What Confirmation Process?
That's a picture of the hearing room of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and thanks to the Bush administration and its republican enablers in Congress, that room will be empty a bit more often.
Buried in the fine print of the Patriot Act reauthorization passed last year was a provision to allow the Attorney General to appoint "interim" US Attorneys who can serve indefinitely, without going through Senate confirmation hearings. (At first the fingers were pointed at then-Judiciary chair Arlen Specter for this, but he angrily denied it: "It was my staff, not me." Gee, that's a lot better, Arlen . . .) At least seven US attorneys have been forced out, and thanks to the Republican majority in the last Congress, now their replacements need not be burdened with the hassle of Senate oversight.
One of those US attorneys who was forced out is Carol Lam of San Diego. She's the prosecutor who led the successful investigation into Duke Cunningham's shenanigans. According to The Hill, however, she's been looking into more than just Duke:
At the time of her dismissal, Lam was investigating whether the Cunningham case involved other members of Congress and lobbyists.
Beyond Cunningham, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego sent a flurry of subpoenas for records to three congressional committees in late December. According to a Democratic leadership aide, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been working with the House General Counsel’s office and was “close to a deal” last week with the assistant U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego on whether to comply with those subpoenas — and, if the papers were handed over, which documents to include.
Hmmm . . . Once Pelosi took charge of the House, things apparently started moving to let the investigation move forward. But now with Lam gone all that investigatory stuff is up in the air, and I'm guessing a couple of Republican members of Congress and their former K Street masters are starting to breathe a little easier.
Dianne Feinstein is livid. When two of the US attorneys in California got axed and the story broke, she took to the Senate floor to express her displeasure:
To date, I know of at least seven U.S. Attorneys forced to resign without cause, without any allegations of misconduct. These include two from my home State, San Diego and San Francisco, as well as U.S. Attorneys from New Mexico, Nevada, Arkansas, Texas, Washington and Arizona.
In California, press reports indicate that Carol Lam, U.S. Attorney for San Diego, has been asked to leave her position, as has Kevin Ryan of San Francisco. The public response has been shock. Peter Nunez, who served as the San Diego U.S. Attorney from 1982 to 1988, has said, ‘This is like nothing I've ever seen in my 35-plus years.'
He went on to say that while the President has the authority to fire a U.S. Attorney for any reason, it is ‘extremely rare' unless there is an allegation of misconduct.
To my knowledge, there are no allegations of misconduct having to do with Carol Lam. She is a distinguished former judge. Rather, the only explanation I have seen are concerns that were expressed about prioritizing public corruption cases over smuggling and gun cases.
The most well-known case involves a U.S. Attorney in Arkansas. Senators Pryor and Lincoln have raised significant concerns about how "Bud" Cummins was asked to resign and in his place the administration appointed their top lawyer in charge of political opposition research, Tim Griffin. I have been told Mr. Griffin is quite young, 37, and Senators Pryor and Lincoln have expressed concerns about press reports that have indicated Mr. Griffin has been a political operative for the RNC.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel doesn't have the best reputation around here, for good reason, but when he stands up and does the right thing, we've got to give him some love. He, too, is hitting the administration hard over this one, asking that Carol Lam be appointed as "outside counsel" so that she can continue her investigations stemming from the Cunningham investigation.
The other side of the mess is the people who are being appointed to replace the outgoing attorneys. Let's let Josh Marshall tell the story (from The Hill):
So who’s Griffin and what experience does he bring to the job?
A quick perusal of Griffin’s resume shows that his more-or-less exclusive vocation has been doing opposition research on Democrats on behalf of the Republican Party. Until recently, he was head of oppo research at the White House, working directly for Karl Rove. In 1999 and 2000, he was deputy research director for the Republican National Committee. In 2002 he returned as research director for the national GOP and stayed on for the next three years.
Before getting involved formally in oppo research he worked in what you might call de facto oppo research positions. In 1995 and 1996 he was associate independent counsel in the Henry Cisneros investigation. And after that he headed up to the Hill to work for Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) investigating political contributions from Asian-Americans to Bill Clinton.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, according to Time, back in 2000, when he was in charge of digging up dirt on Al Gore, he apparently had a poster hanging on the wall behind his desk which read: “On my command — unleash hell on Al.”
I don’t think the readers of this paper are above having an admiration for a seasoned political operative, whichever party he or she may work for. But let’s just stipulate that Griffin seems like a pretty political guy. And it’s probably no mystery why the White House doesn’t want to see Karl Rove’s deputy through the Senate confirmation process before he takes over the reins in Arkansas.
Paul Kiel captured the mess in a nutshell at TPM Muckraker on Sunday:
Instead of nominating local, qualified attorneys whose philosophy jibes with the administration (as was the traditional practice), the nomination of U.S. Attorneys has been subsumed into the Republican Party's political machine. Apparently the title of U.S. Attorney is just too attractive a resumé-fattener to dole out helter-skelter. And while you're fattening the resumés of possible future stars of the party, it can't hurt to knock out a prosecutor who was doing considerable damage to the party.
If nothing else, Patrick Fitzgerald has given us non-lawyers a good look at what a US attorney can and should do. They wield incredible power, and are arguably the nation's best shot at dealing with public corruption. While they are appointed by the president and serve at the pleasure of the president, the Senate confirmation process provides a check on unlimited executive power, to insure that they are indeed worthy of the powerful posts to which they have been appointed.
But who really needs checks and balances? That's so pre-9/11. At a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on Tuesday about this, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told the committee, in essence, "Just trust us – we wouldn't abuse the process to circumvent the Senate."
Where have I heard that before?
(photo from the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary website)