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Why is it taking so long for the Justice Department to answer written questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee?

That's the question Judiciary Chair Pat Leahy posed to Attorney General Mukasey in a letter sent today demanding answers to hundreds of written queries from 11 Judiciary hearings going back over a year. Over one hundred of the unanswered questions were directed to then-AG Alberto Gonzales in July 2007.

Leahy writes:

It is my hope that the Department will answer all outstanding questions before the adjournment of the 110th Congress. You can set an example by promptly returning responsive answers to the questions posed to you in connection with the July 9 oversight hearing, which was more than four months ago.

The questions are typically submitted in writing to the DOJ in the days after committee hearings, and witnesses have two weeks to respond, Leahy says in the letter. Attached to the letter is a chart with the list of unanswered questions -- there are over 300 -- date of submission, and the submitters. The questions, on issues like department oversight and voter protection, were submitted by senators of both parties to officials including FBI Director Robert Mueller and Mukasey himself.

A staggering 104 of the unanswered questions were submitted for Gonzales following this storied July 2007 hearing, at which the AG was grilled on his visit to John Ashcroft's hospital room. The Gonzales item indicates that "partial answers" have been received.

So what exactly are the unanswered questions about? The letter doesn't specify, but we'll look into it and let you know what we find.

Yesterday we flagged a Washington Post report about the "burrowing" of Bush administration political appointees into career jobs at various departments -- most prominently Interior -- where it will be difficult for the incoming Obama administration to dislodge them.

Bush certainly didn't invent what's sometimes called the "headless nail" phenomenon, but he's taking a bit of heat for the news nonetheless. Yesterday, reports the Post in a followup, Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein wrote in a letter to the White House:

Today's report reveals that senior members of your administration are undermining your public commitment to ease the transition by reorganizing agencies at the eleventh hour and installing political appointees in key positions for which they may not be qualified," they wrote. "We respectfully urge you to stand by your public commitment to a smooth transition by directing executive agencies immediately to halt any conversions of political appointees to career positions.

And White House press secretary Dana Perino was forced to deny that there's an orchestrated effort to embed loyalists in the bureaucracy.

But there's evidence that the burrowing under Bush has been extensive, and hasn't just been confined to the administration's waning days. The Post adds:
The Government Accountability Office has long tracked such political-to-career conversions, and it reported in May 2006 that during the first four years of the Bush administration, 144 political appointments were converted to career positions. Thirty-six were at the Health and Human Services Department, 23 were at the Justice Department, 21 were at the Defense Department and 15 were at the Treasury Department.

It'd be nice to know just which Bushies have already embedded themselves in those departments. We'll see what we can find out...

Environmental Protection Agency officials are pushing back against a Bush administration plan that would change how pollution is measured near national parks and and would cease to make pollution violations illegal. Regional directors of the agency say the new rules pander to coal mining companies and would allow underestimations of toxic gas levels. The EPA will decide on the issue this week, but an appeal would flip the decision to the Obama administration, which is likely to be more pro-environment. (Washington Post)

The Pentagon will file new charges against a high-profile Guantanamo detainee it says conspired in the 9/11 attacks. In May, a military court dismissed the charges against Mohammed al-Qatani, who was stopped trying to enter the U.S. just days before the September 11 attacks, without explanation. Defense lawyers at the Pentagon see the move as an effort to "tie the new administration's hands," in the words of one. Obama has promised to close the camp. (New York Times)

TPMMuckraker bids farewell to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), after absentee ballot counts gave Democratic contender Mark Begich an insurmountable lead. Stevens, who celebrated his 85th birthday Tuesday, was convicted in October of concealing $250,000 worth of gifts on financial disclosure forms. (Stevens has said he will appeal after the sentencing in February.) He had served in the Senate since 1968, where he earned a reputation for a fiery temper and his finesse of the federal earmark system. With Stevens out, the Democrats now will be assured of at least 58 seats. (Washington Post)

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Looks like the reality hasn't quite sunk in yet for Tim Mahoney.

The red-faced Florida Democrat, who lost his House seat this month after admitting to at least two affairs, showed up today to a Financial Services Committee hearing today, ignoring the advice of the committee staff and even that of his own aides, reports

What's more, Mahoney aides say he told them he wanted to meet privately with committee chair Barney Frank to offer his advice on the economic crisis.

