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Here we go again. Another story told nearly to death by the 24 hour news services. I am, of course talking about the Justice Department firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, one in June and seven in December 2006. Since the start of the year, buzz about possible political motivations for the firings, whether or not Democrats will hold hearings on the firings, and the release of internal e-mails that show the firings were indeed politically motivated have claimed the front pages of newspapers and flowed from the lips of political pundits and newscasters. Most recently, the news coverage has turned to the potential “constitutional crisis” generated by a showdown over Congressional subpoenas of White House officials Karl Rove and Harriet Miers. President Bush has offered to allow Rove and Miers to testify to select members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees in closed session, without swearing an oath, and off the record. Both Committees have essentially rejected the offer by voting to give their Chairmen subpoena power to compel Rove and Miers to testify in open session, under oath, and to have that testimony recorded. 

Bush claims “executive privilege”… Congress insists on “oversight”…

The Washington horse race… One is tempted to tune it all out.

That, however, would be a grave mistake. Black folk should be deeply concerned with this story. Several of the U.S. Attorneys in question were fired because they did not use the law to advance Administration prerogatives. To use former Justice Department Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson’s phrase, they were not “loyal Bushies.” One of the Administration prerogatives that many of the fired U.S. Attorney refused to pursue was black voter suppression.

In recent comments to the press, White House representatives have stated that several of the U.S. Attorneys in question were fired because they did not pursue Republican allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 elections. Those allegations were made against core Democratic constituencies, in particular African Americans, invariably with weak or non-existent evidence. (Over the past forty years, Republican allegations of voter fraud have consistently been used as cover for Republican voter suppression activities. For an excellent discussion of this topic see Chandler Davidson, Tanya Dunlap, Gale Kenny, and Benjamin Wise, Republican Ballot Security Programs: Vote Protection or Minority Vote Suppression – or Both?). In a recent press briefing, Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett told reporters that “over the course of several years, we have received complaints about U.S. Attorneys, particularly when it comes to election-fraud cases.” Bartlett noted that the President had discussed these complaints with Attorney General Gonzalez in October 2006.

Recent statements by one former U.S. Attorney corroborate this point. Former U.S. Attorney John McKay of Seattle, Washington has testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believes his refusal to pursue Republican allegations of voter fraud lead to his dismissal. Following the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, in which Democrat Chris Gregoire won by fewer than 150 votes, McKay received a call from the Chief of Staff of Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA). Hastings’ office wanted to know if there was going to be an investigation of voter fraud in the gubernatorial election. McKay, who had not uncovered any reliable evidence of voter fraud, stated that no investigation would take place. He did not hear anything about the matter again until September 2006 when he met with then White House Counsel Harriet Miers concerning a possible nomination for a federal judgeship. McKay claims that Miers asked him why he had “mishandled” the gubernatorial election. McKay believes that the Administration’s subsequent decision not to nominate him for a judgeship stemmed from his actions in the wake of the 2004 election.

Although evidence of a direct connection between the fired U.S. Attorney’s refusal to bring voter fraud cases is incomplete, there is every indication that a great deal more information will surface if congressional investigators are given a free hand. Since 2000, the Bush Administration has used the Justice Department Civil Rights Division to tweak law enforcement to advance Republican political fortunes in closely contested states by attacking black voters. In every election under the current Administration, the Republican Party has funded voter suppression programs aimed at African Americans and other reliably Democratic populations. Not surprisingly, the Justice Department has turned a blind eye to these legally questionable programs. At the same time, the Bush Justice Department has approved Republican-backed redistricting decisions in Mississippi and Texas that have disadvantaged Blacks and Latinos and benefited white Republicans; plans that many non-partisan, career Justice Department attorneys who reviewed them believed violated the Voting Rights Act. It has also given its blessing to a Republican voter ID bill out of Georgia that one federal judge likened to a poll tax. Bush appointees in the Justice Department have also decreased voting rights enforcement and brought the first “reverse discrimination” case under the Voting Rights Act. In this unprecedented suit, Justice Department attorneys charged the black Democratic leadership of Noxubee County, Mississippi with violating the rights of the white minority. This pattern of abuse in the Civil Rights Division suggests that the Bush Administration is in not squeamish about using the Justice Department for political ends. It is only common sense, then, to suspect that the Bush Administration would try to use the rest of the Justice Department in a similar fashion. 

In light of this pattern of deceptive and illegal behavior, black folk should not only be demanding that the White House cooperate with Congress in the investigation of the above mentioned firings, but that Congress broaden the investigation. After all, the Bush Administration’s use of the law enforcement functions of the executive branch for partisan political purposes has not been limited to the Justice Department. Only months before the 2004 election, the IRS initiated an audit of the NAACP, one of the largest voter registration organizations in the black community. The official explanation for this action was that the organization’s Board Chairman, Julian Bond, criticized the President and his policies in a speech, thereby violating the ban on non-profits endorsing or funding candidates for office. The investigation has since been dropped for lack of evidence, precedent, and, to be frank, legality. 

So, as the House and Senate Judiciary Committees move forward with their investigations into the firing of those eight U.S. Attorneys, be sure to tune out the Administration propaganda about executive privilege – which has so often been used by Presidents past and present, Democrat and Republican to cover up illegal acts. Support those individuals like Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) who are seeking a full and public airing of the facts by demanding that those White House officials involved in the firings give sworn testimony in an open committee hearing. And be sure to write to your members of Congress and tell them that you are interested in widening the hearings to explore all of the ways that the Bush Administration has sought to make the nation’s law enforcement agencies tools of the Republican Party. Your access to the ballot in the next election could very well hang in the balance.

Dr. G. Derek Musgrove, Ph.D. is an assistant Professor of History at the University of the District of Columbia. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled The Second Redemption: Race, Party Realignment, and State Power in the Post Civil Rights United States. He can be reached at [email protected].


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March 29, 2007
Issue 223

is published every Thursday.

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