Why it matters

John Conyers schools Alberto Gonzales on the importance of the purge.

Published May 10, 2007 2:03PM (EDT)

If anyone is unclear about why the U.S. attorneys scandal matters, House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers just laid it out pretty clearly as he prepared to take testimony from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales:

"I am sure we agree -- you and I -- that any hint or indication that the department may not be acting fairly and impartially in enforcing the nation's laws, or in choosing the nation's law enforcers, has ramifications far beyond the department itself, and casts doubt upon every action or inaction your office and your employees take.

"So, when we learn that several U.S. attorneys were added to the termination list only after they decided to pursue criminal investigations involving Republican officials, or after complaints that they were not pursuing investigations against Democrats, we must insist that we understand exactly how this came into existence and how the list itself of those discharged came into existence.

"When we learn that most of the U.S. attorneys forced to resign were among the highest rated and most able in the nation, that they were told that they were being displaced to create a bigger Republican farm team while others were retained because they were 'loyal Bushies,' it creates the impression that the department has placed partisan interests above the public interest.

"When a respected former career attorney at the Civil Rights Division testifies that he has been directed to alter performance evaluations based on political considerations, when I receive an anonymous letter, apparently from Department of Justice employees, complaining that candidates for career positions have been subjected to political litmus tests, and when the attorney general has secretly delegated his authority to hire and fire non-civil service employees, this calls into question the department's commitment to fair and impartial justice.

"When the White House gives us a take-it-or-leave-it offer for a one-time, off-the-record interview, without transcripts, which I've referred to as 'meet us at the pub for fish and chips so we can talk,' which no self-respected investigator would accept, makes open-ended claims of executive privilege, and loses or destroys millions of e-mails relevant to our investigation, one asks whether the administration is trying to cover up two simple truths: who created the list and why.

"And when we learned this morning, page one, Washington Post, that another U.S. attorney in Missouri was forced out, contrary to repeated assurances that the eight U.S. attorneys whose circumstances we've been examining for the past few months were the entire list, it makes us wonder when we will get the entire report, a truthful report about this matter."

The rejoinder from Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee: "If there are no fish in this lake," Congress should "reel in our lines, dock our empty boat, and return to more pressing issues."

By Tim Grieve

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

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Department Of Justice John Conyers D-mich.