Rove, Renzi and the Dirty Trick: The Justice Department Doesn't Comment on Ongoing Investigations Except, Apparently, When It's Lying
I'm not trying to brag here, but I can tell you just about anything you'd like to know about the investigation that led to a 35-count indictment against Congressman Rick Renzi last February. I can tell you about what he did (allegedly), why he did it (probably), and how they'll eventually convict him (hopefully).
But until last week, there was one thing I just didn't understand.
How did the Arizona Republic manage to screw up its initial coverage so badly?
The answer, as it turns out, is Karl Rove.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
Last week, as part of a probe into the Bush administration's dismissal of seven U.S. Attorneys, a Senate committee released thousands of pages of new documents. Some of them involved Paul Charlton. Charlton, the then-U.S. Attorney in Phoenix, was one casualty of the administration's forced resignations in December 2006.
At the time of Charlton's "resignation," he was in the midst of investigating a fellow Republican, Congressman Renzi. And though the documents still don't make 100 percent clear what led to Charlton's dismissal, they show for the first time the Bushies' attempt to spin the media in Renzi's defense.
Let me explain. More than a month before the 2006 election, New Times broke the story at the center of the charges against Renzi — that Renzi pushed investors to buy land owned by his business partner in exchange for sponsorship of a land swap in Congress.
Our report was no bit of conjecture. We nailed down the complete paper trail. Yet the Republic endorsed the guy, with nary a mention of our findings. I never expect other media outlets to credit our work — but I don't expect them to ignore such serious allegations, either. It seemed just plain lazy to not follow up.
But within the coming weeks, the paper's passivity turned to outright misinformation. That's where Rove comes in. Go figure.
Two weeks before the election, news outlets from the Washington Post to Roll Call relayed our findings along with news that Renzi was under federal investigation. But instead of looking into the facts, the Republic's Dennis Wagner followed with a bizarre story suggesting the whole "investigation" was a Democratic dirty trick.
Here's how Wagner started his story:
The scenario is a familiar one to state and federal prosecutors during election season: As the day for casting ballots draws near, a political operative files a complaint alleging criminal misconduct by the opposing candidate. Investigators, with a responsibility to determine whether the allegations have merit, open an inquiry.
The operative then tips off journalists that the candidate is the target of a criminal inquiry.
And, finally, reporters find a law enforcement official, usually anonymous, who confirms that the candidate is under investigation.
The question: Is that what happened to U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi this week?
Rest assured, at that point, the investigation into Renzi was very, very real. According to court filings in the still-pending criminal case, Renzi's own chief of staff had been in touch with federal investigators as early as February 2006. By the time I was writing my piece in October, that staffer, Joanne Keene, was allowing the FBI to listen in on her phone calls. (In fact, when Keene returned one of my calls, those sneaky feds were listening to every word, court records show.)
And yet the Republic quoted an anonymous Justice Department staffer saying that the investigation was no more than a "preliminary inquiry." Mr. Anonymous also claimed that the feds had to contact at least two newspapers because there were "chunks of stuff in their stories that's wrong."
That staffer was flat-out lying.
The inquiry was not preliminary. We never got anything wrong — and no one ever contacted us to ask for a correction. No other papers that reported on the inquiry ran one, either, which makes me think that the anonymous official's claims of contact were complete fabrications.
I puzzled over this at the time. But it was only last week that it became clear just who was responsible for the misinformation: White House Counsel Harriet Miers and a deputy working for Bush strategist Karl Rove.
The record shows that Miers discussed the Renzi press coverage with Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty — and pushed for the Justice Department to "deviate from normal course" and downplay the investigation to save Renzi's skin.
And, the e-mails show, Miers appears to have done so at the behest of one of Karl Rove's deputies. Her e-mail explaining the conversation with McNulty was sent to one of Rove's guys under the subject line "our call."
Reading these documents, it seems pretty clear that Renzi (or his people) called one of Rove's guys. He asked them to intervene, and they did.
Now, I don't care that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who ran the Justice Department, answered to Bush. It's imperative that the department remains non-political — that its investigations are not tarnished by partisan motivations.
That didn't happen here. Even though "normal course" requires the Justice Department to give a "no comment" to any such inquiry, in this case, they quickly deviated — just in time to spin the Republic and possibly interfere with the election.
