Friday, April 13, 2007

The Plot Sickens

Georgia Thompson (left), an official in the administration of Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor, James Doyle, spent more than four months in prison, convicted of fraud for having awarded a State contract to a travel company which had donated funds to Doyle’s gubernatorial reelection campaign.

Political capital was made out of the trial which took place during last fall’s gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin by the Republicans, who used it in a television attack campaign aimed at defeating Doyle.

Last Monday, in an unprecedented move, judges on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal ordered that she immediately be released following oral arguments, finding insufficient grounds for her conviction. Jufge Diane Woods, one of the appeals court judges, told the lawyer whom Mr Biskupic dispatched to receive the court's rebuke, said: "It strikes me that your evidence is beyond thin".

A former U.S. Attorney who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Frank Turkenheimer, said he could not recall another case “where an appellate court after hearing oral arguments ordered the release of a person who’s confined” that same day. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney who is a Madison lawyer, Chris Van Wagner, predicted a “strongly worded” written opinion telling the government, “You never had enough to get out of the starting gate.” Another law professor could think of only one other case where a defendant was freed immediately rather than given a new trial.

Behind this travesty of justice lies the politicization of the American system of justice that has taken place under the Bush administration since the 2004 elections. Thompson was, in effect, a “political football”.

Here is an account of how she came to be so, and how justice was finally secured.

Before her incarceration, Thompson lived and worked in Wisconsin, which Kerry won in the 2004 election by a slim majority. Milwaukee was key to that effort (72% for Kerry), but there were more votes than voters, so US Attorney, Steven Biskupic set up his Joint Election Fraud Task Force, consisting of the US Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the District Attorney, and the metropolitan police department, to investigate, with a view to identifying individual cases for prosecution and determining whether there had indeed been a broad based conspiracy by Democrats to stuff the ballot.

In the August of 2005, Rick Wiley, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Republicans, sent a letter to Biskupic outlining nine voter fraud cases that demanded prosecution. Biskupic replied with a letter (pdf) knocking down all nine of Wiley’s pet cases.

In the December of 2005 Biskupic announced in a press conference that his investigation had yielded no evidence of a broad conspiracy. He said that his office would pursue isolated cases of suspected fraud—ultimately eighteen cases.

It is highly unlikely that Biskupic’s failure to uncover evidence of widespread fraud escape Rove’s attention, as Rove had already been paying close attention to Milwaukee as early as February, 2005.

Paul Kiel, in the online publication, The Muckraker, reports:

We know this because one of the documents released by the Justice Department last month appears to be a printout from his computer of a February 2, 2005 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article about the city's voter records. A study by the paper had found sizeable discrepancies between the number of votes and voters in the records for more than a dozen wards.

How can we tell that this was printed off of Rove's computer? Well, though the letters are cut off, you can see "ROVE_K" among the file information at the bottom (click to see whole page):

Rove was clearly interested, circling words (like Milwaukee) in the piece and scribbling in the margin "Discuss w/ Harriet" (see image on the right) -- Harriet presumably referring to White House counsel Harriet Miers.

So as early as February of 2005, Rove was paying close attention to Milwaukee.
But Biskupic would disappoint him. In December of 2005, Biskupic announced in a press conference that his investigation had yielded no evidence of a broad conspiracy. He said that his office would pursue isolated cases of suspected fraud (see the note below for those results) -- ultimately, eighteen cases.

All that didn't stop Rove from harping on voter fraud in Milwaukee. In April of 2006, during a speech before the Republican National Lawyers Association, Rove touched on voter fraud, and the case of Milwaukee in particular. When an audience member, saying that the Democratic Party "rests on the base of election fraud," asked about the issue, Rove said, "yes, this is a real problem. What is it -- five wards in the city of Milwaukee have more voters than adults?" (Actually the article he'd printed out showed that seventeen wards had had more votes than voters.)

Come October, the issue was still burning in Rove's mind. And so that month, both President Bush and Karl Rove passed along complaints about Biskupic's pursuit of voter fraud. Those complaints might very well have put Biskupic on the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired.

Let's look at Bush's complaints. Both White House counselor Dan Bartlett and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said last month that the White House's legislative affairs, political affairs and chief of staff's office had received complaints "from a variety of sources about the lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases in various locations, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee and New Mexico." The complaints, she said, were passed on to the Justice Department or White House counsel Harriet Miers. And the president himself, she said, had a conversation with attorney general Alberto Gonzales about it in October of 2006.

Here's how Bartlett described the conversation:

The President did that briefly, in a conversation he had with the Attorney General in October of 2006, in which, in a wide-ranging conversation on a lot of different issues, this briefly came up and the President said, I've been hearing about this election fraud matters from members of Congress, want to make sure you're on top of that, as well. There was no directive given, as far as telling him to fire anybody or anything like that.

Karl Rove had a similar conversation with Gonzales at about the same time. According to Kyle Sampson's testimony, Rove had complained to Gonzales "about U.S. attorneys in three jurisdictions, including New Mexico, and the substance of the complaint was that those U.S. attorneys weren't pursuing voter fraud cases aggressively enough."

Sampson did not say in his testimony what those other jurisdictions were, but it's apparent from Bartlett's comments and Justice Department documents what they must be.

Take, for instance, that printout from Rove's computer and the dossier on Wisconsin voter fraud that had been sent to Rove. How did they end up at the Justice Department (they were, remember, turned over as part of the Justice Department's document production)?

Well, it looks like Rove sent it over in an envelope addressed to Kyle Sampson. On the envelope is the handwritten date October 17, 2006.

That would seem to be a significant date. In his testimony, Sampson said that "sometime after October 17th but before November 7th," the department "went back" and looked at the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired and " asked the question: 'Is there anyone else who should be added?'"

Four names "came forward," according to Sampson. All of them were "close cases," because "they weren't specific policy conflicts or significant management challenges." One of them was Iglesias'. Sampson would not say during his testimony who the other three were, saying that he "was not a hundred percent sure" that he remembered.

But think about it. On October 17th, or thereabouts, Rove sent over a dossier on Biskupic, just as the department renewed their effort to find U.S. attorneys to fire. And Bush was complaining about Biskupic too."

Let us see how New Mexico’s David Iglesias, the only other U.S. attorney in the country to have launched a task force to investigate voter fraud in the 2004 election, fared. Iglesias’s name ended up on a list of U.S. attorneys to fire which Kyle Sampson sent to Harriet Myers and which has now been handed over to the House of representatives Judiciary Committee in its investigation. It did so presumably because he had been insufficiently vigorous in his prosecution of electoral fraud cases in New Mexico. Iglesias was consequently fired, which fate, though Biskupic had also prosecuted alleged electoral fraud with insufficient zeal, avoided.

Which leads us on to the rather obvious question of how Biskupic, though equally guilty in the eyes of the Bush administration as Iglesias, avoided his fellow-attorney’s fate.

Kiel tells us: “Iglesias, Sampson said, "remained on the list because nobody suggested that he come off."

“So who suggested that Biskupic come off -- and why? Does it, for instance, have anything to do with his office's aggressive pursuit of Wisconsin's Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle?”

The question now is: is this highly publicized case an isolated case, or have similar prosecutions against other individuals been carried out by sitting .S. Attorneys in New Jersey and other states.

As Amanda Long, in an article she wrote for OpEdNews says: “Ultimately, the big story of the scandal at the Department of Justice will not be that of the eight fired prosecutors. It will be that of the 85 who were not fired, and of what they did or did not do to keep their jobs.”

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