Critics Question Status of Abramoff Probe 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.
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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:

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.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: 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.

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

JACK KEENEY: 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.

ANDREW LOURIE: That is what it is.

TOTENBERG: But Deputy Assistant Attorney General Keeney is confident.

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

TOTENBERG: 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.

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

TOTENBERG: 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.

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: 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.

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.

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

CHIP BURRUS: 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: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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