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Gonzalez, Nifong, and Thompson

A couple of weeks back, I discussed the imbroglio regarding the eight US District attorneys fired by the Justice Department last year.  The conflicting explanations for the firings offered by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez have led even Republican stalwarts like Newt Gingrich to suggest it should be bedtime for Gonzo.  Gonzalez has insisted that he's not resigning, although he's sounding more and more, in Hunter Thompson's memorable phrase, like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop. 

The rationale initially offered by the DOJ, that the firings were performance-related, took another hit recently.  David Iglesias, the USDA for New Mexico, was allegedly canned because of his absence from the office; he was gone for about 45 days a year, due to his obligations as a member of the Navy Reserve.  As you might guess, there's a law that prohibits job discrimination against members of the military, and now the Office of Special Counsel is investigating to determine whether Iglesias' firing violated that law.  What's worse, it turns out that William Mercer, the USDA for Montana, hasn't been there in two years because he's serving as an aide to Gonzalez in Washington, DC; the chief judge for the US District Court in Montana has written the Justice Department asking for Mercer to be replaced, because "a lack of leadership" in the Montana office and created "untoward difficulties for the court" and for career prosecutors.

Of course, Gonzalez isn't the only lawyer in law enforcement who's feeling the heat.  On Wednesday, the North Carolina attorney general announced he'd completed his investigation into the racially-charged rape allegations made against members of the Duke Lacrosse team last year.  Not only did he drop the charges, he declared that Durham District Attorney Harold Nifong, who'd pursued the case so relentlessly, was a "rogue" prosecutor, and that the defendants were innocent and the "victims of a tragic rush to accuse."  He even went so far as to suggest that a criminal investigation of Nifong might be appropriate. 

And the three Duke students weren't the only ones to exult in exoneration during the past week.  Last Thursday, the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the fraud conviction of Georgia Thompson, a Wisconsin government worker, finding that the evidence was insufficient to convict.  I won't bore you with the details of the case, which you can find here, but the best indication of the flimsiness of the government's case was that the three judges voted to order Thompson released within a couple hours after hearing oral argument on the case, without waiting to write an opinion.

While these three stories might seem unrelated, they're not.  The defense offered by the administration apologists in the USDA firings is that the district attorneys are political appointees who serve at the president's pleasure, and can be fired for any reason or no reason.  That's true to an extent, but it ignores the potential for abuse in mixing politics and justice.  Iglesias believes he was fired because he refused to indict local Democrats on corruption charges just prior to the election last year; he was contacted by a Republican Senator and a Republican Congresswoman to find out if he was going to be pursuing those charges, and they expressed regret that he wasn't.  Thompson's conviction played a major role last year in Wisconsin Democratic Jim Doyle's campaign for re-election, with Republicans running major ads attempting to demonstrate that the conviction proved Doyle to be corrupt.  There's suspicion that Nifong's prosecution of the Duke students was motivated by a desire to enhance his prospects in an upcoming primary election, in which he faced a black opponent.

There are a lot of crappy things that can happen to you in life, and I've always believed that being charged with a serious crime is in the top five.  Those who've never had any experience in the criminal justice system have absolutely no idea of the awesome power that a United States District Attorney, or even a County Prosecutor, has at his disposal, and can bring to bear against a solitary individual.  Justice finally caught up to Georgia Thompson, but not before she'd spent $250,000 in her defense, and four months in prison.  One can only imagine what justice cost the Duke students and their families. 

One of the more interesting emails in the treasure trove of Justice memos about the reasons for the firing of the USDA's is one noting a desire to replace them with "loyal Bushies."  I don't know whether the USDA who prosecuted Georgia Thompson fell into that category, but the possibility that that happened, and the consequences to Georgia Thompson, should strike a cautionary note to those who believe that the selection of a USDA should not involve anything other than political considerations.

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