Rise of a Very 'Loyal Bushie'
If you want to know what the career path of a “loyal Bushie” looks like, let me introduce you to J. Timothy Griffin, a Karl Rove protégé who was slipped into the post of U.S. Attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, and now is at the center of the controversy over whether the Bush administration has sought to politicize federal prosecutions.
Since college, the 38-year-old Griffin has been following the stations of the cross for a Republican legal/political operative with ambitions to rise to a position of power and influence in a government like the one headed by George W. Bush.
Griffin has pretty much touched them all – the Federalist Society, work for a Clinton-era special prosecutor, the Florida recount battle in 2000, opposition research and voter security duties for the Republican National Committee in Campaign 2004, a brief tour as a military lawyer in Iraq, a deputy in Karl Rove’s political shop at the White House.
But now this carefully groomed Republican operative stands out as Exhibit A for Democrats as they contend that the Bush administration imposed political litmus tests on federal prosecutors who wield enormous power over the lives of those they investigate. A U.S. Attorney not only has wide discretion over normal prosecutions but can tip a political race by either shutting down or starting up a criminal probe.
Beyond being the personification of proof that Bush put political loyalty over legal competence, Griffin has become the test case for the use of new emergency powers in the Patriot Act to circumvent Senate confirmation for U.S. Attorneys.
The administration’s gamble on Griffin was underscored by an e-mail in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s chief of staff Kyle Sampson warned that “there is some risk that we’ll lose the [Patriot Act] authority, but if we don’t ever exercise it then what’s the point of having it?”
Sampson’s e-mail added, “I’m not 100 percent sure that Tim was the guy on which to test drive this authority, but know that getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.” references to White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and then-White House counsel Harriet Miers.
Sampson also mapped out plans for frustrating any congressional objections to Griffin’s interim appointment.
“We should gum this to death,” Sampson wrote in a Dec. 19, 2006, e-mail to a White House aide. "Ask the senators to give Tim a chance . . . then we can tell them we'll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, evaluate the recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All of this should be done in 'good faith,' of course."
Yet, while it’s clear that the White House was prepared to play political games and possibly pay a political price to install Griffin in Little Rock, the mystery is why?
Why, given the political risks, did the administration remove the well-regarded U.S. Attorney H.E. “Bud” Cummins III to make way for Griffin? Though a staunch Republican, Cummins may not have been staunch enough.
When I checked on Cummins’s reputation in the legal circles of Arkansas, I found that he was praised by both Republicans and Democrats as a by-the-book prosecutor. One Democratic defense lawyer told me that Cummins was a prosecutor who “dealt from the top of the deck.”
But the White House pushed Cummins out in 2006 along with seven other U.S. Attorneys who did not measure up as “loyal Bushies,” according to another Kyle Sampson e-mail. Given Griffin’s history more as a political operative than an experienced prosecutor, he surely got higher grades on the “loyal Bushie” test.
Some political analysts see Rove’s dream of creating a permanent Republican majority as the motive behind the firings and Griffin’s appointment. In April 2006, Rove told the Republican National Lawyers Association that there were 11 states “pivotal” to the 2008 election, Arkansas among them, according to a report by the McClatchy newspapers.
With Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor expected to face a tough reelection fight, Arkansas could be a possible Republican senatorial pickup in 2008. Arkansas also has a large African-American population, and Griffin has had experience in “voter fraud” investigations that have targeted the registrations of black voters.
Other observers of the rough-and-tumble world of Arkansas politics recall the scorched-earth investigations into the personal lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1990s and wonder if the Republicans might be hoping to unearth some more dirt about the Democratic frontrunner and her husband.
There’s also speculation that Rove might be lining up his protégé as a possible future governor of Arkansas. Serving as U.S. Attorney, handling high-profile criminal cases, is a natural stepping stone to state and federal political office.
The reason so many people suspect that Griffin has been pre-positioned for political reasons can best be explained by looking at Griffin’s career path and the powerful contacts he has made along the way.
After graduating as an economics major from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, in 1990, Griffin entered Tulane Law School. While at the New Orleans university, Griffin became a leader of the Tulane chapter of the Federalist Society, a powerful conservative legal organization and the chief training ground for right-wing lawyers dedicated to rolling back the liberal gains of the Warren Court and supportive of unrestrained presidential powers.
After graduating in 1994, Griffin parlayed the Federalist connection to land his first and only legal job in the private sector, at Jones Walker Waechter Pointevent Carrere & Denegre, a New Orleans law firm where two members of the firm sat on the local board of the Federalist Society.
