Future of the Justice Department

Kent B. Alexander
Former U.S. Attorney
Tuesday, August 28, 2007 10:00 AM

Former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander was online Tuesday, Aug. 28 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the future of the Justice Department, and possible successors to attorney general Alberto Gonzales, who announced on Monday his upcoming resignation.

The transcript follows.

During his time with the Justice Department, Alexander worked with two people mentioned as possible nominees -- Larry Thompson, who hired Alexander as an assistant U.S. attorney, and Michael Chertoff, with whom he served on an advisory committee under then attorney general Janet Reno. Alexander served as Atlanta's U.S. attorney from 1994 to 1997. He has been the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Emory University since 2000.

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Kent B. Alexander: Hello everyone -- thanks for joining the forum. There are already a lot of questions; I will try to answer as many as I can.

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Arlington, Va.: Is the current Solicitor General, the designated Acting Attorney General, noncontroversial enough to be able to ride out the remainder of Bush's term as an appointee? It strikes me that it is a terrible criticism of the Republican party by the White House that every choice would be controversial.

Kent B. Alexander: Paul Clement is immensely talented. Whether he is a credible candidate may depend as much on the internal Department of Justice perceptions as those of the outside world. The department needs a morale boost.

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Shenandoah Valley, Va.: Would you advise the next attorney general (whomever it is) to put a great deal of time and effort into demonstrating that the office is clearly something different from the president's personal attorney? What are some ways you would expect the person to demonstrate this?

Kent B. Alexander: Shenandoah Valley, clearly the next AG (whomever he or she is) needs to show some independence. An early way to demonstrate that ability will be through the confirmation process answers. Once in office, perceptions will matter a lot -- for example, private dinners at the White House would be a poor idea.

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Washington: What tangible steps can be taken to restore the public's faith in our system of justice?

Kent B. Alexander: Washington, the new AG and the other new people who come to the department probably first should make sure the house is in order through internal meetings at Main Justice and in the U.S. Attorneys offices. After than (or maybe at the same time), interviews on the online and network news shows can go a long way to building public credibility.

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Lyme, Conn.: I don't know Gonzales's personal plans, yet as a hypothetical, should he decide to enter the law firm market in order to maximize his income, is he much of a rainmaker to any law firm? Does a controversial attorney general become radioactive to law firms, or a positive draw?

Kent B. Alexander: Lyme, Conn., I think any former AG is marketable. I am sure there are law firms in Texas that would be happy to have Mr. Gonzales join their ranks. In certain circles he could be quite a rainmaker.

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Marble Hill, N.D.: What does this resignation mean for the people who work at Justice? Can they expect changes to their "organizational culture" as it were, or is it just business as usual?

Kent B. Alexander: N.D., Justice is a large organization with a built-in bureaucracy/structure to coordinate the efforts of more than 100,000 employees. Because most employees are civil servants, the department can rock on (so to speak) just fine, even if there are changes among the political appointees.

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Vernon, British Columbia: With the resignation of attorney general Gonzales, what happens to the controversial law he was pushing about limiting appeals for death penalty cases? Many critics, including GOPers, have decried this as power-grabbing, and said that the power should stay with the courts. Does this "law" still go through even without Gonzales? Thanks.

Kent B. Alexander: B.C., that will depend largely on the new leadership.

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Lyme, Conn.: Is there any serious active consideration of changing the method of appointments of U.S. attorneys that might place the appointments out of the hands of politicians, such as moving the appointments to nonpartisan committees?

Kent B. Alexander: Lyme, I have not heard of any change in the appointment process. In many districts there are merit selection panels put in place, and those panels recommend candidates whom they view to be the best. Promoting that practice may be the best way to go, though even that practice sometimes can falter. (A panel like that recommended me!) Of course, the Senate has ultimate confirmation authority and does on occasion reject unqualified candidates.

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Lyme, Conn.: You worked with Michael Chertoff. What would be your recommendation as to his capability to serve as attorney general?

Kent B. Alexander: Lyme, Mike Chertoff is extraordinary. Very smart, very focused, very good judgment. During the time we overlapped as U.S. Attorneys he widely was regarded as one of the deans of the group. His time on the bench adds to his luster. That said, he of course would face lots of questions about Homeland Security.

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Falls Church, Va.: During Janet Reno's tenure she was continually pressed to "assert her independence." What happened to those voices? And do you think we will hear them again if a Democrat takes the White House in 2008?

Kent B. Alexander: Falls Church, contrary to some perceptions Janet Reno was an incredibly independent AG ... to the point that I am sure the White House was very frustrated at times. Regardless of the flavor administration, independence is of course very important.

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Fairfax, Va.: Much has been written in the mainstream media about Gonzales' personal failings; yet not so much about the way his actions damaged our justice system. Could you give some specifics about his impact including his efforts to use the Justice Department to advance Republican control of the government?

