Will media ask if Specter had "conflict of interest" when he led Ruby Ridge investigation?

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY & JEREMY SCHULMAN

In the past week, numerous media outlets have reported or aired Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-PA) accusation that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) -- who has raised questions about the Bush administration's dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys -- has a "conflict of interest" because he serves both as the Administrative Oversight and the Courts Subcommittee chairman on the Senate Judiciary Committee and as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which has criticized Sen. Pete Domenici's (R-NM) alleged role in the scandal. However, the media have yet to report that Specter, while seeking the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, led a Senate investigation into the Clinton administration's handling of the aftermath of the 1992 shooting by federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. During the hearings, while still running for president, Specter criticized Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno.

Moreover, as Media Matters for America noted, on the March 18 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Schumer responded to Specter's charge of a "conflict of interest" by asserting that his committee "is simply looking into the misdeeds in the executive branch, in the Justice Department, in the administration." He further said that "[a]nything that has to do with any elected official, any congressman, any senator, will be handled by the ethics committee."

Discussing the U.S. attorney scandal on the March 18 broadcast of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Specter said:

SPECTER: But let's look at what the facts are. Senator Schumer is leading the inquiry, and the day after we have testimony about Senator Domenici, he puts his name up on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee criticizing or, really, making the argument that he ought not to be re-elected.

Now, I think that the inquiry by the Judiciary Committee ought to have at least a modicum of objectivity, and if Mr. Schumer is doing a job to defeat Senator Domenici, which he is now -- that's his job as chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee -- that he puts it up on their website the very next day, and then he has made very conclusory and judgmental statements all along.

And I challenged him on that a week ago in the Judiciary Committee, and he calls it a purge, and he's taken a very political stance. Now, he's got a right to do that. He's a politician and I'm a politician, but I don't think he can do both things at the same time without having a conflict of interest, but that's up for him to decide.

But Specter himself engaged in dual roles in 1995 that, unlike Schumer's apparent situation, actually were at odds. While Schumer has pledged that his subcommittee will not investigate any senator, Specter advocated and led an investigation into Clinton administration actions in the aftermath of the incidents at Ruby Ridge while he was seeking the 1996 Republican presidential nomination to run against former President Bill Clinton.

On August 22, 1992 -- during George H. W. Bush's presidency -- an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation shot unarmed Vicki Weaver during an 11-day standoff on her family's property in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. However, as The Washington Post noted on July 14, 1995, "[C]riticism of the FBI mounted on Capitol Hill and among citizen militias in light of revelations that bureau officials may have destroyed records and misled authorities as they reviewed federal agents' actions" surrounding the shooting. The Post added that Specter "criticized Attorney General Janet Reno's promotion" of Larry Potts to FBI deputy director, "particularly given discrepancies about Potts's role in the incident and an ongoing criminal investigation of FBI conduct by a prosecutor in Boundary County, Idaho."

On July 14, 1995, The New York Times reported:

Republican lawmakers intensified their demands today for a Congressional investigation into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 1992 standoff with a white separatist in Idaho after a veteran agent was suspended as part of the Justice Department's inquiry into whether important internal documents related to the siege were destroyed.

Senators Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said that hearings on the Idaho incident should be held soon. "We sit on a powder keg, with a lot of anxiety and anger welling up across the country as to excessive action by the Federal Government," said Mr. Specter, a candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination. He said Congress had been "derelict" in failing to hold such hearings.

Hearings were subsequently held by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Government Information, which Specter chaired at the time. According to an October 20, 1995, Los Angeles Times article, Specter criticized Reno during the hearings:

During testimony before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, [then-FBI director Louis J.] Freeh said it had been a "mistake" to elevate Larry A. Potts to deputy director soon after censuring him for a management failure connected to the standoff.

"It was a grave error on my part," Freeh said. "I'm paying a price for it."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the panel, said the blame for the Potts promotion goes even higher than Freeh, citing Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, who approved the appointment.

"The attorney general of the United States is in a position to say 'no,' " Specter said as the subcommittee wound up its hearings into the case. "The attorney general is not supposed to be a rubber stamp." Reno has defended her decision to elevate Potts, saying that she has long followed a policy of approving personnel recommendations made by agency heads under her jurisdiction.

On November 21, 1995, Specter suspended his presidential campaign, citing a lack of funds.

As noted in a December 22, 1995, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, the subcommittee's subsequent report ultimately criticized Reno:

The subcommittee report praised FBI Director Louis Freeh for taking corrective actions, mainly his promulgation of a new standard policy on the use of deadly force and restrictions on the use of the FBI's hostage rescue team.

But it sharply criticized Freeh for promoting his friend, Larry Potts, to deputy director of the FBI even after his "serious failures of managerial oversight" in the Ruby Ridge incident. The promotion later was rescinded.

The subcommittee also faulted Attorney General Janet Reno for going along with the Potts promotion, saying that "the judgment of the nation's top law enforcement officer, the attorney general, should not be a rubber stamp."

United Press International reported on December 21, 1995, that Specter criticized Reno when the report was released: "Specter also slammed Attorney General Janet Reno for allowing the promotion to go through. 'The attorney general has the authority to approve or disapprove, and is not supposed to be a rubber stamp,' Specter said."

