Thursday, August 7, 2008

Politics and Prosecutors

David Kustoff talks about his 26 months as United States attorney.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Former United States attorney David Kustoff says politics did not influence decisions made in the Memphis office during his 26-month tenure, despite an inspector general's report that criticizes a Bush administration appointee in Washington for applying a loyalty test to job applicants.

Kustoff resigned in June to enter private law practice with city councilman Jim Strickland. Kustoff previously ran for the Republican nomination for the 7th District congressional seat and was Shelby County Republican Party chairman and director of George W. Bush's campaign in Tennessee in 2000 and 2004.

"There are no political considerations made involving the investigation or prosecution in any case," Kustoff said in an interview Tuesday.

A harsher view of the U.S. Justice Department under former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, however, is contained in the inspector general's report released last week. It says that White House liaison Monica Goodling routinely asked potential federal prosecutors such questions as "What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" and "Why are you a Republican?" and "Aside from the president, give us an example of someone currently or recently in public service who you admire."

She also asked 34 job candidates for their views on abortion and 21 candidates for their views on gays, according to the report.

Kustoff was one of three candidates for the job in 2006, after United States attorney Terry Harris resigned to take a job with FedEx. Kustoff said he was interviewed in Washington by career Justice Department employee and former organized-crime prosecutor David Margolis and three others.

"I think Monica was in part of one of the interviews, but she did not ask any questions," Kustoff said.

He said he was asked about his ethics and priorities but was not asked about Operation Tennessee Waltz, which had received national media attention by then.

In the Flyer interview, Kustoff would not comment on specific cases during his tenure, but he said he was involved in "any and all major and minor decisions." He did not personally try cases, leaving that job to career prosecutor Tim DiScenza and others. The Tennessee Waltz indictments had already been handed up and some of the defendants had been prosecuted or pled guilty when Kustoff took over the office.

Kustoff also oversaw the investigation known as Main Street Sweeper, which resulted in a split decision. Former city councilman Rickey Peete pleaded guilty, but former city councilman Edmund Ford Sr. went to trial and was acquitted days before Kustoff left office. After the trial, a separate indictment against Ford and former MLGW chief executive Joseph Lee was dropped.

All of the Memphis public officials indicted in Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper were Democrats.

Asked if the feds' credibility has been damaged by reports of political interference in the hiring and firing of prosecutors, Kustoff said, "In the Western District of Tennessee it did not affect morale within the office or anyone's job performance. From a national perspective, no doubt it did not look good, but it did not affect our operation.

"We have the best law enforcement in this district," he said. "I base that not only on working with all facets but in talking to my fellow United States attorneys. They would talk about problems and issues they would have with law enforcement or local district attorneys. We had none of those issues here. [We] really came together to effectuate some really good investigations like Main Street Sweeper and Operation Last Call."

Kustoff said he hired "three or four" assistant prosecutors, but they were only interviewed locally, not in Washington. He recalled his own decision to apply as being influenced by extensive conversations with Harris and Shelby County district attorney general Bill Gibbons. The president appoints U.S. attorneys based on recommendations from the state's senators and governor if they are from the same political party. If not, then congressmen could have a voice.

There is likely to be a new U.S. attorney in Memphis next year no matter which party controls the White House. Career prosecutor Larry Laurenzi has the job on an interim basis for the second time.

Kustoff said he has no immediate plans to reenter politics.

"I am very happy practicing law and raising my family," he said.

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