Politics and Justice 

How does Tennessee Waltz fit in?

Laymen (heck, reporters too) sometimes confuse the various kinds of attorneys general in the U.S. Justice Department.

There is the attorney general of the United States in Washington, D.C. That would be, most recently, Alberto Gonzales, who took office in 2005 and resigned this week.

There is the United States attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, a position appointed by the president. That would be David Kustoff.

And there are assistant United States attorneys in each state. Some of them are career prosecutors. That would include Tim DiScenza, who prosecuted and convicted John Ford and the Tennessee Waltz defendants.

Then there is Bud Cummins.

Cummins used to be the U.S. attorney in Little Rock. He came over to Memphis a few years ago and prosecuted former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith. But his real claim to fame is getting fired by Karl Rove, adviser to President George Bush.

Cummins is one of the "fired U.S. attorneys" that cost Gonzales his job. He was asked to quit on June 5th, 2006, so that former Rove aide J. Timothy Griffin could take his place. He left last December, and he started appearing on CNN early in 2007, when Democrats went public with their charges that Bush and Rove were trying to politically influence the Justice Department. Cummins is a Republican, but he was deemed less politically useful than Griffin, who has since been replaced, too.

Cummins heard about the Gonzales resignation Monday morning.

"I can honestly say I don't take any personal satisfaction in it," he told the Flyer this week.

"It's a sad story," Cummins said. "There are probably a thousand reasons to admire Gonzales but also a great number of reasons to be disappointed in him. That cost him his credibility in a job where credibility is mandatory."

Cummins, now working as a consultant in Arkansas, declined to speak about Tennessee Waltz because he is not familiar with the facts in much detail. But he doesn't think the prosecutions of Ford and others are tainted.

"I know the quality of the professionals actually pursuing the individual investigations," he said. "I am not concerned that whatever political pressure was brought to bear has caused professional prosecutors to deviate from the nonpartisan pursuit of cases. But it has created an appearance of impropriety. And career professionals are paying a price for that."

Cummins said he never had any contact with Gonzales before or after June 2006, when he was notified that he was being replaced.

So, does that suggest that the attorney general of the United States and the president and his advisers take a hands-off approach to U.S. attorneys in Tennessee and Arkansas? No, it does not. That would defy common practice and common sense.

Kustoff, who replaced Terry Harris in 2005 after Tennessee Waltz broke in the news, is a former Bush campaign organizer in Tennessee. It is common practice for presidents to appoint U.S. attorneys from their own political party, but they generally do it at the beginning of their terms, not in the middle.

Common sense suggests that back in 2003, when the Tennessee Waltz began, the attorney general (John Ashcroft at the time) was apprised of a sting operation targeting state lawmakers in Tennessee. And that Gonzales was apprised when most of them turned out to be black Democrats.

At a press conference following the Ford sentencing, DiScenza said he has had no personal contact with Gonzales. Kustoff and the FBI special agent in charge, My Harrison, wouldn't say whether they were in contact with Gonzales or his assistants. They all said Ford's pending federal trial in Nashville is "not our case."

But that case cuts to the heart of Ford's consulting business with TennCare providers, and that is a matter of great local interest.

The public deserves better answers. As Cummins said, there is an appearance of impropriety. Memphis does not exist in a vacuum apart from Nashville and Washington. And the feds are short-changing us on the story.

John Branston is a Flyer senior editor.

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