Roll Call reported GOP allegations of Schumer "conflict" but quoted no Democrats in rebuttal

››› ››› ROB DIETZ & BRIAN LEVY

A March 20 Roll Call article (subscription required) on proposed Senate legislation that would "strip[] President Bush's authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys" cited the fact that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) -- who has raised questions about whether the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys was politically motivated -- 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). The article reported that "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 Schumer with a conflict of interest." But entirely absent from the article was Schumer's response to the charge -- which he gave on the March 18 edition of NBC's Meet the Press -- or any response from any other Democrat; there was no indication that Roll Call even sought a Democratic response to the charge. On Meet the Press, Schumer said that he is probing only the administration's conduct and that he will leave any issues involving lawmakers to the congressional ethics committees.

The article reported that "Democrats already have begun using the scandal over the firing of eight prosecutors last year in fundraising letters and as a political tool" and that DSCC executive director J.B. Poersch "sent an e-mail to supporters focusing on allegations that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) played a role in the ouster of former U.S. attorney David Iglesias." The article then cited responses to the email by National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher and Specter, who, on the March 18 edition of Fox News Sunday, said:

SPECTER: 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.

The article noted 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." But the article did not quote a single Democrat defending the charge, or note that Schumer himself addressed the charge. As Media Matters for America noted, on the March 18 edition of Meet the Press, Schumer responded by asserting that his committee "is simply looking into the misdeeds in the executive branch, in the Justice Department, in the administration." He further noted that "[a]nything that has to do with any elected official, any congressman, any senator, will be handled by the ethics committee."

Also entirely absent from the article was any mention of former Sen. Al D'Amato's (R-NY) service in the dual capacity of chairman of the Senate Whitewater Committee -- a special committee administered by the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (which D'Amato also chaired) that investigated President Bill Clinton -- as well as co-chairman of former Sen. Bob Dole's (R-KS) 1996 presidential campaign. Unlike Schumer, who has pledged not to investigate fellow senators, D'Amato actually was investigating the activities of the president he was in charge of defeating in 1996. As a December 19, 1999, Newsday article noted, D'Amato in 1996 "was chairman of the Senate Republican campaign committee [NRSC], co-chairman of Robert Dole's presidential campaign committee and chairman of the Senate banking committee, which launched two investigations of the Clinton administration and President Bill Clinton's Whitewater real estate investments." According to a Washington Post timeline, D'Amato began chairing hearings on Whitewater on July 18, 1995, and finished on July 18, 1996. On January 22, 1996, the Associated Press reported that then-New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Joe Keefe said, "The conflict is so obvious, it's really a no-brainer." On the January 23, 1996, edition of CNN's Crossfire, co-host Geraldine Ferarro said of D'Amato's hearings: "[T]he politics of it is just right up front." Then-Sen. Paul Simon (D-IL) added: "It's overwhelming." On the January 21, 1996, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, D'Amato said, "One [job] has nothing to do with the other."

D'Amato provided further support to those arguing that his Whitewater investigation was purely political by announcing immediately after Clinton won re-election that, in the words of CNN, "he will not revive any Senate probes into the Whitewater affair."

The Roll Call article also left out any mention of Specter's office's reported role -- which Specter claims was unknown to him -- in precipitating the entire controversy over the U.S. attorney dismissals. As the weblog TPMmuckraker.com reported, Specter has confirmed that based on his status as Judiciary Committee chairman last year, his staff made a last-minute change to a bill that expanded the administration's power to install U.S. attorneys without Senate approval. The provision added by Specter's staff at the behest of the administration allows the attorney general's selected interim U.S. attorneys to serve until a permanent replacement is nominated and confirmed. Before the change in the law, the attorney general appointed interim U.S. attorneys who could serve only until the Senate confirmed a replacement or until 120 days had passed, whichever occurred first. After 120 days, the local federal district court could select an interim appointee to serve until the Senate confirmed a replacement. Thus, the Bush administration fired the US attorneys knowing that it could cut the Senate out of the process by simply naming an interim and delaying indefinitely a formal nomination to the Senate.

On the March 18 edition of Fox News Sunday, immediately before asking about Schumer's dual roles as DSCC chairman and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, host Chris Wallace asked Specter whether "the administration used its emergency powers under the Patriot Act to get around sending at least some of the replacements for these U.S. attorneys to the Senate for confirmation," adding, "And if so, was that appropriate?" Specter said, "I don't think they did," and noted that the "provision in the Patriot Act which expanded the attorney general's power was not noticed by anybody, and it was in the conference report for some three months." He also pointed out legislation he co-sponsored with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to reverse that provision in the Patriot Act. But Specter did not acknowledge that the provision allowing the president to bypass Senate confirmation of U.S. attorneys was reportedly added by his office. Neither Wallace nor Roll Call mentioned Specter's office's role in changing the law.

From the March 20 Roll Call article:

The Senate is poised to pass legislation today stripping President Bush's authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys, and Democrats already have begun using the scandal over the firing of eight prosecutors last year in fundraising letters and as a political tool, while the GOP struggles to find an effective counter message.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) recently added a link to a petition calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign to a prominent space on her Web site. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also called on Gonzales to step down.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently sent an e-mail to supporters focusing on allegations that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) played a role in the ouster of former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. In the e-mail, DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch notes that "New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici -- who is up for re-election in 2008 -- is now facing a Senate Ethics Committee investigation and a possible obstruction of justice review for improper contact with a United States attorney."

Poersch goes on to question Domenici's responses to questions about his role in the firing, adding that "Sen. Domenici has retained the same lawyer who defended disgraced Congressman Randy 'Duke' Cunningham - yet another sign the Senator knows he is in serious trouble. Sen. Domenici owes the people of New Mexico the unmitigated truth. So far, he has been less than forthcoming and has given his constituents every reason to question his honesty and his fitness to be a United States Senator."

Republicans were quick to question the appropriateness of the e-mail, pointing out that Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who serves as Democratic Caucus vice chairman and DSCC chairman, is heading up the Senate's investigation of the firings. Although Schumer serves on the Judiciary Committee, he is not the chairman, and Democratic leadership aides have in the past said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tapped Schumer to lead the investigation.

"While it certainly seems convenient that Chuck Schumer was handed the gavel to attack the administration and at the same time used the issue for political fodder in the DSCC's direct-mail shop, last time we checked he was not up in 2008 and we are not running a campaign against him," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher.

Over 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. In comments over the weekend on Fox News, Specter pointed out that "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."

Specter added, "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 Web site the very next day, and then he has made very conclusory and judgmental statements all along. ... 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."

And while GOP lawmakers are expected to continue making similar charges against Schumer and the broader inquiry, Republicans acknowledge they have taken a beating on the issue. "We just haven't gotten any traction," one senior Republican aide lamented Monday. Additionally, 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.

Meanwhile, aides in both camps said neither party sees an advantage in slow-walking the U.S. attorneys bill and predicted it will pass the Senate with a bulk of lawmakers in both parties supporting it. Although Kyl and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have offered amendments that would continue to give President Bush some control over appointing U.S. attorneys, the bill is expected to pass almost completely intact. At press time it was unclear when the House would take up a companion measure.

However, even after the bill passes, the issue is not expected to die. While it has yet to resonate very loudly outside of the Beltway, Democrats are looking to nationalize the issue and tie it into their broader running critique of the White House as unethical and Congressional Republicans as poor watchdogs.

And Democrats -- including the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees -- are keeping up the pressure to compel White House adviser Karl Rove to testify on the firings. White House Counsel Fred Fielding is expected to be back on the Hill today to discuss that issue with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
Roll Call
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