Ethics: Wrong And Potentially Illegal
|March 20, 2007|
||Wrong And Potentially Illegal|
||Go Beyond The Headlines|
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Top White House aide Karl Rove continues to portray the U.S. Attorney scandal as “a lot of politics,” something for Congress to “play around with.” But the continuing allegations of wrongdoing and dishonesty are placing heavy pressure on senior Bush administration figures. “Republican officials operating at the behest of the White House have begun seeking a possible successor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales,” whose support among conservative lawmakers has “collapsed,” The Politico reported last night. It is a “now a virtual certainty that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, whose incomplete and inaccurate congressional testimony about the prosecutors helped precipitate the crisis, will also resign shortly.” Rove’s spin cannot paper over the serious ethical and legal questions raised by the U.S. Attorney purge, and the administration’s subsequent effort to cover up its deeds.
THE ETHICS PROBLEM: Several members of Congress — including Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Reps. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Doc Hastings (R-WA) — have acknowledged that they or their offices contacted a U.S. Attorney about an ongoing case, which may violate congressional ethics rules. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleges that Domenici’s call to U.S. attorney David Iglesias violated an ethics rule stating that “Senate offices should refrain from intervening in such legal actions…until the matter has reached a resolution in the courts,” and that “Senators are not to communicate with an agency regarding ongoing enforcement or investigative matters.” Wilson and Hastings may have violated similar House ethics rules.
THE LEGAL PROBLEM — LYING TO CONGRESS: There are at least two instances where Bush administration officials may have violated federal law in the course of this scandal. One involves testimony to Congress by Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty that the Justice Department would never fire U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Subsequent Justice Department e-mails have shown that to be untrue. It is illegal to lie to Congress, and the relevant provision “is very broad.” Gonzales has blamed their inaccurate testimony on his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week after Gonzales said Sampson had provided “incomplete information” to senior Justice Department officials. But as CREW explains, “Federal law provides that if Sampson knew that he was causing DOJ officials to make inaccurate statements to Congress, he can be prosecuted for the federal crime of lying to Congress even though he did not personally make any statements to Congress.” Now Sampson’s lawyer now says other top Justice Department officials knew of the White House’s role. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said last week that “Kyle Sampson will not become the next Scooter Libby, the next fall guy.”
THE LEGAL PROBLEM — OBSTRUCTING AN INVESTIGATION: Secondly, “if the attorneys were fired to interfere with a valid prosecution, or to punish them for not misusing their offices, that may well have been illegal.” “Fired San Diego U.S. attorney Carol Lam notified the Justice Department that she intended to execute search warrants on a high-ranking CIA official as part of a corruption probe the day before a Justice Department official sent an e-mail that said Lam needed to be fired,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said on Sunday. Feinstein “said the timing of the e-mail suggested that Lam’s dismissal may have been connected to the corruption probe.” Congress has also called for an investigation of the removal of Frederick Black, the U.S. attorney in Guam, who was fired after he began investigating criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “Anyone involved in firing a United States attorney to obstruct or influence an official proceeding could have broken the law. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said last week that if an attorney is fired “to stop an ongoing investigation, then you do get into the criminal area.”
THE INDEPENDENCE PROBLEM: E-mails show that the Bush administration rated the “performance” of U.S. attorneys on whether or not they were “loyal Bushies.” The White House is now justifying its prosecutor purge by arguing that since these attorneys are “political” appointees who “serve at the pleasure of the President,” there’s nothing objectionable about them being fired for political reasons. But as Feinstein has pointed out, “political” means only that they are appointed by the President. “[O]nce that prosecutor takes the oath of office, that prosecutor must become independent,” she said. “That prosecutor must be objective and what I worry about most of all in this is the chilling effect this has on objectivity of the American U.S. attorney who is the main prosecutor for the federal government of big cases under federal law.” Likewise, Leahy noted that while there is nothing illegal in a president firing a U.S. attorney, the message it sends to law enforcement is, “You either play by our political rules — by our political rules, not by law enforcement rules, but by our political rules — or you’re out of a job. What I am saying is that that hurts law enforcement, that hurts fighting against crime.” Atlee W. Wampler III, chairman of a national organization of former United States attorneys and a prosecutor who served in the Carter and Reagan administrations, agrees: “People who understand the history and the mission of the United States attorney and Justice Department they are uniformly appalled, horrified,” he said. “That the tradition of the Justice Department could have been so warped by that kind of action — any American should be disturbed.”
