Under Fire: Three More Scandals Appear as U.S. Attorneys Story Unfolds

Random Lengths News | March 21, 2007
As the scandal over the improper firing of eight U.S. Attorneys continues to unfold—fueled by ever-changing cover stories—there’s a larger story in the background about what the U.S. Attorneys were doing—or failing to do—that got them fired, and what this tells us about the Bush Administration’s version of “justice”—both the Department, and the concept.

Traditionally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) may be guided by differing priorities and orientations as one administration succeeds another, but not by partisan politics.

“Once a U.S. Attorney is appointed, it’s their role to be an independently serving prosecutor, and that’s their highest responsibility,” Heidi Rummel, a former federal prosecutor now teaching at USC said.

But the unfolding scandal reveals a strikingly different mindset throughout the Bush Administration—a mindset that expected partisan loyalty above the law they were sworn to uphold. As a high-level memo from Attorney General Gonzales’ aide Kyle Sampson put it, “The vast majority of U.S. attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc."

What’s striking is how partisan loyalty connects the U.S. Attorneys scandal with other mega-scandals plaguing the Republican Party—scandals involving corruption, money and power, gaming everything from military contracts to lobby contracts to elections themselves.

Looking back at a long string of Reagan-Gingrich-and Bush-based scandals, Robert Borosage, from the Campaign for America’s Future, said flatly, “Incompetence isn’t at the core of these scandals—ideology is.”

Above all, that ideology includes belief in their own righteousness, so that ordinary rules just don’t apply to them. It starts with the imperial presidency, and trickles down from there.

With the proposed addition of an ninth suspicious firing from 2002, called for by two House committee chairs––George Miller (D-CA), Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.VA), Natural Resources Committee—there are at least three major background scandals involved.

In each case, the scandals concern both what is illegal, and what ought to be. Together, they paint a vivid picture of a corrupt political culture strikingly at odds with the GOP’s perennial rhetoric of morality and values.

The GOP’s Military-Industrial Scandal

The first mega-scandal behind the US Attorney firings is the corruption scandal spreading outward from convicted former Congressman Duke Cunningham (R-Del Mar), which lead to two more indictments on Feb. 13, just two days before U.S. Attorney Carol Lam left her post—allegedly, at the time, for “poor performance.”

“In his plea agreement he [Cunningham] admitted to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, making his case many times larger than the next biggest public corruption case in the history of the country,” noted Scott Lilly, a former congressional staffer now at the Center for American Progress.

The original Cunningham scandal was touched off by revelations in June 2005 that defense contractor, Mitchell Wade, founder of MZM Inc. had purchased Cunningham's house in Del Mar for $1,675,000, then turned around and placed it on the market, where it remained unsold for 8 months until the price was reduced to $975,000. (This is an old trick. A similar sweat heart real-estate deal helped build Ronald Reagan’s fortune in the late 1950s.)

In turn, Lily noted last month, “Wade’s company, MZM Inc., rocketed from a shell organization with no revenues in 2001 to one of the top 100 federal contractors in 2005 with revenues of more than $66 million.”

Cunningham sat on both the House Appropriations and the Intelligence committees.

In addition to Cunningham and Wade pleading guilty of conspiring together, Cunningham also pled guilty to being on the take from Brent Wilkes, founder of San Diego-based ADCS Inc.—for whom Wade used to work, at least through 2000. In 1997, Cunningham muscled the Pentagon into a $20 million contract with ADCS for a document-digitization system. As an offshoot of the Cunningham investigation, Lam secured an indictment charging Wilkes and Dusty Foggo—a childhood friend and the third-ranking man at the CIA—for a bribery scheme that brought Wilkes classified contracts in return for luxury vacations, pricey meals and gifts, as well as the promise of lucrative future employment.

But both the Cunningham/Wade and Wilkes/Foggo cases may just be pieces of a much larger scandal.

“MZM’s first government contract came in 2002. It was for $140,000 to provide “furniture” to the White House,” Lily pointed out.

What’s a start-up defense contractor doing jumping into the furniture business, and making its first sale to the White House? “No one has explained,” Lily noted, dryly.

Wade had worked for Wilkes for years; this was his first solo venture into the big-time. Wilkes was a Bush “Pioneer,” (those who raised $100,000 or more for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign). This line of investigation seems clear—not to mention politically explosive.

