Traction time

In the news business we sometimes talk about a story gaining "traction," meaning that it's starting to produce some meaningful reaction.

Some stories take longer than others for their treads to take hold. For example, there's the work investigative reporter Greg Palast has been doing on the issue of vote caging, which News Hits wrote about a couple of weeks back. We're only a little behind the curve, since Palast first revealed this alleged attempt by the GOP to suppress minority votes back in the fall of 2004.

In case you missed it — and considering the absence of coverage in the mainstream media, you probably have — caging is a direct-mail term that, in this context, refers to the practice of compiling lists of potential voters who can be challenged at the polls. According to Palast's reports — he works for the BBC program Newsnight — Republican officials in 2004 sent first-class mail to registered voters in largely minority neighborhoods in Florida and other states, and then kept track of those that were returned.

Challenging an individual voter because his or her name doesn't match up to the address listed on their registration is perfectly OK. But, as Palast points out, when you attempt to disenfranchise large groups of minority voters this way, it is potentially a felony violation of the Voting Rights Act.

It is an issue with huge implications, but it's receiving virtually no coverage in the mainstream press. When last we wrote about this, we reported that Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit Democrat who heads the House Judiciary Committee, had just asked Palast for e-mails the journalist had obtained that purportedly show caging was going on, and that members of the Bush administration knew about it.

Last week, Conyers started turning the screws. We know that not because we read about it in the Detroit News or Free Press, but because we were listening to the Randi Rhodes Show on the left-wing radio network Air America (heard locally on WDTW at 1310 AM).

Conyers was grilling Paul McNulty, the No. 2 guy at the Department of Justice. McNulty, who has submitted his resignation but has not yet left the building, is caught up in the scandal over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. What Palast told us is that the firings and the vote caging issues are linked. For starters, one of the guys Palast says was involved is Tim Griffin, a protégé of Bush political mastermind Karl Rove. Griffin's name is reportedly on e-mails containing caging lists that Palast got ahold of back in 2004. Last year, Griffin was appointed (without Senate confirmation) as interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. After Palast agreed to give Conyers the info he had on Griffin and the caging lists, Griffin resigned. But he claimed his abrupt departure had nothing to do with the caging allegations.

"Obviously, I've seen the Internet stuff about caging," a reportedly teary-eyed Griffin said in a speech at the University of Arkansas. "First of all, the allegations that are on the Internet and have spread through the tabloids are completely and absolutely false, No. 1. And ridiculous. Caging, as you may know, I had it looked up, is a direct-mail term for basically organizing returned mail. ... And I'll just say that it's so untrue. ... This is all made up and faux pas. I didn't cage votes, I didn't cage mail, I didn't cage animals, I'm not a zookeeper."

Funny guy, that Tim.

Even funnier, though, was McNulty's attempt to dance around questions being thrown at him by Conyers last week. Part of the questioning had to do with testimony given the committee last month by Monica Goodling, former senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Justice Department's White House liaison. Goodling, who testified only after being granted immunity from prosecution, told the committee that McNulty had been less than candid when previously asked by members of a Senate committee about the caging issue and Griffin.

Goodling had prepared a briefing book on the issue, and warned McNulty that it was likely to be raised when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. McNulty was asked about it, and he responded that he "didn't know anything about it personally."

What Conyers wanted to know was, considering that Goodling had warned McNulty that the issue was likely to come up, and that she had provided him with background material — including an article by Palast — how could he say he had no knowledge of it?

Because he hadn't read the briefing book, McNulty told Conyers. That raised the congressman's eyebrows. How could the No. 2 man at the Justice Department not care about allegations that someone serving as a U.S. attorney may have been involved in an illegal scheme to disenfranchise minority voters?

"I didn't have time," replied McNulty.

Now, others with some clout are also taking notice. Last week two Democratic senators, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, wrote to Attorney General Gonzales calling for an investigation into the caging allegations and any role Griffin might have played in the purported scheme. In part, the two senators wrote:

"At a time when the Department's political independence and its commitment to enforcement of civil rights statutes have been called into doubt, it is vitally important that the Department thoroughly investigate these allegations of unlawful voter suppression, and the apparent failure of the Department employees to forward to the appropriate information they had about this practice."

It's taken nearly three years, but this story is finally beginning to get the traction it deserves.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.