By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Eric H. Holder Jr., a former Justice Department official who was President-elect Barack Obama's campaign co-chairman, is the leading candidate to serve as the next U.S. attorney general, according to Democratic sources familiar with the choice.
Holder, 57, was offered the job late last week and tentatively accepted it, sources said. The Obama team intends to make the nomination official if he receives at least moderate support from Republican lawmakers and completes the vetting process, the sources said. Intermediaries began to reach out to Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, and the vetting pace accelerated yesterday.
Sources close to the process said Holder was a "near-certainty" to become the first African American nominated to head the Justice Department, which plays a leading role in enforcing civil rights laws. Officials in the Obama transition office said no final decision has been reached.
The nation's next top law enforcement officer will inherit significant challenges, including a workforce demoralized by allegations of political interference in the Bush years; the vexing issue of how to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and the question of whether to open criminal investigations of administration officials who approved harsh interrogation tactics and warrantless wiretapping.
As a former judge and top federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia, Holder has extensive experience with the criminal justice system. He is widely known within the city's legal community and for his philanthropic work on behalf of troubled juveniles detained at the Oak Hill facility. In recent years he defended corporations as a partner at the Covington & Burling law firm, and he took an active role in the presidential campaign after befriending Obama at a dinner party.
Over the course of his career, Holder has won praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, though his selection is likely to revive questions about his inability to prevent a last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who won relief from President Bill Clinton during his final day in office in 2001.
In congressional testimony, Holder acknowledged that he had made a mistake by not spending more time on the pardon request and by making a quick judgment of "neutral leaning towards favorable." At the time he was serving as acting attorney general, dealing with inauguration security, death penalty cases and other matters. Holder told Republicans on the House government reform committee that efforts to make him and the Justice Department "the fall guys in this matter are rather transparent and simply not consistent with the facts."
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said yesterday that the pardon issue is "a factor . . . that will be on center stage." He said he will need to examine Holder's background in greater depth, given the importance of the Justice Department. Another Republican Senate source said that Holder's background is "not a deal breaker" and that the initial reaction to his possible nomination was "neutral."
Michael J. Madigan, a Republican lawyer who has served in several high-profile positions on Capitol Hill but who supported Obama's bid for the presidency, said that "the whole Marc Rich thing is a bad rap and it won't go anywhere" if GOP senators press it at confirmation hearings.
Whoever receives the nomination is also likely to face tough questions from Democrats interested in rehashing Bush administration battles that Obama has demonstrated little appetite for pursuing.
Holder has yet to complete a rigorous vetting process. A formal announcement of the choice may not come for several days, sources said. Holder did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
If nominated and confirmed, Holder would join several other members of the Clinton administration who have signed on to the Obama team, including White House counsel Greg Craig, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
As attorney general, Holder would be in charge of a department that has overseen enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, two of the landmark pieces of legislation affecting blacks and other minorities.
"It's fantastic that he will be a great attorney general," said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It's also significant that he will be the first African American attorney general. . . . His mission is going to be to restore the soul of the Department of Justice."
Earlier in his career, Holder flirted with the idea of running for political office, once mulling over a run for D.C. mayor, only to face questions from community leaders as to whether he was "black enough," according to news reports from the mid-1990s.
Holder has a traditional law enforcement background and has advocated an aggressive federal role in enforcing laws regarding health care, civil rights and the environment, as well as more resources to combat violent crime. As a surrogate for the Obama campaign, Holder appeared at a meeting of police chiefs, promising more federal grant money for state and local police.
But in the months leading up to the election, Holder resisted speculation that he would return to government service. Instead, he told reporters that his family would worry about his absence. Holder's wife, Sharon Malone, is a prominent local obstetrician-gynecologist. The couple have three children.
As a prosecutor and judge for more than 25 years, Holder targeted public corruption. While he was the District's U.S. attorney, his office won the conviction of ex-congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
Holder was the first African American U.S. attorney in the District and he faced high expectations to value diversity in his promotion practices for the office, an issue that emerged after disaffected black candidates complained to a trade newspaper that they had been passed over for supervisory jobs.
In private practice, Holder helped broker a $650 million settlement between Merck and the government over the pharmaceutical company's alleged failure to pay Medicaid rebates. He defended Chiquita Brands, which paid $25 million to resolve allegations that it made protection payments to rebel and terrorist groups in Colombia. And he represented the National Football League in its review of dogfighting charges against quarterback Michael Vick.
Staff writers Chris Cillizza and Michael A. Fletcher and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.