Some people don’t see the big deal in the recent firing of federal prosecutors. After all, these were political appointees fired for political reasons, so why the fuss?
Here it is in a nutshell: Alberto Gonzales, our U.S. attorney general, seems to have fired federal prosecutors who weren’t prosecuting Democrats fast enough or who were prosecuting Republicans too vigorously. That means that the White House’s power to appoint prosecutors was being used to influence our justice system illegitimately. From the looks of it, we had an administration trying to send its enemies to jail while keeping its corrupt allies out.
Carol Lam, the federal prosecutor from southern California that put Republican Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham in jail and had other members of the GOP in her crosshairs was removed after receiving superior performance reviews. David Iglesias from New Mexico was sacked after refusing to cave to pressure by U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici to file indictments against Democrats before the November election.
When all of this came to light, Gonzales was untruthful with the U.S. Senate about the role he played, and he hasn’t gotten his story straight since. The attorney general has been evasive and confusing. Assuming he is not lying, he should have gotten his facts straight before speaking. And if he can’t get things straight, maybe being attorney general is the wrong job for him. Worse, if Gonzales knew the truth, but was covering it up, then he is in the wrong job, anywhere. In the words of Chuck Hagel, Republican senator from Nebraska, ‘You cannot have the nation’s chief law enforcement officer with a cloud hanging over his credibility.’
At worst, Gonzales willfully misled Congress about the circumstances of the firing of seven federal prosecutors, which would mean that he committed a crime. At best, he was so detached from his own agency that he wasn’t even involved in the firing of federal prosecutors.
When Congress wanted to look into this, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, ‘Congress doesn’t have any legitimate oversight and responsibilities to the White House.’ Snow’s comments betray either a weak understanding of the constitution or a cynical attempt to enhance executive power.
Attorney General Gonzales never understood that the job that he used to have as lawyer to the president, White House counsel, was fundamentally different than the job he currently holds, chief lawyer for the people of the United States. His willingness to subvert our justice system as attorney general is much more than a communications muff. His choices now are to accept congressional hearings where those involved answer questions under oath or to step down from his office.
It is the rule of law that matters in America.
Brian Schatz was a state representative for eight years and ran for the U.S. House in 2006. He is currently CEO of Helping Hands Hawai’i, one of O’ahu’s largest social service agencies.