Politicization & Oversight

March 30, 2007
The Judiciary and Oversight Committees, as well as several others, have been examining the possibly inappropriate politicization of various federal agencies over the past weeks. A variety of stories published today paint a picture of how widespread this practice may be.

Report Faults Interior Appointee

Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post - March 30, 2007

A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has repeatedly altered scientific field reports to minimize protections for imperiled species and disclosed confidential information to private groups seeking to affect policy decisions, the department's inspector general concluded.

The investigator's report on Julie A. MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks -- which was triggered by an anonymous complaint from a Fish and Wildlife Service employee and expanded in October after a Washington Post article about MacDonald -- said she frequently sought to reshape the agency's scientific reports in an effort to ease the impact of agency decisions on private landowners.

Inspector General Earl E. Devaney referred the case to Interior's top officials for "potential administrative action," according to the document, which was reported yesterday in the New York Times.

The IG noted that MacDonald "admitted that her degree is in civil engineering and that she has no formal educational background in natural sciences" but repeatedly instructed Fish and Wildlife scientists to change their recommendations on identifying "critical habitats," despite her lack of expertise.

The report from the Associated Press adds: "Rep. Nick Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he would hold a hearing in May about the report on MacDonald and broader issues it raises." Chairman Rahall made clear early that issues at the Interior Department would be a top priority for his committee, and held his first hearing on the department in February. The department's Inspector General stated at the hearing that the department was "riddled with serious management flaws, including a culture that lacks accountability, a minerals service notoriously inept at writing oil and gas drilling leases, computer security vulnerabilities and weakness in law enforcement divisions." The Science Committee also examined "How Big Business and Science Agencies Conspire to Distort Science."

In another allegation of politicization, Joseph D. Rich, former chief of the voting section in the Justice Department's civil right division from 1999 to 2005, writes in the Los Angeles Times today:

Bush's long history of tilting Justice

Joseph D. Rich op-ed, Los Angeles Times - March 30, 2007

THE SCANDAL unfolding around the firing of eight U.S. attorneys compels the conclusion that the Bush administration has rewarded loyalty over all else. A destructive pattern of partisan political actions at the Justice Department started long before this incident, however, as those of us who worked in its civil rights division can attest.

I spent more than 35 years in the department enforcing federal civil rights laws -- particularly voting rights. Before leaving in 2005, I worked for attorneys general with dramatically different political philosophies -- from John Mitchell to Ed Meese to Janet Reno. Regardless of the administration, the political appointees had respect for the experience and judgment of longtime civil servants.

Under the Bush administration, however, all that changed. Over the last six years, this Justice Department has ignored the advice of its staff and skewed aspects of law enforcement in ways that clearly were intended to influence the outcome of elections.

It has notably shirked its legal responsibility to protect voting rights. From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. U.S. attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities.

At least two of the recently fired U.S. attorneys, John McKay in Seattle and David C. Iglesias in New Mexico, were targeted largely because they refused to prosecute voting fraud cases that implicated Democrats or voters likely to vote for Democrats.

Rich testified on precisely these questions before the Judiciary Committee on March 22, 2007, as noted here at the time. Rich notes the connection to another matter that the Judiciary Committee is overseeing:

Ex-Aide Contradicts Gonzales on Firings

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane, Washington Post - March 30, 2007

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales was more deeply involved in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys than he has sometimes acknowledged, and Gonzales and his aides have made a series of inaccurate claims about the issue in recent weeks, the attorney general's former chief of staff testified yesterday.

In dramatic testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, D. Kyle Sampson also revealed that New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias was not added to the dismissal list until just before the Nov. 7 elections, after presidential adviser Karl Rove complained that Iglesias had not been aggressive enough in pursuing cases of voter fraud. Previously, Rove had not been tied so directly to the removal of the prosecutors.

The Judiciary Committee announced a deal for transcribed interviews with several Justice Department staffers last night:

"The ability to move forward with our investigation with the Justice Department's cooperation is a big step," Conyers said. "If we are going to get to the bottom of this, we must talk to those involved in guiding the decision-making process. This agreement, which involves on the record interviews in advance of possible hearings, helps bring us down that path. We still anxiously await further negotiation with the White House."

Conyers and other congressional leaders have been involved in negotiations with the DoJ for weeks regarding interviews with key individuals involved in the US Attorney matter, including: Michael Elston, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, Michael Battle, former Director of the Office of U.S. Attorneys, Monica Goodling, Special Counsel to the Attorney General and White House Liaison, William Mercer, U.S. Attorney for Montana and Acting Associate Attorney General, and William Moschella, Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General. Interviews for the other DoJ employees have not yet been scheduled but the Justice Department has agreed to make those individuals available. Goodling has already announced that she will invoke her Fifth Amendment rights when asked any questions regarding this investigation.

One of those witnessess, Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella, was also at the center of another Judiciary hearing. This one was on the FBI's use of National Security Letters, where Rep. Artur Davis (AL-07) questioned Justice Department inspector general Glenn A. Fine about the lack of comprehensive questioning of Mr. Moschella: "Mr. Fine, how is it possible that you did not review the fact that the former head of the unit raised questions about the misuse of NSL's, how is it remotely possible that was not reviewed?"

There are several other ongoing oversight efforts being led by Rep. Henry Waxman (CA-30), who chairs the Oversight Committee:

Dems expand probe of political presentations at agencies

Daniel Pulliam, GovExec.com - March 29,2007

The chairman of a key congressional oversight committee on Thursday asked Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, to provide a list of political briefings given to federal officials on federal property.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Rove in a three-page letter to explain White House policies on giving political presentations such as the one Rove's deputy, Scott Jennings, delivered on Jan. 26 at the headquarters of the General Services Administration.

Waxman said he wants to know whether Jennings or other employees in the political affairs office have given the same or similar presentations to other federal officials. The letter requested answers by April 13.

There has also been some coverage of another letter sent to White House Counsel Fred Field. Both letters were posted here yesterday in full.

For a fuller catalogue of Congressional oversight activities, see the "Oversight" category of this blog.