Criminal justice

If you have things to worry about like, say, your job and a life, you may not have been paying much attention to the developing Department of Justice scandal. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently fired eight federal prosecutors, one of whom was from Michigan.

Even if you have heard something about this, you may be tempted to ask the question, "So, like, why should I care?" President Bush appointed a bunch of government lawyers — the formal title is U.S. attorney — when he came in, and now he is firing some of them. What difference does that make?

Simply this: Justice is supposed to be blind, or, at least, nonpolitical. If I hold up the Chene-Trombley Market off the I-94 exit ramp tonight, and the police catch me, it should not matter what my political party is.

But that's not the way the Bush administration sees it. They want to use the legal system to punish their enemies with politically motivated prosecutions. That's far worse than anything Richard Nixon did during Watergate.

Here's how all this works. There is a nationwide network of 93 federal prosecutors, all appointed by the president. Most states, including Michigan, have two; smaller states have only one; California has four.

They preside over large staffs of lawyers and figure out what cases to go after. They normally serve a four-year term, and can be reappointed. But the understanding always has been that when a new president comes in, the old ones all resign (or are fired) and the new man gets to replace them.

They are subject to confirmation by the Senate, in case the prez accidentally nominates someone who turns out to be a berserk Albanian communist or something. But these nominations almost always sail through automatically. And they "serve at the pleasure of the president," which means that, as with all political appointees, he can fire any of them at any time.

But grown-ups understand that's not what you want to be doing, and in fact and in practice presidents — until now — do not fire the prosecutors they appointed. Nor should they. For democracy to work, we have to believe in the integrity of the legal system. Presidents can select judges and prosecutors, but once selected, anyone in justice needs to be free and impartial.

Can you imagine what it would be like if the president could fire a U.S. Supreme Court justice if he didn't like one of his or her decisions? We would have about the same level of justice they had in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Historically, keeping the judiciary independent is something Americans have felt very strongly about. Richard Nixon guaranteed his impeachment when he ordered the special prosecutor investigating Watergate fired.

That move was seen as so out of line that the attorney general quit rather than do the dirty deed and his deputy was fired when he refused to do likewise.

Federal prosecutors also used to be seen as politically untouchable too. Here's something that should put this all in perspective. From 1981 to 2001, various presidents have appointed a total of 486 U.S. attorneys. Know how many were fired before their terms were up?

Exactly five. My guess is they were all let go for reasons that had nothing to do with ideology; the only one whose case I know about actually got fired for, ah, biting a stripper in an apparent Hannibal Lecter moment.

But George W. Bush may not know any of this, because he doesn't like to read very much, and history has never been his thing (which is why, by the way, we are staging a second Vietnam). In any event, he doesn't care.

On Dec. 7 — Pearl Harbor Day (!) — Alberto Gonzales, the Bush toady who replaced the loopy John Ashcroft as attorney general, fired eight U.S. attorneys. What's worse is that it seems clear that most or all were fired for not going along with the Bush agenda of politically motivated prosecutions.

Others may have been fired for doing their jobs ethically and going after criminal Republicans. That's clearly why Carol Lam, a federal prosecutor in California, was ousted. She was the prosecutor who put the corrupt Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Cunningham in jail. In fact, she was dismissed just after indicting two of his partners in a bribery case.

Another fired prosecutor testified that Republican congressmen pressured him to file criminal charges against Democrats. He didn't do it, and he got canned. The situation is a little muddier in Michigan. Like most states, we have two federal prosecutors; Gonzalez fired the one for the Western District, Margaret Chiara. Indeed, she did not seem to be carrying the Bush administration agenda by doing things like aggressively prosecuting Democrats. On the other hand, there aren't many Democrats on the west side of the state.

The Bush administration — which, remember, appointed her in the first place — did seem annoyed that she was opposed to the death penalty.

But Margaret Chiara had some nonpolitical problems. She hired a longtime friend and gave her fat bonuses. Her management style was also criticized by independent evaluators. We don't know, in other words, whether her firing was politically motivated or not. But most or all of the others were.

What also should be of concern is the behavior of prosecutors who were not fired. Geoffrey Fieger last week accused the U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Stephen Murphy III, of pursuing a politically motivated "witch hunt" against him, one that has gone on well over a year.

Fieger can be loud, obnoxious, and commit outrageous exaggeration. He has his own political agenda, and more than once has been accused of skating close to the line ethically.

But this time there is ample reason to believe that Geoffrey Fieger may well be right, and — dare I say it — a victim. Stephen Murphy raided his law offices in late 2005 and convened a grand jury to investigate ... what?

Essentially, whether Fieger used employees of his law firm to make contributions to the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign of John Edwards and then improperly reimbursed them. What they are looking for is whether, for example, a young Fieger lawyer may have given Edwards $2,000 and then got a $2,000 bonus. When I asked about that, Fieger said that not only did that not happen, if it had, it is not at all clear that this is illegal.

"It's only illegal under their interpretation of the law," he said.

Here's something to consider. Fieger is a medical malpractice lawyer. What was John Edwards before he got to the U.S. Senate? North Carolina's most successful medical malpractice lawyer.

Now ... wouldn't it make sense that lawyers in a medical malpractice firm would like to see one of their own elected president? The maximum amount anyone can give to any presidential campaign is $2,000.

What this means is that, at most, the Fieger offices kicked in a hundred thou or so to the Edwards presidential campaign. Ironically, the money did Edwards little good. He never caught on, and his campaign was over by March.

So to recap: For more than a year now, the U.S. District Attorney in Detroit has been running — at considerable taxpayer expense — a grand jury looking into whether malpractice lawyers gave to another malpractice lawyer.

So far, he hasn't been able to bring a single indictment. Could this be a politically motivated prosecution? Is there nothing in this area more worthy of a federal prosecutor's time and trouble? Think hard now, and then you tell me.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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