Judiciary Panel's Courtroom Presence
Early Verdict on Whitehouse Favorable
Friday, April 13, 2007
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was getting needled by his peers from the moment he walked into his first meeting of Judiciary Committee Democrats in early January.
"Hey, Sheldon," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) barked at the newcomer, a member of one of his state's oldest families. "Normally, you've got to be a Jew or a Catholic to get on this committee. You're the first WASP."
"Hey, Chuck," Whitehouse shot back, looking over a room filled with four Catholics, five Jews and himself. "This is the first time in my life I've brought diversity to a group."
Three months later, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, invoked the story to demonstrate that the former federal prosecutor and Ocean State attorney general has, indeed, brought a new aspect to the Democratic side of the panel. "Here's a man who knows what it's like to be in the courtroom," Leahy said.
Whitehouse's experience, particularly his four years as the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island in the mid-1990s, has come to the fore as the committee has probed the Justice Department's firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year. Nine of the 10 Judiciary Democrats have at least 14 years' experience in Congress, making Whitehouse the lone Democrat to have any practical legal experience in the past 15 years.
Whitehouse said it is a personal affront to see inexperienced lawyers who were political appointees "throwing their weight around" in ousting federal prosecutors with decades of legal experience.
In testimony before the panel March 29, D. Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, acknowledged under Whitehouse's questioning that he had never been the lead attorney in a civil case and had served as lead prosecutor in only one criminal case. Whitehouse likewise noted that Monica M. Goodling, then Gonzales's counsel, had served as a deputy in the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria for only a few months, finishing law school in the late 1990s. Goodling cited her Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to testify before Congress and resigned last week.
"Their careers as United States attorneys are brought to an end," Whitehouse lectured Sampson. "And in some cases, it appears that the make-or-break decision is being made by somebody who graduated from law school in 1999, who may or may not have ever tried a case. This is pretty remarkable to me."
A graduate of the University of Virginia's law school, Whitehouse clerked for the Virginia Supreme Court in 1982 and 1983, and served as an assistant in the Rhode Island attorney general's office from 1985 to 1990. After four years as a policy counsel to the governor, Whitehouse won an appointment as a U.S. attorney with the help of a longtime family friend, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.).
He secured the largest fine in state history for an oil spill in Narragansett Bay. And he started "Operation Plunder Dome," the undercover investigation of Buddy Cianci, the larger-than-life Providence mayor now serving a five-year sentence for a criminal conspiracy conviction in 2002 (Whitehouse had become state attorney general by the time the conviction was handed down).
While serving as a federal prosecutor, Whitehouse said he received edicts from above similar to those issued by the Gonzales Justice Department, which has cited failure to adhere to these mandates in several of the firings.
"Everybody indict someone for health-care fraud in August," he said with a sneer, referring to one mandate for "health-care fraud month." Those edicts were ignored by the Clinton administration's federal prosecutors, he said, as part of the "natural tension" between U.S. attorneys who know their districts and appointees at "main Justice" looking to curry favor with the White House.
Whitehouse remains in awe of the Senate. In winning the seat, he defeated GOP incumbent Lincoln D. Chafee, who held the seat of his father, John Chafee -- who happened to be a roommate of Whitehouse's father at Yale.
The new senator still has no family pictures in his office, just a framed picture of Pell. He had his first small meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office on Wednesday, when a handful of senators discussed their recent trips to Iraq.
Republicans have taken note of Whitehouse's ability to ask insightful questions even though he is the most junior of 19 committee members. "He's the bottom chair of the committee," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). "I've been there before, and usually all the good questions get asked by your turn."
Whitehouse, who is readying his questions for Gonzales at a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, revealed his secret: "I've got to have multiple-choices prepared."