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The Face of Opportunism

By Richard Cohen

If I had my way, Alberto Gonzales would wear a Mike Nifong mask when he testifies before the Senate. Nifong is the rogue prosecutor who indicted three members of the Duke University lacrosse team even though he should have known that they were not guilty. He did this not for cash or some other bribe but because of political pressure. He was up for election.

It is really no different with Gonzales. By allowing politics to pollute the Justice Department, by permitting U.S. attorneys to get the impression that politics ought to figure in their investigations, he compares in some minor league way to the odious Nifong. The mask will remind the Senate of what really is at stake.

The Durham County district attorney was not, it seems from his record, a bad guy. But as he was running for office, he was confronted with an opportunity. He could indict three privileged white jocks for the rape of an underprivileged black woman, or he could let the case slide, drop it for lack of evidence and maybe lose the election. We all know what he did.

A different sort of political pressure was being brought by Gonzales and his Justice Department on U.S. attorneys throughout the country. He made sure they all knew their jobs were at stake. All U.S. attorneys are political appointees, confirmed by the Senate and, usually, deemed safe and comfy by the senators from their respective states. Up to this point, the process would make a political boss smile.

But once a U.S. attorney is chosen, the politicking is supposed to cease. This is important, because the office is extremely powerful. Just look at what Nifong did to three kids and he is just a local district attorney. A U.S. attorney usually has vastly more funds at his disposal -- and he also has the FBI, the IRS, the Postal Service, the Secret Service and, for all I know, the CIA and the Mossad. This is not an office to trifle with. It does not take a conviction to ruin a life; a mere investigation will suffice.

So Gonzales is being cute when he says in his prepared statement that he would not "interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain'' -- of course not. But would he, maybe at the instigation of local Republicans, suggest to the U.S. attorneys that they step on the gas a bit when it comes to voter fraud? This was a GOP obsession, and the failure to prosecute for this crime vexed small minds throughout the Republican Party. Never mind that voter fraud is, like alligators in the New York sewers, an urban myth -- it had to be found and stopped. Cuff someone, for crying out loud.

What prosecutor could not have gotten that message -- especially after eight of their numbers were purged for what appears to be political reasons? After all, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico was dumped after he had received a phone call from one of his senators, Pete Domenici, who appeared to be insisting on the prompt indictment of a Democratic officeholder. Mind you, the Democrat might have been guilty or Domenici might have thought so -- something like that. Still, this was an outrageous interference on Domenici's part -- followed, ominously for other U.S. attorneys, by Iglesias' dismissal by a compliant attorney general's office.

Nifong, a weak and contemptible man, was merely trying to hold on to his office. He had the perfect suspects. Their indictment was cheered by a very vocal black community, mindless members of the Duke academic community, men-haters across the country and many Duke students. Whatever reasons Nifong had to suspect rape -- after all, the woman insisted she had been raped -- turned into a huge political opportunity. It must have been hard to back down. He stuck with his case. He neglected his other obligations -- to the three young men, above all, but also to the perception that justice in this country is administered fairly.

It is the same with Gonzales. His most solemn obligation was to the sanctity of the country's criminal justice system, and to the belief (no matter how naive) that politics will not interfere. In that one area, he has failed dismally, overseeing a process for replacing U.S. attorneys that is rank with the rotten smell of petty politics. His victims are not three innocent young men but the trust we all used to have in the impartiality of the Justice Department. He should try on the Nifong mask. I'm sure it would fit just fine.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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