ADMINISTRATION — NO PRECEDENT EXISTS BARRING WHITE HOUSE AIDES FROM TESTIFYING TO CONGRESS: Last week, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) called on Karl Rove and other top White House aides to testify under oath on their roles in the U.S. attorney purge. In response, the White House and its allies have put up a fight, arguing that presidential advisers have historically not testified in front of Congress. In reality, there is no such precedent. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), under President Clinton, 31 of his top aides testified on 47 different occasions. The aides who testified included some of Clinton’s closest advisers such as George Stephanopoulos (Senior Adviser to the President for Policy and Strategy) and John Podesta (Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary). In contrast, between 2000 and 2004, Bush allowed only one of his closest advisers, then-Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Tom Ridge, to appear in front of Congress. He has also refused three invitations from Congress for his aides to testify; Clinton did not refuse any. CRS also notes that although “White House aides do not testify before congressional committees in a regular basis…under certain conditions they do. First, intense and escalating political embarrassment may convince the White House that it is in the interest of the President to have these aides testify and ventilate the issue fully. Second, initial White House resistance may give way in the face of concerted congressional and public pressure.”
NATIONAL SECURITY — FBI REWRITES RULES ON PHONE RECORDS: Earlier this month, the Justice Department Inspector General (IG) issued a report detailing the FBI’s repeated improper use of so-called “national security letters.” The IG found that the FBI “had ignored its own rules when demanding telephone and financial records about private citizens.” FBI investigators issued these “secret requests” to several large telecom companies including AT&T and Verizon beginning in 2001. The letters often referenced “exigent circumstances” and promised that subpoenas for the requested information had been submitted to the U.S. Attorney’s office and would be served promptly. The IG found that such statements were often false and that “there sometimes were no open or pending national security investigations tied to the request.” Further, it was found that in many cases “no subpoenas had actually been requested before the letters were sent.” It was later revealed that the FBI had been aware of such “legal lapses” as early as 2005 and, according to one FBI official, had taken steps to “clean up” the problems in 2006 by submitting seven more national security letters to “provide legal backing for all the telephone record requests that still needed it.” Today the Washington Post is reporting that the FBI has issued a new set of rules governing requests for phone company records in which the use of national security letters or subpeaons is no longer required. While the rules require that requests be limited to “dire emergencies,” such requests can now be made “verbally,” relieving agents of “a paperwork burden that was the heart of past problems.” FBI Assistant Director John Miller assured the Post that the new rules include “an audit trail to ensure we are doing it the right way.” Congress has promised a full inquiry and IG Glenn Fine and FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni will appear before House Judiciary Committee today.
McCain backslides on immigration. Despite previously favoring legislation that would allow most illegal immigrants to become citizens without leaving the country, he now says he is “open to legislation that would require people who came to the U.S. illegally to return home before applying for citizenship.”
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald “was ranked among prosecutors who had ‘not distinguished themselves’ on a Justice Department chart sent to the White House in March 2005, when he was in the midst of leading the CIA leak investigation.” The chart “was the first step in an effort to identify U.S. attorneys who should be removed.”
1,525: Number of roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan last year. Suicide “attacks rose by six times — from 25 two years ago to 150 in 2006.”
Large crowds are expected at Al Gore’s testimony today before the House and Senate environment committees. Last night, The Drudge Report posted questions that “are circulating behind-the-scenes” that would supposedly leave “Gore scrambling for answers.” Climate Progress’s Joseph Romm takes the Drudge challenge and makes quick work of the questions.
At a hearing on the Bush administration’s suppression of global warming science, congressional Democrats revealed a paper trail illustrating “how officials with no scientific training shaped the administration’s climate change message and edited global warming reports.” Defending the administration, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) explained, “Free speech is not a simple thing and is subject to and directed by policy.”
Because of a “computer glitch,” the Department of Education has “overcharged millions of Americans with student loans during the past decade despite repeated warnings that it was breaking the law, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday.”
“Pentagon officials worry that among the just over 20 Army brigades left in the United States or at Army bases in Europe and Asia, none has enough equipment and manpower to be sent quickly into combat, except for an armored unit stationed permanently in South Korea.”
The world”s major rivers are reaching a “crisis point because of dams, shipping, pollution and climate change,” according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “The world is facing a massive freshwater crisis, which has the potential to be every bit as devastating as climate change,” said WWF’s Dr. David Tickner.
Defense spending has reached the highest levels since World War II. “Even with past spending adjusted upward for inflation, the $630 billion provided for the military this year exceeds the highest annual amounts during the Reagan-era defense buildup, the Vietnam War and the Korean War.”
And finally: Tom DeLay still refuses to admit any impropriety in his dealings with fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “So yes, I took a trip to Scotland. Yes, I played golf. Yes, it was privately funded. And yes, it was both legal and informative. If I had the opportunity, I would do it again.”
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