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The Oregonian

Even Now, Gonzales Leaves a Mess to Clean Up


Alberto Gonzales departed Friday from the job of attorney general of the United States, and we doubt if anyone will really miss him.

Gonzales tried to focus on the positive on his way out the door, but in truth nothing good he might have done in office outweighs his spectacular failures. They will leave a stain on the office of the attorney general, and Gonzales' career should serve as a cautionary tale for future attorneys general and political appointees of all stripes.

In an administration chock full of untalented, unprincipled amateurs, Gonzales may take the cake. His willingness to place loyalty to the president above his duty to the nation has placed a stain on the reputation of the Department of Justice that may take years to scrub out.

Sadly, Gonzales may be gone, but he will not be forgotten. The scandal that developed over how Justice hired and fired U.S. attorneys under Gonzales has raised huge questions about the overall integrity of this critically important federal agency. The questions may be particularly acute in an odd case emerging from the South.

The U.S. attorney in Alabama prosecuted former Gov. Don Siegelman on corruption charges, won and Siegelman went to jail. From a distance, Siegelman's crime seems a strange one. He appointed one of his campaign contributors to a public commission, which on the face of it, would seen a routine transaction.

But now a Republican operative and lawyer named Jill Simpson claims to have heard some Alabama Republican heavyweights plotting to use the U.S. attorney's office to get Siegelman, and thus remove a powerful political opponent. Simpson will be talking to congressional investigators and, so far, the Department of Justice has stonewalled congressional efforts to obtain many of its documents on the Siegelman case.

The department is arguing, it would seem, that congressional oversight has a chilling effect on behind-the-scenes frankness among its employees. It's true that this administration hasn't seen much oversight, but it ought to get used to it. And to the idea that Congress is a coequal branch of government.

The Siegelman case is routine political back-and-forth, you say? Not really. In this nation, lawyers who work for the public cannot use their power to help settle political scores. It is clear enough, though, that under Gonzales, not everybody in the Justice Department thought that way.

It takes more than a prosecutor to put someone in jail, of course, and there is every chance that the former governor belongs where he wound up. But it's a measure of just how much damage Gonzales and his president have done to the public's trust that questions like this come up, and the rest of us have no choice except to consider them seriously. Congress needs to get to the bottom of the Siegelman case and soon.

© 2007 Oregon Live LLC

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