No charges, but no vindication, either, in U.S. attorneys scandal

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Justice Department has announced that no criminal charges will be filed in the Bush administration's dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys in late 2006. The decision, however, is not an exoneration of the Bush officials, including former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales.

The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility concluded in a lengthy 2008 report that Mr. Gonzales and others had made a series of "inaccurate and misleading" statements about the dismissals and called for a criminal investigation to determine whether obstruction-of-justice laws, or laws barring false statements to Congress or federal investigators, were breached.

Nora Dannehy, a career federal prosecutor in Connecticut, was appointed by Bush Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to look into the matter and has recommended against further action. In a July 21 letter to lawmakers, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote that the Justice Department has accepted Ms. Dannehy's recommendation. There is "insufficient evidence to show that any witness made prosecutable false statements . . . or corruptly endeavored to impede a congressional inquiry," the letter concluded.

If Mr. Gonzales and other Bush officials did not break the law, they also did not comport themselves in a manner worthy of the nation's top law enforcement officers. The Justice Department letter cited the firing of U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico as Exhibit A.

Then-Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) had called Mr. Iglesias to inquire about the apparent lack of progress on voter fraud investigations of Democrats. Mr. Domenici also complained to the White House and the Justice Department about Mr. Iglesias. Ms. Dannehy concluded that criminal charges were unwarranted because there had been no overt or documented attempt to influence the voter fraud case -- only an attempt to kick Mr. Iglesias out of the job. And that didn't happen until after the election in question was over.

But the letter noted that the Bush administration booted Mr. Iglesias in December 2006 even though "DOJ leadership never determined whether the complaints about Mr. Iglesias were legitimate." This failure "bespeaks undue sensitivity to politics on the part of DOJ officials who should answer not to partisan politics but to principles of fairness and justice."

U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and may be removed at any time, for almost any reason. But such removals should not be based on the unproven assertions of a perturbed political ally. Mr. Gonzales, who had let his cronies drive the removals, showed poor judgment and no backbone by allowing this process to run amok.

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