- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

“The Pink Panther” had its Inspector Clouseau. But the Justice Department has its Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

His testimony justifying the ambush-like firing of eight United States attorneys before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday was proof beyond a reasonable doubt of staggering incompetence. The attorney general was AWOL when he should have been personally evaluating their legal and management skills and devotion to President Bush’s law enforcement priorities. If Mr. Gonzales possesses a crumb of decency, he will resign. A worthy standard was set by Harriet Meirs when she withdrew her Supreme Court candidacy because of her shocking unfitness.

United States attorneys in 93 districts are the face of the rule of law. They wield unparalleled discretion in choosing whom to target in investigating or prosecuting because of the countless technical federal crimes on the books. Public confidence in justice is largely public confidence in the integrity and competence of United States attorneys to enforce the law without a partisan eye or invidious heart. Accordingly, their appointments or removals have historically received the urgent and personal attention of Attorneys General (except when United States attorneys are replaced wholesale at the beginning of a new administration).

Mr. Gonzales, in contrast, displayed appalling indifference to which United States attorneys were fired, the reasons, or whether the discharges would create the suspicion law enforcement was manipulated to favor the Republican Party. He neither chose the roster to be discharged, nor knew the names of his subordinates who did. He still does not. Mr. Gonzales ratified a consensus among anonymous senior department officials presided over by his unseasoned chief of staff, 30-year-old Kyle Sampson. Mr. Gonzales trusted their collective judgment, although he was clueless as to whom they were other than Mr. Sampson, who had broached with the White House the crazy idea of firing special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, heralded United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, entrusted with investigating the Valerie Plame leak then focused on “Scooter” Libby and Karl Rove.

The attorney general never spoke to the eight over their presumed deficiencies. They had no opportunity to discredit allegations with facts and explanations. He was little more than a spectator to their firing squad as their professional reputations were destroyed. The case of Daniel Bogden, United States attorney for Nevada, who was axed last Dec. 7, was emblematic.

Mr. Gonzales responded to Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican: “Senator, this is probably one that to me, in hindsight, was the closest call. I do not recall what I knew about Mr. Bogden on Dec. 7. That’s not to say that I wasn’t given a reason; I just don’t recall the reason. I didn’t have an independent basis or recollection of knowing about Mr. Bogden’s performance.”

After firing Mr. Bogden though ignorant as to why, the attorney general’s curiosity was belatedly awakened. He reviewed documents. He further testified: “It appears that there were concerns about the level of energy, generally in a fast-growing district, concerns about his commitment to pursuing obscenity… and just generally getting a sense of new energy in that office.” Mr. Gonzales had second thoughts about Mr. Bogden’s firing, but ultimately deferred to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. “I went to the deputy attorney general and I asked him, “OK, do we stand behind these decisions?’” The deputy replied in the affirmative, and Mr. Gonzales capitulated without a fight.

The explanation of the firing of the United States attorney for New Mexico, David Iglesias, showed the attorney general’s ready submission to partisan manipulation. Mr. Gonzales testified that Mr. Rove, the White House’s chief political operative, had spoken to him about Mr. Iglesias’ asserted reluctance to pursue voter fraud cases. The attorney general did not inquire as to how nonlawyer Karl Rove, sitting more than 2,000 miles from New Mexico would know voter fraud prosecutions were viable.

Mr. Gonzales also testified that Sen. Pete Domenici, New Mexico Republican, had complained to him on three occasions about Mr. Iglesias: “Mr. Iglesias lost the confidence of Sen. Domenici. He called me and said something to the effect that Mr. Iglesias did not have the appropriate personnel focused on cases like public corruption.” Again, the attorney general did not insist that the nonlawyer senator specifically identify the public corruption crimes that had not been prosecuted because personnel had been mismanaged by the United States attorney or otherwise.

Mr. Iglesias was added to the firing roster after these criticisms of insufficient eagerness to advance the political fortunes of the Republican Party despite winning internal Justice Department accolades.

Mr. Gonzales maintained that the United States attorney in San Diego, Carol Lam, should have known about the department’s concerns over the prosecution of immigration-related crimes by rumor or innuendo. He was ignorant as to why a United States attorney had been removed from the firing list. He listened to President Bush voice concern over voter fraud allegations without asking for corroborating facts or ordering an independent department investigation.

He was ignorant of how the Patriot Act had been amended to endow him with authority to appoint interim United States attorneys. He did nothing to squelch an initiative by his chief of staff to misuse the interim appointment authority to circumvent the Senate’s customary confirmation role.

Indeed, nothing in the long hours of testimony indicated Mr. Gonzales was the decisive player in anything important at the department. In other words, as Gertrude Stein might have said of the attorney general, there is no there there.

That clownish spectacle should end.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer at Bruce Fein & Associates and chairman of the American Freedom Agenda, an organization devoted to restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances and protections against government abuses.

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