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Follow the Pressure: Some Questions About the U.S. Attorney Firings

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My congressperson, Heather Wilson, and the more senior of my two senators, Pete Dominici, have been in the news lately. As you've probably heard, the recently-fired (Republican) U.S. Attorney here in New Mexico --David Inglesias-- has been testifying before the Senate this week about calls he received from those two elected officials "inquiring" about the state of some political corruption investigations. Mr. Inglesias felt pressured by these phone calls, but did not buckle under to the pressure. Soon he was fired.

Those telephone calls are a violation of House and Senate rules. They are a serious ethical breach.

With Heather Wilson, who is still fairly new to the political process, perhaps it can be imagined that she didn't know how improper her conduct was. But Dominici has been around for a very long time, and it may be presumed that he knew full well he was violating the rules of conduct concerning ongoing investigations and prosecutions.

I would bet that he's not made calls of this nature before. This is a question that would be worth asking.

In any event, Wednesday evening on COUNTDOWN, constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley declared that calls of the sort received by Inglesias (and evidently also by at least one other of the fired U.S. Attorneys) are extremely unusual.

An extraordinary event calls for an extraordinary cause. In other words, if a veteran Senator like Dominici deviates from his usual standard of conduct, there must have been some unusual circumstance. I would bet money that before Dominici applied pressure to Inglesias, someone applied pressure to Dominici.

I would like Dominici to be asked: did someone ask you to lean on Inglesias? And then, when you requested his dismissal, did someone ask you to make that request?

I would bet the trail leads either to the White House, or to Attorney General Gonzalez, or --most likely--both.

It has widely been noted that it is altogether unprecedented for a mass-firing of U.S. Attorneys to take place except when there's a change of administrations.

What's also unprecedented is the new legal context in which this contemporary version of the "Saturday Night Massacre" took place. Last fall, a provision was inserted into the bill renewing the Patriot Act that allows the Attorney General to appoint U.S. Attorneys who can then serve indefinitely without ever requiring congressional approval.

On COUNTDOWN, Professor Turley (the constitutional scholar) drew the reasonable inference that this provision was put into the Patriot Act precisely to facilitate the political purge of the ranks of the U.S. Attorneys that has now ensued. "Political purge" seems the reasonable description: despite all these people being loyal Republicans, they apparently were not (as Turley put it) willing to be sufficiently "lock-step" in serving the political interests of the administration.

In an earlier posting on my website from a few weeks ago --"A Very Important Story: Two Good Pieces on the Politicized Replacement of U.S. Attorneys," at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=458-- one of the news articles there described the stealthy means, the act of betrayal one might say, by which the provision cutting Congress out of the appointment process was slipped into the Patriot Act:

The staffer who reportedly performed this bit of dirty work is Michael O’Neill, a law professor at George Mason University and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. As the Washington Times explained when O’Neill was appointed as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chief counsel, many observers believed that Specter had hired him to reassure conservatives of his loyalty to the Bush White House. Right-wing distrust had almost ousted the Pennsylvania moderate from the Judiciary chairmanship, and appointing O’Neill was apparently the price for keeping that post.

Evidently O’Neill rewarded Specter by sneaking through legislation to deprive him and his fellow senators of one of their most important powers, at the behest of an attorney general intent on aggrandizing executive power.

I would like for this O'Neill to be questioned under oath about what he got and from whom. Did Attorney General Gonzalez tell him to sneak that into the bill?

Gonzalez evidently has testified before Congress under oath that these firings were not politically motivated. Yeah, right.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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