Following are some of the media reports that noted Specter's accusation about Schumer, but not his dual roles as presidential candidate and chair of the committee investigating Ruby Ridge:

  • In a March 20 article, "G.O.P. Criticizes Schumer's Dual Roles in Investigation," The New York Times stated that "Republicans are questioning [Schumer's] motives," adding: "On Monday during an appearance on CNN's 'The Situation Room,' Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Schumer was 'doing a spectacular job of making it a big political issue to win Democratic seats.' " On the March 19 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer interviewed Specter about the charges.
  • In a March 20 article (subscription required), Roll Call reported that "[o]ver the past week, a number of GOP Senators -- including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (Pa.) -- have openly charged that Schumer has a conflict of interest," citing Specter's comments on Fox News Sunday. Roll Call added that "while a leadership aide said it was unlikely that any Republican lawmakers would seek an investigation into Schumer by the Ethics Committee, there has been some discussion among the GOP's interest-group allies off the Hill about filing a complaint."
  • On the March 19 edition of the Public Broadcasting Service's The Charlie Rose Show, host Charlie Rose told Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL): "[T]here is real conflict between Specter and Schumer, as you know, and Specter suggesting that somebody who is, in fact, chairman of a Senate campaign committee should not be investigating this kind of issue."
  • On the March 19 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, "All-Star" panelist and Washington Examiner senior White House correspondent Bill Sammon asserted that President Bush could prevent Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' "ouster" by "c[o]m[ing] out with both guns blazing," including "pick[ing] up on this Arlen Specter accusation that Senator Charles Schumer has a conflict of interest -- he's running a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- but he's also running this investigation." Host Brit Hume added that Schumer is "using this issue to raise money."
  • In a March 19 article, "GOP RIPS CHUCK OVER AG," the New York Post reported that Specter "slammed Schumer for making 'judgmental statements' while heading the Democratic campaign arm, saying, 'I don't think he can do both things at the same time without having a conflict of interest.' "
  • In a March 19 article, "Schumer Faulted on Probe," The New York Sun reported that "Senator Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, said yesterday that Mr. Schumer had crossed the line, pointing out that a senator caught up in the controversy, Peter Domenici of New Mexico, is a lawmaker Mr. Schumer is aiming to oust in 2008," and cited Specter's Fox News Sunday comments.
  • The Washington Times reported on March 19: "When asked on Fox yesterday by host Chris Wallace whether Mr. Schumer's campaign role was 'a conflict of interest' with his investigative role and whether he had "crossed the line here," Mr. Specter responded: 'I think he has' and noted that the letter came one day after the panel looked at Mr. Domenici's role in the firing of David Iglesias, the former New Mexico prosecutor."
  • A March 16 Washington Times article included Specter's criticism of Schumer: " 'I believe there is a conflict of interest between Senator Schumer's position as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the leader of this inquiry,' said Mr. Specter, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican."
  • On the March 15 edition of Special Report, Specter was quoted as saying, "I say this to Senator Schumer in the spirit of collegiality, but also in the spirit of fairness, that I believe there's a conflict of interest between Senator Schumer's position, the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and the leader of this inquiry." Hume added that Specter "was critical of Senator Schumer's leadership role in probing all this."

From the March 15 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

SCHUMER [video clip]: This is the worst crisis at the Department of Justice that I have seen in my time in the Senate. It's a crisis of confidence, a crisis of credibility, a crisis of management.

SPECTER [video clip]: I say this to Senator Schumer in the spirit of collegiality, but also in the spirit of fairness, that I believe there's a conflict of interest between Senator Schumer's position, the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and the leader of this inquiry.

HUME: What the two gentlemen were discussing, of course, was the firing of eight federal prosecutors -- U.S. attorneys -- in the last couple of months, and the dust-up that has occurred over that when the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, failed at first to provide the Congress with accurate information about how all that came about, something for which there are calls for his scalp.

Make no mistake, however, Senator Specter, although he was critical of Senator Schumer's leadership role in probing all this, is himself interested in more answers than he says he's gotten, and he is not objecting, so far as we can tell, to the shower of subpoenas that is either forthcoming or soon will be on the administration for witnesses that Senator Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Schumer, and others, want to hear from.

From the March 19 edition of Special Report:

HUME: Is it clear from the signs we're seeing -- they don't want always point in the right direction -- but do the signs seem to be pointing to Alberto Gonzales' ouster, Bill?

SAMMON: He should probably be circulating his resume. When your employer starts making noise about, "Well, who knows what the future holds?" that means get that resume out there.

You know, the only way this could change, I think, is if Bush came out with both guns blazing and said, "Look, I'm making a stand. I'm keeping this guy. I've had him -- we had him with me for 13 years since I was in Texas at the governor's mansion. I'm not giving you Rove or Harriet Miers. I'm going to exert executive privilege" -- and by the way, he can pick up on this Arlen Specter accusation that Senator Charles Schumer has a conflict of interest -- he's running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- but he's also running this investigation.

HUME: And he's using this issue to raise money.

SAMMON: As a fundraiser. You know, so if Bush got up there and used his bully pulpit and got the Democrats on the defensive, then you might say, well, maybe he will stick by Gonzales, but all the signs coming out of the House --

HUME: But every day that goes by that he doesn't do that makes you wonder, doesn't it?

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