WASHINGTON - June 7 - In a letter sent today to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer urged the Attorney General to "take all steps necessary to ensure that there is no political interference with the criminal investigations being conducted by the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department and by U.S. Attorney offices in California concerning political corruption and potential criminal conduct by members of Congress."
The Democracy 21 letter to Attorney General Gonzales states, "We strongly urge you to provide assurances to the public, and to the government prosecutors handling these cases, that you will not allow any political interference in these matters. These criminal investigations must be pursued wherever they lead, regardless of any political pressures that might be applied by members of Congress or others to influence the cases."
The letter continues, "Our concerns about possible political interference in these matters have only been heightened by the reactions of House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and other House leaders to the Justice Department's obtaining of records from the congressional office of Representative William Jefferson (D-LA), pursuant to a court- approved search warrant."
According to the letter, "Regardless of the constitutional issues that may or may not be involved in the search of Representative Jefferson's office, the overreactions of Chairman Sensenbrenner and other House members to the execution of a court-approved search warrant has raised concerns that enforcement officials are being warned to stay away from investigations involving members of Congress."
The letter states, "This has occurred at a time, furthermore, when the Public Integrity Section's investigation into the Jack Abramoff corruption scandals has reached a critical stage. While a number of individuals have pled guilty to various criminal activities in the Abramoff scandals, key decisions remain yet to be made about whether criminal charges will be brought against members of Congress."
The letter continues, "The Abramoff lobbying scandals have the potential to be the biggest congressional corruption scandal in decades. The fact that this investigation is taking place as the 2006 congressional elections are approaching only adds to concerns about the potential for political pressures being brought to bear in this matter regarding the decisions to be made about members of Congress."
The letter adds, "Similarly, according to published reports serious criminal investigations are being conducted by U.S. Attorney offices in California that potentially involve members of Congress and that may be related to the same kind of activities which led to the criminal conviction of former Representative Randy 'Duke' Cunningham (R-CA)."
The letter also notes the criminal investigation "being conducted concerning Representative Jefferson's activities, according to published reports, with two individuals associated with Jefferson already having pled guilty to criminal conspiracy to bribe Jefferson."
The letter further states, "Based on our past correspondence with the Justice Department, responsibility to ensure that these criminal investigations are handled without any political interference rests with you as Attorney General."
The letter continues, "On December 13, 2005, Democracy 21 wrote to Glenn A. Fine, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, urging him to take pro-active steps to ensure that the Abramoff investigation is insulated from political pressure and interference."
The Democracy 21 letter states, "On January 5, 2006, Mr. Fine responded to us that the issues set forth in our December 13, 2005 letter 'fall outside the jurisdiction' of the Office of Inspector General (OIG). Instead, he indicated that these kind of issues 'fall within the jurisdiction of the Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), not OIG.' In his letter, Mr. Fine said he contacted the counsel for OPR and forwarded our December 13 letter to that office."
The Democracy 21 letter adds, "On February 9, 2006, H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel to the Office of Professional Responsibility, informed us that our letter to the Inspector General had been forwarded to the OPR and that he had determined that our request 'falls outside the jurisdiction of the Office of Professional Responsibility.' Mr. Jarrett said that OPR does not have jurisdiction 'to monitor ongoing investigations by components of the Criminal Division.'"
According to the Democracy 21 letter, "Given the fact that the Justice Department's OIG and the OPR each state they have no jurisdiction to ensure the integrity of the Justice Department's criminal investigations against potential political interference, we can only conclude that the responsibility rests squarely with you to protect the integrity of the Abramoff investigation and the other criminal investigations involving members of Congress from political interference."
The letter continues, "We have seen no basis, to date, for questioning the Justice Department's handling of these criminal investigations. Available public information indicates that the Department has been pursuing these matters in a serious and professional way."
The letter states, "But there have been disturbing reports of past political interference at the Justice Department with the decisions of career professionals in cases involving the Voting Rights Act and the tobacco industry. These past reports reinforce the need for your public assurances that no political interference will be allowed in the current criminal investigations involving members of Congress."
The letter provides information based on published reports about the Justice Department's handling of the Voting Rights Act and tobacco cases.
The letter concludes, "The integrity and public credibility of the Justice Department is at stake in the ongoing criminal investigations involving members of Congress. Democracy 21 calls on you to provide public assurances, and to make clear to members of Congress and other government officials, that no political interference will be allowed in these cases and that all decisions will be made strictly on the merits by the officials handling the cases."
A copy of the letter is available at http://www.democracy21.org.