Partisan GOP prosecutors? What else is new? The editors of America's most prestigious newspapers pronounce themselves flabbergasted by the Bush administration's corrupt and nakedly partisan machinations at the Department of Justice. As well they should. Hiring and firing U.S. attorneys according to their willingness to use the criminal justice system to benefit the Republican Party shocks the conscience of anybody committed to the Constitution and the rule of law. Some of us wonder why it's taken them so long to grasp the obvious. Because last time around, The New York Times and Washington Post were urging them on.
Prosecuting federal crimes from political corruption and bank fraud to terrorism, U.S. attorneys wield enormous discretionary power. As The Times explains in a stinging editorial, "they can wiretap people's homes, seize property and put people in jail for life. They can destroy businesses, and affect the outcomes of elections. It has always been understood that although they are appointed by a president, usually from his own party, once in office they must operate in a nonpartisan way, and be insulated from outside pressures."
Indeed, the revelation that an inexperienced ideologue like Monica Goodling, the GOP apparatchik who testifies before Congress this week, was given authority by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to draw up hit lists of U.S. attorneys too willing to prosecute GOP bribery scandals and/or unwilling to pursue meritless voting-fraud charges against Democrats, strikes at the essence of democracy. The Times' editors won't be satisfied until the incompetent toady Gonzales is forced from office.
Funny, because when Kenneth Starr and his Merry Men subjected the state of Arkansas to a six-year inquisition, Beltway thinkers treated him as an untouchable. Those of us who objected were scorned as "Clinton apologists," and worse. Begging for leaks out of Starr's office like dogs at the dinner table, the national press became prosecutorial press touts.
Ancient history? Maybe so. In the end, Starr found absolutely nothing to pin on Bill or Hillary Clinton, doubtless the two most thoroughly vetted politicians in U.S. history. Even so, the Arkansas experience constitutes a vivid illustration of all that can go wrong when law enforcement becomes a partisan cudgel. Not everybody, see, could afford top-dollar legal representation, nor enjoyed the protections of White House celebrity.
Starr's prosecutors, several of whom Bush has appointed to federal judgeships and other posts, knew they couldn't bring anything but an airtight case against the president and first lady. That wasn't true of anybody else in Arkansas, even then-governor Jim Guy Tucker. Hundreds of ordinary citizens got swept into the ever-expanding "Whitewater" investigation. For them, it wasn't quite like living in America.
Virtually the entire case depended upon one David Hale, a con man indicted by Little Rock's Democratic U.S. attorney for embezzling over $2 million from the Small Business Administration. Caught red-handed, Hale began spinning wild fables about every prominent person in Arkansas he'd ever done business with -- and some, like the Clintons, he hadn't. Many were Republicans, none of whom Starr's prosecutors ever touched.
A jury convicted Tucker of bank fraud based upon a loan document. After pleading guilty to a second charge, Tucker finally got a look at the formal charges. As he'd suspected, Starr's prosecutors had indicted him using an expired tax law. His appeals went nowhere in the partisan 8th Circuit Court.
Remember Susan McDougal in chains? She swore Starr put her in a perjury trap, demanding she confirm Hale and her mentally ill ex-husband Jim McDougal's cockamamie tales. Kept in solitary for most of two years, she was acquitted after a jury heard Susan and several other witnesses testify that prosecutors pressured them for false testimony.
A Little Rock municipal judge named Bill Watt got tagged an "unindicted co-conspirator" for refusing to confirm Hale's whoppers about Bill Clinton. The allegation cost Watt his job, his reputation and pension.
A scrapper, Watt later found handwritten notes by Starr's prosecutors on his business records proving they'd never believed he'd done anything wrong. He presented his case to the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission and was fully reinstated.
I could cite a dozen similar examples. Starr's team investigated not crimes, but people. They ransacked ordinary citizens' lives investigating tall tales no competent U.S. attorneys would waste resources on. Meanwhile, any skeptical observer who read the transcripts and studied the documents could confidently predict Whitewater would come to nothing.
So, naturally, GOP hard-liners thought they could safely turn the Department of Justice into a partisan tool. The last time they did it, Beltway pundits cheered.
Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.<I>