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It would be wrong to call the House ethics committee incompetent. Because, really, it ably strives to make itself as irrelevant and impotent as possible.

Please take a moment out of your day to appreciate its efforts.

From Roll Call (sub. req.):

The House ethics committee has declared that an earmark requested by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) to build a commuter transit center near a handful of properties he owns would not be an impermissible financial conflict because any benefit to Calvert would be shared by other similarly situated landowners.

Just let that sit a little bit. Calvert used his power as a lawmaker to appropriate $5.6 million in taxpayer dollars to build a transit center that's within walking distance of seven of his properties (ranging from office and/or retail buildings to a storage facility). But there's no conflict there, mostly because any financial benefit Calvert achieved “would be experienced as a member of a class of landholders in the vicinity of the transit Center.” You can read the ethics committee's opinion letter here. Here's a map of Calvert's properties (click to enlarge):

In other words, because Calvert's aren't the only buildings that might financially benefit from the transit center, there's no conflict. Or as the committee puts it in its own artfully contorted language: "We conclude that it is within your discretion for you to conclude that your properties do not constitute a financial interest in the earmark supporting the Corona Transit Center."

OK, so let's just say that I'm a property-rich lawmaker who wants to push the boundaries and play the earmark game for all its worth. What would it take for me to get into trouble? Just how self-serving of a project would actually garner the House ethics committee's disapproval?

“You’d have to be remodeling your kitchen,” Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense told me.

The committee's ruling is great news for Calvert (whose earmarking shenanigans have attracted attention before) and the growing group of lawmakers in the "honest graft" game (Justin had a great round-up over at ABC yesterday). And it's yet another indication that the House ethics committee actually has a lower standard for wrongdoing than our criminal justice system, which is why far more lawmakers have come under federal investigation in the past several years than have been investigated by the ethics committee (Calvert is no exception).

The Washington Post reported this morning that Michael Elston, chief of staff to the deputy attorney general, had suggested five U.S. attorneys to be fired in November of last year, just a month before the firings.

Now Elston's lawyer is saying that you got him all wrong. Elston didn't mean for those U.S. attorneys to be fired. No. He was just passing along some names suggested to him by others. Totally different. From The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

"At no time did Mike ever believe that any of the U.S. attorneys mentioned in the Nov. 1 e-mail should be dismissed," Driscoll said in a statement. "To the contrary, Mike's view is that the five U.S. attorneys mentioned in the e-mail are among the department's best."...

Elston simply passed on the names suggested to him by others after he was asked in October to find out if concerns existed about any U.S. attorneys that top Justice Department officials were not aware of, according to Driscoll.

"Mike did what was requested of him, and forwarded the names that others had suggested," Driscoll stated. "...Mike recommended that they not be added to the list of those whose resignations would be requested, and to his knowledge, they never were."

You can read Elston's email here. Funny, I'm not seeing "Don't Fire These Prosecutors" in the subject line (actually, it's "Other Possibilities").

Note: Elston's suggestions, remember, were the most curious -- including Mary Beth Buchanan, Pittsburgh's U.S. attorney, who's very close to the department leadership and was even consulted on which U.S. attorneys should be fired.

Surprise, surprise. From The Washington Post:

Attorneys for Vice President Cheney and top White House officials told a federal judge today they cannot be held liable for anything they disclosed to reporters about covert CIA officer Valerie Plame or her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV....

Attorneys for Cheney and the other officials said any conversations they had about Plame with each other and reporters were part of their normal job duties because they were discussing foreign policy and engaging in an appropriate "policy dispute." Cheney's attorney went farther, arguing that Cheney is legally akin to the president because of his unique government role, and has absolute immunity from any lawsuit.

"So you're arguing there is nothing -- absolutely nothing - these officials could have said to reporters that would have been beyond the scope of their employment [whether it was] true or false?," U.S. District Judge John D. Bates asked.

"That's true, your honor. Mr. Wilson was criticizing government policy," said Jeffrey S. Bucholtz, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's civil division. "These officials were responding to that criticism."

And we're back.

Since our last roll call, Gonzales received some Republican support during his House Judiciary Committee testimony. But the loss of his #2 Paul McNulty and the recent testimony of former Deputy Attorney General Comey have gained Gonzales a few more detractors in the Senate. Here -- as Democrats push for a no-confidence vote in the Senate -- is a complete list of Republicans who are saying (or hinting) that the Attorney General should go.

Update: We've added Sen. Coleman to the list, who joined the club today. Update: Sen. Kit Bond has joined us.

Read More →

In a press conference today, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), following the revelations in James Comey's testimony Tuesday and The Washington Post's story today that as many as 26 U.S. attorneys were considered for removal, called for a no-confidence vote concerning Alberto Gonzales in the Senate.

Here's some video:

Ever since James Comey's testimony Tuesday, there's been a renewed burst of speculation about just what secret domestic surveilance program(s) the administration has been running.

Marty Lederman over at Balkinization offers a great rundown of the best guesses about what the administration has been up to.

But Comey's testimony and new details in The New York Times this morning mean that it's now possible to lay out a timeline of why all of this came to a head in March of 2004 when the program had been going on for more than two years at that point.

