Obama's Attorney General Pick Faces Growing Criticism

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eric H. Holder Jr. is facing increasing resistance to his bid to become the next attorney general, emerging from President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet nominees as the prime target of Senate Republicans, both because of troubling episodes during his service in the Clinton administration and because of the sensitivity of the post overseeing the Justice Department.

With two days of confirmation hearings set to begin Thursday, Holder must demonstrate his independence from Obama to a vocal chorus of GOP lawmakers who want to warn the incoming president that he should not veer too far to the left on national security and judicial nominations. The attorney general plays a pivotal role in those issues, which are of intense concern to conservatives.

What was considered a smooth path to confirmation has recently been complicated as signs of hostility toward Holder have increased over the past month. Political operative Karl Rove and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, singled out the longtime Washington lawyer as the candidate who would face bruising questions.

"The attorney general nominee, Mr. Holder, has got serious questions to respond to with regard to his role in the . . . pardons at the end of the Clinton administration and some other matters," McConnell said yesterday. "Beyond that, I don't anticipate trouble for the new president's nominees."

The confirmation process, said Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the judiciary panel's top Republican, will be Holder's "day in court" and a chance to "state his case" -- an awkward position for a man more accustomed to negotiating disputes than engaging in bare-knuckled fights.

Specter previewed the main line of attack in a floor speech this week, asserting that, in Holder's years as President Bill Clinton's deputy attorney general, he at times "appeared to be serving the interest of his superiors" rather than heeding recommendations from career Justice Department lawyers. The argument echoed criticism that former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, who resigned in 2007, had acted to please his friend President Bush rather than to uphold the principles of justice.

In a pointed effort to scrub Holder's past, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and two other leading GOP Judiciary Committee members submitted a public records request this week to Illinois officials, seeking information on a thwarted $300,000 legal services contract that Holder won from now-disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

"I told him the hearing wouldn't be easy," Grassley said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the panel's chairman, said he is convinced that Holder will be confirmed on the basis of his top-drawer credentials and experience. Earlier in his career, Holder easily won appointment as a local judge, the District's top prosecutor and the second in command at the Justice Department.

"Eric Holder's long record of public service has earned him strong support from law enforcement organizations, civil rights groups, victims' rights advocates, former Reagan and Bush administration officials, and others," Leahy said. "Any effort to question his character is unfounded."

Even if Leahy is right, Holder supporters fear that grueling confirmation hearings dissecting his record could interfere with Obama's effort to restore confidence in the Justice Department.

Committee Republicans won a small victory by persuading Democrats to delay the proceedings. They are awaiting more materials from the Justice Department archives and the Clinton library and are scouring Holder's extensive nominee questionnaire.

The questionnaire emerged as an issue after the Chicago Sun-Times asked why Holder did not include the contract with Blagojevich's office. The 2004 deal called for Holder and his law firm, working at a reduced rate, to investigate the award of a gambling casino in Rosemont, Ill. No irregularities have been alleged about the arrangement.

Holder wrote to the committee last month that the questionnaire, submitted days after Blagojevich's arrest on public corruption charges, did not mention the contract because he had not performed "substantive work" or received any fees before the arrangement was scuttled over an unrelated dispute.

Sens. Grassley, John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said that they should receive in time for next week's hearings communications between Holder, Blagojevich and the state gambling board.

Prosecutors have accused Blagojevich of engaging in pay-to-play schemes in which state jobs and contracts were auctioned off for the governor's personal gain.

Also being explored are Holder's eight years in private practice at the law firm Covington & Burling, where he argued for leniency for major corporations and government contractors, including Chiquita Brands and UBS, an international banking giant under federal investigation for alleged tax and accounting abuse.

Chiquita signed a $25 million plea deal with federal prosecutors in 2007 to resolve allegations that it made protection payments to the United Self-Defense Forces, a Colombian paramilitary squad labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. In an unusual twist, Holder's work for the company has drawn fire from liberal groups, including environmental and human rights watchdogs.

Senate researchers also are probing Holder's record on gun control -- an issue that could bring strong opposition from gun rights groups, many Republicans and some conservative Democrats.

Last year, Holder and other former Justice Department officials from Democratic administrations filed a friend of the court brief in a landmark D.C. gun ownership case, arguing that the Second Amendment gives citizens a "collective right" to bear arms rather than individual ownership rights. The Supreme Court last year ruled in the case, in favor of individual rights.

Holder's views are relevant because the court's ruling probably will lead to challenges of other gun control laws in which the Justice Department will have an interest.

Republicans may try to point out inconsistencies in Holder's approach to national security. In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he gave interviews in which he appeared to leave room for extended detention of terrorism suspects without charging them with crimes.

But in recent years, Holder has been more critical of Bush administration policies on detention and interrogation, saying the government's tactics have harmed international relations and violated civil liberties.

Senate staff members said the hearings could include potentially hostile witnesses, including victims of bombings carried out by the FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group. Members of the group won clemency in 1999 while Holder held a top Justice Department post overseeing the pardon process under Clinton.

The Senate passed a bipartisan resolution that year saying Clinton should not have granted clemency, which prosecutors and the FBI opposed. This week, two former Justice Department pardon lawyers told the Los Angeles Times that Holder had pressed them to change their recommendations and support the clemency bid, even after one of them says he warned Holder and his top aide that the move would backfire politically.

Holder has previously apologized for not paying sufficient attention to a request to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich in early 2001, and for telling White House officials that he was "neutral leaning toward favorable" on the idea. The last-minute presidential pardon touched off investigations by federal prosecutors in New York and congressional inquiries into contacts between Holder and Jack Quinn, a Clinton White House lawyer working for Rich. Bipartisan committee reports later described the incident as "bad judgment" by Holder.

Longtime Holder allies are pushing back behind the scenes against the GOP pressure. Prominent white-collar defense lawyer Reid Weingarten, one of the nominee's closest friends, has been enlisting support from Republican circles, including former top-level Justice Department officials from GOP administrations.

Holder has lined up heavyweight supporters, including former FBI director Louis J. Freeh and former Bush administration deputy attorney general James B. Comey, who wrote a letter last month to the Judiciary Committee calling the pardon a "huge misjudgment" but ultimately concluded that the episode "may actually make him a better steward of the Department of Justice because he has learned a hard lesson about protecting the integrity of that great institution from political fixers."

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