Wade also pled guilty to bribing Pentagon officials who remained unnamed, and could still be prosecuted—perhaps leading to even further revelations. Were other Congressmembers involved in related or similar schemes? An offshoot investigation—taken on by the neighboring US Attorneys Office—has been launched into Wilkes’s dealings with Congressmember Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who chaired the Appropriations Committee until 2006.

Furthermore, Foggo only became executive officer at the CIA in November, 2004, but the indictment focuses almost entirely on earlier activities. Prior to that, Foggo had been based in Frankfurt, Germany, overseeing CIA purchasing throughout Europe and the Middle East—including Iraq. Among other things, the indictment alleges that an ADCS subsidiary sent bottled water to Iraq at a 60 percent markup.

In Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post’s Baghdad Bureau Chief, documented widespread, systematic practices of promoting political operatives and goals at the expense of basic competence. How many other Foggo /Wilkes teams are out there could be anybody’s guess.

Finally, Lilly notes that Foggo “had languished for years as a mid-level bureaucrat passed over by supervisors who viewed him as ethically challenged and prone to poor judgment... Whether Wilkes used his influence with the Bush White House or friends in Congress to help his buddy Foggo gain his dramatic advancement within the CIA is unknown, but it is clear that he would have significant reasons to do so.”

In short, it’s impossible to say how many other corruption investigations Lam might have generated—or where they might have ended. One thing is certain: with all the power in Republican hands, only Republicans were likely to get hurt.

While Lam posed a danger of exposing GOP wrongdoing, complaints about two other US Attorneys centered on not giving Democrats enough grief.

The GOP’s “Get the Democrats” Scandal

The second scandal—evident in several different cases—is abuse of the DOJ to undermine the Democratic Party.

As Borosage noted, “Conservatives are acutely aware that they represent a minority, not a majority, position in America. From Nixon to Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, they play politics and exploit America’s divides with back-alley brass knuckles... They excel in the politics of personal destruction... they are relentless in seeking to suppress the vote, particularly of the poor and minorities who would vote against them in large numbers.”

Under Bush, US Attorneys were pressured to attack Democrats in two ways: By politically-influenced indictments of Democratic officials, and by advancing charges of voter fraud to aid in voter suppression.

“Part of what’s at stake is that claims of voter fraud are important to buttress legal attempts to create more procedural obstacles to voting,” said Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar, author of The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.

John McKay said that Republicans pressured him to bring voter fraud charges to help overturn the 2004 Washington governor’s race, which Democrat Christine Gregoire, won by 133 votes after two recounts. McKay refused.

“There was no evidence,” McKay said. “And I am not going to drag innocent people in front of a grand jury.”

Two years later, New Mexico US Attorney David C. Iglesias failed to bring indictments against a prominent Democrat prior to the midterm elections, despite pressuring calls from Senator Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson—both Republicans who initially tried to hide their involvement. The case involved a former Democratic State Senate leader, being investigated for bribe-taking in connection with a state courthouse construction project. There was also frustration that a former Democratic state treasurer had just been acquitted on all but one of 24 counts, after the first trial ended in a mistrial. With only one prosecutor assigned to public corruption, Iglesias felt he was doing all he could.

It later turned out that Iglesias had also declined to bring voter fraud charges in 2004. There was clear evidence of minors being registered to vote, but the only solid case—out of around 100 leads—involved a woman out to make money by turning in extra registration forms—not quite the same thing as trying to vote illegally. Short on resources, Iglesias declined to prosecute.

The “Voter Fraud” Fraud

In The Right To Vote, Keyssar identified four different historical eras, each characterized by a different overall attitude. The second one, covering the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was characterized by shrinking the electorate through a wide variety of seemingly neutral regulations, often passed off as insuring the integrity of the vote. There is a striking similarity between the mindset of that era and Republicans today.

“Last fall we were reaching new heights of waiving the flag of voter fraud as a rationalization for voter suppression,” Keyssar said. But the lack of actual voting fraud cases has greatly hindered GOP efforts—thanks in part to principled prosecutors like McKay and Iglesias.

As the Iglesias firing gained attention, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked about the dog that didn’t bark.

“The bigger scandal, “ Krugman wrote on March 9, “almost surely involves prosecutors still in office. The Gonzales Eight were fired because they wouldn't go along with the Bush administration's politicization of justice. But statistical evidence suggests that many other prosecutors decided to protect their jobs or further their careers by doing what the administration wanted them to do: harass Democrats while turning a blind eye to Republican malfeasance.”

