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

Drawing on law enforcement records of phone calls, Newsweek has interesting new details on the circumstances of Bernie Kerik's nomination as secretary of homeland security.

[A]round the time of his nomination, Kerik spoke by phone with two people with whom he had a potentially embarrassing history. According to the records, on Dec. 2, 2004, one day before President George W. Bush announced Kerik's nomination, three phone calls were logged between Kerik and New Jersey businessman Frank DiTommaso. A few weeks earlier, DiTommaso's construction firms had been described in court testimony as mob connected. (DiTommaso and his company have denied wrongdoing.)

Shortly after the nomination, Kerik exchanged several phone calls with Jeannette Pinero, a New York prison guard with whom he had an affair. . . . Similar calls were made before the Dec. 10 announcement that Kerik's nomination would be canceled. Two days before the withdrawal, Kerik and DiTommaso exchanged three calls. On the day the nomination crashed, Kerik and Pinero exchanged three calls; the last one was about an hour before the White House pulled Kerik's nomination. The records also show more than a dozen calls between DiTommaso and Kerik after the withdrawn nomination.

Couple the Newsweek revelations with the Post story today on how the White House fast-tracked the Kerik nomination despite internal concerns about Kerik's background and you start to wonder who is leaking all this stuff. Is it Guiliani opponents trying to dent his presidential campaign, or Guiliani supporters trying to air his abundant dirty laundry sooner rather than later?

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, hard at work:

At a recent "prep" for a prospective Sunday talk-show interview, Gonzales's performance was so poor that top aides scrapped any live appearances. During the March 23 session in the A.G.'s conference room, Gonzales was grilled by a team of top aides and advisers—including former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie and former White House lawyer Tim Flanigan—about what he knew about the plan to fire seven U.S. attorneys last fall. But Gonzales kept contradicting himself and "getting his timeline confused," said one participant who asked not to be identified talking about a private meeting. His advisers finally got "exasperated" with him, the source added.

Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have introduced a bill that would require the intelligence community to produce a NIE on the national security implications of climate change.

We've long been curious about the fate of Thomas Kontogiannis, an alleged co-conspirator in the Duke Cunningham case who has thus far avoided indictment. The North County Times (via War and Piece) delves further into Kontogiannis' background and his long-rumored intelligence connections:

One source with knowledge of the case said long ago that Kontogiannis may never face prosecution. That source, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Kontogiannis would get a "pass" because of what he said were the man's relationships with key officials in the upper echelons of the Greek and U.S. governments.

I'm not sure I buy that. What kind of spook connections does it take to earn a get-out-of-jail-free card for bribing a sitting congressman?

Update: My skepticism is with the source's assessment, not with the North County Times piece, which carefully reports that the most likely reason for Kontogiannis' not being indicted yet is that he is cooperating with the government in the investigation spun out from the Duke Cunningham case.

Stepping away from politics for a moment, you might be interested in "Pearls Before Breakfast," the cover story in Washington Post Magazine, which a friend pointed me to this evening. I've been offline for much of the day, so this may already be well-covered ground, but if you missed it, the Post arranged for the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell to play in a DC subway station during the morning rush hour, like any other street musician, and filmed the reaction--or the lack thereof. The only demographic group to redeem itself: the children.

Your Senate majority leader at work, trying to weaken the Highway Beautification Act's billboard regulations--and thwarted by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). (This requires me to invoke the weekend privilege of linking to days-old stories under the guise of reviewing the past week.)

Sadly, I think the politicization of the Department of Justice is going to turn out to be even worse than we may have thought initially. The Boston Globe has a long piece today on Regent University, alma mater of Monica Goodling and scores of other Bush Administration appointees. Here's the part that indicates how long the politicization has been going on and how deeply ingrained it may now be in the department:

Their path to employment was further eased in late 2002, when John Ashcroft, then attorney general, changed longstanding rules for hiring lawyers to fill vacancies in the career ranks.

Previously, veteran civil servants screened applicants and recommended whom to hire, usually picking top students from elite schools.

