Bad odor still lingers in the halls of Justice

September 17, 2007|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- It's easy to smear a reputation, and hard to restore it.

The U.S. Department of Justice has a long way to go before it can overcome the lapdog legacy of Alberto R. Gonzales. Even if President Bush overcomes his tendency to appoint yes-men (and women) and finds an attorney general with a sterling reputation, it will be years before the department restores morale and regains public confidence.

While other government agencies may be blatantly politicized without corroding public trust, the Justice Department is different. It is supposed to embody American constitutional principles and protect the basic premise of our republic: that ours is a government of laws, not men.

It ought to be the one place where citizens can be certain that they are not judged according to race or religion, party or politics. Its investigations should never have the odor of partisan gamesmanship - the stench most commonly associated with the Gonzales Justice Department. That's especially true where investigations into public officials are concerned.

If Bill Campbell, a former Atlanta mayor, had been a target of Karl Rove and Mr. Gonzales, his prosecution would have divided the region, pitting Democrats against Republicans, and, in some cases, white Atlantans against black ones. Elected to his first term in 1993, Mr. Campbell, who is black, enjoyed broad, biracial support back then. The feds opened their investigation of Mr. Campbell during the 1990s, under the administration of Bill Clinton and a Democratic U.S. attorney. He was finally convicted last year on three counts of tax evasion. While Mr. Campbell still claims political persecution, the case against him was seen by most others as fair and nonpartisan.

The same cannot be said about the case against a former Democratic governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman. That prosecution carries the whiff of partisan excess. Many observers doubt Mr. Siegelman would have been prosecuted if he had been a Republican.

For one thing, the case seemed overly legalistic, because Mr. Siegelman was not accused of pocketing a bribe or exchanging favors for contributions to his own campaign for office. He was accused of the sort of political trading that takes place in state capitals every day.

Mr. Siegelman pushed hard for Alabama voters to approve a state lottery for educational causes, but the lottery was defeated and the losing lottery campaign was stuck with a debt to retire. According to federal prosecutors, Mr. Siegelman gave a seat on the state hospital licensing board to now-discredited health care mogul Richard M. Scrushy in exchange for a $500,000 donation to pay off the debt.

The federal prosecution hinged, in part, on whether Mr. Siegelman was personally responsible for the debt. Prosecutors said he was; Mr. Siegelman's attorneys said he wasn't. And Mr. Siegelman's attorneys pointed out that Mr. Scrushy had served on the hospital board under three previous governors.

Either way, there's no confusing Mr. Siegelman's little deal with textbook good government. Advocates of stricter ethical standards - like me - harrumph over such transactions with regularity. But they are, nevertheless, pretty common, rarely inspiring much beyond raised eyebrows.

The conviction - Mr. Siegelman was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison - has become a cause celebre among Democrats. The House Judiciary Committee is scrutinizing it. And more than 40 former state attorneys general, including a few Republicans, have urged Congress to look into it.

Any Democrat now targeted by federal investigators would be foolish not to claim to be a victim of a partisan crusade. The contention has a credibility it shouldn't - and wouldn't, if President Bush had resisted the impulse to treat the Justice Department as just another GOP trophy room.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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