Kent B. Alexander: Fairfax, I think Gonzales should be given much credit for his public service. I would rather not get into specifics here, but clearly the U.S. Attorney terminations could have been handled better. As for policies, much of the disagreement boils down to political preferences.

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Salisbury, Conn.: Good morning Alexander. With the extent of the politicization of Voter Fraud investigations or potential non-investigations of Republicans -- not to mention the Hatch violations already uncovered -- am I far out of line to wonder if some of the alleged FISA law violations involve campaign dirty-tricks? I never have heard this question raised, but it is also tough to know where the win-at-all-costs line has been drawn.

Kent B. Alexander: Good morning back to you, Salisbury. I do not think the FISA process was abused for campaign purposes. Surely we learned more than a few lessons from Watergate.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Do you feel Gonzales was a proxy for Bush? That the Chattering class could not get to W, so they went after his lawyer? Why is no one mentioning that the first Hispanic attorney general was pushed out of office by liberals?

Kent B. Alexander: Long Island, no doubt many of the people calling for the AG's head are the same people who are critical of President Bush. That said, there has been a palpable lack of confidence and pride among many, many people at Justice and in the U.S. Attorneys' offices. The perception has become a reality (and there is some reality too) and for the sake of the department I think Gonzales did the right thing.

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Milford, Conn.: There's been some media speculation in Connecticut about Joe Lieberman being named attorney general, which would allow the GOP governor to name a replacement (and tip the Senate party balance). Would the White House take such a drastic step, and would Congress be able to block it?

Kent B. Alexander: Milford, that scenario sounds unlikely -- but who knows? Can the Senate block it? Yes. The Senate ultimately must confirm whomever the president nominates.

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Washington: Do you think there is any chance that the president will try to select the next AG as a recess appointment to bypass congressional approval?

Kent B. Alexander: Washington, I am not completely up on my "appointment law" but I assume the president has made his appointment of Paul Clement and next must look to the nomination process. Interesting thought, though.

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Little Rock, Ark.: What's Step One for the new attorney general, whoever that may be, does to restore confidence in the Justice Department? Clean up hiring procedures, clear out the partisans that Goodling et al hired/are accused of hiring?

Kent B. Alexander: Little Rock, step one it would seem is to go public with the personal conviction to uphold justice and have justice be the only guiding principle of the department. That message should go out internally and externally. If there are a handful of people who the new AG thinks needs to go, making a few select personnel changes right away may be a good step too.

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Cincinnati: Good morning. Any chance a new Attorney General would ask for the resignations of all U.S. attorneys, similarly to what one would expect when a new president takes office, and retain those in office who suit the new attorney general?

Kent B. Alexander: Cincy, with so little time left in the administration that seems unlikely. Also, it did not go over too well when it was floated between presidential terms!

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College Station, Texas: Why should the Attorney General be political at all? If you could rewrite the Constitution, shouldn't he (or she) have a fixed term that transcends administrations? It seems to me that if we took the politics out of the job, Gonzales wouldn't have had a problem.

Kent B. Alexander: College Station, that is an idea that certainly could be explored. The FBI Director, the Federal Reserve Chair and others fit that bill.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: Once he has fully resigned, and is no longer part of the administration, can Gonzales be called before Congress as a witness with regard to events that took place while he was attorney general? Other than taking the Fifth will he receive any special consideration, or will he simply be a regular private citizen at that point? Do you expect this to happen as Congress continues to pursue Department of Justice issues?

Kent B. Alexander: Mount Rainier, certainly Congress can call Gonzales to testify. Aside from taking the Fifth, though, there will be other privilege issues (e.g. attorney-client, national security) he can assert. Also, if his testimony relates to performance of his duties he will receive government counsel, unlike private citizens.

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Washington: How long will it take to get rid of the people hired because of political connections (e.g. the Regent University law school grads)? Even if you brought in an Ed Levi or another Mr./Ms. Clean figure, the unqualified probably have passed probationary status and are ensconced happily in civil service careers (it is very difficult to fire a federal employee). I'm afraid to get rid of the damage done will take years.

Kent B. Alexander: Washington, for political appointees, people can of course be removed at anytime. As you say, the civil service system is a different story and if there are poor performers in that category that is a problem for this administration and many others. Alas, there is lasting damage from a lot of administrations. Civil service reform is worth exploring.

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Omaha, Neb.: Bush has "reluctantly" accepted Gonzales resignation. Is it at all possible that the White House told Gonzales "we want you to step down" privately and then made a public statement of support? Or does that kind of thing only happen in the movies?

Kent B. Alexander: Omaha, that does not just happen in the movies, but I am guessing President Bush did not ask Gonzales to step down. If he had we probably would have seen a specific nominee's name floated right away.

