Senate Panel Gives Leahy Subpoena Power

The Senate Judiciary Committee gives chairman Patrick Leahy the authority to subpoena top White House officials, including political adviser Karl Rove. Leahy says the White House's offer to let them testify without an oath or transcript is unacceptable.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Department of Justice is facing more accusations that it puts politics above the law. The investigation of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys has encouraged critics of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to come forward. They claim political considerations are trumping legal decisions at the Department of Justice.

NORRIS: Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to give Chairman Patrick Leahy the authority to subpoena some top White House officials, including political adviser Karl Rove. Leahy says the offer from the White House to let them testify without an oath or transcript is unacceptable.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports now, on the growing accusations about politics and policy at the Department of Justice.

ARI SHAPIRO: Just before Bud Cummins was confirmed to be the U.S. attorney for Arkansas, Attorney General John Ashcroft summoned him to Washington. They had a private meeting where they talked about violent crime and the threat of terrorism.

Mr. BUD CUMMINS (U.S. Attorney, Arkansas): But probably half that talk was about his analysis of the history - or at least the modern history of the Department of Justice - and that he had determined that every time the department had allowed politics into the inner workings of the Department of Justice, that they paid a price in credibility.

SHAPIRO: Both Cummins and Ashcroft had a background of Republican Party politics, but Ashcroft told Cummins…

Mr. CUMMINS: We had to leave the politics at the door to do this particular job.

SHAPIRO: Cummins does not want to go into detail about exactly what changed.

Mr. CUMMINS: I will just go so far as to say I'm not sure that we really, that theme was reinforced after the change in administration up there.

SHAPIRO: He's referring to the arrival of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after the 2004 elections. Cummins is one of the eight dismissed U.S. attorneys at the center of the current scandal. Some have testified that they believe they were fired for refusing to bring politically motivated indictments. The Justice Department has denied that.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill today, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said the U.S. attorney's anecdotes have parallels elsewhere in the Department of Justice.

Mr. WADE HENDERSON (Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights): The recent allegations that eight U.S. attorneys were fired to further a political agenda was surprising to many. To those of us who have been watching the civil rights division over the past several years, it was not.

Over the last six years, we have seen politics trump substance and alter the prosecution of our nation's civil rights laws in many parts of the division.

SHAPIRO: Former employees from the civil rights division have complained for years now, that politically appointed leaders have ignored and reversed the recommendations of career attorneys who've been at the division for decades.

One lawyer who spent more than 35 years at the department said today that he was asked to change the performance evaluations of career attorneys who had disagreed with political appointees.

Wan Kim leads the civil rights division. He told the House Committee that he respects the opinions of career prosecutors, but at the end of the day, he has to account for the division's actions.

Mr. WAN KIM (Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights): And if I come to this committee and answer a question as to why I did something or why I didn't do something, and I answer that question by saying I took a show of hands and did what the show of hands recommended? That would not be a responsible position. And at the end of the day, accountability has to rest with the person who reports to Congress.

SHAPIRO: Accusations that politics have defined policy at the Justice Department stretched beyond the U.S. attorneys scandal and the civil rights division. Sharon Eubanks spent 22 years at the Justice Department. When she left in 2005, she was the lead prosecutor in the government's case against the tobacco companies.

In the final days of the trial, the government asked the judge to fine the industry only $10 billion, down from their original recommendation of $130 billion. Eubanks says that was a result of political interference.

Ms. SHARON EUBANKS (U.S. Attorney): At first, the administration officials attempted to get the litigation team, me and my staff, to agree to lower the amount - but there was no basis for doing that. And we refused. And finally after a number of very heated discussions, I said you write it and I'll say it.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department counters that an internal investigation found Eubanks' claims to be groundless. Eubanks says the investigation was not independent.

The administration's supporters say many of these disputes are driven by a legitimate difference in law enforcement priorities. Roger Clegg runs the anti-affirmative action group Center for Equal Opportunity.

Mr. ROBER CLEGG (Center for Equal Opportunity): Times change. Congress passes new laws. New problems arise. And there are legitimate differences in the way that different government lawyers interpret the law.

SHAPIRO: In other words, as one Republican member of Congress told the Democratic committee chairman, elections have consequences.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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