How Bush's Justice Department has "blown it"

It's still unclear why I and my fellow U.S. attorneys were fired. But by failing to tell the truth, Bush officials have damaged our justice system.

Published March 31, 2007 1:10PM (EDT)

In recent weeks, I have been asked continually whether I think any number of specific prosecutions and other activities by the Department of Justice around the country reveal "politicization" of the department by the Bush administration. The answer is: I have no specific information about that. But the question goes to the most important issue highlighted by the controversy over the dismissal of myself and seven other United States attorneys: the credibility of the Department of Justice.

The president had an absolute right to fire us. We served at his pleasure, and that meant we could be dismissed for any reason or for no reason. And we all accepted that fact without complaint. When challenged by Congress, the leaders of the Department of Justice could have refused to explain. Or, they could have explained the truth. But apparently the truth behind some or all of the firings was embarrassing. So, instead, they said it was because of "performance." We didn't accept that, because it wasn't the truth.

In spite of statements and representations to the contrary, there was no credible performance review process prior to the firings -- at least, not using the definition of "performance" known to most people. There is not one document to evidence such a review. The department's leaders did not consult any of the reports or the people that could have provided information relevant to the performance of the U.S. attorneys they fired. In fact, in the case of my seven colleagues, they actually fired some pretty damn good U.S. attorneys -- and knowledgeable people in those attorneys' communities back home know that to be the truth. Nobody seems to believe the department's explanations.

To this day, we don't really know why we were singled out to be fired. I am not sure Department of Justice managers even know at this point. But you can read the newspapers and watch the congressional hearings and easily conclude that some of the motivations were likely ... unattractive. This was hardly this administration's brightest shining moment. It doesn't appear any laws were broken, so it makes it even worse that there is such a reluctance on the administration's part to simply admit the obvious and move on. It hurts their credibility.

So indeed, all of us connected with this administration's Department of Justice are being quizzed about politicization in other cases. I have been asked time and again whether this or that U.S. attorney around the country has perhaps acted or not acted based on political considerations. I know most of those U.S. attorneys, and honestly don't think they have done anything but conduct their offices in the neutral and nonpartisan way that is to be expected of them. But the interest in these questions -- which nobody seemed to have before Dec. 7, 2006 -- is certainly understandable in light of recent revelations.

Put simply, the Department of Justice lives on credibility. When a federal prosecutor sends FBI agents to your brother's house with an arrest warrant, demonstrating an intention to take away years of his liberty, separate him from his family, and take away his property, you and the public at large must have absolute confidence that the sole reason for those actions is that there was substantial evidence to suggest that your brother intentionally committed a federal crime. Everyone must have confidence that the prosecutor exercised his or her vast discretion in a neutral and nonpartisan pursuit of the facts and the law.

Being credible is like being pregnant -- you either are, or you aren't. If someone says they "kind of" believe what you say, they are really calling you a liar. Once you have given the public a reason to believe some of your decisions are improperly motivated, then they are going to question every decision you have made, or will make in the future. That is a natural and predictable phenomenon.

On Friday, a New Mexico federal grand jury returned an indictment against New Mexico Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon and others of conspiring to skim $4.2 million in public funds. This happens to be the culmination of an investigation supervised by my colleague David Iglesias, before he was forced to resign. It is also the same case that stimulated improper telephone calls to Mr. Iglesias from a U.S. senator and a congresswoman. It is almost a certainty that the talented and hardworking law enforcement agents and prosecutors working on this significant case will now have to battle accusations of improper political motivation behind the prosecution. There will be no real basis for it, but they will have to answer the allegations nonetheless. Before the U.S. attorneys scandal, the defense team never would have considered using those allegations. Now, it is almost a certainty that they will be raised because of the way the administration carried out the U.S. attorney dismissals.

You only get one chance to hold on to your credibility. My team, which holds temporary custody of the Department of Justice, has blown it in this case. The Department of Justice will be paying for it for some time to come. Lots of sound investigations and convictions are now going to be questioned. That is a crying shame, because most of the 110,000 employees to whom the attorney general referred in a recent news conference are neutral, nonpartisan public servants and do incredible work. A lot of President Bush's political appointees have done a lot of great work, too. Sadly, because of the damage done by this protracted scandal, which the administration has handled poorly at every turn, none of that good work is currently being recognized. And more ominously, the credibility of the Department of Justice may no longer be, either.

By Bud Cummins

Bud Cummins is a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

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