports that the Justice Department appears prepared to let the Foley matter drop without criminal prosecution. If you’re trying to understand why the Justice Department under Bush has reached a modern low water level in public confidence, look no further.

Or perhaps consider some of the public integrity cases which are being prosecuted, at a cost of millions in taxpayer dollars. Graft, cocaine and sexual favors at Interior is considered nothing serious. Improper dealings with minors and the texting of sexually explicit solicitations apparently can just be overlooked. Compare this with Sue Schmitz, the Alabama legislator who allegedly underperformed on a series of consultancy contracts, and was sued for fraud as a result: the prosecution’s thundering condemnation was that she kept bad time records on a contract to promote the interests of a secondary education contractor at the legislature. Schmitz’s first trial, at a cost to the public of some $2 million, produced no conviction, so now the Justice Department indicates it will try a second time—rushing to get the prosecution done before regime change in Washington brings an end to the charade.

Or consider the case of Pittsburgh’s Cyril Wecht, also prosecuted in a high-profile case on a series of bizarre petty offenses. That prosecution also failed. In the Wecht case as well, Justice insists on a new trial, and is racing to complete it before the coach turns into a pumpkin on January 20. In the Wecht case, the appeals court has just removed the George W. Bush-appointed judge who presided over the case and whose consistently less-than-even-handed management of the case was the subject of widespread comment.

So how to differentiate the decision not to prosecute the coke-snorting, party-animal Bush appointees at Interior and the party-animal Congressman chasing after young pages from the 63-year-old school teacher in Alabama who kept bad time records and the prominent Pittsburgh medical examiner who had the indecency to make personal use of his fax machine? The latter two are Democrats.

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