In September 2006, just weeks before pivotal Congressional midterm elections, Paul Charlton, US Attorney for the District of Arizona, opened a preliminary investigation into Rick Renzi, the Republican Congressman representing the state’s 1st Congressional District, for an alleged pattern of corruption involving influence peddling and land deals. Almost immediately, Charlton’s name was added to a blacklist of federal prosecutors the White House wanted to force from their jobs. Charlton is someone “we should now consider pushing out,” Kyle Sampson, the Attorney General’s chief of staff, wrote to Harriet Miers September 13. In his previously safe GOP district, Renzi barely held on in the election. On December 7 the White House demanded Charlton’s resignation without offering him any explanation.

Internal Justice Department e-mails subpoenaed by Congress in early March provided evidence that the dismissals of Charlton and seven other federal prosecutors amounted to a political purge aimed in part at protecting Republican lawmakers like Renzi from corruption indictments. The Administration’s claim that the ousters were “performance related” has been discredited by the e-mails–and especially proved false in the case of Charlton, whose office was honored with a Federal Service Award in 2002 and was declared a “Model Program” by the Justice Department this past December.

The Justice Department and the White House offered a host of flimsy excuses for firing Charlton, including his insufficient enthusiasm for pursuing the death penalty and prosecuting marijuana cases. Behind the scenes, a Justice Department official named Brent Ward, who claimed in a September 20, 2006, e-mail that Charlton was “unwilling to take good cases,” appears to have played a key role in cooking up a pretext for his dismissal.

Who is Brent Ward, and why did he have it in for Charlton?

Ward first came to prominence in Utah, where as a federal prosecutor during the Reagan era he cast himself as a crusader against pornography, going so far as attempting to criminalize nude art-class models. His efforts won him an audience with Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography, which circulated his manifesto calling for relentless prosecutions to “test the limits of pornographers’ endurance.” Meese then tapped Ward to lead a group of US Attorneys to launch a federal antipornography campaign. Ward returned to government last year as the chief of the Justice Department’s newly created Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, where his main achievement has been the prosecution of the producer of the Girls Gone Wild video series.

Ward’s accomplishments at the Justice Department have been symbolic at best. But when a paper trail to support the charge that US Attorneys were deficient in their perform­ance was required to cover the political dismissals, Justice finally discovered an important use for its top porn cop.

According to a September 20, 2006, e-mail from Ward to Sampson, Charlton was a laggard in prosecuting obscenity cases. The e-mail leveled the same allegation at Dan Bogden, US Attorney for Nevada, who was also dismissed in the pros­ecutor purge despite positive performance reviews. “We have two U.S. Attorneys who are unwilling to take good cases we have presented to them. They are Paul Charlton in Phoenix (this is urgent) and Dan Bogden in Las Vegas,” wrote Ward. But the Justice Department never explained which “good cases” Charlton refused to prosecute, why he refused to prosecute them or whether he even refused the cases.

“The date of the e-mail is subsequent to the date when they asked for [Charlton’s] resignation, so it’s gratuitous,” a former Justice Department source intimately familiar with Charlton’s disputed obscenity case told me. “It looks like the White House put this out just to dirty the waters.”

According to the source, Ward’s accusation against Charlton stems from a case he filed last June. That month Ward ordered Charlton to prosecute Five Star Video, an adult video distributor that registered on Ward’s radar when it mailed copies of the DVDs Gag Factor 18, Filthy Things 6, Gag Factor 15 and American Bukkake 13 to customers across state lines. Charlton agreed to the case, but as the source told me, Ward implored him to attach an additional US Attorney to it. Concerned about limited resources, Charlton hesitated before assigning the additional prosecutor–a key fact missing from the White House e-mails.

Ward’s endless stream of mandates, the source revealed, were frustrating to many federal prosecutors. “There were countless child obscenity cases crying out to be prosecuted,” the source told me, “but Ward wanted to focus on cases involving consenting adults. That’s just not a good way of dedicating resources.” It was Christian-right organizations like the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America that had pushed for Ward’s Justice Department appointment. Gonzales not only acquiesced but declared the prosecution of pornography portraying sex acts between consenting adults “one of the top priorities” of his department, dedicating ten FBI agents, four prosecutors and a postal inspector to Ward’s task force. But while the Christian right’s confidence in Gonzales soared, FBI veterans grumbled. “I guess this means we’ve won the war on terror,” an anonymous FBI agent sarcastically remarked to the Washington Post about agents diverted to Ward’s task force. “We must not need any more resources for espionage.”

His antiporn crusades may have rankled the FBI agents and US Attorneys compelled to participate in them, but Ward produced an unintended benefit for the White House when it needed to fire politically “chafing” US Attorneys. Ward’s complaint against Charlton, filed away by Sampson, was released by the Justice Department as the Attorneygate scandal raged, smearing a competent professional prosecutor. Whether or not Attorney General Gonzales survives the fallout from his purge, with Ward’s help he has fulfilled urgent political goals. Congressman Renzi, once a target of Charlton’s investigation, still sits comfortably in his Capitol Hill office, apparently unconcerned about scrutiny of his alleged ethical lapses.