Thursday, April 17, 2008

Judiciary Committee Releases Report On Politically Motivated Prosecutions

Salem Witch Hunt

[Artist's conception of the Salem Witch Trials. Image credit: Knowledge News]

Lotus has written today about the release of the House Judiciary Committee's report on selective prosecutions by the Justice Department under President Bush. Here are a couple of choice quotes from that report's summary, with emphasis added:

There is extensive evidence that the prosecution of former Governor Don Siegelman was directed or promoted by Washington officials, likely including former White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Advisor to the President Karl Rove, and that political considerations influenced the decision to bring charges. Several witnesses have corroborated testimony before two Judiciary Subcommittees that the investigation against Governor Siegelman was “coming to a close” without charges until Washington officials directed local prosecutors to go back over the matter from top to bottom, and that decisions regarding the Siegelman case were being made at the very highest levels of the Administration. That testimony in turn corroborates the sworn statements of a Republican attorney that the son of the Republican Governor of Alabama told her that Karl Rove had pressed the Department to bring charges. The issue of the involvement of Mr. Rove or others at the White House in the Siegelman case remains an important open question.

There is also significant evidence of selective prosecution in the Siegelman case. Department investigators pursued leads relating to Governor Siegelman but appear to have ignored similar leads involving similar conduct by Republican politicians.

Allegations of Selective Prosecution in Our Federal Criminal Justice System

The U.S. Attorneys in Alabama appear to have been pikers compared to their counterparts in Western Pennsylvania:

The prosecution of Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht by politically-connected U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan continues to raise concern about selective prosecution. Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh powerfully described for two Judiciary Subcommittees his view that both the charges and the conduct of the prosecution reveal it, like other Pennsylvania cases he described, to be an “apparent political prosecution” and one that was “undertaken for political reasons as opposed to being done to serve the interests of justice.” After a two-month trial, a Pennsylvania jury recently failed to convict Dr. Wecht on any charges and, after the judge declared a mistrial, juror interviews revealed that “the majority of the jury thought he was innocent.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also stated its concerns about the matter, editorializing that the case “added up to a big zero” and that it would be a “travesty” for the prosecution to continue, concerns echoed by a group of local Republicans and Democrats who recently wrote the Attorney General and U.S. Attorney Buchanan urging that plans to retry Dr. Wecht be reconsidered. The jury foreman observed that “as the case went on, my thoughts were that this was being politically driven.” And news that FBI agents were contacting members of the Wecht jury only further raised alarm.

Allegations of Selective Prosecution in Our Federal Criminal Justice System

Those of you who followed the Scooter Libby trial should recognize a significant problem with the emphasized phrases above. In the Libby case, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, even though he was opposed by some of the most able attorneys money could buy, managed to gain convictions on some subtle charges in a complicated case. In the Wecht case, the government is attempting to retry even though it's pretty clear they weren't going to get a conviction the first time. Paul Kiel explains:

The government's case relied on charges that Wecht had used resources from his coroner office for his private practice. Most of the counts of wire fraud against Wecht related to his use of county fax machines ($3.96 worth, his lawyers say) for his personal business. He was also charged with improperly billing the county for gasoline and mileage costs -- for a total of $1,778.55, his lawyers say.

Allegedly Political Prosecution Ends in Hung Jury

Two grand or so worth of fraud triggers a two-year federal case, and now they want to go to the expense of another trial. What could motivate the U.S. Attorney to pursue such a case? Former U.S. Attorney General and Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburg, suggested that this was a case that should have been handled by an ethics panel. I certainly agree with that assessment, as do at least a couple of prominent Pennsylvania Republicans.

Moving on to Mississippi, the report continues:

Charges against a group of judges and a practicing attorney in Mississippi arising out of what appear to be relatively common campaign fundraising practices raise similar issues of selective prosecution. A Republican-connected attorney who appears to have engaged in similar conduct was not indicted by this U.S. Attorney, further raising concerns about the possibility of selective prosecution.

Allegations of Selective Prosecution in Our Federal Criminal Justice System

This case looks a bit more circumstantial, and the accusations hinge partly on the fact that Dickie Scruggs, a prominent Mississippi attorney and brother in law of Senator Trent Lott, the former Republican majority leader, was not prosecuted for similar behavior. Unfortunately, given the preceding cases and the general level of apparent political influence in this Department of Justice, it certainly is worth further investigation.

Whether more investigation will be possible remains to be seen. The Justice Department has refused to release any more data than were available publicly already.

There is one ray of sunshine, though. The Judiciary Committee has announced that it will be issuing a subpoena for Karl Rove to testify about his involvement in Gov. Siegelman's prosecution.

UPDATE (Apr. 18): I've noticed in the comments on Lotus's article on this subject that there's a tendency to punch a strawman, which is that the report alleges that the people prosecuted weren't guilty of something. In the case of Cyril Wecht, I think he was clearly guilty of some questionable judgement, and may have committed the sort of fraud that would normally result in restitution or some similar punishment. Siegelman's case I'm less familiar with, but the apparent intervention of Karl Rove in a case that the local U.S. Attorney was seemingly willing to drop is the issue there. In the case of Judge Diaz, the government brought two weak cases against a sitting judge:

In addition, Justice Diaz never heard any cases involving Mr. Minor’s clients nor did he vote on any cases involving Mr. Minor. On those facts, the decision to indict Justice Diaz appears questionable at best, as confirmed by his acquittal. In fact, upon Justice Diaz’ acquittal of the corruption charges, Dunn Lampton was quoted as saying: “I knew we would have a problem on [prosecuting] Diaz because he didn’t vote on anything.”166 Regardless, U.S. Attorney Lampton appears to remain undeterred in his pursuit of a federal conviction of Justice Diaz. Three days after the acquittal, Mr. Lampton announced a second federal indictment of Justice Diaz, this time claiming that the campaign loans amounted to personal income that Justice Diaz had not properly reported. Justice Diaz was acquitted of that charge as well, after the jury deliberated on fifteen minutes. And in current comments, Mr. Lampton has hinted at yet more to come: “There are
other things I am aware of regarding Justice Diaz that caused me to refrain from commenting further on [the weakness of the prior cases], but it will come out later, and you’ll see. . . . I believe there was sufficient evidence to convict him, but maybe not for what he was charged.”

Allegations of Selective Prosecution in Our Federal Criminal Justice System

Two weak cases are followed by an inappropriate statement about future prosecutions.

On the subject of Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht, the report makes this point:
It has been contended that Dr. Wecht’s case is indicative of other prosecutions in the Western District of Pennsylvania. Since beginning her tenure as U.S. Attorney in the Western District in 2001, [Mary Beth] Buchanan has apparently never brought corruption charges against a Republican official, and has only prosecuted officeholders who are Democrats. In addition to Dr. Wecht, Ms. Buchanan conducted highly visible grand jury investigations during the run-up to the 2006 elections of Tom Murphy, former Democratic Mayor of Pittsburgh, and Peter DeFazio, the former Democratic Sheriff of Allegheny County. During the same period, Ms. Buchanan did not bring a single charge against any Republican, including declining to prosecute former Republican Senator Rick Santorum for allegedly defrauding a local community by claiming residency when he and his family resided in Virginia.

Allegations of Selective Prosecution in Our Federal Criminal Justice System

Ms. Buchanan spent a lot of money to prosecute a weak case for a penny-ante "crime" against a Democratic politician, but refused to prosecute a U.S. Senator for apparently lying about his residence. It's possible there's a good explanation for the latter decision, but I can't think of one for the former.

You have to wonder what was on the minds of these USA's if it wasn't politics.

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