For a while, it looked like smooth sailing for Michael Chertoff.
The Bush administration’s nominee for a seat on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Chertoff is by general agreement a first-rate candidate for the bench. He’s been a Supreme Court clerk (for William Brennan), a mob-fighting prosecutor (U.S. attorney for New Jersey), and is now head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
Perhaps the only person who wouldn’t be happy with his elevation to the court is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.), who no doubt remembers Chertoff’s days as counsel to the Senate Whitewater investigation. But don’t blame Mrs. Clinton for the snag that recently hit Chertoff’s nomination. Blame Larry Klayman.
You remember Klayman. The head of Judicial Watch, he was a “Clinton antagonist” (in the words of the Washington Post) when he was filing lawsuit after lawsuit against the Clinton administration. Now that he is filing suits against the Bush administration, Klayman is a “watchdog” (in the words of the Washington Post).
Whatever the case, Klayman’s latest target is Chertoff.
After breezing through his Judiciary Committee hearing, Chertoff was scheduled for a vote on May 22. Everything looked O.K. until the day before, when Klayman got in touch with some senators to say there were serious concerns about Chertoff’s nomination.
The day of the vote, Klayman appeared at the committee meeting and distributed a letter marked “URGENT.”
“We have important evidence concerning the misuse of organized crime operatives by the FBI and other government agencies” in New Jersey, the letter began. “During the period of this illegal activity…Michael Chertoff…was U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey.” Klayman asked to meet with senators to “present this evidence.”
Although Klayman gave no details, some Democrats who have opposed a number of Bush nominees pronounced themselves deeply concerned. They asked that the vote be delayed. Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) wanted to go ahead. A compromise was reached when Hatch agreed to a “bipartisan evaluation” of Klayman’s charges. The vote was held, and Chertoff was approved, but six deeply concerned Democrats voted “present.”
Klayman’s “evidence” apparently came from a Judicial Watch client named Peter Paul. Paul, a Hollywood businessman and convicted felon, is a former associate of Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man and other comic book heroes. In 2001, Paul was charged with securities fraud in an alleged stock manipulation scheme involving the company, Stan Lee Media.
Paul has also been a big supporter of Bill Clinton. According to court papers filed by Judicial Watch, Paul wanted Clinton to work with Stan Lee Media after leaving the White House. Paul says he approached members of the Clinton circle and was told the best way he could build a relationship with Bill Clinton would be to contribute to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign.
So in August 2000, Paul helped put on a huge Hollywood fundraiser for Mrs. Clinton. But the hoped-for business deal with Bill Clinton never materialized. In addition, Paul alleges, Mrs. Clinton concealed his donations from the Federal Election Commission.
So Paul, with help from Larry Klayman, sued the Clintons. “BILL AND HILLARY CLINTON INVOLVED IN MASSIVE ELECTION FINANCE FRAUD,” read the Judicial Watch press release. The suit was dismissed, but Paul has appealed.
Judicial Watch also wanted the Justice Department to prosecute the Clintons. In 2001, Klayman met with Criminal Division head Chertoff, asking for immunity for Paul “in exchange for his cooperation with the Justice Department against Bill and Hillary Clinton,” according to a letter Klayman wrote the department. Paul never got his deal.
That’s how things stood until last week, when, on the eve of the Chertoff vote, Judicial Watch said Paul had incriminating information that might involve…Michael Chertoff. But after a little investigating, the “bipartisan evaluation” found nothing in Judicial Watch’s charges. “It was all smoke,” says one administration official. Chertoff’s nomination will go forward.
The episode left some Republicans angry, and then amused. With no credible evidence, Klayman pulled the wool over Democrats who will grab any reason to stop a Bush nominee. But in their eagerness, they left themselves open to an embarrassing question: If Paul’s allegation about Chertoff was credible enough to launch an investigation, then why not his charges against Bill and Hillary Clinton?
Note — This article originally appeared in The Hill newspaper, where Byron York writes a column. The day the article was published, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch and ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy released the following statement:
The Committee has completed its bi-partisan investigation into allegations raised by the interest group Judicial Watch concerning Michael Chertoff, a nominee for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals recently reported favorably by the Committee to the full Senate. Consistent with Committee procedure, investigative staff of the Majority and Minority met with representatives of Judicial Watch last week and allowed them to present all relevant evidence relating to Mr. Chertoff. Subsequently, the investigative staff interviewed Mr. Chertoff regarding those allegations. Chairman Hatch and Ranking Democratic Member Leahy have determined that there is no credible evidence linking Mr. Chertoff with any of the wrongdoing alleged by Judicial Watch.