TPM News

It's only April, but we've already begun to see a flowering of outside groups. The hyper-conservative Common Sense Issues unleashed robo-voiced push polls on more than 11 million households on Mike Huckabee's behalf. A liberal group called Campaign To Defend America has already unloaded a $1 million ad buy tying John McCain to George Bush. And the casino mogul backed conservative group Freedom's Watch is still revving its engines.

But there is much, much, much more to come. And The Boston Globe reports that Republican insiders appear to be favoring a separate vehicle to go after Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). As one Republican strategist tells the Globe, "They're beginning to put the book together on Obama."

What this new group will be called isn't clear. But it will probably be quarterbacked and funded by some of the likely suspects. Some of the bigger Swift Boat Vets for Truth funders are sure to chip in, the Globe reports. And "the chairman and founding partner of DCI Group, Tom Synhorst, is helping lead the new third-party effort this year, according to GOP strategists familiar with the plans."

As Josh pointed out last week, Doug Davenport, a partner at DCI Group, has joined Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) campaign as a regional campaign manager.

As the Globe reports, Republicans know they have lots of catching up to do:

Part of what's driving Republicans' interest in independent groups this year is the tremendous fund-raising advantage the Democratic presidential candidates have. Obama and Clinton raised nearly as much in March as McCain had overall through February.

Now, what might this group end up doing? Well, the new group is likely to closely resemble Progress for America, a DCI-run effort that ran a spate of negative ads against John Kerry, along with one memorable "positive" ad, "Ashley's Story," which showed George Bush comforting a teenager whose mother had been killed on 9/11 (“He’s the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe.”). The group spent over $14 million airing the ad in the last weeks of the election.

Congratulations to Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) lawyers, who, working together, have exceeded one million dollars in billings!

But don't worry: Young's campaign contributors are the ones bearing the burden. Young's spokesperson put the word out on Friday, in anticipation of Young's upcoming quarterly report to the FEC.

Due to $213,000 in legal fees paid out by the campaign in the first quarter of this year, Young's campaign has now paid out more than $1.1 million in fees. Only Rep. Jerry Lewis' (R-CA) campaign has achieved a similar feat.

Unfortunately, Young paid out more in legal fees than he raised in that quarter (just $164,000). Young started up a legal defense fund early this year to help handle his legal costs.

And what are all those lawyers (there are three different firms) doing for their money? Don't ask Young, or:

Young has consistently refused to detail what he might be under investigation for or even who is investigating him. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Young was under scrutiny for his ties to the mucked-up oil company Veco. Other than that, things have remained unclear. In a press conference with Alaskan journalists earlier this year, Young was more than a little impatient with reporters who pushed him for details.

You remember the D.C. Madam, the not-a-people-person who ran a high-end escort service out of her laundry room in California.

Well, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) certainly does, and in a hearing Friday, Vitter's lawyer was trying his best to keep the senator from being called at Deborah Jeane Palfrey's upcoming trial. Palfrey, who has pleaded not guilty and says that she was running a legitimate "fantasy sex" operation, has subpoenaed Vitter, apparently with the idea that Vitter would testify that no, there was no sex, only fantasy.

But for some reason, Vitter seems reluctant. From The Times-Picayune:

[Lawyer Henry Asbill], who represented Vitter in some earlier motions related to the Palfrey case, told [Judge James] Robertson that the defense has a responsibility to establish that it has a valid legal reason to call his client other than to simply "harass and embarrass him." He also said that it's hard to imagine a legitimate reason to call him as a witness given that the escort service had hundreds, if not thousands of customers, and the defense hasn't even spoken to his client about whether he would have anything to say that would assist its case.

Preston Burton, Palfrey's attorney, told Judge Robertson that he shouldn't be required to reveal his reasons for putting people on his witness list because it would disclose his defense strategy to prosecutors.

The judge declined Asbill's suggestion that he hold a hearing in chambers, and declined to nullify the subpoena. Robertson said he didn't know the name of Asbill's client and "didn't want to know."

Vitter narrowly avoided testifying earlier in the case at a pretrial hearing in November. That hearing was mercifully canceled.

Asbill also seems keen to indicate that Vitter would be no help to Palfrey's defense. He'd take the Fifth, Asbill told the judge -- obviously not what Palfrey would want since fantasy is as legal as can be. As the Legal Times reports, the prosecution have a line up of 14 former escorts from Palfrey's service who are expected to testify that the job involved more than a vivid imagination.

