Respond to this Article May 2006

White Hats vs. Black Hats

Who's who in Washington's scandal investigations.

By T.A. Frank and Zachary Roth

Watergate may not have been the brightest spot in American political history, but at least it generated some genuine investigative celebrities--team Woodward-Bernstein, lead counsel Sam Dash, and Democratic senator Sam Ervin, the "country lawyer" who chaired the Senate probe. Standout Republicans included Senate Watergate Committee member Lowell Weicker (who relentlessly sought out White House documents and convinced John Dean to testify) and Justice Department figures Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus (who were fired by Richard Nixon for refusing to back off of the Watergate investigation). Today, again, the capital is mired in scandal and in search of heroes--or at least redeeming individuals. Which lawmakers, prosecutors, journalists, and executive-branch officials have shown real backbone in getting to the truth? And which ones have cravenly stood in the way? Who's wearing the white hat, and who's wearing the black?

Let's start with the shadier haberdashery.

President George W. Bush, of course, is on his way to matching Nixon in his willingness both to use presidential power for partisan advantage and to block scrutiny of his abuse of that power. For this, he earns an immensely broad and black hat, which he shares with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales, let's just say, is no Elliot Richardson. He has stonewalled investigations into torture and illegal NSA wiretapping with such robotic relentlessness that his predecessor, John Ashcroft, is beginning to look principled (Ashcroft initially refused to OK the NSA wiretap program). Gonzales's Justice Department also declined to help prosecute a Pentagon contractor in Iraq, Custer Battles, which in March of 2006 was found guilty of ripping off U.S. taxpayers to the tune of $3 million by filing inflated invoices. (This bit may not have come to light were it not for the decidedly white-hatted Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who, as chariman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, has vigilantly uncovered waste and fraud in Iraq.)

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has a closet full of black hats: one for short-circuiting investigations into Bush's wiretapping program, another for slow-rolling the effort to look at how the administration might have misused intelligence to sell the public on invading Iraq, and a third for refusing to probe evidence of torture in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, proudly donned a white hat when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, vowing to leave no stone unturned in investigating the abuse of prisoners. But he apparently had second thoughts and brought his investigation meekly to a pause without implicating the Pentagon higher-ups who, evidence increasingly suggested, were ultimately responsible. The pause lengthens.

But at least Warner publicly wrestled with his conscience. House Appropriations chair Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), by contrast, apparently doesn't have one. After fellow committee member Randy "Duke" Cunningham pled guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors, Lewis put together a brief informal review into whether Cunningham's activities on the committee jeopardized national security. Good news, decided Lewis: nothing to worry about. Except that prosecutors evidently disagree.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) has stepped into the black hat store and is modeling an entire fall collection. DeWine has introduced legislation that would essentially allow the National Security Agency to continue to break the law by spying on Americans, while making it easier to prosecute reporters who write about the surveillance. After all, even without the First Amendment, there are 26 perfectly good ones left.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) continues to live up to her reputation of not living up to her reputation for independence. Although Collins has occasionally voiced support for efforts to hold the White House accountable, she'd prefer not to belabor the point. When Democrats made efforts to subpoena documents relating to White House bungling during Hurricane Katrina, she used her position as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to block them.

Whitish hats

But there are white hats, too. The glut of vice has revived the Washington press corps. Susan Schmidt's reporting on Jack Abramoff for The Washington Post has earned her, along with colleagues James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith, the Worth Bingham Prize of $10,000 (just enough for a business class ticket to Scotland--or three very fine white hats). But, as with Watergate, some of the best reporting on Abramoff has come from smaller news outlets. Roll Call's John Bresnahan has consistently uncovered fresh angles, as has National Journal's Peter Stone a number of reporters with The Hill. And blogger Joshua Micah Marshall has tirelessly pulled the disparate threads together, focusing not just on the incriminating particulars, but also on the wider picture of GOP corruption that they delineate. (At least for now. If Mike DeWine gets his way, the real question will be whether prison code permits white headwear among the inmates.)

