The corporate-integrity legislation President Bush signed on July 30 boosts the consequences for concealing commercial crimes. “The penalties for obstructing justice and shredding documents are greatly increased,” Bush said. Convicts will face 10 to 20 years in jail for altering or destroying financial records sought in federal investigations. As well they should. Bush added, “there will not be a different ethical standard for corporate America than the standard that applies to everyone else.”
Too bad these rules barely pertain to federal officials who make documents disappear. With alarming audacity, bureaucrats perpetrate the very shredding that sank Arthur Andersen. The key difference is that the feds get away with it.
Treasury Department attorneys admitted in August 2001 that in November 1998, Treasury officials ordered the shredding of 400 boxes of papers pertinent to a class-action lawsuit filed by some 300,000 American Indians. Since 1996, they have sought an estimated $10 billion in mineral, timber, and grazing fees derived from their lands and held in federal trust since 1887.
As this litigation languished, Treasury and Interior Department attorneys missed two court-ordered deadlines to deliver data on these trust funds. The very day those lawyers promised special master Alan Balaran that, as he put it, “all necessary steps were being taken to preserve all relevant documents,” Treasury and Interior officials dispatched these materials to a government shredding facility in Hyattsville, Maryland. After 162 boxes of evidence were obliterated, an honest Treasury official noticed Indian-related documents and stopped the shred-fest. Yet Treasury attorneys waited three months to tell this to federal judge Royce Lamberth.
Was anyone jailed? Hardly. Lamberth fined the Clinton administration $625,000 (which your tax dollars financed). Then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt were held in contempt of court but remained in power, unscathed. And several federal lawyers wrapped up in all this were sent to ethics classes.
Meanwhile, the Indians await their money.
The Landmark Legal Foundation in Washington, D.C. sued the Environmental Protection Agency on September 28, 2000 under the Freedom of Information Act to uncover possible contacts between EPA and outside political interest groups. On the Clinton presidency’s last day, Lamberth ordered EPA to protect records relevant to Landmark’s suit. Nonetheless, officials deleted hard drives on senior staffers’ computers and expunged back-up computer tapes from EPA’s e-mail server that normally survive for 90 days. “Those were erased every day until early May, 2001,” says Landmark president (and NRO contributing editor) Mark Levin.
Were these erasure heads incarcerated? Nope. In fact, Bush’s Justice Department is defending EPA against Landmark’s lawsuit and its contempt of court motion before Lamberth.
Judicial Watch, another Washington watchdog group, represents Miami residents who say Immigration and Naturalization Service officers tear-gassed and otherwise injured them during the April 22, 2000 seizure of Cuban refugee Elián Gonzalez. Before his abduction and flight to Havana with his father, Miami INS supervising attorney Rebeca Sanchez-Roig wrote a December 29, 1999 e-mail explaining that Elián’s father may have wished to emigrate to America and that Elián’s youth (he was six back then) did not disqualify him from political asylum (PA). “As such, PA should proceed,” Sanchez-Roig recommended.
The next day, Sanchez-Roig says she was ordered by then-INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, via top INS managers, “to destroy this cc-mail message and all copies.” Sanchez-Roig swore in a deposition last July 11, “I felt that I was being asked to do something potentially illegal, seemed certainly unethical, and in my mind, completely immoral.” As an attorney, she said she knew her e-mail could influence a legal proceeding.
“I never gave an order to destroy evidence,” Meissner claimed in the July 13 Miami Herald. “That’s something that cannot be done in government work.”
Former Commerce Department employee Robert Adkins participated in another Judicial Watch case involving Commerce’s alleged sale of trade-mission seats to Democratic campaign donors. Adkins swore in a January 28, 1997 affidavit that — after then-Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died in an April 3, 1996 plane crash — officials trashed papers “so much so that the shredder was repeatedly broken.”
Adkins said that “the documents which I personally saw shredded” included several “bearing the logo of the Executive Office of the President as well as documents bearing the logo of the Democratic National Committee.”
As for punishing those who scrapped evidence, “Nothing has been done on the INS/Elián document destruction,” complains Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton. Attorney General John Ashcroft “has been AWOL on this issue and his Justice Department is fighting us on the INS matter.”
Regarding the other suit, Fitton adds: “Judge Lamberth ruled in 1998 that Commerce violated the law and now we’ll be seeking to hold individuals accountable for the violations.”
These cases illustrate high-level scorn for the law and a nearly total absence of accountability for those involved. These and similar acts demand severe correction. If CEOs and their underlings deserve jail time for shredding incriminating balance sheets, federal agency heads and lesser bureaucrats should don orange jumpsuits when they turn damning memos into confetti.
While Clinton administration officials authored these abuses, the Bush administration snores through its prosecutorial duties. By leaving these bad deeds unpunished, Bush and Ashcroft invite fresh cover-ups in this and future governments.