Downward Spiral at Justice

Article excerpt

Byline: Bob Barr, Special to the Washington Times

Back in 1988, during my tenure as the United States Attorney in Atlanta, and while my office was concluding an investigation of Pat Swindall, at the time one of only two Republican congressmen from Georgia, the other Newt Gingrich opined publicly that perhaps I was a "rogue U.S. Attorney" for pursuing this particular prosecution.

In fact, the future Speaker of the House was mild in his veiled criticism, compared to the furious, behind-the-scenes activity by many other Republican leaders unhappy with my decision to prosecute a sitting Republican congressman.

While the criticism quickly abated months later when a jury found Swindall guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice, the whole exercise revealed some important lessons for me and for the system of criminal justice in our country.

As the Swindall case unfolded, and as calls mounted by supporters of the former suburban Atlanta congressman to halt our prosecution, the Justice Department, headed by Attorney General Edwin Meese (and then, Dick Thornburgh) responded clearly and consistently. The department's position was made clear as long as a U.S. attorney is pursuing a valid prosecution, even one involving a sitting elected official, the department will not itself interfere to stop, slow or speed up that process; nor would it allow the White House to improperly influence such matters.

By this example were the American people and other U.S. Attorneys reminded that enforcement of our federal criminal laws would be based solely on the facts and the law, and not on political concerns or pressures.

The profound importance of this lesson extended far beyond the case involving then-Rep. Swindall or any other person charged with criminal offenses. It reinforced the principal that justice is blind and that the American people's faith in the justice system was neither misplaced nor endangered.

Now, one generation later, the Justice Department response to similar pressures is very different and very troubling. The actions of top Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, illustrates that these lessons have been forgotten or deliberately ignored.

While the hubris of a sitting U.S. senator attempting to pressure a U.S. attorney to accelerate a prosecution for electoral gain is not unique in the annals of federal criminal law, the fact that an attorney general has allowed even the appearance that such pressure figured in the dismissal of a presidentially appointed U. …