Someday, historians will wonder why the highest officials in the Bush Justice Department believed that they could inflict heavy-handed political abuse on federal prosecutors and get away with it. The punishment of the eight dismissed U.S. attorneys betrays a strong sense of impunity in the White House, as if the president and his aides assumed that nobody would complain about these outrages or attempt to hold them accountable.The precedent for this misconduct was set long ago.
There was once another Republican prosecutor who insisted on behaving professionally instead of obeying partisan hints from the White House. His name was Charles A. Banks, and the Washington press corps said nothing when he was punished for his honesty by the administration of the first President Bush.
The cautionary tale of Chuck Banks begins during the summer of 1992, as the presidential contest entered its final months with Arkansas governor Bill Clinton leading incumbent President George H.W. Bush.
At the time, Banks had already served for five years as the U.S. attorney in Little Rock. As an active Republican who had run for Congress and still aspired to higher office, he counted Clinton among his political adversaries. The first President Bush had recently selected him as a potential nominee for the federal bench. Nothing could have better served Banks' personal interests than a chance to stop the Clintons and preserve the Bush presidency.
In September 1992, Republican activist L. Jean Lewis, who was employed by the Resolution Trust Corporation, provided that opportunity by fabricating a criminal referral naming the Clintons as witnesses in a case against the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association (the small Arkansas savings and loan owned by Whitewater partner and Clinton friend James McDougal).
The referral prepared by Lewis lacked merit -- as determined by both Banks and the top FBI agent in his office -- but Lewis commenced a persistent crusade for action against the hated Clintons. The FBI and the U.S. attorney repeatedly rejected or ignored her crankish entreaties.
Eventually, however, officials in the Bush White House and the Justice Department heard whispers about the Lewis referral. Obviously, that document had the potential to save the president from defeat in November by smearing the Clintons as corrupt participants in a sweetheart land deal.
That fall, Edith Holiday, secretary to the Bush cabinet, asked Attorney General William Barr whether he knew anything about such a referral. Although Barr knew nothing, he quickly sent an inquiry to the FBI. Weeks later, the president's counsel, C. Boyden Gray, posed a similar improper question to a top Resolution Trust Corp. official.
The queries and hints from above created intense pressure on Banks to act on the Lewis referral despite his opinion, shared by the FBI, that her work was sloppy and biased. After Barr ordered him to act on the referral no later than two weeks before Election Day, he replied with a roar of conscience.
"I know that in investigations of this type," he wrote in a remarkable memo to his boss, "the first steps, such as issuance of ... subpoenas ... will lead to media and public inquiries of matters that are subject to absolute privacy. Even media questions about such an investigation in today's modern political climate all too often publicly purport to 'legitimize what can't be proven' ...
"I must opine that after such a lapse of time, the insistence for urgency in this case appears to suggest an intentional or unintentional attempt to intervene into the political process of the upcoming presidential election. ... For me personally to participate in an investigation that I know will or could easily lead to the above scenario ... is inappropriate. I believe it amounts to prosecutorial misconduct and violates the most basic fundamental rule of Department of Justice policy."
The Whitewater case didn't save the first President Bush, but it was later revived as a pseudo-scandal. More pertinent today is what happened to Banks and Lewis -- and the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock.
Banks forfeited his promised judgeship and returned to private practice with his political career ended. The incompetent Lewis appeared before the Senate Whitewater Committee, where she lied repeatedly before "fainting" under examination by the Democratic counsel. She then disappeared from public view until 2003, when the White House rewarded her with an important federal job. Those who had observed Lewis in action were astonished when she was named chief of staff to the Pentagon Inspector General, at a salary of $118,000 a year.
An ugly sequel occurred in December, when the Justice Department ousted H.E. (Bud) Cummins III -- another upstanding and competent Republican prosecutor in Little Rock -- so that a crony of Karl Rove could replace him in the U.S. attorney's office.
Was this what George W. Bush meant when he promised to return "honor" and "integrity" to the Oval Office?
Joe Conason writes for Salon and The New York Observer.