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.

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske