Justice official defends filing voter fraud case before election

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday a senior Justice Department official defended his decision to bring a Missouri voter fraud case just days before the 2006 election, despite guidelines discouraging such cases because of the potential to influence voting.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said the case is another example of the department acting out of partisan political motives under the Bush administration.

Bradley Schlozman, who now works in the office that oversees all federal prosecutors, filed the lawsuit when he was serving as interim federal prosecutor for Kansas City, Mo.

"Wasn't the timing of your action, on the eve of it, filing criminal charges not against a large conspiracy but against a few individuals -- wouldn't that be contrary to the policies that are right here in the book?" Judiciary chairman Pat Leahy of Vermont asked Schlozman.

Schlozman denied any political motives in his decision to prosecute four activists from the liberal-leaning group ACORN for allegedly submitting bogus voter registration forms. He testified that he received approval from Craig Donsanto, the head of the department's Election Crimes Branch, before bringing the case.

"I did not think it was going to have any effect on the election in this case, no, senator," Schlozman said.

"You're amazing," Leahy said dismissively.

Schlozman also said he had nothing to do with the decision to force out Todd Graves as federal prosecutor for Kansas City. Schlozman was named to succeed Graves just two weeks after Graves resigned from his post in March 2006. After serving in the position for about year, Schlozman returned to Washington.

In his own testimony before the committee Tuesday, Graves said he holds "no rancor or bitterness" over the way he was forced out.

Graves testified that he had already planned to leave office anyway to start his own private practice at the time he received a call in January 2006 from Michael Battle, a former director of the department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, asking him to resign.

Graves said Battle told him there were no performance issues, but the decision had been made "at the highest levels of government" to give another person a chance.

Graves said he had clashed with senior department officials over the filing of another Missouri voter fraud case in 2005 that alleged Missouri officials failed to purge ineligible voters from registration lists.

A federal judge dismissed the Missouri case last month, finding no evidence of fraud. The Justice Department appealed that decision this week.

Tuesday's hearing was a case-in-point in the Democrats' effort to portray Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' stewardship of the Justice Department as improperly political. According to Democrats, the department used Republican Party interests to make hiring, firing and even prosecution decisions -- violations of law or DOJ practice.

President Bush continues to stand by his longtime friend, and Gonzales shows no sign of stepping down.

Majority Democrats in the Senate have more in store for the attorney general. Next week, they have scheduled a no-confidence vote on Gonzales in an effort to nudge him out.

At his own news conference Tuesday, Gonzales shrugged off the hubbub on Capitol Hill.

"That'll be up to Congress to decide what they want to spend their time working on," Gonzales said.

Schlozman testified that he won approval to bring the Missouri voter fraud case because it did not require interviews with any voters, which could chill voting activity.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Schlozman's decision ran counter to another case in which Justice Department officials decided not to investigate allegations of voter fraud in Wisconsin just weeks before the 2006 election.

In the Wisconsin case, Justice Department aide Matthew Friedrich decided not to act, out of concern that it was too close to the 2006 elections and could have an impact on the election results.

"All you had to do was see this was a few weeks before the election and you don't do it," Schumer said.

Lawmakers also grilled Schlozman about his conduct as former head of the department's Civil Rights Division. Some former career attorneys have accused Schlozman of engaging in a pattern of politicizing the office.

Schlozman denied that he ever considered political affiliation in the hiring of career attorneys, though he admitted counseling some applicants to remove references to their political background.

"It's not a matter of hiding it, but I did encourage individuals to -- on a couple of occasions -- to take political background which was irrelevant to the hiring decision for a career position and to not include that in the resume that they submitted for a career position," Schlozman said.

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