Poor Paul Charlton.
There's new news in the ongoing probe of the Bush adminstration's meddling with U.S. Attorneys, including the Phoenix-based Charlton, who was ultimately forced to resign by the very administration that appointed him. As the Republic's Dennis Wagner reported today, a subordinate of Karl Rove ordered the Justice Department to violate its own policies -- telling DOJ staffers to get on the phone in October 2006 and spread false information about Charlton's ongoing investigation into Republican Congressman Rick Renzi.
Suffice to say, the investigation was very, very real (Renzi would eventually be indicted on 44 counts) yet an anonymous Justice employee told the Republic at the time that it was but a "preliminary inquiry" and not to "chop this guy's head off."
The anonymous liar also told the Republic back in '06 that "initial media reports contained significant inaccuracies" and that two newspapers had been contacted because there were "chunks of stuff in their stories that's wrong."
Now, we at New Times remember those comments all too well -- because they appeared to be impugning our work!
Here's what happened. On October 11, New Times first reported the story of how Renzi had used his congressional office to push investors seeking his help with a land swap to buy acreage owned by his business partner.
Unbeknownst to us -- okay, to me, since I was the reporter who spent several weeks piecing together the complicated transactions -- the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix, led by Charlton, had already begun an investigation into Renzi. We know now according to court records that Renzi's own chief of staff had turned on him and was cooperating with the feds -- and the record suggests that when New Times spoke with her in an attempt to get a comment from Renzi, the feds were listening to every word.
Within a week of our scoop, Charlton swung into action. He submitted a request to the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice, his bosses, to get permission to wiretap the congressman.
But then something bizarre happened. Within 24 hours of Charlton's inquiry, court records show, the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. contacted the Justice Department to say that they were going to report that Renzi was being investigated for bribery -- and that prosecutors had asked for a wiretap.
It should be clear to anyone who's ever been a reporter that the leak did not come from Charlton's office. Keep in mind, the probe had been loping along for at least eight months with nary a leak, but the minute Charlton had to kick it up to Washington, the AP knew all about it.
When the Associated Press story broke, it relied heavily on New Times' reporting, detailing the land swaps, Renzi's relationship with developer James Sandlin, and all the other bits that today prove the heart of the case against the former congressman. Yet when the Republic, two weeks late to a very big story, finally reported that Renzi was being investigated, it was with those anonymous comments claiming that the other media had screwed up ... and with a tone of weariness.
Just check out the lede:
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?
It was B.S. all the way through. For one thing, it made it look like Renzi's opponent, Ellen Simon, kickstarted the investigation -- when court records seem to indicate it was actually one of the lobbyists being strongarmed on the land deal who brought in the feds. For another, there was that anonymous allegation that the AP, and in effect New Times, had "chunks of stuff in [our] stories that's wrong."
In fact, we remember running into a well-read friend soon after the Republic smear, who asked us if the Justice Department had called us and asked for a correction. The answer, of course, is No! They didn't! Because there was nothing wrong!
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Of course, we know thanks to today's story that the misinformation was the work of some minion of Karl Rove, trying to make sure Renzi got reelected.
So, to summarize, it appears almost certain that D.C. bureaucrats screwed up Paul Charlton's investigation into Congressman Renzi by immediately leaking his request for a wiretap to the media. Then, other D.C. bureaucrats confused things even further by spinning the Republic, lying about our work, and giving misleading information about a very real investigation just to help Renzi save face.
It's enough to make us really distrust Washington. And we can't even imagine how poor Paul Charlton feels. After all, we only looked like idiots to the sort of people who rely on the Republic for news; for reasons that are still unclear but possibly related, this well-respected prosecutor actually got the heave-ho from Rove/Bush soon after all the pre-election hijinks.
How much do you want to bet the rat who leaked Charlton's request for a wiretap still has his job? And how about that loser who got to lie to the Republic?