The real story of the U.S. Attorneys scandal that has so endangered the tenure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is not that of the eight fired prosecutors. It is that of the 85 U.S. Attorneys around the country who were not let go.
There is mounting evidence that the Bush administration was pressuring U.S. attorneys to politicize their prosecutions prior to the 2006 elections, on the apparent theory that stirring up trouble for Democrats in battleground states might ease concerns about abuses by White House aides, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, former California Congressman Duke Cunningham and the various and sundry GOP solons who had been linked to no-longer-so-super lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
And it certainly looks as if some of the U.S. Attorneys who refused to bow to the pressure to mount prosecutions that might embarrass Democrats were removed from their positions because of their regard for the rule of law.
But what about the U.S. Attorneys who were not fired?
Did they agree to mount political prosecutions in order to keep their jobs? Were they reliably partisan enough to secure White House political czar Karl Rove approval?
Did they act on that partisanship in their official duties?
These are the question of the moment in a number of states, most notably Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is the ultimate battleground state in presidential politics, an almost evenly-divided jurisdiction where the Bush-Gore race of 2000 was decided by barely 5,000 votes and the Bush-Kerry race of 2004 was decided by only a little more than 10,000. Gearing up for 2008, Republicans wanted very much to replace Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, whose control of the state's top job, it was thought, had helped Kerry secure his narrow victory in 2004.
As the 2006 gubernatorial election approached, Doyle appeared to be a solid shape. They he was linked to a nasty pay-to-play politics scandal. Stephen Biskupic, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, aggressively pursued an investigation of whether political considerations had influenced the awarding of a state travel contract to a Doyle donor.
As the election approached, Biskupic secured the conviction of state employee Georgia Thompson, who was charged with steering the contract to the donor's firm. More prosecutions were reportedly in the offering. Republicans had a field day. They mounted an expensive television ad campaign linking Doyle to the "scandal."
When Democrats criticized Biskupic for pressing what appeared to be a shaky case against Thompson on a schedule that paralleled that of the 2006 gubernatorial race, their arguments were dismissed as nothing more than political spin. Yes, of course, Biskupic was a Republican, with family ties to the state party and friendly relations with the Bush White House. Yes, he had investigated supposed "vote fraud" cases pushed by the state and national GOP, even though the investigations came to nothing. But few independent observers could believe that a career prosecutor would abuse his position for political purposes.
After Doyle was easily reelected in what turned out to be a strong Democratic year, Georgia Thompson was whisked off to a federal prison in Illinois. Biskupic's actions pre-election prosecution of the woman, while suspect to some, was generally accepted as an accident of timing.
Now, however, the complaints about Biskupic's election-season execution of a case involving a Democratic governor in a battleground state are being seen in a new light.
Last week, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that Thompson, a former state purchasing supervisor, had been wrongly convicted of making sure a state travel contract went to a firm linked to Doyle's re-election campaign.
The judges declared that Thompson was innocent.
They ordered her immediate release from prison.
And they went out of their way to criticize Biskupic's case against the state employee, with Federal Judge Diane Wood saying "the evidence is beyond thin."
The question that arises, at a point when the U.S. House and U.S. Senate judiciary committees are investigating efforts by the Bush administration, Republican members of Congress and GOP operatives to get U.S. attorneys around the country to engage in political prosecutions designed to harm Democrats as the election approached, is whether Biskupic aggressively pursued a case built on evidence that was "beyond thin" in order to assist Republican electoral prospects.
The circumstances surrounding the Thompson prosecution, when seen in the context of the known pressures on U.S. attorneys to conduct political prosecutions, require nothing less. And it happens that Wisconsin's senators, both of whom serve on the Judiciary Committee, are in a position to press the matter. But it should not fall only to Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl to question members of the Bush administration about any and all contacts with Biskupic, and make similar inquiries regarding efforts by current and former Republican Party officials in Wisconsin and nationally to pressure the U.S. Attorney's office.
And the questioning ought not end at the Wisconsin line. As the New York Times noted April 9, in an editorial, "Another Layer of Scandal": "Ms. Thompson's case is not the only one raising questions about whether prosecutors tried last year to tilt close elections toward the Republicans. New Jersey's federal prosecutor conducted an investigation of weak-looking allegations against Senator Robert Menendez that was used in Republican ads."
The bottom line should be clear: The investigation into the politicization of prosecutions by the Bush administration needs to expand dramatically. As this happens, there is good reason to believe that the firings of the eight U.S. Attorneys that have to now been so much in the news may turn out to be the lesser scandals brought to light by an inquiry that could yet be the most damning of Bush's presidency.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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