Daily Sentinel repeated conservative falsehoods related to investigation of U.S. attorney firings

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The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction repeated a number of misleading claims in a March 29 editorial about the congressional investigation into the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Among other things, the editorial asserted that a Justice Department official's plan to invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying was just evidence of "an inclination toward self-preservation," and that the attorneys' dismissals were simply "garden-variety political changes."

In a March 29 editorial, The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction made numerous misleading claims related to Justice Department official Monica Goodling's reported intention to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than testify before a Senate committee investigating the Bush administration's controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Among other dubious statements, the Daily Sentinel asserted, "Goodling's decision is evidence only of a healthy inclination toward self-preservation in the midst of the latest, over-hyped Beltway scandal." The editorial also repeated the conservative talking point that Democrats "have yet to turn up any evidence that the firings were anything but well within the prerogative of a president to make garden-variety political changes in the ranks of U.S. attorneys."

As Colorado Media Matters noted, a March 16 Daily Sentinel editorial similarly advanced misleading conservative talking points about the prosecutor firings, claiming that the action was no more "political" than "President Clinton's firing of all 93 U.S. attorneys in 1993."

In its March 29 editorial, the Daily Sentinel defended Goodling, who is on indefinite leave from her positions as senior counselor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Justice Department's White House liaison, against the suggestion that "she's done something wrong":

The decision of Department of Justice lawyer Monica Goodling to refuse to talk with a Senate committee investigating the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year has Senate Democrats in high dudgeon and the inside-the-beltway chattering class chattering to high heaven.

Sen. Patrick Leahy [D-VT], the chairman of the investigating committee, even suggested that Goodling's decision to invoke her right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution must mean she's done something wrong.

In fact, it means nothing of the sort, as Goodling's attorney pointed out and as Leahy, an attorney himself, surely understands. The Fifth Amendment protects the innocent as well as those who have something to hide.

In this instance, Goodling's decision is evidence only of a healthy inclination toward self-preservation in the midst of the latest, over-hyped Beltway scandal.

The Washington Post reported March 27 that in the statement from her lawyer announcing her decision not to testify, "Goodling also pointed to indications that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty blames her and others for not fully briefing him, leading to inaccurate testimony to Congress." The statement appears to refer to reporting in The New York Observer that after his February 6 testimony, McNulty told U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) that Gonzales' "inner circle" had kept him "in the dark," causing him to give false testimony about the White House's role in the firings. The Observer reported:

Mr. Gonzales first said he rejected a request, apparently from then-White House counsel Harriet Miers, to replace all 93 U.S attorneys, and had never discussed or seen documents referring to the selective firing of the eight U.S. attorneys. The firings were initiated by the Justice Department, he said, and were spurred by the poor performance of the attorneys.

Subsequent e-mails and documents released by the Justice Department seemed to contradict that version by suggesting that the White House prompted the housecleaning after the 2004 elections, with key administration officials, including Mr. Rove, raising the question of firing the U.S. attorneys in e-mails and conversations.

Mr. Gonzales appears to have discussed the planned firings on at least two occasions, in 2005 and 2006, and actually presided over an hour-long meeting about the firings with his senior staff 10 days before they occurred.

Mr. Gonzales' deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty, has testified that the Justice Department decided on its own to fire the U.S. attorneys because of unsatisfactory job performance.

But Mr. McNulty subsequently told Mr. Schumer that he had been purposefully kept in the dark by senior staffers inside Mr. Gonzales' inner circle.

The weblog Talking Points Memo has noted that "the key point from what McNulty is saying is that if he misled Congress it wasn't intentionally. It was because Goodling et al. misled him. If true, that would be a crime." The federal false statements statute, 18 U.S.C. 1001, provides penalties for anyone who "in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact."

In addition to its misleading defense of Goodling, the Daily Sentinel dubiously suggested that the firings were nothing more than "garden-variety political changes":

Democrats are already proclaiming that members of the Bush team lied or gave misleading testimony, suggesting they are eager to find evidence of perjury, if nothing else. In that atmosphere, who can blame Goodling for not wanting to expose herself to potential charges if her testimony differed from that of other witnesses, even if she were entirely truthful?

Although they have yet to turn up any evidence that the firings were anything but well within the prerogative of a president to make garden-variety political changes in the ranks of U.S. attorneys, Democrats seem intent in trying to keep this bogus "scandal" alive. And they may yet force the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, since some Republicans and leading conservative voices are now calling for him to quit.

Contrary to the assertion that investigators "have yet to turn up any evidence" of impropriety in the firings, there actually is considerable evidence the firings may have been improper, as Colorado Media Matters has noted. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, historically very few U.S. attorneys have been dismissed absent a change of presidential administration before the expiration of their terms:

At least 54 U.S. attorneys appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate left office before completion of a four-year term between 1981 and 2006 (not counting those whose tenure was interrupted by a change in presidential administration). Of those 54, 17 left to become Article III federal judges, one left to become a federal magistrate judge, six left to serve in other positions in the executive branch, four sought elective office, two left to serve in state government, one died, and 15 left to enter or return to private practice.

