The New York Times | Editorial
Monday 06 August 2007
One part of the Justice Department mess that requires more scrutiny is the growing evidence that the department may have singled out people for criminal prosecution to help Republicans win elections. The House Judiciary Committee has begun investigating several cases that raise serious questions. The panel should determine what role politics played in all of them.
Putting political opponents in jail is the sort of thing that happens in third-world dictatorships. In the United States, prosecutions are supposed to be scrupulously nonpartisan. This principle appears to have broken down in Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department - where lawyers were improperly hired for nonpolitical jobs based on party membership, and United States attorneys were apparently fired for political reasons.
Individual Democrats may be paying a personal price. Don Siegelman, a former Alabama governor, was the state's most prominent Democrat and had a decent chance of retaking the governorship from the Republican incumbent. He was aggressively prosecuted by both the Birmingham and Montgomery United States attorney's offices. Birmingham prosecutors dropped their case after a judge harshly questioned it. When the Montgomery office prosecuted, a jury acquitted Mr. Siegelman of 25 counts, but convicted him of 7, which appear to be disturbingly weak.
The prosecution may have been a political hit. A Republican lawyer, Dana Jill Simpson, has said in a sworn statement that she heard Bill Canary, a Republican operative and a Karl Rove protégé, say that his "girls" - his wife, the United States attorney in Montgomery, and Alice Martin, the United States attorney in Birmingham - would "take care" of Mr. Siegelman. Mr. Canary also said, according to Ms. Simpson, that Mr. Rove was involved.
Georgia Thompson is a Wisconsin state employee wrongly put in jail on corruption charges by the Milwaukee United States attorney. Despite strong evidence that she was innocent, Steven Biskupic prosecuted Ms. Thompson for corruption and got a conviction. The news hit shortly before a bitterly fought governor's race, and opponents of James Doyle, the state's Democratic governor, used the conviction to attack Mr. Doyle as corrupt. An appeals court later freed Ms. Thompson, but only after she had spent months in jail.
The committee has requested documents from the Justice Department about those two cases. It should also look into the investigation of Senator Robert Menendez by Christopher Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey. Based on the facts that have come out, Mr. Menendez appears to have done nothing wrong. But word of the investigation leaked out in the fall of 2006, damaging Mr. Menendez's reputation just when Republicans were trying to defeat him. It is unclear whose idea it was to conduct an investigation so close to the election of Mr. Menendez's lease of a building he had sold years earlier.
The Bush administration is throwing roadblocks in Congress's way. It missed a deadline for turning over documents, and it has refused to make some of the principal actors available to testify. The Judiciary Committee should not be deterred. If Americans are being put in jail for political reasons, Congress must put a stop to it.