Our U.S. attorney should resign
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Thirteen of the eighteen years I've spent practicing law have been as a criminal defense attorney and only five as a prosecutor. Nonetheless, I am proud of my time as a federal prosecutor and of the people I worked with. I sit on the board and Legal Committee of the Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union and in that capacity I lecture to community groups about federal criminal investigations. Often I find myself defending the fairness and integrity of my former colleagues, because I never doubted that the U.S. attorney's office was above partisan politics -- until now.
Thomas J. Farrell, a Point Breeze resident and Pittsburgh lawyer, served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2000 during the Clinton administration (email@example.com).
Recent revelations about White House involvement in the firing of seven U.S. attorneys sickened me, as if I were the parent who had defended a teacher against vicious rumors only to hear him admit that he molested children.
The Bush administration's efforts to use an obscure provision of the Patriot Act to replace U.S. attorneys it deemed too vigorous in investigating Republican officials, too slow in indicting Democratic public officials or too reluctant to investigate "voter fraud" -- a euphemism for attempting to suppress the minority vote -- caused me to re-think my opinion of the fairness of Western Pennsylvania's U.S. attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan. I began to wonder why all of the recent public-corruption investigations in our region have been of Democrats.
The Bush administration has politicized the Department of Justice, just as it has every federal agency. The solicitor general used to be known as "the 10th justice" for his presumed fairness and independence in presenting arguments to the Supreme Court; the current solicitor general is just a mouthpiece for the administration's far-right ideology. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his subordinates have disgraced their offices with the positions they've taken to justify torture and the administration's evasion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's restrictions, loose as they are, on wiretaps.
Ms. Buchanan has been a devotee of the administration's policies. She has aided the effort to inflate the law-enforcement successes in the war on terror by misclassifying routine immigration and false-document cases as "anti-terrorism cases." For a time, the Western Pennsylvania District topped the nation in the number of "anti-terrorism" prosecutions, largely because dozens of Iraqi immigrant truck-drivers were prosecuted for paying off a motor-vehicles official to obtain commercial-drivers licenses. All of them did it to get work; none had terroristic intentions; all received sentences of probation.
Ms. Buchanan has cast herself as a champion of the Patriot Act by repeating in articles and public debates some of the administration's falsehoods. In an article in this newspaper, she asserted that until enactment of the Patriot Act, federal prosecutors could not obtain emergency wiretaps to prevent imminent terrorist attacks; to the contrary, a 1995 Justice Department bulletin instructed prosecutors like me and Ms. Buchanan how the pre-Patriot law could be used to do just that. She also argued that federal authorities could not share grand jury information about imminent threats with state police, a blatant misrepresentation of the federal rules. By advocating the administration's demand for increased law-enforcement power, she sacrificed her own credibility when the administration abused those powers, as was most recently evident in the inspector general's report on the FBI's misuse of national security letters.
Ms. Buchanan has spent considerable official time and taxpayer money to advance the administration's agenda and her own ambitions. She has employed a full-time press agent -- a novelty to her office -- and misused senior staff to ghost-write her speeches and articles. While she is prosecuting Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Democrat and devoted public official, for allegedly abusing his office for private gain, she is employing taxpayer dollars to further her own career. She has reinforced this impression by making court appearances in high-profile cases in which she has had no personal involvement. On Sunday, the Post-Gazette reported on a study that found that the Bush Justice Department has investigated seven times more Democratic politicians than Republicans. Certainly, in Western Pennsylvania, the investigation and prosecution of the Democratic sheriff's office was worthy and useful. And while Ms. Buchanan did show proper judgment in declining to prosecute ex-Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, she tainted her decision with comments suggesting that she had done so in part to advance a political agenda.
I've tried to defend Ms. Buchanan's choice of targets, but no more. Democrats do occupy most public offices in Allegheny County, but are the Republican officials in the 24 other counties of the Western Pennsylvania District all squeaky clean? Why apparently no investigation into Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy's use of government office staff to support his campaign -- which is not unlike what happened in the Allegheny County sheriff's office? Ms. Buchanan also left to local authorities the prosecution of Republican state Rep. Jeff Habay after similar accusations arose.
And what of ex-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Ms. Buchanan's political sponsor? He misrepresented his family's residency in order to obtain state-funded cyber schooling for his children. Yet there appears to have been no investigation. I fear the worst.
Ms. Buchanan has been unique among her predecessors in the extent to which she has looked to Washington for direction and political advancement. I no longer have faith that she can remain independent of the administration's partisanship. Her continued leadership casts a cloud over the public corruption investigations and prosecutions now pending in her office.
Those of us who have devoted our careers to the federal legal system revere it. Its courts are our temples. Those who serve there must be beyond reproach, which is true of the senior staff in Ms. Buchanan's office. If, as has been proposed, Congress repeals the Patriot Act provisions that empowered the attorney general to appoint interim U.S. attorneys and returns that power to the judges in each federal district, our bench would be sure to select one of these esteemed public servants as U.S. attorney were Ms. Buchanan to leave office. This is a necessary step to restore trust among the faithful.
In my old neighborhood we had a saying, "If you sleep with dogs, you get fleas." Ms. Buchanan has snuggled too close for too long with the corrupt Bush-Gonzales pack. She should resign, and we should entrust the judges of the Western District of Pennsylvania to anoint a successor.
First Published March 20, 2007 12:00 am