by Max Brantley
A Senate committee today approved a proposal to repeal the Patriot Act provision that allows the attorney general to install interim U.S. attorneys for unlimited periods. The legislation would limit the interim appointments to 120 days. If the attorney general didn't submit a nominee for Senate confirmation, then district courts could name an interim appointee. Three Republicans joined in endorsing the bill on a 13-6 vote.
(UPDATE: This action was followed later in the day by a stinging letter from Democratic senators to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggesting strongly that a change in U.S. attorneys in Little Rock was done as a favor to Bush strategist Karl Rove and that the deal may have been sealed while Rove himself remained under federal investigation. New info at bottom and on the jump. If you want a straight news account ....)
Call it the Tim Griffin Justice Reform Act. He's the Karl Rove hatchetman -- and sidekick to Rep. Dan Burton during the days when Burton was pumping .38 slugs into pumpkins to try to prove Vince Foster was murdered -- who was promoted into the U.S. attorney slot in Little Rock. Bud Cummins, for his six years of diligent work, was rudely shoved into the streets so that Griffin could pursue a political agenda in his native state.
So what now? Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln have made it clear they will not approve Griffin's confirmation in advance of a hearing. The Justice Department is not desirous of a real hearing that could delve into Griffin's opposition research activities or reports that he might have been connected to a Republican vote suppression project. Will the Bush administration stick by Griffin and pull his appointment down? Increasing Democratic pressure raises the question.
Ponder this angle, too:
In testimony before the Senate, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denied that seven U.S. attorney changes made recently were political. He said Cummins and six others were asked to leave on the basis of job reviews. But Gonzales' chief deputy, Paul McNulty, acknowledged this week that Cummins was removed without cause to accommodate Griffin, who had political ties to the White House. Cummins wasn't removed for performance reasons, McNulty said.
So. Did Attorney General Gonzales misspeak? Moreover, did he knowingly misspeak? Can you do that to Congress? Shouldn't the country's highest Justice official meet a higher standard of accuracy, if not to say truthfulness?
Alberto Gonzales, Jan. 18, to Senate committee: "...I have a responsibility to the people in your districts that we have the best possible people in these positions. And that's the reason why changes sometimes have to be made. Although there are a number of reasons why changes get made and why people leave on their own, I think I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons ..."
Paul McNulty, Feb. 8, to Senate committee: ".. with regard to Arkansas and what happened there and any other efforts to seek the resignation of U.S. attorneys, these have been lumped together, but they really ought not to be. And we'll talk about the Arkansas situation as Senator Pryor laid it out, and the fact is that there was a change made there that was not connected to, as was said, the performance of the incumbent, but more related to the opportunity to provide a fresh start with a new person in that position."
UPDATE: Four Democratic senators, led by Harry Reid, have written Gonzales to press a series of questions about the Griffin appointment following McNulty's "stunning admission" that Cummins was pushed out "for no reason other than to install -- without Senate confirmation -- Tim Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove." The letter says Griffin had "minimal" experience, but was "highly skilled in opposition research and partisan attacks." The letter said, "This strikes us as a quintessentially 'political' reason to make a change."
More on the jump
LETTER FROM SENS. DICK DURBIN, CHARLES SCHUMER, PATTY MURRAY AND HARRY REID TO ALBERTO GONZALES
... We look forward to a fuller explanation of why a concededly well-performing prosecutor was terminated in favor of such a partisan figure.
* In particular, when was the decision made to appoint Tim Griffin to replace Bud Cummins?
* Specifically who lobbied on behalf of Tim Griffin's appointment, both inside and outside the administration?
* Why was Bud Cummins told to resign in June of 2006, when the other dismissed officials were told in December of 2006? Was the reason to give the replacement Tim Griffin, a chance to become ensconced at the U.S. attorney's office in Arkanas before making the appointment?
* In light of the unprecedented nature of the appointment, we are especially interested in understanding the role played by Karl Rove. In particular, what role did Karl Rove, with whom Griffin was closely associated, play in the decision to appoint Griffin?
Given that Mr. Rove was himself apparently still being investigated by a U.S. attorney in June 2006, it would be extremely untoward if he were at the same time leading the charge to oust a sitting U.S. attorney and install his own former aide.