The change in hiring policies has been particularly devastating to the Civil Rights Division, as the Globe reported last year:

The Bush administration is quietly remaking the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights, according to job application materials obtained by the Globe.

The documents show that only 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2003, after the administration changed the rules to give political appointees more influence in the hiring process, have civil rights experience. In the two years before the change, 77 percent of those who were hired had civil rights backgrounds. . . .

For decades, such committees had screened thousands of resumes, interviewed candidates, and made recommendations that were only rarely rejected.

Now, hiring is closely overseen by Bush administration political appointees to Justice, effectively turning hundreds of career jobs into politically appointed positions.

And so it goes. [Thanks to TPM Reader MO for the links.]


When former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged President Bush to make Bernard B. Kerik the next secretary of homeland security, White House aides knew Kerik as the take-charge top cop from Sept. 11, 2001. But it did not take them long to compile an extensive dossier of damaging information about the would-be Cabinet officer.

They learned about questionable financial deals, an ethics violation, allegations of mismanagement and a top deputy prosecuted for corruption. Most disturbing, according to people close to the process, was Kerik's friendship with a businessman who was linked to organized crime. The businessman had told federal authorities that Kerik received gifts, including $165,000 in apartment renovations, from a New Jersey family with alleged Mafia ties.

Alarmed about the raft of allegations, several White House aides tried to raise red flags. But the normal investigation process was short-circuited, the sources said. Bush's top lawyer, Alberto R. Gonzales, took charge of the vetting, repeatedly grilling Kerik about the issues that had been raised. In the end, despite the concerns, the White House moved forward with his nomination -- only to have it collapse a week later.

A former aide, on Sen. Pete Domenici's fateful call to then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias about indicting New Mexico Democrats in time for the mid-term elections: "Pete Domenici has always been concerned about the responsiveness of government both at the federal and state level.”

It's still not clear what specifically prompted the resignations of four of the top administrators in the office of U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose in the Twin Cities, but this incident, reported in the Star Tribune, gives a sense of Paulose's management priorities:

Paulose ordered that an internal memo be prepared for high-ranking Justice Department officials who would be coming to Minneapolis from Washington to highlight the office's high-profile cases, the attorneys said.

Paulose instructed the head of the narcotics section, Andy Dunne, to state in the memo that prosecutors had won convictions that ended drug dealing by St. Paul's Latin Kings gang, they said.

Dunne was told by Paulose to say that the Latin Kings were the biggest gang in St. Paul and that the office's recent convictions would stop the so-called Latin King Nation, the attorneys said.

But Dunne told Paulose he couldn't abide by the request, one of the attorneys said, and when he refused, Dunne was forced to give up his position as chief of the narcotics section. Dunne would not comment Friday.

But let's not get lost in the vagaries of Paulose's management style. The significance of the Paulose case is two-fold. First, her appointment is symptomatic of the Bush Justice Department's preference for "loyal Bushies" over strong, independent, well-qualified prosecutors. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the circumstances of Paulose's appointment may shed new light on the U.S. Attorney purge--namely, was her predecessor on the original list of USAs to be forced out (and what does that say about who was targeted for removal) and was the plan initially to appoint Paulose via the Patriot Act provision that allowed the attorney general to circumvent the Senate confirmation process (despite the Administration's denials that it had any plans to bypass the Senate).

Or as the Star Tribune's Nick Coleman puts it:

Paulose was picked by Gonzales to replace former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, a mainstream Republican who resigned unexpectedly, possibly just evading the ax (circumstances suggest that his name was on the original "hit list" of attorneys targeted for replacement, as I explained last week). At the time she was picked, Paulose was an aide to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who has admitted giving false testimony to Congress about "Purge-gate," the scandal over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

Paulose worked with those involved in "Purge-gate" at the time the plans were hatched. KSTP reported that Monica Goodling, who resigned Friday as the White House liaison for the Department of Justice, was supposed to have been a part of Paulose's semi-regal investiture ceremony at the University of St. Thomas law school. But Goodling stayed away. Later, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to appear before a Senate committee.

Even if Paulose is just a bit player in the purge drama, she knows all the main characters and keeps popping up in pivotal scenes.