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The Porn Plot Against Prosecutors | The Nation

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The Porn Plot Against Prosecutors

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In September 2006, just weeks before pivotal Congressional midterm elections, Paul Charlton, US Attorney for Arizona, opened a preliminary investigation into Republican Representative Rick Renzi of the state's First 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," D. Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez's chief of staff, wrote to then White House Counsel Harriet Miers on September 13. In his previously safe Republican district, Renzi had barely held on in the election. On December 7, the White House demanded Charlton's resignation without offering him any explanation.

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Max Blumenthal
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles...

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Reform legislation has stalled, and the private-prison industry is making obscene profits from a captive population.

In a bloody career that spanned decades, he destroyed entire cities and presided over the killing of countless civilians.

Stacks of internal Justice Department e-mails subpoenaed by Congress in early March from the White House provided evidence that the dismissals of Charlton and seven other US Attorneys was a political purge orchestrated to install "loyal Bushies," as Sampson called them, into their posts and to protect Republican lawmakers like Renzi from indictments for corruption. The Administration's explanation that the ousters were "performance-related" has been discredited in light of the exposure of the e-mails--and especially proved false in Charlton's case. A model of professionalism, Charlton's office was honored with the Federal Service Award and hailed by the Justice Department as a "Model Program" for its protection of crime victims.

The Justice Department and the White House offered a scattershot of alibis for firing Charlton. The Bush Administration's case against Charlton rested ultimately on the account of a little-known Justice Department official named Brent Ward, who claimed in a September 20, 2006 e-mail that Charlton was "unwilling to take good cases." Ward's allegation was vague in its claim, mysterious for its submission and vacant in context.

What accounts for this bizarre e-mail? And who is Brent Ward?

Ward first came to prominence in Utah, where as US Attorney during the Reagan era he cast himself as a crusader against pornography. His battles made him one of the most fervent and earnest witnesses before Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography; he urged "testing the endurance" of pornographers by relentless prosecutions. Meese was so impressed that he named Ward a leader of a group of US Attorneys engaged in a federal anti-pornography campaign, which soon disappeared into the back rooms of adult bookshops to ferret out evildoers. 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 film series.

The appointment of the obscure Ward was a sop to the Christian right. His accomplishments, such as they are, 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 reality of political dismissals, the Justice Department finally discovered an important use for its top porn cop.

The US Attorneys sensed that the White House was organizing smear campaigns against them, apparent in a February e-mail written by Bud Cummins, the US Attorney for Arkansas, who was fired last December to make room for the appointment of one of Karl Rove's political protegés. "Mike Elston from the DAG's [Deputy Attorney General's] office called me today," Cummins wrote to Charlton and four other fired US Attorneys. "They [the Bush Administration] feel like any of us intend to continue to offer quotes to the press, or organize behind the scenes congressional pressure, then they would feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully."

On March 15, Rove heatedly declared before a group of journalism students at Alabama's Troy University that Charlton was fired because of his refusal to seek the death penalty. Rove's claim ostensibly referred to a case review of an August 2006 prosecution by Charlton of a man whose alleged victim's body could not be found, whose murder weapon was never produced, and who was convicted solely on the basis of evidence gleaned from drug addicts and dealers. Charlton protested pursuing the death penalty against the defendant, but was overruled by Justice Department officials.

Yet Rove's complaint against Charlton was not supported anywhere in the e-mails released by the White House to Congress. In fact, only two of those e-mails mention Charlton in a negative light. One of them, written by a Justice Department aide, noted that then Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert's criticism of Charlton's policy on prosecuting marijuana cases. The aide went on to defend Charlton, asserting that limited resources hampered border state prosecutors like him.

The other e-mail contained a weirder charge: that Charlton refused to prosecute obscenity cases. Written by Ward to Sampson on September 20, 2006, the e-mail leveled the same allegation against Dan Bogden, the US Attorney for Nevada, who was also dismissed in the prosecutor purge, despite positive performance reviews. "We have two US 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. "In light of the AG's [Attorney General's] comments...to 'kick butt and take names,' what do you suggest I do?"

