By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Columnist
Published December 11, 2005
One of the vital strengths of the United States is a Justice Department that prides itself on being above politics. No matter who's in power, the career people there do not check for party labels when they're on the trail of crooks. Neither, for the most part, do the politically appointed district attorneys.
The Randy Cunningham indictment and the bloodhounds baying after Jack Abramoff's congressional courtesans are in keeping with the integrity that prevented the corrupt Spiro Agnew from becoming president at the climax of Watergate.
But it bears remembering what elevated Watergate from a "third-rate burglary" to an impeachable offense: Richard Nixon's attempt to corrupt the Justice Department.
There's a whiff of Watergate in the air.
A rarely mentioned side trail in the Abramoff scandal leads across the Pacific, where the acting U.S. attorney for Guam, Frederick A. Black, was demoted a day after issuing a subpoena for lobbying contracts between Abramoff and the Guam Superior Court. According to the Los Angeles Times, the White House chose that moment - coincidence, no doubt - to announce that Black was being replaced after more than 10 years by a political appointee. In being kicked downstairs, Black was also pulled off the Abramoff case, which involved $324,000, laundered $9,000 at a time, to lobby against a bill in Congress giving the Guam Supreme Court jurisdiction over the superior court.
Why would judges spend so much over something so arcane? Who might have subsidized them? Whose strings might have fashioned the noose for the troublesome Mr. Black? Perhaps these questions will be answered by the FBI and Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility, which are said to be on the case.
It would not be the only recent instance of political pollution at Justice.The Washington Post has disclosed that the politicians there overruled the career civil rights professionals in approving DeLay's 2003 Texas chain saw massacre and Georgia's scheme (later blocked by a federal judge) to require voters to buy identification cards that weren't for sale anywhere in Atlanta.
In both cases, the career staffers said the states had not met their burden under the Voting Rights Act to prove that the changes would not erode the voting power of blacks and Hispanics. A 73-page memo signed by six attorneys and two analysts charged not only that DeLay's plot would dilute minority strength in two congressional districts and eliminate several others where minority votes mattered, but that his stooges in Texas knew it before they passed the bill.
The result, which is being appealed, replaced five Democratic congressmen with five Republicans in the 2004 election. Had the department denied preclearance, as provided under the law in states with histories of voting discrimination, the scheme could not have gone into effect before a court upheld it.
The Post exposed the Texas tank job the morning after President Bush thrilled a roomful of civil rights leaders, at a ceremony honoring Rosa Parks, by announcing his support for extension of that and other voting rights provisions that expire in 2007.
What they did not hear him say was to promise to obey or enforce them. His administration's contempt for professional advice that conflicts with its politics is provoking mass resignations and retirements from the Civil Rights Division. Nothing of the sort happened even under Nixon or Ronald Reagan.
The head of the division when the Department was rolling over for DeLay was a political appointee, Alex Acosta, who is now the acting U.S. attorney for South Florida. With Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez lobbying hard for him, Acosta is on a greased path to appointment and confirmation. He's one of three candidates recommended to Sens. Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson by their nominating commission.
As a Democrat - and as a very nervous candidate - Nelson may not think he has any real say in what comes next. But he'll be a wimp if he doesn't insist that Acosta account for what's happening to the Civil Rights Division.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter and the senior Democrats, Patrick Leahy and Ted Kennedy, have been asking Gonzalez to explain it; Specter, whose integrity often transcends party discipline, is talking of oversight hearings on the Texas case.
Acosta's nomination could set the stage for a confrontation even sooner. U.S. district attorneys are usually confirmed without hearings, but this is no ordinary time. He and Gonzalez have some explaining to do.
Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org