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Bud Cummins and Mark Pryor, the mild-mannered duo, did not uncover the most tumultuous scandal of the most infernal administration in history but they may have triggered the one most damaging to the president.
The political firings of U.S. attorneys has not inflamed the electorate, probably because it is hard to feel pity for a bunch of job-hunting political appointees, but because of them President Bush will soon have to fire his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, for demonstrated incompetence if nothing else.
But Bush’s troubles are worse than that unless he can keep the e-mails of his political and legal counsel’s offices under wraps. If an independent prosecutor gets his hands on the evidence, a bunch of the president’s loyalists will find themselves facing obstruction of justice and Hatch Act charges.
Bush knows he has an incompetent attorney general whom not even congressional Republicans trust, but he keeps him on because he does not want to be viewed as letting Democrats tell him what to do. That was the explanation last week of Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pennsylvania, who had talked to the president.
Gonzales now is almost beside the point. His lies to Sen. Pryor and about Cummins, formerly his prosecutor for the eastern district of Arkansas, are serious matters, but even mentioning them now almost trivializes the crisis. The issue is a presidential staff that whipped the U.S. Department of Justice into an instrument to elect Republicans and take care of the president’s friends. Sometime after 2001 this most majestic of all government agencies completed the conversion from independent overseer of the Constitution to a house of ward heelers.
Is all this too shrill? The Justice Department has opened its own investigation into whether Monica Goodling, the young graduate of Pat Robertson’s law school — one of the lowest-ranking schools in the country — tried to determine the political affiliation of job applicants before they were hired in prosecutor offices. Gonzales, according to a memo that turned up the other day, had given Goodling and another former operative with White House political adviser Karl Rove carte blanche to fire and hire anyone they wanted in the political ranks of the department. They interacted with great frequency with the offices of Rove and Harriet E. Miers, who resigned this winter as the president’s counsel. Rove and Miers specifically wanted Cummins fired at Little Rock and replaced by Tim Griffin, a Rove assistant. Goodling and Griffin came up together as opposition researchers for Bush-Cheney in 2000.
The eight U.S. attorneys who were fired in December were either hot on the trail of Republican crooks, mainly congressmen with Jack Abramoff or direct White House ties, or else were not energetic about finding Democrats to prosecute for registering blacks, Hispanics or other poor people. All that is except Cummins, who Justice officials explained, was fired simply to make a spot for Griffin before the 2008 election.
But Cummins may not be an exception after all. One year ago, Cummins quietly went to Missouri to investigate reports of fraud in the administration of Gov. Matt Blunt, the son of the Republican whip in the U.S. House of Representatives and a friend of Bush. It involved a franchising scheme for satellite state licensing offices. The franchises went to pals of Gov. Blunt without bids.
The Bush-appointed U.S. attorney there, Todd P. Graves, had to excuse himself from the investigation because his wife, his brother-in-law and two staffers of his brother, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, all got fat no-bid contracts from Blunt.
And they used to say Arkansas government was incestuous!
Cummins went up to do the investigation, and Graves quietly resigned.
Cummins must have convinced people that he was serious. He says he never grasped Missouri politics. When the FBI began inquiries about the contracts, Cummins began to get phone calls — up to five of them — from William J. Mateja, a lawyer with a big Dallas firm with White House connections. Mateja had worked at the Bush Justice Department. He was now representing Gov. Blunt and wanted to know if the governor was a criminal target and wouldn’t Cummins make a public announcement, or let Mateja do so, that Gov. Blunt was in the clear and was not a target. Whatever the investigation showed, it was against Justice Department rules — or used to be — to make such public pronouncements.
Cummins refused and soon got a call from the Justice Department saying he was being fired later in the year to make way for Griffin. But shortly before the hot Missouri election in November Cummins made the pronouncement for Gov. Blunt anyway.
An ugly coda to that episode: The man Bush sent to replace Graves as U.S. attorney in Missouri for a few months last fall was Bradley Schlozman, whom the Senate Judiciary Committee seeks to question for his politicization of the hiring process when he was a deputy director of the Civil Rights Division.
In his ever-so-short stint as the western Missouri U.S. attorney, Schlozman sued the Democratic secretary of state for voter fraud — right before the election for maximum impact and in violation of department policy. Then he went back to Washington.
Last month, a federal judge threw out the case, finding not a shred of evidence of voter fraud. But who cared? The pre-election publicity was the point.
That is the face of justice in the administration of George Bush.
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