Special Prosecutor: Assault on Elections Needs Full Airing, 26 May 2007
noimage The Sacramento Bee | Editorial | Go to Original
Saturday 26 May 2007

    As more information comes out in congressional hearings, some things about the firing of U.S. attorneys become murkier and others clearer.

    On the murkiness side, it is still not apparent just who came up with the idea of firing a number of U.S. attorneys.

    On the side of clarity, it seems more and more apparent that behind the U.S. attorney scandal is a blatant effort of the Justice Department to tamper with the U.S. election process, trumping up voter fraud as an issue to intimidate voters and suppress voting in the United States.

    The mention of voter fraud conjures up images of deceitful voters knowingly and willingly voting illegally, or of sleazy political operatives stuffing ballot boxes and paying voters for toeing the party line. But in this instance, the phrase seems to refer to high-level officials in the Bush administration using the machinery of government to corrupt the electoral process.

    This is a serious matter calling for investigation by an outside special counsel. But there's the rub. Since the independent counsel act expired in 1999, it's up to the attorney general to order an investigation. And Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is up to his eyeballs in this mess. He has obvious and irreconcilable conflicts of interest in investigating administration officials.

    Of course, Gonzales could recuse himself (either on his own initiative or with prodding from the president) and have a deputy delegate to a special counsel all the authority of the attorney general. This was done in the 2003 appointment of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate allegations of unauthorized disclosure of a CIA employee's identity. It should be done now to assure an independent investigation.

    So far, testimony and documents from congressional hearings reveal that the Justice Department under Gonzales, with prodding from White House political adviser Karl Rove and others, targeted "battleground" states with closely contested 2006 elections - among them Missouri, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Nevada and Washington - as "hot spots" for voter fraud investigations. The Justice Department apparently also fired U.S. attorneys who refused to go forward with baseless investigations and prosecutions in these states. All this merits investigation.

    In speeches, Rove has whomped up the idea that voter fraud is an "enormous and growing problem." The evidence shows otherwise.

    Despite a major "voting integrity" initiative, the Justice Department netted only 24 convictions or guilty pleas for illegal voting between 2002 and 2005. Most allegations turn out to be false claims by election losers or simple voter error.

    To see what this is all about, consider the example of Missouri. The U.S. attorney there told Congress he was forced to resign months after he refused to sign off on a Justice Department lawsuit over Missouri's voter rolls. (A judge later threw out that lawsuit, saying that the Justice Department failed to show that any actual voter fraud occurred because of inaccuracies in the state's voter rolls.)

    The replacement U.S. attorney, just five days before the November 2006 election, announced indictments against four temporary voter registration workers for inventing fictitious people or forging the signatures of real people on six voter registration forms. This certainly would be something to pursue after the election, but no reasonable person would expect six faked registration cards to result in massive voter fraud. A reasonable person would see the eleventh-hour indictments as an attempt to sway a close election.

    As it turns out, last-minute, pre-election indictments go against the Justice Department policies, which tell federal prosecutors to be "extremely careful" not to conduct overt pre-election investigations to avoid "chilling legitimate voting and campaign activities" and causing "the investigation itself to become a campaign issue." Investigations, policies say, should "await the end of the election."

    Apparently, the policies went out the window under the pressure of an election with control of Congress in the balance.

    It is hard to see all of this as anything other than a blatant attempt to use the Justice Department to manipulate the outcome of elections. That surely is an appropriate subject for a full investigation. The appointment of an independent counsel is obviously needed. If the attorney general and the White House can't put such an appointment in motion, Congress will have no choice but to consider all the tools at its disposal - including the impeachment of the attorney general.