Krugman cited an ongoing study of federal investigations and/or indictments of candidates and elected officials under the Bush Administration. Of the 375 cases, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats. There was only a slight imbalance at the federal and statewide level, but an enormous gap at the local level, which researchers suggested reflected a lower level of visibility.

The importance of local-level prosecutions also reflects long-time GOP electoral strategy. The Christian Coalition pioneered the consolidation of religious right power within the GOP by encouraging its members to start by running for local school boards. Newly-elected California Republican Party State Chair Ron Nehring, gained prominence in the San Diego area by organizing the party to contest the full slate of local elections in a partisan manner, despite all such seats being officially non-partisan in California.

Jack Abramoff—Again

The third major scandal behind the US Attorney purge involves convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands (CNMI) an American protectorate—a sweatshop hell-hole that Congressman George Miller (D-CA) has been trying to reform since the early 1990s. Fred Black was the acting US Attorney for Guam and CNMI from 1991 to 2002. He never tried to gain a permanent appointment because, he said, “The people you have to get supported by are the very people you need to investigate.”

When the CNMI, under a 1976 agreement, became politically affiliated with the United States ten years later, its citizens became US citizens, subject to almost all US laws. However, to help it catch up economically, it was exempted from customs restrictions and minimum wage laws, and was allowed to control its own immigration, so as not to be over-run by East Asian immigrants. As a result, it became a haven for Asian-owned sweatshops; with roughly 30,000 foreign workers housed in company work camps under long-term contracts at $2 below the US minimum wage, pumping out clothes misleadingly labeled “Made in the USA.”

Jack Abramoff was CNMI’s man in Washington, protecting the status quo. Top Republicans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey were head-over-heels in love with what CNMI had done, praising its commitment to "advancing the principles of free markets, enterprise...tax reform and other innovative approaches to governance." They blocked Clinton’s attempts to impose mainland American standards on the CNMI, saying they were “counter to the principles of the Republican Party, and this Congress has no intention of voting on such legislation."

In 1998, after returning from a trip to CNMI, DeLay suggested a similar “guest worker” program for the US mainland “where particular companies can bring Mexican workers in” paid at “whatever wage the market will bear,” meaning no minimum wage at all.

In contrast, at the end of his five-day trip, Congressman Miller said, "The immigration system has mutated into a mechanism for luring and holding unsuspecting people–mostly very young women–in horrific situations that cannot be justified."

Abramoff earned his multi-million-dollar lobbying fee making sure that Miller’s views never got traction in the media or on Capitol Hill. Still, in 1999, he almost lost his contract, due to new leadership in the local legislature. That’s when two Abramoff cronies and DeLay staffers (one former, one about to leave) sprang into action, pressuring two CNMI legislators to change their leadership votes in exchange for federal pork, which the GOP Congress later delivered.

It’s a rare lobbyist who, in effect, has Congress lobbying his own clients on his behalf. But that’s the way things worked for Jack Abramoff when his friends ran the Congress.

In 2002, however, it looked like Abramoff’s luck had run out. The Guam Superior Court retained him under secret contract to lobby against a bill that would have put it under the authority of the Guam Supreme Court. He was paid $324,000 through a Laguna Beach, California, lawyer via 36 checks of $9,000 each—conveniently below the $10,000 federal reporting requirement.

This sort of evasive payment scheme violates federal law, and on November 18, 2002, Fred Black secured a grand jury subpoena for all records relating to the contract.

His replacement was announced the next day, just as it looked like Abramoff’s luck had run out. Although last year’s DOJ Inspector General’s report concluded it was just a coincidence, it seems sound to include this case in the Congressional investigation, and take another look, simply because it’s clear that Abramoff at least tried to get Black fired—and no one seemed to think this improper at the time.

“At the time we were not aware of the these seven other firings and in retrospect the Fred Black case may need to be looked at from another perspective,” Daniel Weiss, Congressman Miller’s Chief of Staff explained.

More To Come

What connects all of these scandals is not just the Republican Party, but what it has become over the past 40 years.

“Conservative presidents—from Nixon to Reagan to Bush—believe in the imperial presidency,” Borosage explained. “They assume that in the area of the national security, the president operates above the law, or as Nixon put it, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

As Watergate showed, once the attitude is adopted in foreign affairs, it quickly trickles down into everything else. There are many other Republican scandals out there. Walter Reed Hospital and the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame are just two examples recently in the news.

The US Attorneys scandal holds a special place because of how it connects to so much else that’s been hidden for so long, but even more central is the ideology that says certain people are above the law and that politics trumps blind justice.

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