Wednesday, September 22, 2010

EDITORIAL: Character vs. deceit

Tim Griffin, who seems to be coasting to a seat in the House of Representatives from central Arkansas, must have blanched when he saw that the W. H. Bowen School of Law at Little Rock had invited five of the fired Republican U. S. attorneys to come discuss the politicization of the Justice Department. Griffin is running as a new face who is going to Washington to clean it up.

Hardly anyone in the district knows that he spent a decade in Washington as a political operative whose job was to tear down Democratic candidates and officeholders, first as an investigator for a Republican congressman, then for the Republican National Committee and finally for the White House political director, Karl Rove. Nor do many know of his pivotal role in the U. S. attorneys scandal.

Griffin, using his White House connections, managed to get Bud Cummins, the U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, fired so that he could get the job for a few months and build his résumé for a run for Congress. He did not suspect that Cummins’ dismissal and the firing of eight other U. S. attorneys who had not pleased the White House political office would blow up into a scandal that would force the resignation of the attorney general of the United States.

Rove arranged for Griffin to be appointed U. S. attorney under a provision hidden in USA Patriot Act amendments that allowed him to escape questioning and confirmation by the Senate, the only U. S. attorney ever to be appointed in that way. U. S. Sen. Mark Pryor intended to question him about his role in the removal of Democratic voters from the rolls in Florida in the 2004 presidential election. (Griffin told Pryor in a private conversation monitored by the Justice Department that if the voter “caging” happened, higher-ups had made the decision to do it.)

Griffin cannot be relieved at what transpired at the law school. Cummins adhered to the party rule that a good Republican does not speak ill of another who is running for office against a Democrat. Cummins refused to talk about Griffin or say whether he would vote for Griffin, his Democratic opponent Joyce Elliott or skip that race.

“He had a role and I think it’s been documented in the investigation,” Cummins said. “I don’t really have anything to add.” He was talking about the investigative report on the firings by the inspector general of the Justice Department two years ago. It detailed Griffin’s conniving to get Cummins’ job. Officials in the Justice Department and the White House said Griffin told them Cummins was known to be lazy, although the Justice Department ranked Cummins among its top five prosecutors. Justice Department officials eventually acknowledged that Cummins was not fired because he was doing a poor job, as they first announced, but to make room for Griffin.

Another of the fired prosecutors, Paul Charlton of Arizona, was not as discreet as Cummins. Charlton and Carol Lam of California, who spoke at the law school, were fired shortly after they began investigations of a couple of crooked congressmen who happened to be Republicans with close ties to the White House. Congressman Randall “Duke” Cunning-ham of California would eventually go to prison. Congressman Richard “Rick” Renzi of Arizona was indicted on 35 counts of fraud but has not stood trial. President Bush and Vice President Cheney had gone to Arizona to campaign for Renzi, and the White House apparently was miffed that a Republican they had appointed was trying to send another Republican to prison.

Charlton seemed to be madder about Cummins’ mistreatment than his own.

“I’ve seen the video in which Mr. Griffin wept as he said he no longer felt that public service was worthwhile, and it struck me as more than ironic that he was in that state of mind after he had essentially destroyed Bud Cummins’ chance to stay in office as U.S. attorney, even though Bud was doing a terrific job,” Charlton said. “He had slandered Bud while he was a U.S. attorney and used his position with Karl Rove to move Bud out of office. Bud handled it very much like a gentleman and with a great deal of grace, and I don’t think I could say the same of Mr. Griffin.”

The Arizonan had kept abreast of Tim Griffin’s career since the prosecutor fiasco. He said Griffin had lied about the number of cases he had prosecuted and the number of felony jury trials he had worked in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps. He said it did not speak well of the man’s character.

“I think how many prosecutions and felony jury trials you’ve had means something, especially for anyone who wants to take the job of U.S. attorney,” Charlton said. “If you misrepresent that, then you need to be held to account for that.”

Truth and courage mean something, too, if you are asking to be the people’s representative in Washington. Cummins and Charlton remind us of Griffin’s one failing as a candidate. It is not his ideas — they are rote Republican — but his refusal to answer questions about the U. S. attorney episode or his activities during his 10-year career inside Washington politics. He waves questions aside by saying that he only wants to talk about the future. The past, they say, is prologue.