Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Exclusive: House Democrats ask Justice Inspector General to investigate Ashcroft role in Plame probe

The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman John Conyers, of Michigan, and Congressman Maurice Hinchey, Democrat of New York, will tomorrow formally request that the Inspector General of the Justice Department, Glenn A. Fine, investigate whether then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft "violated explicit rules on conflicts of interest when he failed to recuse himself from, and in fact was briefed on, the CIA name leak investigation despite his personal connection to Karl Rove, a person of interest to investigators."

The letter to the Justice Department's Inspector General quotes new information from this story which I wrote, and that was posted yesterday on the Village Voice, disclosing new information regarding Ashcroft's role in overseeing the Plame probe, before it was taken over by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. The article disclosed that Ashcroft continued to oversee a probe into the Plame matter even after learning that Karl Rove, who had been a consultant to various Ashcroft political campaigns, was a focus of investigators.

Below is a long excerpt from the letter, which will be made public tomorrow:

[W]e write to request that your Office immediately investigate whether then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft violated explicit rules on conflicts of interest when he failed to recuse himself from, and in fact was briefed on, the CIA name leak investigation despite his personal connection to Karl Rove, a person of interest to investigators. This investigation would not conflict with the investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald into the actual leak; instead, it would focus on Mr. Ashcroft's failure to recuse himself at the appropriate time in the case. Furthermore, the investigation into the recusal delay would be a logical extension of the request that you also investigate the Department's failure to comply with proper procedures by not ensuring the preservation of document and other evidence connected with the leak.
Early in the Department's investigation of who had leaked a covert CIA operative's identity to the media, it became clear that Karl Rove, a senior advisor to the President, was receiving public attention as someone who may have been involved in the crime. We have now learned that, according to law enforcement officials close to the investigation, Mr. Rove failed to disclose to the FBI that he had ever spoken with Time's Matthew Cooper, a reporter involved in the case. These officials also have indicated that then-Attorney General Ashcroft was personally and privately briefed on the Rove interview.
These new disclosures are troubling because, at the time of these events, Mr. Ashcroft had known personal and political connections to Mr. Rove. Mr. Rove was an adviser to Mr. Ashcroft during the latter's political campaigns, earning almost $750,000 for his services. Mr. Rove also had urged the President to nominate Mr. Ashcroft to be Attorney General after Mr. Ashcroft lost his Senate re-election campaign to the deceased Mel Carnahan. The fact that Mr. Ashcroft eventually recused himself demonstrates that there in fact were conflicts of interest with his continued involvement in the investigation. The fact that he did not recuse himself early on and was briefed on the matter may well have violated ethical rules and guidelines.
Existing law and rules of professional conduct govern when Department attorneys must recuse themselves from particular investigations. Federal law requires the Attorney General to promulgate rules mandating the disqualification of any officer or employee of the Justice Department "from participation in a particular investigation or prosecution if such participation may result in a personal, financial, or political conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof." Pursuant to this requirement, the Department has promulgated regulations stating that:
no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with: (1) any person . . . substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution; or (2) any person . . . which he knows or has a specific and substantial interest that would be affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.
In this case, Mr. Ashcroft would have been prohibited from involvement in the leak investigation under both provisions. His relationships with the President and Mr. Rove consists of both personal and political connections with individuals who might have been the investigation's subjects. At a minimum, his friend, Mr. Rove, had a "specific and substantial interest that would be affected by the outcome" in that his entire political legacy would be tarnished if he were implicated in the leak.
To reiterate the importance of preventing conflicts of interest, the Justice Department has further explicated the guidelines in its U.S. Attorneys' Manual. The Attorneys' Manual provides that:
When United States Attorneys, or their offices, become aware of an issue that could require a recusal in a criminal or civil matter or case as a result of a personal interest or professional relationship with parties involved in the matter, they must contact General Counsel's Office... The requirement of recusal does not arise in every instance, but only where a conflict of interest exists or there is an appearance of a conflict of interest or loss of impartiality.
In the leak investigation, Mr. Ashcroft clearly had a professional relationship with a party involved the matter. His failure to have recused himself earlier may have been an instance of "too little, too late," as the conflict may have impeded the investigation.
Furthermore, rules of professional conduct bar lawyers such as Mr. Ashcroft from matters in which they have conflicts of interest. Because Department attorneys must follow the ethical rules of the bar in which they practice, as an official at Main Justice he would have been obligated to comply with the District of Columbia Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct. These Rules state that, without consent, a lawyer shall not represent a client if "the lawyer's professional judgment on behalf of the client will be or reasonably may be adversely affected by the lawyer's responsibilities to or interests in a third party or the lawyer's own financial, business, property, or personal interests." In the instant situation, Mr. Ashcroft clearly had a personal connection to Mr. Rove that would have interfered with proper oversight of the case.
We look forward to hearing whether you will open such an investigation and, if not, the reason for your decision.

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