Nominating a judge or interfering with an investigation?

The chief prosecutor in the Abramoff case resigns after Bush names him to the federal bench.

Published January 27, 2006 2:53PM (EST)

As the Valerie Plame investigation kept hitting closer and closer to home last fall, the internets starting buzzing with rumors and conspiracy theories: Would Bush pull a Nixon and find a way to fire Patrick Fitzgerald before he could indict anyone?

It didn't happen, but the news from the White House this week raises questions about whether the president is interfering in another investigation that might be getting a little too close for comfort. The president hasn't fired Noel Hillman, the chief prosecutor in the Jack Abramoff case, but he has managed to achieve the same result: Bush nominated Hillman for a seat on the federal bench this week, and Hillman immediately resigned from his job as chief of the Justice Department's public integrity division.

The White House says it's all routine, that career prosecutors are working the case and will continue to do so without a hitch. Some Democrats aren't convinced. California Rep. George Miller tells the New York Times that the timing of Hillman's nomination is "startling." "You have one of the chief prosecutors removed from a case that has tentacles throughout the Republican leadership of Congress, throughout the various agencies and into the White House," he said. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has already called for the appointment of an independent counsel in the Abramoff case, said Hillman's departure "jaundices the whole process."

Adding to Democrats' suspicions: An investigation into Abramoff's activities in Guam ended abruptly in 2002, when Bush replaced the longtime acting U.S. attorney who was running it.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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