Despite A Bumpy Tenure, Holder Had A Broad Impact Between clashes with Congress on Operation Fast and Furious and U.S.-based trials for Sept. 11 suspects, the attorney general advanced civil rights priorities and reached several landmark settlements.
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Despite A Bumpy Tenure, Holder Had A Broad Impact

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Despite A Bumpy Tenure, Holder Had A Broad Impact

Despite A Bumpy Tenure, Holder Had A Broad Impact

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We report this morning on the legacy of Eric Holder, who's stepping down as attorney general. He spent five-and-a-half years involved in political controversy. The first black attorney general tried to ease racial disparities in the criminal justice system. He pushed to legalize same-sex marriage. He was also harried by Congress, where Republicans voted to hold him in contempt. NPR's Carrie Johnson broke the story of Holder's resignation here on MORNING EDITION yesterday. Now she reports on Holder's tenure, which has touched much of our recent history.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Eric Holder's arrival in early February 2009 had all the hallmarks of a homecoming. Justice Department employees, fatigued by scandals and President Bush's second term, greeted Holder with sustained applause. The Senate was receptive, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE ANNOUNCER: The Senate voted 75 to 21 Monday to confirm his nomination. Mr. Holder is the first African-American attorney general in U.S. history.

JOHNSON: But soon after he took the helm, Eric Holder ran into headwinds, at times generated by his own words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Though this nation has probably thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards.

JOHNSON: Cable TV networks pounced on the nation of cowards phrase. Republicans in Congress hooted and the White House cringed. It would be years before the White House wanted Holder to talk openly about race again. More on that a little later, but first the cases - the big criminal prosecutions like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

HOLDER: BP has agreed to plead guilty to all 14 criminal charges, including responsibility for the deaths of 11 people and the events that led to an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.

JOHNSON: Prosecutions against individual executives at the oil giant BP, including two men who were on a rig when it exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, are still moving through the courts. But the big one that got away was the 2008 Wall Street crisis. Holder's Justice Department never engineered a reckoning for individuals responsible for the financial collapse. That's still a source of anger for many, like former congressional aide Jeff Connaughton.

JEFF CONNAUGHTON: Did the Department ever organize a timely, purposeful, concerted investigation of Wall Street executives? And the answer is no.

JOHNSON: Charles Ferguson, the director of an Oscar-winning documentary on the mortgage meltdown, used his turn at the award ceremony one year to make this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

CHARLES FERGUSON: I must start by pointing out that three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail. And that's wrong.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHNSON: Eventually, Holder started paying more attention, asking more questions and demanding the mortgage team meet every two weeks for updates. And DOJ did rack up huge monetary settlements from major firms - Bank of America, JP Morgan, Citigroup. But no individual executive got any prison time. Still, it's another prosecution that hasn't happened that sticks in Holder's craw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

HOLDER: After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice. They will be brought to New York - to New York - to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks away from where the twin towers once stood.

JOHNSON: Within months, that plan fell apart. Families of some 9/11 victims protested. New York's police chief warned about security costs out of control. Senators from both political parties expressed alarm. Furious, the attorney general withdrew indictments and announced he would send the cases to military tribunals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

HOLDER: The reality is though I know this case in a way that members of Congress do not. I looked at the files. I've spoken to the prosecutors. I know the tactical concerns that have to go into this decision. So do I know better than them? Yes.

JOHNSON: Then, relations with Congress got worse - a lot worse. Lawmakers accused Holder of personal involvement in a gun-trafficking scandal on the Southwest border. Jason Chaffetz is a Republican House member from Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: A dead border patrol agent, hundreds of guns that are still unaccounted for, untold number of crimes that have been committed with these guns and an attorney general whose best guess and best argument is that - is a plea of ignorance.

JOHNSON: Republicans demanded the Justice Department turn over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious. When the administration refused, the U.S. House moved to hold Eric Holder in contempt, the first time that had ever happened to a cabinet member.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On this vote, the yeas are 255, the nays are 67, one member voting present - the resolution is agreed to...

JOHNSON: Still Holder stayed on the job. And he started focusing more on issues that matter to him - making sure the government started to give married LGBT couples their rights under federal law, trying to shore up the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court threw out a key provision and reducing disparities he saw in the justice system, as he told NPR last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

HOLDER: I think there are too many people in jail for too long and for not necessarily good reasons.

JOHNSON: The Attorney General pushed Congress to dial back long prison sentences for many drug crimes. And he pushed his own prosecutors to stop seeking mandatory minimums in some cases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

HOLDER: The war on drugs is now 30 - 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a kind of decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.

JOHNSON: Communities of color - audiences to which Holder increasingly spoke about his own very personal experiences, talking to his own son about how to handle the police and about how he had suffered from racial profiling and traveling to Ferguson, Missouri last summer as a sort of proxy for President Obama. In Ferguson, he pledged the Justice Department would conduct an independent investigation into the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer. That investigation continues, as does much of the civil rights work that Holder started to build as the nation's first black attorney general. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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