Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Investigation Advances for US Attorneys Scandal

Investigation Advances for US Attorneys Scandal

Evan Perez

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Washington - Justice Department lawyers have filed a grand-jury referral stemming from the 2006 U.S. attorneys scandal, according to people familiar with the probe, a move indicating that the yearlong investigation may be entering a new phase.

The grand-jury referral, the first time the probe has moved beyond the investigative phase, relates to allegations of political meddling in the Justice Department's civil-rights division, these people say. Specifically, it focuses on possible perjury by Bradley Schlozman, who served a year as interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo.

Mr. Schlozman left the Justice Department last year after he was challenged over his hiring of conservative lawyers at the civil-rights division and his decision later as U.S. attorney to bring voter-fraud charges against members of a left-leaning voter-registration group days before the 2006 election.

Mr. Schlozman declined to comment.

It's unlikely that the attention on Mr. Schlozman will clear up the multifaceted and politically charged scandal that began in 2006 with accusations that the Bush administration inappropriately fired a number of U.S. attorneys. Over the next 18 months, it grew to encompass accusations of political interference, criticism of Justice Department hiring policies and allegations of improper prosecutions in the department's civil-rights division, which Mr. Schlozman briefly ran.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Schlozman conceded boasting to associates about the number of Republicans he managed to hire at the department. The allegations against him helped feed months of scandal that eventually forced the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in August.

A grand-jury referral isn't an indication that criminal charges will be filed in an investigation. Prosecutors gather testimony from witnesses and can decide later not to pursue charges.

Separate investigations into the department's handling of the prosecutor firings and related issues, which are being conducted by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and the Inspector General, are expected to be completed within the next few weeks, lawyers familiar with the probe said. Both want to abide by department guidelines aimed at clearing up politically sensitive investigations well before the elections, to avoid accusations they could influence the outcome.

It wasn't clear which of Mr. Schlozman's comments prosecutors are focusing on. He has declined to be interviewed by investigators since leaving the department. One possibility focuses on Mr. Schlozman's 2007 testimony to Congress, one part of which he later retracted.

At a Senate hearing last June, Democrats zeroed in on allegations that Mr. Schlozman was part of an effort by Republican political officials to pursue vote-fraud investigations in important swing states as a way to gain electoral advantage.

Mr. Schlozman's promotion to the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City came after the department asked his predecessor, Todd P. Graves, to resign. Mr. Graves was among several U.S. attorneys who had shown reluctance to bring vote-fraud-related cases, according to testimony and documents gathered by Senate investigators last year.

After Mr. Schlozman's arrival in Kansas City, prosecutors filed charges against workers from a left-leaning activist group, Acorn. The workers eventually pleaded guilty to violations related to voter registration. The timing of the indictment, five days before a close Senate election, drew criticism from Democrats.

In his Senate testimony Mr. Schlozman denied the timing violated Justice Department guidelines governing politically sensitive investigations. He also said he had been "directed" to file the charges by an official in the department's Public Integrity Section.

Later, Mr. Schlozman filed a clarification to his Senate testimony, saying that he had only consulted with Justice headquarters.

"I want to be clear that, while I relied on the consultation with, and suggestions of, the Election Crimes Branch in bringing the indictments when I did, I take full responsibility for the decision to move forward with the prosecutions related to Acorn while I was the interim U.S. Attorney," he said in the clarification.

At the time, lawyers from the Justice Department's civil-rights section took the unusual measure of writing to members of Congress alleging patterns of political meddling in the division's hiring decisions. Mr. Schlozman denied that he deliberately favored conservative lawyers.

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