Attorney General Dick Thornburgh yesterday testily denied that the Justice Department has targeted black elected officials for prosecution, adding that recent charges along those lines by NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks "disappoint me considerably."
Thornburgh also said that he had no present plans to have the department provide a racial breakdown of the more than 5,000 public officials who have been prosecuted by the Justice Department over the past 10 years. Such records are not kept, he said, adding that he saw little point in compiling a list.
"Do you think it would make any difference?" he snapped at one point.
Thornburgh's remarks, made during a luncheon meeting with reporters, were his most forceful attempt so far to rebut continued allegations of selective prosecution of blacks that have been spurred by the trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry on cocaine and perjury charges. The charges took on new currency this week when Hooks charged that federal prosecutors had engaged in harassment and selective prosecution of Barry, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and other black officials.
"Something is wrong with our system of justice when more than $40 million is spent and over 70 FBI agents assigned to trail and monitor one black elected official," Hooks said in a reference to Barry that Justice Department officials say contains a wildly inflated estimate of the costs of the Barry prosecution.
"There is no policy whatsoever in the Department of Justice to prosecute" on the basis of race, said Thornburgh. "Look, we've convicted 22 congressmen of criminal offenses, and as far as I know, two of them were black. That to me does not indicate a pattern . . . . We deal in crooks, not people who are Democrats or Republicans or whatever."
At another point, Thornburgh said that selective targeting of blacks "would be a hard message
to sell to Arch Moore," the former governor of West Virginia who
was sentenced this week to 5 years, 10 months in prison for mail fraud, extortion, false income taxes and obstruction of justice. Moore is white.
Thornburgh's figures on convictions of members of Congress cover the period since the Justice Department's Public Integrity section was created in 1976 to prosecute public officials, a department spokesman said later. The spokesman said the comment about two blacks was actually a reference to former House members Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), who was convicted in 1978, and Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), whose conviction was recently overturned on appeal. Garcia is Hispanic.
Thornburgh's list does not include Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), a black whose trial last April on bank fraud charges resulted in a hung jury and who is scheduled to be retried, the spokesman said.
Thornburgh said comments by black leaders such as Hooks have resulted in the false perception in the black community that prosecution is being based on race. He said he had reassured Hooks "publicly and privately" that the department was not targeting blacks.
Hooks was quoted as making similar remarks last January after a meeting at the White House with President Bush and Thornburgh. But on Jan. 23, he sent Thornburgh a letter -- which the attorney general has frequently cited -- in which Hooks said he was only commenting on a "perception" of selective prosecution in the black community and that "I did not believe the president or you were involved in any targeting" of blacks, according to a copy of the letter released by Thornburgh's office.
Thornburgh also said he did not plan to provide an estimated cost of the Barry investigation. "I don't think we put a pricetag on justice," he said. However, other law enforcement officials estimated recently that the Barry probe and several related investigations cost a total of $2 million to $3 million.