by ARI BERMAN
[from the April 16, 2007 issue]
Before Attorneygate, there was Guam.
Back in the spring of 2002, when Guam's then-Governor, Carl Gutierrez, found himself in the cross-hairs of a federal corruption probe, he hired disgraced über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to force out the US territory's longtime acting US Attorney, Frederick Black. "I don't care if they appoint bozo the clown, we need to get rid of Fred Black," Abramoff wrote to colleagues in March 2002.
Eventually Black, a well-regarded prosecutor who'd held the position since 1991, began investigating Abramoff for a $324,000 contract the lobbyist had received from Guam's highest court--and asked for Washington's assistance. The Justice Department forwarded the information to then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. Instead of receiving help, Black was pushed out of his job [see "Can Justice Be Trusted?" February 20, 2006].
The same fate would later befall eight other US Attorneys, dislodged from their posts this past December. But it's not only the pattern that's similar. Many of the Administration officials playing starring roles in Attorneygate--including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson--also had a hand in the dismissal of the US Attorney in Guam.
Black's allegations of his politically motivated ouster were the subject of a report by the DOJ's Inspector General last June, which found no evidence of foul play. But the IG report, which leaned heavily on Administration testimony, including that of the now-discredited Sampson, failed to include crucial information backing up Black's claims. For example, while the report stated that the White House had decided to replace Black with Assistant US Attorney Leonard Rapadas in March 2002, other evidence suggests that it was only after Black began his aggressive pursuit of Abramoff later that year that a decision was made to install Rapadas--the nephew, as it happened, of a major figure in the Gutierrez investigation. David Sablan, who headed the Guam Republican Party at the time, says he received a call in September 2002 from a DOJ lawyer named Juan Carlos Benitez, who told him that "Rapadas was not selected for the US Attorney position out here and that I was to come up with another person or persons for the position." Benitez, who subsequently went to work at the lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates, where Abramoff landed briefly in 2004, says he does not recall the conversation, and has since been publicly circulating letters of support for Gonzales.
On November 7 Black informed the DOJ of his preliminary investigation of Abramoff. Days later, Guam's new Republican Governor, Felix Camacho, wrote a letter to the White House asking to keep Black on. Yet on November 19, a day after Black subpoenaed the Abramoff contract, the Administration announced that it was nominating Rapadas. Black was subsequently barred from handling any public corruption cases.
Did Black's Abramoff probe resurrect and fast-track Rapadas's nomination and seal his departure? That central matter in the IG inquiry remains unsettled today. "I just wonder whether they wanted to prevent Fred Black from staying on," says Sablan.
Black's story parallels that of dismissed US Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego, who successfully prosecuted Congressman Duke Cunningham on bribery charges. Kyle Sampson, who called for Lam's firing a day after she pursued search warrants for a top GOP military contractor and CIA official, also oversaw the ouster of Black, according to the IG's report.
The apparent purging of Black at Abramoff's behest demonstrates the clout the lobbyist wielded at both the DOJ and the White House. Then-White House political director Ken Mehlman, the recent chairman of the Republican National Committee, told White House official Leonard Rodriguez, a protégé of Karl Rove, to "reach out to make Jack aware" of all Guam-related information, including candidates for US Attorney, according to the IG report.
In May 2002 Abramoff used his influence to kill a risk-assessment report of Guam and the neighboring Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), requested by Black, that called for federalizing immigration laws on the islands, a move that might have jeopardized the influx of cheap labor to CNMI and Abramoff's $1.6 million lobbying contract with its local government. Abramoff learned of the report from John Ashcroft's then-chief of staff, David Ayres, whom he hosted at a Washington Redskins game. "We'll hope that higher ups will take some time to squash this," Abramoff wrote. Sure enough, the report never came out, and the DOJ demoted its author, regional security specialist Robert Meissner.
At the time, Meissner's boss was then-US Attorney for Eastern Virginia, Paul McNulty, who has since risen to become Deputy Attorney General and a key player in Gonzales's embattled DOJ. A longtime Republican operative who served as spokesman for House Republicans during Bill Clinton's impeachment--and never tried a case before becoming US Attorney--McNulty now stands accused of misleading Congress about the reasons for the eight US Attorneys' dismissals.
Meissner discussed his risk-assessment report with McNulty on multiple occasions and told several colleagues he believed McNulty helped suppress the report and curtail his career. "Bob told me he thought McNulty had everything to do with it," says one colleague of Meissner's in the Bush Administration with knowledge on Guam matters. Says another colleague, "McNulty was kind of the fireman at Justice. He was the guy trying to run around and put a lid on things that could become political, especially with Abramoff."
McNulty may have also intervened in the IG's investigation of Black's removal. According to sources close to the investigation, when Black contradicted Administration testimony, he was told by IG investigators, "That's not the scope we were given by DAG"--at the time, McNulty. McNulty's office declined to comment, and the IG's counsel, Cynthia Schnedar, says, "The conclusion we reached was a fair and appropriate one."
Sampson and McNulty were close to the heart of the Guam affair, but it's unlikely they were operating as rogue agents. Indeed, contained in the IG report is a startling admission. Sampson told the IG that after receiving permission from the DAG, AG and White House counsel to replace a US Attorney, "he would then discuss the US Attorney candidate recommendations with the President." After the Attorneygate scandal broke, Bush contradicted this, claiming that he "never brought up a specific case nor gave [Gonzales] specific instructions."
Given these damning details, leading members of Congress, such as Representatives George Miller and Nick Rahall, say the probe into the fired US Attorneys must be widened to include the circumstances surrounding the demotions of Black and Meissner. And they doubt the ability of the DOJ to investigate itself. "It is necessary now to re-examine this case," they wrote in a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committee chairs on March 13, "as it may represent the beginning of a pattern of behavior by...officials in the Bush Administration to politicize the work of US Attorneys and to quash their independence."