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Reading, Pa.: Sir: Is there currently any remedy for those who have been wronged by the suspension of habeas corpus, or by warrantless wiretaps -- both legacies of Gonzales's time as attorney general?

Kent B. Alexander: Reading, if there have been wrongs, then habeas corpus is almost always an available remedy.

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North Dartmouth, Mass.: Hi Kent. Do you believe that anyone Bush nominates to succeed Gonzalez will have a snowball's chance in hell of being appointed? Certainly not Chertoff.

Kent B. Alexander: Good question, North Dartmouth. There is only a year and a quarter left in the administration. I think the only way someone will get nominated and confirmed would be for some true bipartisan behind-the-scenes conferencing. There are definitely people out there whom most people could agree upon.

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Chicago: Does the selection of Clement have anything to do with the fact that the Solicitor General would handle any investigations of Justice if the AG were to recuse himself? Who is going to replace Clement? I'm wondering if he was selected so that they could replace him with a friendly person who may have to handle future investigations...

Kent B. Alexander: Chicago, Paul Clement is the logical choice. He is the highest-ranking confirmed executive in the department. I do not read anything more into it than that.

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Toronto: I'm worried that Gonzales might show up for work as usual because he won't, after searching his memory, have any recollection of resigning. What happens then?

Kent B. Alexander: Well, Toronto, I am guessing that is a pretty unlikely scenario based on the news conference! I take it your are not a Gonzales fan. :)

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Chicago: FYI -- Bush and Sen. Reid made an agreement sometime in the past two months that there would be no recess appointments. (Reid was threatening to have one member present at all times during August to thwart recess appointments after being burned last time around.)

washingtonpost.com: Stubbornly, This Summer (second item) (Post, Aug. 15)

Kent B. Alexander: That's good to hear on the recess appointments. Thanks.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: My husband is an officer in the Navy Reserves. He has not been activated yet (probably because he is a submariner -- not too much use in Iraq) but we worry about job security if he deploys. One of the AGs fired by Gonzales was an Army Reservist in New Mexico. One reason cited for his termination was "absentee-ism." I know AGs serve at the pleasure of the president, but isn't it illegal to fire someone for national service? Will the new AG look into this matter?

Kent B. Alexander: Gaithersburg, sorry to hear about that ... and many thanks to your husband for serving. I am a little confused about Gonzales firing an "AG" because he is the only one with that title.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Does Patrick Fitzgerald have the credentials -- yet -- to serve as AG or will we have to wait for some future president to name him to that role?

Kent B. Alexander: Montgomery, by all accounts Fitzgerald is an outstanding prosecutor and is a logical candidate to be considered to be AG. Much like Jim Comey, he certainly would be viewed as independent.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think that Bush is able to appoint an Ed Levi-type AG? If so, who has the stature to take over and also to stand up to Bush?

washingtonpost.com: Calling Ed Levi (Post, Aug. 28)

Kent B. Alexander: Arlington, I do think President Bush is capable of appointing an independent, Ed Levi-type of AG. Politically, that would be a wise move. The department is a place of great pride and loyalty, but friends who are still there tell me both pride and loyalty have taken a hit in the past year or so.

I think a lot of people have the stature to take the position and "stand up to Bush," though I would prefer to say "exercise independent analysis and judgment." A few who come immediately to mind are Larry Thompson, Mike Chertoff, Jim Comey, Patrick Fitzgerald, Fran Townsend and Paul Clement (acting AG).

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Birmingham, Ala.: You have worked with Larry Thompson. What do you think of him as a possible AG?

Kent B. Alexander: Larry Thompson is integrity personified and would make an outstanding Attorney General. I have known him for many years. When Larry was the U.S. attorney in Atlanta he hired a prosecutor; later he spoke at my swearing-in when I became U.S. attorney, and we worked closely together as partners at King & Spalding law firm in Atlanta. Larry has great judgment, legal skills and people skills. Whether in law practice or corporate America (he is General Counsel of PepsiCo) he always bases his decisions on what is right and not expedient. I would love to see him resign from PepsiCo to spend a year at the Justice Department. I think most at Justice would love to see him there as well.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Let's cut to the chase: How badly tarnished is the whole notion of a fair, independent DOJ now? Will what happened under Gonzales destroy the reputation of the DOJ once and for all? Is there any hope at all that people will ever see the DOJ as anything other than political?

Kent B. Alexander: Thanks for the last question of the session, Rochester. I do not think the DOJ is tarnished permanently -- we just need to bring in the right polishing agent. Hopefully the president will nominate someone who can serve that role; if not, we will have to look to the next administration. The FBI, EPA, SEC and many other agencies have had their share of blemishes in the past, and all have come back nicely. DOJ is comprised of more than 100,000 dedicated employees -- with new leadership, Justice once again can glisten.

Thank you all for spending part of your morning with me, and for caring so much about the future of the Justice Department.

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