And what does Sen. Vitter have to say about all this? Well, when the Times-Picayune queried, he was both sentimental and eager to change the subject:

"I want to reaffirm how sorry I am to have hurt the people I love so deeply, starting with my family and certainly including the people of Louisiana," Vitter said. "I continue to work every day to make up for that."

He continued: "I continue to focus on crucial challenges for Louisiana families like health care reform and good-paying jobs."

Defense lawyers of detainees at Guantanamo Bay assert that the government's efforts to introduce evidence obtained through abusive interrogation "heralds a very dark chapter in American history." The lawyers for Salim Ahmed Hamdan have asked a military judge to acknowledge that Hamdan was beaten and sexually humiliated. (New York Times)

The Senate Armed Services Committee has been "quietly but aggressively scrutinizing" the role of top administration officials in the abuse of detainees under Depart of Defense custody. In February, the committee informed the Pentagon that it wanted to speak with former Pentagon legal counsel William Haynes, the official who requested that Justice Department lawyer John Yoo draft the recently released March 2003 torture memo. Haynes has agreed to speak without being subpoenaed. (Newsweek)

Federal legislation from 2006 that makes it possible for civilian contractors in Iraq to be tried under the military justice system will be tested for the first time. The case, which centers on a knife fight between two Arabic-speaking interpreters, is considered to be "significant" "because it's an untested power" and could have a massive impact on all independent contractors working overseas. (U.S. News and World Report)

Read More →

After spending almost a year in prison, ex-Gov. Don Siegelman (D-AL), released while his appeal to his conviction progresses, appeared on 60 Minutes last night to give his account of the key facts of his case and issue a challenge to Karl Rove. He also admitted, when asked if the prosecution had managed to destroy his political ambitions, "oh, they've accomplished that, I think."

In February, 60 Minutes reported on what has become known as the textbook example of a political prosecution by the Bush administration's Justice Department.

Nick Bailey, the prosecution's star witness in the case, 60 Minutes reported, had been coached to the point where he had to write his carefully recollected testimony over and over again to make sure he got it right. Bailey, a former Siegelman aide, testified at trial that Siegelman had told him that businessman Richard Scrushy had given him a $250,000 contribution to his state lottery campaign, and that all he wanted for it was an appointment on a state health board.

Last night, Siegelman gave his side -- that Scrushy, who had supported Siegelman's opponent, had given the money at Siegelman's request, that there had been no strings attached, and that Scrushy had not even wanted the spot on the board.

Seigelman also challenged Rove to testify to Congress. Rove has given blanket denials to playing any role in the Siegelman case and lately has taken to bashing 60 Minutes for reporting allegations by Dana Jill Simpson, a Republican Alabama lawyer who's testified to being involved in conversations where Rove's role in the prosecution was discussed. In his latest interview with GQ, Rove called CBS "a shoddy operation."

And there was also this memorable quote from the interview, where Siegelman describes watching February's broadcast of the 60 Minutes segment with his fellow inmates:

"Well immediately people were standing up, sayin', 'You got screwed.' And I'd say, 'Well, you know, I think there were a lot of ya'll that got screwed.' And then, one guy stood up and said, 'No, I was guilty. You got screwed.'"

Siegelman will also be appearing on Dan Abrams' show tonight on MSNBC.

Nobody expects a corruption trial to be pretty. And in Chicago, the much-anticipated trial of Tony Rezko -- political fundraiser, business man, and thorn in Barack Obama's side -- has not disappointed.

The star witness is Stewart Levine of Chicago, a former Republican Party fundraiser, former millionaire businessman, and former serious coke head (and LSD and Quaaludes and marijuana and kaetamine and crystal meth) now supposedly working for a messenger service -- though he hasn't held a 9-5 job since 1976.

In the spring of 2004, Rezko and Levine allegedly teamed up to skim money off the top of two state pension boards Levine served on (one of them a teacher's retirement fund no less). At the same time, the two also used their influence to pressure outside firms wanting to do business with the funds to give them thousands in kickbacks and bribes.

Levine flipped in 2006, making him the centerpiece of the prosecution's case, the man to describe to jurors how Rezko was "the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings" as one prosecutor put it. Rezko's lawyers, meanwhile, argue that Levine just wants to reduce his own sentence. He's hoping to get 5 and a half years for his cooperation. Must have sounded better than 30 to life.

When he rolled out the indictment against Rezko, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald proclaimed that Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine had "put the word out loud and clear: you have to pay to play in Illinois." Well, at least this much has become clear since Levine took the stand: paying to play is one thing, playing with a full deck is another one entirely.

