David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

The politicization of the Justice Department has been especially acute in the Civil Rights Division, an issue we explored at some length yesterday. Today's L.A. Times has more on the complaints coming from veteran lawyers in that division:

"The political decision-making process that led to the dismissal of eight United States attorneys was standard practice in the Civil Rights Division years before these revelations," Joseph D. Rich, recently retired head of the division's voting rights section, said in a sparsely attended House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing last week.

"This connection should not be minimized," he said. . . .

Rich, a 37-year department veteran, said a partisan litmus test in hiring and decision-making has undermined a tradition of nonpartisan professionalism in the division.

"Unfortunately, since this administration took office, that professionalism and nonpartisan commitment to the historic mission of the division has been replaced by unprecedented political decision-making," he told the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties on Thursday.

Another Bush legacy: partial justice, which is no justice at all.

Let's go back to comments Karl Rove made on March 15 about the U.S. Attorney scandal:

When we came in in 2001, we reviewed all 93 U.S. Attorneys and over the course of time, replaced virtually all of them with appointees by the president… not all: several appointees were involved in high profile cases, important investigations, and as a result, even though they were appointees of the previous administration, we left them in office for, in some instances, years.

Let's assume that's true (and I seem to recall that Mary Jo White, in the Southern District of New York, may have been one of those handling several high-profile cases who stayed on for a time after Bush took office). It would certainly be good practice to take into account the status of investigations, especially important high-profile investigations, before potentially disrupting those investigations by replacing a U.S. Attorney.

If the Bush Administration took into account the status of ongoing investigations when removing U.S. Attorneys back in 2001, then surely it continued that practice this time around with the purge of the Gonzales 8, right? After all, Carol Lam's Duke Cunningham investigation, and its spin-off cases, is among the highest-profile congressional corruption investigations since ABSCAM. It is a sprawling probe that led into the CIA and into the congressional appropriations process which was so thoroughly corrupted under Republican rule.

But in the documents released by the Justice Department which I have reviewed, I have not seen any sort of reference to the impact of the dismissals on ongoing investigations. No mention of it being taken into consideration. No sign of internal discussions about ensuring that the continuity of the investigations were maintained. No reference to deliberations over the allocation of manpower and resources. In short, nothing to suggest that disrupting major high-profile investigations was an outcome to be avoided.

In fairness, DOJ would probably have grounds for not releasing to Congress any information pertaining to ongoing criminal investigations, so I would not necessarily expect to see any case-specific discussions in the documents released thus far. But you would expect to see some discussions generally of how to handle the effect of these dismissals on the operations of the department and its U.S. Attorney offices. (For TPM readers still making their way through the latest document dump, please be on the lookout for any such documents.) In contrast, the documents reveal extensive internal discussions of how to manage the political consequences of the dismissals.

Lots of attention has rightly been paid to another dog that did not bark: the lack of a department paper trail for the alleged "performance-related problems" that the officials claim were the basis for the dismissals. But in a scandal where the worst suspicion is that the dismissals were intended to impede ongoing public corruption investigations of Republicans, the absence in the record of any reference to the effect the dismissals might have on those investigations seems like a particularly glaring omission.

On a related note, the fact that Carol Lam was one of the dismissed U.S. Attorneys makes Alberto Gonzales' self-professed distance from the process all the more curious. Might the attorney general not want some input on the dismissal of the prosecutor handling one his department's most important cases? As Chuck Schumer has said, either Gonzales knew about the purge and sanctioned it, which is bad, or he didn't know about it, which is worse.

What is not in the DOJ documents may say as much about this scandal as what is there.

Daniel Bogden, the U.S. Attorney for Nevada until his ouster by the Bush Administration, sat down this week for an interview with the Las Vegas Sun, and doesn't pull many punches.

We pick up after the December 7 phone call in which he was asked to resign:

[Bogden] started asking questions, and finally reached acting - Associate Attorney General William Mercer, the No. 3 man at Justice. . . .

"He says, 'The administration has a short two-year window of opportunity where they can get candidates out to your positions, where they can get the resume together, they can have the experience of the U.S. attorney in their background that would make them a more viable candidate for future judgeships, for political office.' " . . .