The case of Sen. John McCain's hat color, which started out as white, is trickier. Alerted by news reports on Abramoff, McCain has used his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to launch his own investigation, one that's already turned up emails in which Abramoff referred to his tribal clients as "f-ing troglodytes." (McCain's wingman on Indian Affairs is the committee's chief investigative counsel, Pablo Carrillo, who also helped the senator uncover dirt on deals between Boeing and the Pentagon back in 2003.) Having brought the battering ram to the door, however, McCain seems to have been content to give a polite tap. He declined to focus the investigation on GOP powerbroker and Abramoff-buddy Grover Norquist--a man whom no Republican, particularly those mulling a run for president in 2008, can afford to alienate--or on Gale Norton, whose connections to Abramoff may have been what led to her recent announcement that she was resigning as head of the Department of the Interior. McCain's hat, in short, has taken on a darker hue.

McCain's committee recently sent documents over to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, opened his own probe of Abramoff's use of non-profit groups. Genuine digging or merely going through the motions? The answer will determine the hat color.

Congress and the press can dig only so far, however. For the real Abramoff action, head over to the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice, where the sprawling investigation into Jack and his various partners in crime was ably led, until recently, by Noel Hillman, a white-hatted career prosecutor described by The New York Times as a "respected" chief who "bird-dogged the inquiry for two years." But Hillman's integrity may have been too much for the Public Integrity Section: In January, the Bush administration nominated him for a seat on the U.S. District Court in New Jersey.

The jury is still out on his replacement, Andrew Lourie, who'll be acting as public integrity chief for a second time. Lourie's first stint began in 2001, when he was promoted from his position as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, to replace Lee J. Radek, who had been ousted by Republicans angered that Radek didn't investigate Clinton more closely. The following year, Lourie left Washington for his old job in Miami (his wife, a golf pro, works in South Florida), and Hillman, his deputy, took over at Justice. Now Lourie gets a second shot at the job. No word yet on whether he'll stick around long enough to unpack this time. Or what color hat is in his bag.

Over in the House, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chair of the Intelligence Committee, has blocked inquiries into illegal wiretapping. But he's also surprised Beltway watchers by moving aggressively to launch a wide-ranging investigation into the activities of former committee colleague and bribe-taker Cunningham (whose curiously high-rolling lifestyle was first uncovered by Marcus Stern, a Washington-based reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune). Hoekstra, along with the committee's ranking minority member Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), has appointed an independent counsel, Michael Stern, an experienced but low-profile Capitol Hill lawyer--to look into whether national security was jeopardized by Duke's crimes. Could Hoekstra, for a welcome change, be reaching for the white hat? Hoekstra might want to emulate Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), chair of the House Sub-Committee on National Security. Shays has quietly but consistently worked to expose waste and fraud in the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and has held hearings on retaliation against whistle-blowers.

Cunningham's sentencing last month was a feather in the (white) cap of the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of California, Carol Lam, whose office ran the case. Lam, a mother of four who once played the piano at the Superbowl half-time show in San Diego, is described by the Union-Trib as "an aggressive risk-taker." Now, she could be building a national reputation, particularly since her office will remain a key player in the ongoing investigation into Cunningham's circle.

Much of that work is being handled by Kenneth Wainstein, the U.S. Attorney for the District. In February, he rode Lam's coattails to a triumph of his own, wringing a guilty plea from Cunningham co-conspirator Mitchell Wade, and could soon indict Brent Wilkes, another of Duke's cronies, say insiders. But Wainstein may not be sticking around long to pursue the investigation: He was recently nominated for a top position in the Justice Department and looks likely to spurn his shot at glory for a chance to work next to Al Gonzales. "Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven," Wainstein said. Well, he could have said it.

A Texas-sized white hat goes to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, whose relentless pursuit of Tom DeLay's use of corporate funds in state elections has so far yielded 43 indictments. But Earle got an assist from Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, who back in 2003 dug into the paperwork filed by DeLay's political action committee, and lodged the first official complaint with Earle's office.

Finally, in unofficial entities, Washington might have the FBI, but it also has the WBI. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) practically runs his own bureau of investigation. To explain all of Waxman's projects would consume several forests or hard drives, but his office has launched investigations into the Cheney energy task force, the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, the Medicare drug bill, House ethics issues, and the politicization of science, among many, many other issues.

And he does it well, too. We hope a white cape complements the hat.

T.A. Frank is a consulting editor of The Washington Monthly. Zachary Roth is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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