As he left the hearing room, Mahoney told the website: "I'm still a congressman with a job to do, and I intend to ride this out."

But one of his staff members took a different view, telling "Someone didn't get the memo that he wasn't re-elected."

To defend him against charges that he politicized DOJ hiring practices, Alberto Gonzales will have a private attorney -- on the taxpayers' dime, reports McClatchy.

The move, requested by Gonzo himself, will likely end up costing taxpayers about twice as much as a top DOJ attorney would have, according to the news service.

Gonzales is being sued by a former high-ranking Justice official, Dan Metcalfe, on behalf of a group of his law students. An internal DOJ report found that, under Gonzales, the department had favored politically conservative candidates for internships, prosecutor jobs, and immigration judgeships. The students allege that their careers were irreparably harmed as a result of being unfairly passed over for two department programs that hire law students.

A Justice Department spokesman told McClatchy the department wouldn't comment on the reasons for the approval, or on the cost to taxpayers.

And how do you like this rationale from Robert Bork Jr. -- a spokesman for Gonzales, and the son of the unsuccessful arch-conservative Supreme Court nominee -- for why Gonazles requested the private lawyer?

Gonzales, said Bork Jr., "values the work that the Department's civil attorneys do in all cases" but believes that "private counsel can often be useful where (department) officials are sued in an individual capacity, even where the suit has no substantive merit."

Election-law expert Rick Hasen picks out an interesting passage from the minority section of the Senate Judiciary Committee's just-released report into the US Attorneys firings.

Some members of the committee's Republican minority -- including senior senators like McCain pal Lindsey Graham, new NRSC chair John Cornyn, and ex-presidential candidate Sam Brownback -- strenuously disagreed with the findings of the Majority (and with an internal report produced by DOJ's Office of the Inspector General) that the White House helped engineer the firings, and that several of the dismissals were made for inappropriate political reasons.

Instead, they used the report as a chance to bang the drum on "voter fraud" one more time. But they continue to willfully confuse voter registration fraud with voter fraud -- even though numerous experts have now pointed out that there's no evidence that fraudulent voter registration forms lead to fraudulent votes being cast.

The dissenting Republicans wrote:

Perhaps the most Orwellian aspect of the Majority report is its repeated insistence that there is no vote fraud in this country that is ever worth investigating. At one point, the Majority even places scare quotes around the term, lest anyone receive the impression that the Majority believes that voter fraud could ever be a real problem. Yet during the federal elections just concluded, the American public saw numerous examples of serious attempts to commit voter fraud in this country.

Most of these incidents involved the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a group that actively promotes voter registration in many cities across the nation. ACORN tends to target areas where it believes that it can register Democratic voters, such as parks, public-assistance agencies, and liquor stores, ACORN's history is littered with claims and convictions of fraud. and generally hires part-time workers who are paid for each registered name to canvas these areas. In this election cycle, many different groups, from journalists to the GOP, strongly criticized the integrity of the organization's registration methods. As early as September, state officials reported fraudulent voter registrations submitted by ACORN, and as of October 6th, the New York Times reported that about 400,000 ACORN filings had been rejected by authorities as duplicates, incomplete, or fraudulent. After comparing their voter registration rolls, Georgia, Florida, and Ohio found 112,000 duplicate voters registered in two states, and authorities have rejected ACORN applications attempting to register such "voters" as Mickey Mouse and the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line.

Notice that the Republicans stop short of saying voter fraud was actually committed. They do say flatly, however, that faulty registration forms submitted by ACORN amount to "serious attempts" to commit voter fraud.

But they don't offer a single piece of evidence to support even this reduced charge. Not one citation given -- most of which are to columns by conservative opinion columnist John Fund, or to posts on the conservative blog Powerline -- leads to an example that contains any evidence whatsoever of an effort to actually commit voter fraud.

It's one thing for Fund or Sean Hannity to try to muddy up these distinctions in an effort to confuse people into believing that voter fraud actually exists in significant numbers. But it's pretty shocking when Senate Republicans do so.

The Justice Department already found, in its report on the U.S. Attorney firings, that the White House engineered the firings, and that inappropriate political concerns had played in to several of the dismissals.