At least, that's what he was told behind the scenes.

Initially, Bogden didn't talk to the media:

Then Gonzales testified before Congress. "He raises his right hand and he says this isn't political, this isn't political, this isn't political, and I knew damn well it was political."

Next, McNulty testified that the firings were related to "unspecified performance issues."

One of those alleged performance-related issues was Bogden's refusal to take an obscenity case being pushed by Brent Ward, the head of Justice's Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. Bogden recounts the episode:

Last year Ward and some of his team came to an adult video awards conference in Las Vegas.

"They go in there, and in their super-sleuthing work, they come up with the name of an individual who may be selling obscene videos over the Internet," Bogden said. . . .

Ward's team wanted to send a message and wanted Bogden to take it on.

He declined, citing the weakness of the case, and staff levels at his office, which had declined under the Bush administration despite Nevada's growth.

Then the e-mails emerged recently revealing Ward's harsh words about him.

"It just enraged me," Bogden said. "You see those e-mails and the things they say about me and the other attorneys, people who are very respected. And they are just demeaning and belittling and unprofessional."

A lack of professionalism within the crew running the Justice Department is not the worst of the many offenses committed in this scandal, but it is one of the reasons--perhaps the primary reason--so many people from both sides of the aisle have been so appalled by what has emerged thus far. It's not just that the department's explanations for why the USAs were dismissed don't stand up to any scrutiny or that this whole affair has all the hallmarks of a political purge. Both of those things are true. But the lack of professionalism at the highest levels of the department signals to those familiar with how things used to work at DOJ that long-held standards of conduct have been breached.

Once that breach occurs, anything can happen.

Late update: The L.A. Times goes looking for answers on the Bogden firing and comes up empty.

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) puts it right out there: There is "nothing wrong with firing a U.S. attorney for the reason of politics."

The WaPo looks into why Margaret Chiara, the ousted U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, made the list of the Gonzales 8--and comes up with no compelling answers.

Democratic senators want to know more about why the President shut down the internal Justice Department investigation into warrantless wiretapping.

The conviction of Stephen Griles, the Interior Department's former No. 2 official, shows why Congress just might want transcripts of any interviews with White House officials about the U.S. attorney purge.

Many of you have probably already seen this, but I just want to flag it for future reference:

The Justice Department also said yesterday that Monica Goodling, a senior counselor to Gonzales who worked closely with Sampson on the firings, took an indefinite personal leave from her job on Monday. A Justice official said that she is still employed there but that it is not clear when she will return.

Goodling was the DOJ liaison to the White House.

KSTP-TV in St. Paul broadcast a nice investigative piece last night on what is being called the "coronation" of the new U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, Rachel Paulose.

Since the purge scandal broke, Minnesota readers of TPM have been insisting that we look more closely at the interim appointment of Paulose and her eventual confirmation by the Senate. Paulose was just 33 years old at the time of her appointment. Her previous experience has included time in DOJ's Civil Rights Division and a stint as senior counsel to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, for two months before her interim appointment, according to the Star-Tribune.

Aside from being one of the legal neophytes with strong connections to Bush political appointees at Main Justice who, as McClatchy reported, has landed U.S. attorney positions in the past year, I haven't seen anything yet connecting Paulose directly to the purge, although the circumstances of her predecessor's resignation remain murky.

Still, there's plenty of smoke there. For instance, the Star-Tribune noted that her Senate confirmation was almost derailed because, though Paulose had Administration backing, "she and her supporters had neglected to seek the support of both home-state senators," an oversight so unbelievable as to suggest that perhaps the Administration did not originally intend to submit her nomination for Senate approval but rather planned to rely on the attorney general's appointment authority under the Patriot Act. You can find more on Paulose here.

Regardless, the KSTP report shows that her lack of experience didn't keep Paulose from putting on the dog at her swearing-in, complete with honor guard and choir. There was also reportedly a list compiled of "potential problem reporters" who might attend the event. In an interview with the station, Paulose bobbed and weaved when questioned about the existence of such a list.

It's quite a good report, so go take a look.