Given the apparent political motivations behind so many of the recent decisions at the Department of Justice (DOJ) — from the dismissal of the voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party to the re-investigation of CIA interrogators after DOJ prosecutors had already reviewed the matter and decided there was no reason for further criminal prosecution — the latest news about the dropping of the investigation against New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, Obama’s former nominee to be commerce secretary, raises a lot of questions. The Associated Press report cites a DOJ source saying that the investigation of pay-to-play allegations involving one of the governor’s largest political donors “was killed in Washington” by top DOJ officials.
For anyone familiar with internal Justice Department procedures, this is particularly suspicious. The DOJ has a manual called “Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses” (I helped edit the latest edition when I was at Justice) that sets out the rules and procedures for U.S. attorneys when they are investigating these types of public-corruption cases. It is the U.S. attorney in New Mexico who would normally make the final call on a local public-corruption case, not “top Justice Department officials” in Washington. The DOJ manual sets out the consultation rules for U.S. attorneys, who are required to “consult” with the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division in Washington. But only consultation is required; the Public Integrity Section does not make the final decision on whether an investigation should go forward. (Attorney General Eric Holder should not have forgotten this, since Public Integrity was the first place he worked at Justice.) So if the AP is correct in reporting that “top” officials in Washington killed the investigation, then political appointees within the department did not follow normal DOJ procedures.
Now, I will be the first to tell you that I think the attorney general should have the final authority on all actions taken by the Justice Department. But that is not the rule set out for public-corruption cases being investigated by U.S. attorneys. So did top political officials in Washington make the final decision to dismiss this case against a Democratic officeholder? Have they changed the rules in the prosecution manual that only require consultation? I seriously doubt that Eric Holder will provide any answers to these questions, or that the lack of a response by the Justice Department (or the validity of the response if it makes one) will be investigated by Congress. By comparison, the Bush administration was castigated for supposedly firing U.S. attorneys for not pursuing such investigations vigorously enough, and its officials were the subject of endless congressional investigations and subpoenas. Yet the Obama administration has ended such an investigation and received nary a word of criticism. There will certainly be no congressional investigation of its actions. This double standard is depressingly familiar, but its rank hypocrisy still amazes me at times.