By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
If Democrats win control of the House next week, Nancy Pelosi's first test as speaker will arrive long before the 110th Congress convenes. Her choice to head the House intelligence committee -- unlike other House committees, this one is left entirely up to the party leadership -- will speak volumes about whether a Speaker Pelosi will be able to resist a return to paint-by-numbers Democratic Party interest-group politics as usual.
Pelosi is in a box of her own devising. The panel's ranking Democrat is her fellow Californian Jane Harman -- smart and hardworking but also abrasive, ambitious and, in Pelosi's estimation, insufficiently partisan on the committee. So Pelosi, once the intelligence panel's ranking Democrat herself, has made clear that she doesn't intend to name Harman to the chairmanship.
The wrong decision, in my view, but one that's magnified by the unfortunate fact that next in line is Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings. In 1989, after being acquitted in a criminal trial, Hastings was stripped of his position as a federal judge -- impeached by the House in which he now serves and convicted by the Senate -- for conspiring to extort a $150,000 bribe in a case before him, repeatedly lying about it under oath and manufacturing evidence at his trial.
Ordinarily, that might doom Hastings's chances, but the situation is further inflamed by racial politics: Hastings is African American, and the Congressional Black Caucus has made it clear that it will not tolerate his rejection. Another black lawmaker, Georgia's Sanford Bishop, was passed over to accommodate Harman, who reclaimed her seniority when she returned to Congress in 2000 after a gubernatorial run. And the black caucus is still smarting over Pelosi's move to oust Louisiana's William J. Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee after the FBI found a freezerful of cash in Jefferson's home.
Pelosi has floated the notion of naming the intelligence committee's third-ranking Democrat, Texan Silvestre Reyes, who is Hispanic, but that's not flying with the black caucus. "The CBC would not look kindly on that," caucus spokeswoman Myra Dandridge told The Post's Jonathan Weisman. "The first order of business of the CBC chairman would be to protect his members, and Alcee Hastings has the seniority, the knowledge and the experience to be chairman of the intelligence committee."
True -- and still he shouldn't get the job.
The events occurred so long ago (the alleged conspiracy took place in 1981), the facts are so complex and the outcomes so antithetical (the jury acquitted Hastings; the judicial panel that investigated him, the House and the Senate concluded the opposite) that it's tempting to simply let bygones be bygones. After all, Hastings has been in Congress since 1992, on the intelligence committee since 1999. I don't worry that as chairman he'd suddenly be up for sale: If he could be entrusted with national security secrets as a committee member, why not as chairman?
But this was no ordinary crime, and Intelligence is no ordinary committee.
"My goodness gracious, when does it end? When does it end?" Hastings asked me yesterday in a long telephone interview. "It's no way that I can prove a negative. I can't go back and try to establish for everybody alive my bona fides. I've earned my stripes and I suffered through 9 3/4 years that would have crushed the average person, and fortunately for me I was not the kind of person that was crushed."
It's impossible not to like Hastings. But as someone who covered his impeachment and Senate trial, I can't get past the facts of the case, which convince me that Hastings did indeed agree to conspire with a close friend, a prominent Washington lawyer named William A. Borders Jr., to solicit the bribe. Borders was convicted of the bribery scheme in a separate trial, and he served additional time for contempt rather than testify in the congressional proceedings.
The evidence against Hastings is circumstantial, but it's too much to explain away: a suspicious pattern of telephone calls between Hastings and Borders at key moments in the case; Borders's apparent insider knowledge of developments in the criminal case; Hastings's appearance at a Miami hotel, as promised by Borders as a signal that the judge had agreed to the payoff; a cryptic telephone conversation between the two men that appears to be a coded discussion of the bribe arrangement.
Consider: Hastings, a federal judge, gets word from Borders's lawyer that Borders has been arrested for conspiring to bribe him and that the FBI wants to interview him. Instead of calling the FBI agents whose names and numbers he's been given, Hastings leaves his hotel without checking out and heads to the airport outside Baltimore instead of National, where there's an earlier flight. At BWI, Hastings calls his girlfriend, has her call him back at a different pay phone, then asks her to leave the house to call him from a pay phone, then calls her back from a different pay phone. He doesn't speak to the FBI until they track him down at the girlfriend's house later that night.
Speaker-in-waiting Pelosi: This is not the behavior of an innocent man -- or of an intelligence committee chairman.