Still, the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report on the episode today that goes a little further. Its "Majority" (that is, Democratic) section concludes:

The evidence...shows that the list for firings was compiled with participation from the highest political ranks in the White House, including former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

The evidence shows that senior officials were focused on the political impact of Federal prosecutions and whether Federal prosecutors were doing enough to bring partisan voter fraud and corruption cases. It is now apparent that the reasons given for these firings, including those reasons provided in sworn testimony by the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, were contrived as part of a cover-up.

In a separate section, several committee Republicans strongly disagreed with that view, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, took the opportunity to highlight allegations of voter fraud against ACORN.

The report was released to accompany contempt resolutions against Rove and White House chief of staff Josh Bolten passed by the committee last year. The two have refused to testify or provide documents to the committee as part of its investigation.

In a statement accompanying the report committee chair Pat Leahy, of Vermont, said:
The findings of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the course of its investigation into the hiring and firing of U.S. Attorneys have been echoed by the Justice Department's own internal oversight offices. Further, the White House's unsupported claims of executive privilege and immunity designed to shield the President's advisors from complying with congressional subpoenas have been rejected by the federal court.

The Bush administration's days may be numbered, but some loyal Bushies are taking steps to worm themselves or their subordinates into the federal bureaucracy, so that they can't be dislodged by the incoming Obama administration.

The Washington Post reports:

Between March 1 and Nov. 3, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Bush administration allowed 20 political appointees to become career civil servants.

In one example of what some Washington veterans call the "headless nail" phenomenon -- in which political appointees quietly move into career jobs ithin their departments, making it hard for the incoming administration to remove them -- David Bernhardt, the top lawyer for the Interior Department, has shifted six of his deputies into senior civil service positions. One of these, Robert Comer, was found by an internal DOI report to have struck an agreement on grazing with a Wyoming rancher "with total disregard for the concerns raised by career field personnel." Another, Matthew McKeown, has attracted criticism from environmentalists for promoting grazing and logging on public lands.

Bernhardt told the Post: "I believe these management decisions will strengthen the professionalism of the Office of the Solicitor and result in greater service to the Department of the Interior. However, the next solicitor and the department's management team are free to walk a different path."

But a career DOI official disagreed: "It is an attempt by the outgoing administration to limit as much as possible [the incoming administration's] ability to put its policy imprint on the Department of Interior."

Two Labor Department political appointees have also secured civil service jobs there.

This strategy is hardly unique to the Bush administration. In its final year of existence, the Clinton administration, says the Post, made 47 such moves, "including seven at the senior executive level."

The ACLU is today filing a suit alleging that the Bush administration has asked other countries to hold terror suspects whom the U.S. lacks the evidence to charge.

The poster boy for the case is Naji Hamdan, an American Muslim, who, reports McClatchy, has been held for nearly three months in the United Arab Emirates without charges, access to a lawyer, or contact with his family.

"If the U.S. government is responsible for this detention and we believe it is, this is clearly illegal because our government can't contract away the Constitution by enlisting the aid of other governments that do not adhere to the Constitution's requirements," an ACLU spokesperson told McClatchy.

An FBI spokesman said: "The FBI does not ask foreign nations to detain U.S. citizens on our behalf in order to circumvent their rights."

Hamdan served on the board of a Los Angeles mosque, and had originally been questioned by the FBI about possible ties to Osama Bin Laden as early as 1999. He moved with his family to the UAE in 2006, and was arrested by local law enforcement in August of this year.

Hamdan's family, which is bringing the lawsuit, says he's no friend of OBL. "Naji hates war. He hates what happened on September 11. He hates terrorism," his wife told McClatchy.

Contracting giant Blackwater has confirmed the existence of multiple federal investigations into its work in shipping weapons to Iraq, reports Congress Daily.

The North Carolina company is facing separate investigations by a grand jury in the state, and by the State Department.

But in a statement, it took issue with some details from news reports last week. "The investigations ... do not allege that the company failed to obtain licenses or failed to ensure the government was aware of its actions," it said.

Rather, it said, "[t]he investigations concern Blackwater's not properly annotating the licenses, not timely submitting required reports, and not retaining required records."

Still, it essentially admitted the most eyebrow-raising charge -- that it had shipped weapons inside sacks of dog food -- saying that this was done to prevent theft.

Separately, federal prosecutors have drafted an indictment against Blackwater guards in connection with the deadly shooting of 17 Baghdad civilians last year, though no decisions on charges have been made.