But the Justice Department did not explain which "good cases" Charlton had refused to prosecute, why he'd refused to prosecute them, or whether he'd 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 in June 2006. That month, Ward ordered Charlton to prosecute Five Star Video, an adult video store that registered on Ward's radar when it mailed copies of the DVD's Gag Factor 18, Filthy Things 6, Gag Factor 15, and American Bukkake 13 to customers across state lines. Charlton agreed to take the case, but as the source told me, Ward implored him to attach an additional US Attorney to it. Concerned about wasting the already limited resources at his disposal on a case of dubious value, Charlton hesitated. Despite his misgivings, he assigned the additional prosecutor--a key fact missing from the White House e-mails.

Ward's endless stream of mandates, the source revealed, were a source of frustration to many US Attorneys. "There were countless child obscenity cases crying out to be prosecuted," the source told me, "but [Brent] Ward wanted to focus on cases involving consenting adults. That's just not a good way of dedicating resources. When you have so many children being harmed, why not allocate your resources towards that?"

Ward's heedless prosecutions of legally available pornography reflected more than his ideology; they also defined his power within the Justice Department. Once Bush began his second term in the White House, Gonzales declared the prosecution of pornography portraying sex acts between consenting adults "one of the top priorities" of his department. He signed off on an FBI headquarters memo that recruited agents for an anti-porn task force. That memo stated that prosecutions would focus particularly on material depicting "bestiality, urination, defecation, as well as sadistic and masochistic behavior." These acts, according to the memo, were most likely to offend local juries.

Christian right organizations, from the Family Research Council to Concerned Women for America, lavished praise on Gonzales's anti-porn initiative. "We will watch closely, though with a growing sense of confidence in our new Attorney General, to see who is appointed to direct the effort," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

When Gonzales met with Phil Burress, a self-described former porn addict who directs the anti-pornography group, Citizens for Community Values, Burress praised Ward for an aggressive and single-minded attack on sexually explicit material over nearly three decades, which had earned him the adulation of the Christian right. "He's one of my heroes," Burress said in describing Ward to the Salt Lake Tribune . As Utah's US Attorney during the 1980s, Ward prosecuted phone sex operators, shut down Utah's last two porn theaters by nailing their owner on tax charges, and tried unsuccessfully to force nude art-class models to wear bikinis. When Gonzales tapped Ward as his top porn cop in 2006, the Christian right's confidence soared.

To support Ward's task force, Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller diverted ten FBI agents, four prosecutors and a postal inspector. Ward soon secured his biggest score, the successful prosecution of the Girls Gone Wild series producer Joseph Francis for knowingly including footage of two young women without receiving legible documentation, on paper, of their ages. Francis's company, Mantra Films, Inc., was slapped with a $500,000 fine--a drop in the bucket for an operation that rakes in at least $40 million a year.

Many veterans of the FBI consider Ward's efforts a burden on their ability to fulfill serious departmental priorities. "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."

Though his anti-porn crusades rankled the FBI agents and US Attorneys compelled to participate in them, Ward produced an unintended benefit for the White House when it needed to fire politically "chafing" federal prosecutors. Ward's complaint against Charlton, filed by Sampson for use at a later date, was unsheathed by Rove and Gonzales to smear a competent professional prosecutor--and a Republican--for political purposes.

The revelation of Ward's participation in the dismissals arrived as the Christian right clamored that more resources be funneled to him. "Give him some gas and he'll win the war," Burress told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I wish the Department of Justice was full of Brent Wards." The prosecutor purge may have backfired, but Burress and his allies can take heart that the Bush White House is devoted to their culture war, even at the expense of its "war on terror."

Whether or not Attorney General Gonzales survives the fallout, the purge 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.

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