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Critics Question Status of Abramoff Probe
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Critics Question Status of Abramoff Probe

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Critics Question Status of Abramoff Probe

Critics Question Status of Abramoff Probe
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Amid turmoil over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, Bush administration critics are wondering whether the Justice Department is paying enough attention to the ongoing Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay. Let's try to keep our scandal straight. There's the scandal over the U.S. Justice Department firing eight U.S. attorneys, and then there's the scandal over the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. In that influence-selling scandal, the Justice Department has amassed what it calls an impressive record, nine guilty pleas and one conviction after trial.

But some people you'll hear, and this report are asking what, if anything, is next. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Democrats are frankly suspicious. Here, for example, is California Senator Dianne Feinstein talking about public corruption cases and the firing of U.S. attorneys.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): When you have five out of seven involved in cases involving political corruption, and in the middle of those cases, they are moved out - this is staggering.

TOTENBERG: Could government organizations see a potential link to the Abramoff investigation. Democracy 21 president, Fred Wertheimer, has been prodding the government about Abramoff for years.

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (President, Democracy 21): This case was about illegally buying influence with members of Congress. So far, only one member of Congress has been charged and convicted. We need to ultimately see what the Public Integrity Section does with other members of Congress.

TOTENBERG: The Public Integrity Section referred to by Wertheimer is the section in the Justice Department with general responsibility for prosecuting public corruption cases. Not all allegations of criminal wrongdoing by office holders are under the section's aegis. U.S. attorneys prosecute some of these cases, as did the fired U.S. attorney in California, Carol Lam, who won a bribery conviction against GOP Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

But Public Integrity handles a lot of the cases and has the primary responsibility for the Abramoff case. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty 15 months ago and agreed to cooperate with investigators, so did one of his partners, who'd previously worked for Congressman Bob Ney. Ney later pleaded guilty too. Two other Abramoff partners have pleaded guilty. They had previously worked for then House GOP leader, Tom DeLay. And most recently, the former deputy interior secretary pleaded guilty. And there have been other convictions as well.

But government watchdog groups are openly concerned that only one member of Congress has been charged in such a wide-reaching scandal. Heaping fuel on the fire of suspicion are some former lawyers from the Public Integrity Section who claim that Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher and her Bush administration predecessor have micromanaged investigations and that the section, which for years had a towering reputation, has, quote, "hemorrhaged experienced talent." What's more, defense lawyers representing cooperating witnesses report that their calls have been unreturned for weeks, prompting concerns that the investigation is, at best, undermanned.

A hard-eyed look at the Public Integrity Section, though, produces little evidence to support the darkest suspicions voiced by Bush administration critics. Unlike most of other sections of the department, there have not been cuts in the number of lawyers in the section since 2000. And the career lawyer who oversees the section, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jack Keeney, who served in the department for a whopping 56 years, says he has the resources he needs for the Abramoff investigation.

So why are cooperating witnesses waiting for long periods before being brought in to talk? Keeney replies with a twinkle.

Mr. JACK KEENEY (Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice): We have a lot of cooperating witnesses. That's all I can say.

TOTENBERG: Some former Public Integrity lawyers have privately voiced worry about the statute of limitations running out on the Abramoff investigation. Former section chief, Andrew Lourie, notes that Abramoff's illegal activities began long before he pleaded guilty, less than a year and a half ago, and that the statute of limitations is five years from the date of a crime.

Mr. ANDREW LOURIE (Former Chief, Public Integrity Section, U.S. Department of Justice): That is what it is.

TOTENBERG: But Deputy Assistant Attorney General Keeney is confident.

Mr. KEENEY: We won't let the statute run on any case that we can make. We will finish, though, on time.

TOTENBERG: Just what that means for former House Majority Leader DeLay or the several other current and former members of Congress whose names have been prominently mentioned in connection with the case, remains to be seen.

There has been considerable turnover in the Public Integrity Section in the last few years. In the last year alone, there have been five separate section chiefs. But that seems to have been a product of personal circumstance as much as anything else. Andrew Lourie, for example, a 16-year Justice Department veteran, left to go back to Florida where his home is, and where he now heads the U.S. attorney's branch office in West Palm Beach. All of the people to head the section in the last year, he says, had worked on Abramoff.

Mr. LOURIE: I really think it was a seamless, sort of, transition.

TOTENBERG: Others in the division say it wasn't seamless, that there were hiccups, and they privately wonder why it took more than a year to hire a permanent section chief. Said one prosecutor, did Alice Fisher think she was hiring a pope? Fisher is the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division.

Lourie and Keeney both say that Fisher, who's a Bush administration political appointee, has never intervened in a politically sensitive case in an unprofessional manner. Jack Keeney.

Mr. KEENEY: Abramoff has been a sensational - the investigation's been sensational, and in my judgment it is not over. I don't know what the criticism is.

TOTENBERG: Some senior career lawyers in the department say, if there is a problem at all, it's not over at political interference but that Assistant Attorney General Fisher has no personal experience as a prosecutor, that she literally has never tried a case as a prosecutor, and that that inexperience makes her doubly cautious and slower than the experienced prosecutors who've run the Criminal Division in the past.

Veteran Jack Keeney says Fisher is incredibly smart and diligent, but he concedes that she does personally study everything about politically sensitive cases, perhaps more than her predecessors.

Mr. KEENEY: She gets into the weeds pretty much with respect to sensitive cases.

TOTENBERG: That is as it should be, says former section chief, Lourie.

Mr. LOURIE: These are some of the most important public corruption cases handled by any United States prosecutor in the history of the United States.

TOTENBERG: But Public Integrity has always been seen inside the Justice Department as somewhat risk-averse. As one high-ranking Clinton administration official put it, they never want to indict unless a case is absolutely a slam dunk. And when you add a double dose of caution from an inexperienced assistant attorney general, say some prosecutors, you have a section that is limp-wristed when it comes to going after public corruption.

Not so, says Chip Burrus, the FBI's assistant director for Criminal Investigations, who works closely with Fisher and calls her a dynamic leader.

Mr. CHIP BURRUS (Assistant Director, Criminal Investigations, FBI): These are big cases with big issues and complicated legal theories. If we bring an honest services type of a case, you know, she's the one that's responsible for that. And if we get a series of bad rulings that, because of some facts that we've been a little risky on, that has an impact - not only for Abramoff, but for every other corruption case that we have around the country.

TOTENBERG: And so far, at least, all of the Abramoff cases the department has brought has held firm. The question now is whether the Abramoff investigation will turn out to burn mainly lobbyists and not the people that they lobby.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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