All this new information comes from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which last week finally released a trove of records, e-mails, and transcripts generated by its probe into the resignations of the attorneys.
Even with all the transcripts and documents, sadly, it's still not precisely clear why Bush decided to give Charlton the heave-ho. Reporters like me have long theorized that it was the Renzi case, while Bush's people have tried to claim that it's because he opposed their orders in a death penalty case.
The nonpartisan Office of Inspector General concluded that the Bushies may well have been telling the truth. Its report says that "Charlton persistently opposed the Department's decision to seek the death penalty in a homicide case, and he irritated Department leaders by seeking a meeting with the Attorney General to urge him to reconsider his decision.
"We are troubled that Department officials considered Charlton's actions in the death penalty case, including requesting a meeting with the Attorney General, to be inappropriate. We do not believe his actions were insubordinate or that they justified his removal."
But I can't help it. I still suspect that Charlton's aggressive pursuit of Renzi couldn't have helped but play a role. The documents make it clear that Charlton's name first appeared on a list of possible removals in mid-September — at a time when the Renzi investigation was already hot and heavy.
And the record indicates that Charlton wanted to pursue the congressman with much more intensity than the Justice Department would have preferred.
In early November, the record shows, the chief of the department's criminal division actually ordered Charlton not to do any more work on the case until after the election. At one point, Charlton complained to an assistant attorney general that the chief's oversight was becoming "far too restrictive," records show.
And we know that Bush cared about the congressional seat. Renzi won re-election that November and won it convincingly. But a month earlier, nothing seemed quite so settled in Renzi's district, which covers a wide swath of rural Arizona and tends to swing back and forth between parties. The freshman congressman had been elected mainly by outspending his rivals in 2004, but in 2006, he faced a wealthy lawyer, Democrat Ellen Simon, who put plenty of her own money into play.
Bush must have been worried. The president actually made a whirlwind 12-hour stop in Phoenix in early October 2006. He raised $500,000 for his fellow Republican with a snap of his fingers.
It was just a week later that my story about the land swap broke. Then, one week after that, Charlton took his request for a wiretap to the powers that be in Washington.
"I'm disappointed in the way Gonzales' Department of Justice saw politics as more important than doing what was right," Charlton told me last week. "I believe the current Department of Justice has a different perspective." And that's coming from a Republican.
Indeed, the facts developed through the course of Senate hearings on the U.S. Attorney resignations suggest that Gonzales' department wasn't just partisan — it was blatantly political.
During the Clinton years, according to Senate testimony, there were only three people at the Justice Department who were authorized "points of contact" with the White House. During the Bush years, there were 447.
You think all of those 447 people were thrilled that Paul Charlton had the chutzpah to take on a fellow Republican who'd managed to win a swing district?
But there is one irony to this sad story, and it's that the reason that Renzi was in electoral trouble in the first place was, in fact, thanks to someone at the Justice Department.
The record shows that the FBI had begun investigating Renzi in 2005. The investigation had been active for more than a year, without a single leak, by the time I was making phone calls that October.
Within a week of my scoop, Charlton swung into action, submitting a request to the criminal division of the Justice Department to wiretap the congressman. The department didn't get around to authorizing the wiretap until a full week had passed — and Charlton sent a second request for "expedited consideration," according to court records.
But even if Justice staffers couldn't get off their seats long enough to take action, they knew how to do one thing: gossip.
Within just 24 hours of Charlton's request, a reporter at the Associated Press in Washington called the Justice Department spokesman saying that the AP was planning to publish a story saying the department was investigating Renzi — and was using a wiretap. The scoop actually made it into both the New York Times and the Washington Post before Charlton even got his wiretap!
And don't think for a minute that didn't affect what Renzi was saying on his phone from that point on. The record shows that federal prosecutors had to stop listening to at least 50 phone calls because Renzi was actually consulting with his attorneys. (Yes, attorney/client privilege applies even in a wiretap situation.) In at least one case, the record shows, Renzi even joked about the feds listening in.
It's now clear that Gonzales' Justice Department screwed Charlton's investigation. It screwed the people of Arizona by giving us misinformation via the state's largest daily newspaper just before the election. And, finally, it screwed Paul Charlton, by forcing his resignation.
Kind of a horrible little hat trick, don't you think?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.