Pick a style: bureaucratese or crude, bare-knuckle prose

March 23, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's been quite a week for the document dump.

Fanciers of raw, unexpurgated information - read journalists - are probably cross-eyed by now, or at least reaching for reading glasses 0.5 above their usual magnification. First, the Justice Department unloaded 3,000 pages worth of e-mail, memos and such on a congressional committee investigating the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

I had barely mined that data - which the committee put online - when along came an even richer lode, at least for Marylanders, from a bribery and public corruption case against a former state senator. Call them the Tommy Tapes - or maybe Bromwell Unbound, or My Dinner with What Turned Out to Be an FBI Guy - transcripts of secret recordings of the one-time state powerbroker that led to his indictment.

Talk about "pigs going to eat," as one of Bromwell's sayings goes. (It's a cautionary adage about greed: "Pigs go to eat," Bromwell says about accepting less than he thinks he was worth for a deal, "and hogs go to slaughter.") I've been totally pigging out, just Dumpster-diving in this double-document dump.

You have to love the dueling banjos quality of these documents - it's the yin of a plain-spoken, son-of-a-bricklayer Baltimore guy versus the yang of obfuscating, acronym-loving bureaucrats.

The Tommy Tapes are lewd, rude and crude, all macho posturings and stuttering dialogue that reads like a bad David Mamet parody:

"Ed's good. I like Ed."

"Ed's a good man."

"Ed's a good guy. I like Ed."

"Ed - Ed - my - Ed is a guy that he and I are good friends and he's worked for me, he works for me when I can find a way to shield his tax issues."

At some point, someone will figure out how to scan the transcript into a computer so it can be searched digitally - here would be one phrase to plug into the Ctrl+F "find" box: "$400 and whores" - but for now, you're stuck thumbing through pages upon pages of middle-age guys talking about prostates and prostitutes on the one hand and drywall and deals on the other.

You have to pity the poor transcriber, typing this stuff up and wearing out certain keys. I wonder who got stuck with that chore - he or she doesn't seem to be a local, unless there's some former Oriole now pitching for the Yankees named "Messina" and a local crab house called "O'Brickie's" - and how long it took. You'd be surprised at how many pages it takes to capture a single dinner (152) and thankful that much - like "conversation by source to animals not transcribed" was excluded.

It's not quite the Starr Report - the special prosecutor's findings on President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, which came with a warning about sexually explicit language - but, being a family newspaper, The Sun has spared you, dear readers, the full flower of this guy's profanity. As will the jury be, should Bromwell's delayed trial ever get going.

"The government recognizes that certain limited passages or phrases on these recordings go beyond ordinary bad language," the Maryland U.S. attorney's office primly notes in a court filing. "Accordingly, the government intends to redact certain racist and misogynistic statements from the recordings, and not to play these portions for the jury."

Yes, that would be part of the same attorney general's office that currently is under scrutiny for what some believe is the politically motivated firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

If the Tommy Tapes are Mamet, the Justice Department missives, dumped on the House Judiciary Committee on Monday night, are Samuel Beckett - cryptic to the point of absurdity. As I clicked through various PDFs, I kept expecting to find an e-mail that went: From: Vladimir; To: Estragon; Subject: Godot.

You have to be way inside the Beltway to figure out all the acronyms or what exactly is being said: "I would not be surprised if this email is raised at the WEM hearing today," a DOJ staffer wrote. "I will have a summary from this SJC hearing on us atty resignations ASAP."

Still, it's always amusing to see functionaries in action - there is an e-mail from Harriet Miers, the then-White House counsel, noncommittally telling Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff that she was unsure whether the firings required "the boss's attention." A reply asking who would determine that went unanswered, or at least wasn't included in the document dump.

The mostly delicate - and thus, oblique - language in the Washington documents makes one miss the in-your-face style of Thomas Bromwell, regaling his secretly wired companions with takes on everything from how John "Bread Man" Paterakis and Peter Angelos got so rich (they "make money by not using their money ... [but] your money") to his choice of hotels in Atlantic City (the Hyatt - love those mirrored ceilings) to his model when it comes to home decor (Tony Soprano).

Kind of makes you wish Gonzales' chief of staff had e-mailed him to get his take on the DOJ plan to push the USAs out by utilizing the provisions authorizing the AG to make USA appointments while continuing to do selection in the JSC and not going the PAS route.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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