The burgeoning congressional focus on the supposedly "missing" emails of White House political czar Karl Rove and almost two dozen other presidential aides who were doing political work on the taxpayers' dime is not limited to questions about the eight U.S. Attorneys who were fired after at least some of them reportedly failed to politicize their prosecutions.
A new letter issued by key members of the House Judiciary Committee specifically expresses concerns that push the inquiry beyond the eight to look at the potential that some of the 85 U.S. Attorneys who were not fired may have been kept on because they used their powers in a manner that pleased Rove and his minions.
While working in the White House, Rove and at least 21 other aides used computer accounts set up by the Republican National Committee to allow them to do political work from their federal offices.
House Judiciary Committee chair Chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan, and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, D-California, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee that is leading the investigation into wrongdoing by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others linked to the U.S. Attorneys scandal, have asked Republican National Committee Chairman Robert Duncan for e-mails and other documents. Of course, following what has become standard operating procedure for the White House and its allies at the U.S. Attorneys scandal has developed, the RNC claims that key emails have gone missing.
Digital digressions aside, the letter from Conyers and Sanchez telegraphs an important evolution of the inquiry.
In a letter dispatched this week to Duncan, Conyers and Sanchez have requested copies of emails sent and received on RNC accounts that discuss the performance of any U.S. attorney, including questions of whether to retain, dismiss or seek resignations.
The letter goes into detail about the Wisconsin case in which a state employee was prosecuted by a Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney on a timeline that coincided with a tight gubernatorial race between incumbent Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and Congressman Mark Green, a Republican with close ties to the Bush White House. The employee, who was charged with steering a contract to a Doyle campaign donor was convicted and jailed. Republicans made the case a prime feature of their fall campaign against Doyle.
This month, a federal appeals court panel, on which the majority of judges were Republican appointees, threw the conviction out and ordered the jailed woman freed from federal prison. One of the federal judges referred to the evidence against the state employee as "beyond thin" and the panel repeatedly questioned how and why the U.S. Attorney, Steven Biskupic, brought the case.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett has acknowledged that President Bush discussed concerns about politically-sensitive federal prosecutions in Wisconsin with Gonzales in October of 2006, as the gubernatorial election approached. Those conversations reportedly involved so-called "voter fraud" cases that were being promoted by state and federal Republicans, but Bartlett has not said whether the conversation was limited to such matters.
Conyers and Sanchez want to know what the president's political chief, Rove, and other Republican operatives working within the White House were saying in emails about federal prosecutions in Wisconsin, a key battleground state that has long been a subject of Rove's personal scrutiny.
Specifically, Conyers and Sanchez wrote to RNC chair Duncan, "We have also been advised that there may be RNC e-mail traffic relating to Republican Party concerns about the United States Attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, prior to his announcing, on the eve of the hotly contested 2006 gubernatorial election, that he was indicting an official in the incumbent Democratic governor's administration. This prosecution was a topic of energetic discussion by Republicans in Wisconsin in the days leading up to the election, but was apparently so lacking in merit that the panel of judges on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewing the case, after a thirty-minute oral argument, immediately ordered, from the bench, that the official be released from prison and indicated it was reversing the conviction because it was unsupported by sufficient evidence."
No one was particularly surprised that the RNC's initial response to various congressional requests was to suggest that at least some of the emails in question had gone missing. But, just as Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy isn't buying the claim by White House aides that they have lost emails the Senate committee has sought, House committee chairs are not backing off.
The duel over access to the emails -- which computer experts generally agree can be found -- will play out in coming days.
But don't miss the key development here.
The Conyers-Sanchez letter represents another important move by the House and Senate judiciary committees to expand the U.S. Attorneys inquiry beyond a precise focus on the fired prosecutors.
Conyers and Sanchez, along with their Senate colleagues, are beginning to ask vital questions about whether any of the 85 U.S. Attorneys who were not fired used their offices to mount political prosecutions during an election season that was of critical concern to the Bush White House.
Emails from Rove and other White House operatives, which should be in the RNC's possession, may well hold the answers to those questions. However, since George Bush does not use email, Rove's testimony about what he and others said to the president regarding prosecutions in Wisconsin and elsewhere, becomes all the more essential.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"