Whatever urge impels Nancy Pelosi to consider replacing Jane Harman with Alcee Hastings as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence must be extraordinarily powerful. Some say that Speaker-elect Pelosi harbors a personal grudge against her fellow Californian; some say that she feels Harman has been too accommodating to the White House and Republicans as the ranking Democrat on the committee, known as HPSCI (or "hip-see").
Yet neither of those motives seems sufficient to explain why Pelosi would choose to pass over Harman in favor of Hastings, whose elevation can only cause the most severe embarrassment to the speaker-elect and the Democrats she leads. It won't be easy for them to justify entrusting a position of such enormous sensitivity to someone whom Pelosi -- and many of her Democratic colleagues -- once voted to impeach and remove from the federal bench as a corrupt perjurer.
In 1988, the House approved 17 articles of impeachment against Hastings, who was then a federal district judge sitting in the Southern District of Florida. The congressional impeachment stemmed from his unsuccessful 1981 federal prosecution on charges that a lawyer named William Borders had solicited a $150,000 bribe on his behalf from Frank and Thomas Romano, two brothers convicted of racketeering whose sentencing came before Hastings. Borders, a longtime Hastings friend and a prominent African-American attorney, was found guilty and sent to prison.
Although a Miami jury acquitted Hastings of the bribery, despite much circumstantial evidence of his guilt, outraged judges in the 11th Circuit initiated disciplinary proceedings against him. They commissioned a special report on the Hastings case by former assistant attorney general John Doar, who found substantial evidence of his participation in the bribery scheme with Borders as well as reason to believe that he had subsequently lied under oath at his trial.
Hastings has always insisted that he was the innocent victim of a scheme by Borders to profit from the misuse of his name. When Borders was apprehended by an FBI undercover operation in Washington, however, Hastings abruptly fled town before the agents could question him. Over the past two decades, Borders has gone to jail twice on contempt charges rather than testify to the innocence of his friend Hastings.
The Doar report convinced members of the House Judiciary Committee -- then controlled by Democrats and chaired by John Conyers, D-Mich., who is now set to chair the committee again -- to begin the impeachment process. Their decision was historic because Hastings was the first African-American federal judge in Florida, and only the sixth judge ever to be impeached by Congress. The committee unanimously referred to the full House the 17 specific articles against him, which were then ratified on the House floor by a vote of 413-3. Conyers led the special committee of impeachment managers who prosecuted Hastings in the Senate, where they won his conviction and removal. Of the 17 counts, he was convicted on nine and acquitted on two, and the Senate didn't vote on six; each conviction required a two-thirds vote.
That stinging disgrace didn't prevent Hastings from running several years later for a congressional seat in Miami, which he has held ever since. Nobody seems to have noticed, until now, that he has been sitting on the Intelligence Committee long enough to become its second-ranking Democrat. Perhaps that's because his service on the committee has been neither noteworthy nor distinguished. The only reason to award him the chairmanship would be that he has been there a long time -- and that he isn't Harman.
As for Harman, she faces a significant handicap aside from the enmity of the new speaker and her alleged coziness with Republicans. She is reportedly the subject of a federal investigation concerning her relationship with the powerful lobbyists at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In a probe that grew out of the Larry Franklin espionage case, Harman is alleged to have promised to seek leniency for two AIPAC officials in exchange for the powerful lobby's support of her bid for the HPSCI chair. She vehemently denies that accusation.
No doubt Pelosi understands that she, the Congressional Black Caucus and the new Democratic Congress will hear mocking laughter from all sides if they turn HPSCI over to Hastings. They may mumble about the possibility that the FBI crime lab compromised the evidence against him, or claim that they now worry about the fairness of his impeachment trial. Weighed against their own votes to impeach and convict him, and against their promises to clean up the corrupt Congress, those claims will count for nothing. The chairmanship of a select committee is not an entitlement, and grave doubts about the integrity of Hastings should disqualify him.
Fortunately, the choice is not limited to Hastings or Harman. Among the possible alternatives is Rush Holt, D-N.J., a physicist and former State Department intelligence officer who is not only highly qualified to chair HPSCI but also has served on the committee with distinction. His honesty has never been questioned. For this job, above all others, Pelosi should honor her campaign promises and choose the best.