Levine decidedly makes for a more convincing defendant than star witness. Some gems from the cross-examination:

Read More →

Why is this man smiling? From the AP:

The State Department says it will renew Blackwater USA's license to protect diplomats in Baghdad for one year, but a final decision about whether the private security company will keep the job is pending.

A top State Department official said that because the FBI is still investigating last year's fatal shooting of Baghdad civilians, there is no reason not to renew the contract when it comes due in May. Blackwater has a five-year deal to provide personal protection for diplomats, which is reauthorized each year.

Iraqis were outraged over a Sept. 16 shooting in which 17 civilians were killed in a Baghdad square. Blackwater said its guards were protecting diplomats under attack before they opened fire, but Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting was unprovoked.

Since the "top State Department official" seems so blithe about the FBI investigation, it's worth recalling that Justice Department faces probably insurmountable obstacles in bringing a prosecution based on the Nisour Square shootings. That's despite the fact that the FBI determined that the guards had indeed opened fire without provocation.

Update: More from Reuters:

"I have requested and received approval to have task order six -- which Blackwater has to provide personal protective services in Baghdad -- renewed ... for one year," the head of diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, told reporters....

Asked whether the Blackwater Baghdad deal could be scrapped if the FBI investigation found wrongdoing, Starr said: "We can terminate contracts at the convenience of the government if we have to."

"I am not going to prejudge what the FBI is going to find in their investigation. I think really, it is complex. I think that the U.S. government needs protective services," he said.

"Essentially I think they do a very good job. The September 16th incident was a tragedy. It has to be investigated carefully," he added.

Hans von Spakovsky's legacy is still being felt down in Florida. From the AP:

Florida can temporarily enforce a law that disqualifies any voter registration where the Social Security or driver license numbers on the application can't be matched with government databases, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said a lower court shouldn't have ordered a temporary injunction in December that prevented Florida from enforcing an anti-fraud law that dismissed applications when matches couldn't be made.

As we reported last year, one of Spakovsky's achievements while at the Justice Department was promoting this interpretation of the law: that states ought to reject voter applications if the data did not match driver's license or Social Security records. Civil rights groups, calling the measure "disenfranchisement-by-bureaucracy," sued to halt the law in an attempt to minimize the effect on the 2008 election. A newspaper investigation found that the measure resulted in tens of thousands of voters being rejected, the overwhelming majority of them minorities.

Back in December, a district court agreed with the argument by the groups -- the NAACP, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, and Southwest Voter Registration Education Project -- that the law ought to be halted from going into effect while the lawsuit was decided. That decision was overturned yesterday.

"Yesterday's ruling by the appellate court represents a setback for all eligible Floridians, particularly voters of color, who wish to register to vote and participate in the upcoming presidential elections," said Elizabeth Westfall of Advancement Project, one of the attorneys for the groups. But Justin Levitt, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that the suit would go on and that "the trial court must now consider whether disenfranchising thousands of eligible citizens because of typos, is consistent with the U.S. Constitution."

More evidence that John Yoo was the most powerful deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's history. The Washington Post reports this morning that when Yoo issued his now-infamous March 14, 2003 memo to the Pentagon, neither Attorney General John Ashcroft, nor his deputy Larry Thompson "were aware."

As Marty Lederman has pointed out, the fact that the memo was issued under Yoo's own name is further indication that this was a back door authorization of interrogation practices.

The Post also sheds light on Yoo's earlier October 23, 2001 legal memo, the one that declared that the Fourth Amendment had "no application to domestic military operations." The memo "focused on the rules governing any deployment of U.S. forces inside the country 'in the event of further large-scale terrorist activities' by al-Qaeda" according to "a Justice Department official." Just what that sort of operation that might have been discussed or how long that memo remained in effect are unclear. In fact, it's unclear whether it might still be relied upon:

Although the memo has not been formally withdrawn, the Justice Department yesterday repudiated the idea that there are no constitutional limits to military searches and seizures in a time of war, saying it depends on "the particular context and circumstances of the search," according to a statement.

All that is clear is that Department officials are insistent that that memo had nothing to do with the warrantless wiretapping program. But as the AP has shown, that appears not to be entirely true.

I believe the appropriate reaction to this is "Hmmmm":

Two weeks after it was revealed that State Department employees were found snooping on five different occasions in the passport files of all three Presidential candidates, a State Department official tells NBC that the top official for Passport Services is being replaced.

The department intends to name a new acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services to replace Ann Barrett who will be stepping aside.

The official declined to offer an explanation as to why Barrett is being replaced, but the timing comes in the midst of a State Department Inspector General investigation into the passport breaches.