A TPM Reader writes in to lay it all out:

We’re starting to see a timeline emerge on the confrontation between the White House and Justice on domestic spying.

The first date to mark on your calendar, I think, is October 3, 2003. That’s when the Senate confirms Jack L. Goldsmith as the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. In June, with Goldsmith’s nomination before the senate, John Yoo had left his job as the deputy at OLC to return to his teaching gig at Boalt.

Fast forward to December 11, 2003, when Comey is confirmed as Deputy Attorney General. He immediately assumes a more aggessive posture than his predecessor, Larry Thompson. The Times reports this morning that “with Mr. Comey’s backing, Mr. Goldsmith questioned what he considered shaky legal reasoning in several crucial opinions, including some drafted by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo.”

But that was just the beginning. Thompson had not been authorized access to the details of the NSA program. But, reports the NYTimes, “Comey was eventually authorized to take part in the program and to review intelligence material that grew out of it” (1/1/06). He set Goldsmith to the task of sorting through the program’s dubious legality. Goldsmith’s “review of legal memoranda on the N.S.A. program and interrogation practices became a source of friction between Mr. Comey and the White House,” the Times reports today. And we know from Comey’s testimony that by “the White House,” we mean, principally, Dick Cheney and David Addington.

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No Dissent on Spying Program, Says Justice Department "The Justice Department said yesterday that it will not retract a sworn statement in 2006 by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Terrorist Surveillance Program had aroused no controversy inside the Bush administration, despite congressional testimony Tuesday that senior departmental officials nearly resigned in 2004 to protest such a program. The department's affirmation of Gonzales's remarks raised fresh questions about the nature of the classified dispute, which former U.S. officials say led then-Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey and as many as eight colleagues to discuss resigning." (Washington Post)

Read More →

It's a U.S. attorney firing extravaganza!

26 of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys were on the firing list at one time or another, reports The Washington Post. It's a list too long and mixed to even try to make sense of. As Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) puts it, the many lists "show how amok this process was."

Let's start with those names that make some sense, given with what we know about the firings so far, and move on to those that don't.

McClatchy reports that two of those names were Gregory Miller, the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Florida in Tallahassee, and Bill Leone, the former acting U.S. attorney for Colorado. Both are battleground states, McClatchy notes, "where allegations of voter fraud and countercharges of voter intimidation have flown in recent years" -- and both are states that preoccupy Karl Rove. Miller appears to have been on the chopping block from the beginning of the process through the end, but somehow escaped -- he's still there. Silsby's still there, too.

Neither Miller or Leone claim to have much of a clue as to what might have put them on a list of U.S. attorneys to be fired. But from both of their backgrounds -- Miller is a career federal prosecutor and Leone is a career trial lawyer who had five years prosecutorial experience when he became the U.S. attorney -- it's evident that neither comfortably fit the description of "loyal Bushies."

The same goes for Maine's Paula Silsby, who apparently made a number of appearances on the firing lists through November 2006, according to the Post. Silsby is that rare thing -- a court appointed U.S. attorney (appointed in 2001, far before the Justice Department slipped in a provision to take that power away from the courts). And although she enjoys the support of Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME), Silsby has never been nominated for the spot by President Bush. You won't be shocked to learn that Silsby's only real qualification is that she's qualified -- she's been an assistant U.S. attorney in that office for 24 years.

But now on to those U.S. attorneys on the list who don't fit the pattern. From the Post:

One memo sent to Sampson last November from Michael J. Elston, chief of staff to the deputy attorney general, suggested firing Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, who supervised the nation's prosecutors for a year and now heads the Office on Violence Against Women, sources said.

The same e-mail also listed prosecutor Christopher J. Christie in New Jersey, a major GOP donor who has undertaken several high-profile public-corruption probes -- including one into the real estate deals of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) -- and who announced indictments in a terrorism case last week.

Now, I just find this confusing. Buchanan is an administration favorite -- she's one of those few U.S. attorneys who've pulled double duty with a second job at main Justice and was even consulted as part of the U.S. attorney firing process. And Christie, as the Post points out, has all the right qualifications and has pursued all the right prosecutions. So what gives?

Of course, neither Buchanan or Christie actually got the ax. And with all these names flying back and forth, some of them suggested by Justice Department officials, there are still only six U.S. attorneys who are at the center of this controversy, all of whom were apparently targeted for removal by the White House for reasons that no one has explained. Those names stuck. Why?

Here's Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on Hardball earlier this afternoon on how long Alberto Gonzales will be able to stick around at the Department Justice.

Democrats are loathe to use the tool of impeachment, Whitehouse said, but added "I think that as we continue to put the pressure on, it may get to the point where even if the president’s highest purpose is to get his administration out of Washington without further indictment, it’s still not worth it to carry the weight of Attorney General Gonzales and his incompetent and very unprincipled administration of the Department of Justice."

With immunity secured, Monica Goodling has been scheduled to testify about the U.S. attorney firings before the House Judiciary Committee next Wednesday, May 23rd at 10:15 AM.

As ex-U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias has said, Goodling, the former White House liaison to the Justice Department, holds the "keys to the kingdom."