No Comment — June 26, 2009, 9:47 am

Did a Bush Justice Figure Obstruct the Renzi Investigation?

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?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Tons of invasive carp that the Australian government plans to eradicate by giving them herpes:

1,137,000

Contact lenses change the microbiome of the eye such that it resembles skin.

A reporter asked Trump about a lunch the president was said to have shared the previous day with his secretary of state, Trump said the reporter was “behind the times” and that the lunch had occurred the previous week, and the White House confirmed that the lunch had in fact occurred the previous day.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today