By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The Republican National Committee yesterday highlighted the role of attorney general candidate Eric H. Holder Jr. in controversial 2001 pardons, but GOP senators avoided direct attacks on Barack Obama's leading choice to lead the Justice Department.
Republican congressional aides said no information had emerged that would disqualify Holder, a former D.C. Superior Court judge and U.S. attorney in the District, from serving as the nation's top law enforcement officer. But Capitol Hill aides from both sides of the aisle nonetheless hauled out seven-year-old hearing records to refresh their memories about Holder's inability to prevent a presidential pardon for fugitive Marc Rich on the final day of the Clinton administration.
On its own, the pardon issue is unlikely to derail Holder's bid for the post, if he is, as expected, formally nominated to become the first black attorney general, four congressional sources representing both political parties said yesterday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) noted that Holder won confirmation in 1997 as the department's second in command without a single negative vote, and he predicted a similar outcome.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the second-ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel, told reporters late yesterday that he would support Holder and said the pardon issue would not outweigh Holder's reputation and experience.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told home-state reporters yesterday that Holder, 57, has impeccable credentials. But he said he would reserve judgment until he sifted through congressional testimony about the pardons.
"It's going to be much more controversial than a new administration ought to try to put forth," Grassley said, according to a transcript on his Web site.
Holder has acknowledged that during a busy period while serving as acting attorney general under President Bill Clinton, he did not spend enough time reviewing a pardon petition filed by politically connected lawyers for Rich. Rich was charged with evading more than $48 million in taxes, and he fled to avoid trial. His ex-wife was a prolific donor to the Democratic Party.
In February 2001, Holder testified about the issue in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, facing fierce questions from Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.). Committee Democrats later cited Holder for "bad judgment" but rejected tougher sanctions.
Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney in the District and a self-avowed "lifelong Republican," said yesterday that he would testify about Holder's sterling credentials and temperate judgment at a possible confirmation hearing.
"He is one of the most singularly well-qualified people to ever be nominated to serve as attorney general," diGenova said. ". . . If the Republicans go after him, they're going to make a terrible mistake."
Prominent members of the law enforcement community also voiced support. William Bratton, chief of the Los Angeles police and a former New York police commissioner, said Holder has an intimate knowledge of local policing that most previous attorney generals lacked.
Over 25 years of public service, Holder supported federal grants for state and local police initiatives. Among the projects he backed were campaigns to prevent domestic violence, hate crimes and child abuse, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. The bulk of those funds have been cut since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made national security the Justice Department's top priority.
"He's an individual who has a lot of relationships in the heart of the criminal justice system, and that can't help but be helpful, particularly when local forces are dealing with violent crime and homeland security," Bratton said in an interview. "He's somebody who would begin with a very big head start about the issues."
Holder's tenure in the Clinton administration has also made him a fresh target of GOP operatives, who questioned yesterday whether Obama's naming of so many Washington veterans with ties to the former first couple would truly bring, as an RNC statement put it, "the bipartisan 'change' to Washington that [Obama] promised voters."
RNC spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said in the statement, "Barack Obama is rewarding yet another one of his political loyalists in Eric Holder."
But Barbara R. Arnwine, head of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, drew the opposite conclusion. In an e-mail interview, she said that Holder "has the experience, the integrity and the vision to restore the program and reputation of the Department of Justice which has been undermined by a number of his predecessors."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.