The real story of the U.S. Attorneys scandal that has so endangered the tenure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is not that of the eight fired prosecutors. It is that of the 85 U.S. Attorneys around the country who were not let go.
There is mounting evidence that the Bush administration was pressuring U.S. attorneys to politicize their prosecutions prior to the 2006 elections, on the apparent theory that stirring up trouble for Democrats in battleground states might ease concerns about abuses by White House aides, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, former California Congressman Duke Cunningham and the various and sundry GOP solons who had been linked to no-longer-so-super lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
And it certainly looks as if some of the U.S. Attorneys who refused to bow to the pressure to mount prosecutions that might embarrass Democrats were removed from their positions because of their regard for the rule of law.
But what about the U.S. Attorneys who were not fired?
Did they agree to mount political prosecutions in order to keep their jobs? Were they reliably partisan enough to secure White House political czar Karl Rove approval?
Did they act on that partisanship in their official duties?
These are the question of the moment in a number of states, most notably Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is the ultimate battleground state in presidential politics, an almost evenly-divided jurisdiction where the Bush-Gore race of 2000 was decided by barely 5,000 votes and the Bush-Kerry race of 2004 was decided by only a little more than 10,000. Gearing up for 2008, Republicans wanted very much to replace Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, whose control of the state’s top job, it was thought, had helped Kerry secure his narrow victory in 2004.
As the 2006 gubernatorial election approached, Doyle appeared to be in solid shape. Then he was linked to a nasty pay-to-play politics scandal. Steven Biskupic, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, aggressively pursued an investigation of whether political considerations had influenced the awarding of a state travel contract to a Doyle donor.
As the election approached, Biskupic secured the conviction of state employee Georgia Thompson, who was charged with steering the contract to the donor’s firm. More prosecutions were reportedly in the offering. Republicans had a field day. They mounted an expensive television ad campaign linking Doyle to the “scandal.”
When Democrats criticized Biskupic for pressing what appeared to be a shaky case against Thompson on a schedule that paralleled that of the 2006 gubernatorial race, their arguments were dismissed as nothing more than political spin. Yes, of course, Biskupic was a Republican, with family ties to the state party and friendly relations with the Bush White House. Yes, he had investigated supposed “vote fraud” cases pushed by the state and national GOP, even though the investigations came to nothing. But few independent observers could believe that a career prosecutor would abuse his position for political purposes.