Of the remaining eight U.S. attorneys who left before completing a four-year term without a change in presidential administration, two were apparently dismissed by the President, and three apparently resigned after news reports indicated they had engaged in questionable personal actions. No information was available on the three remaining U.S. attorneys who resigned.

Evidence also suggests that partisan considerations -- namely, the intention to specifically target Democrats or shield Republicans -- might have played a role in the firings of at least three of the attorneys: David Iglesias of New Mexico, John McKay of Washington state, and Carol Lam of San Diego.

Iglesias has claimed he was terminated after resisting pressure from U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson and U.S. Sen. Pete V. Domenici, both New Mexico Republicans, to accelerate his investigation into a Democratic state senator before the 2006 elections, as Media Matters for America has pointed out. Domenici and Wilson have admitted calling Iglesias but have asserted that they did not "pressure" him. As noted by Talking Points Memo, however, a March 11 McClatchy Newspapers article reported that, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, Bush senior adviser Karl Rove "specifically recalled passing along complaints about former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and may have mentioned the grumblings about Iglesias to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales." More broadly, the McClatchy article reported, "Rove relayed ... concerns among Republican Party officials in various jurisdictions" -- in particular, New Mexico and Washington state -- "that the Justice Department was not being aggressive in pursuing allegations of election fraud by Democrats."

Likewise, Republicans in Washington state heavily criticized McKay for ending his investigation into their allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, won by Democrat Christine Gregoire. In a March 13 article, also noted by Talking Points Memo, The Seattle Times reported, "McKay insist[ed] that top prosecutors in his office and agents from the FBI conducted a 'very active' review of allegations of fraud during the election but filed no charges and did not convene a federal grand jury because 'we never found any evidence of criminal conduct.' " The Times article also noted that, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, McKay stated that he had received calls in late 2004 or early 2005 from Rep. Doc Hastings' (R-WA) chief of staff, Ed Cassidy, "about the status of ongoing investigations of voter fraud."

There is also some evidence suggesting that Lam's investigations into a corruption scandal surrounding convicted former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) might have played a role in her dismissal. According to a timeline compiled by Talking Points Memo, The Wall Street Journal reported (subscription required) on May 6, 2006, that Lam's office was investigating Kyle "Dusty" Foggo in connection with the Cunningham case. The Journal made the disclosure in an article about the resignation of then-CIA director Porter Goss, who had chosen Foggo to be the CIA's executive director. According to the blog TPM Muckraker, the Los Angeles Times reported on May 11 that Lam's investigation had widened to include Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. That same day, as Talking Points Memo noted, Sampson emailed Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley about "[t]he real problem we have right now with Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires."

As Adam Cohen noted in his March 19 New York Times column, Lam's dismissal might have violated 18 U.S.C. § 1512 (c), which prescribes penalties for "anyone who corruptly 'obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,' including U.S. attorney investigations." Similarly, a March 19 Associated Press article reported that "[t]he day after then-U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego notified the Justice Department of warrants in a corruption case focused on Republicans, a DOJ official contacted the White House about "the real problem" with Lam, Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D-CA] said Monday." The article quoted U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) as saying, "The sequence of events raises a question as to whether Ms. Lam was asked to resign because she was hot on the trail of criminal conduct relating to the Cunningham case." Feinstein also was quoted as saying, "[I]f any U.S. attorney were removed because of a public corruption investigation or prosecution this well could comprise obstruction of justice."

Further, the Daily Sentinel quoted the letter from Goodling's attorney to suggest that -- like convicted former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- were Goodling to testify, she might subject herself to a perjury conviction based on "differing recollections of who said what and when":

As her attorney put it in a letter to Leahy, "The potential for legal jeopardy for Ms. Goodling from even her most truthful and accurate testimony under these circumstances is very real. One need look no further than the recent circumstances and proceedings involving Lewis Libby."

The Libby comparison is apt. The special prosecutor in that case knew almost from the beginning that Libby had nothing to do with the leak he was assigned to investigate. Libby cooperated with prosecutors. But he was ultimately convicted of perjury on the basis of differing recollections of who said what, and when.

Contrary to the Daily Sentinel's assertion that "Libby had nothing to do with the leak [special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald] was assigned to investigate," Libby was, in fact, closely connected to the leaking of Valerie Plame's classified CIA status. As Colorado Media Matters has noted, the Daily Sentinel made a similar misrepresentation in a March 7 editorial, in which it noted that "Fitzgerald learned that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who opposed the Iraq war, was the first to leak Plame's name to the media." It is true that Armitage was the initial source for the first published revelation of Plame's identity: a July 14, 2003, syndicated column by Robert D. Novak. However, as Fitzgerald noted at the October 28, 2005, press conference at which he announced Libby's indictment, Libby had leaked Plame's identity to Judith Miller, then a reporter for The New York Times, before Armitage leaked her name to Novak:

Valerie Wilson's cover was blown in July 2003. The first sign of that cover being blown was when Mr. Novak published a column on July 14th, 2003. But Mr. Novak was not the first reporter to be told that Wilson's wife, Valerie Wilson, Ambassador Wilson's wife Valerie, worked at the CIA. Several other reporters were told. In fact, Mr. Libby was the first official known to have told a reporter when he talked to Judith Miller in June of 2003 about Valerie Wilson.

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