In 1995, Griffin headed to Washington to work as an associate independent counsel under David M. Barrett, a Republican lawyer selected by a conservative-dominated three-judge panel to investigate Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros.
Barrett was one of several hard-line conservative lawyers picked by U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, a protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms, to mount aggressive investigations into alleged wrongdoing by President Clinton and his administration.
Then one of the nation’s leading Hispanic politicians, Cisneros was accused of misreporting sums of money that he had paid to a mistress. During an investigation that lasted 10 years and cost $21 million, Barrett managed to secure from Cisneros a guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge of lying to the FBI about the payments, effectively destroying his promising political career.
In a final report, Barrett thanked Griffin “for helping in the early stages of the investigation.” Griffin’s résumé paints a more substantial picture, however, saying he “interviewed numerous witnesses with the FBI and supervised the execution of a search warrant, drafted subpoenas and pleadings and questioned witnesses before a federal grand jury.”
After leaving Barrett’s staff, Griffin took a job as senior investigative counsel to the Republican-controlled House Committee on Government Reform, which was looking into other alleged offenses by Democrats, including improper campaign contributions.
Griffin next went home to Arkansas to manage the Attorney General campaign of Betty Dickey, a Republican who lost to Democrat Mark Pryor, the future U.S. senator.
Griffin returned to the House committee where he remained until September 1999 when he joined the Bush-Cheney campaign as deputy research director working for the Republican National Committee, what’s known in the Washington political world as “oppo” or opposition research.
Griffin’s résumé describes his job as “the primary research resource for Bush-Cheney 2000 (BC00), with over 30 staff.”
During the bitter Florida recount battle, Griffin served as legal adviser in Volusia and Brevard counties.
After shutting down the recount and claiming the White House, Bush rewarded Griffin in March 2001 with the job of special assistant to Michael Chertoff, assistant attorney general at the criminal division. On his résumé, Griffin says he, “tracked” issues for Chertoff, such as extradition, provisional arrest and mutual legal assistance.
Up the Ladder
Five months later, Griffin left Chertoff to become a special assistant U.S. Attorney in the Little Rock office where he worked for “Bud” Cummins.
After nine months in Little Rock, Griffin was named research director and deputy communication director for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. In other words, Griffin was back in the land of “oppo” digging up dirt on Democrats and dishing it to reporters.
During this period, Griffin also oversaw efforts to catch Democratic voters who might be improperly registered, especially in Florida, a key swing state. Through a process known as “caging,” Griffin’s team sent letters to newly registered voters in envelopes barring any forwarding, so they would be returned if a voter wasn’t at that address.
BBC’s investigative reporter Greg Palast uncovered Griffin’s role in this practice that proved especially effective in “caging” African-Americans who lived in low-income areas or who were serving in the U.S. military. The “caged” voters would then be challenged by Republican lawyers when they arrived at the polls.
According to Palast and his BBC report, Griffin “was the hidden hand behind a scheme to wipe out the voting rights of 70,000 citizens prior to the 2004 election. Key voters on Griffin’s hit list: Black soldiers and homeless men and women.”
Palast noted that “targeting voters where race is a factor is a felony crime under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Palast said he attempted to interview Griffin, but the Republican operative hid from the cameras.
After Bush secured a second term, Griffin joined the White House staff as deputy director for political affairs under Karl Rove. Griffin’s résumé said that starting in April 2005, he “advised President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney on political matters, organized and coordinated political support for the President’s agenda, including the nomination of Judge John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”
Meanwhile, the White House began contemplating the removal of U.S. Attorneys, who “chafed against administration initiatives” and who weren't “loyal Bushies.”
Cummins was soon on the removal list along with San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who was spearheading the bribery investigation of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-California, which led to his resignation and to the discovery of other high-level administration corruption.
In September 2005, Griffin’s résumé shows that he reported for active duty as an attorney at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. He was deployed for a brief tour in Iraq in spring 2006 and returned home to news that he would be given the job of U.S. Attorney in Little Rock.
But the political landscape changed in November when Democrats won control of the Senate and promised much tougher oversight than had been the practice with the Republicans in charge. Griffin faced the possibility of a difficult confirmation hearing.
However, a change had been made in the Patriot Act, allowing the Attorney General to make emergency U.S. Attorney appointments without Senate approval. Though Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had vowed that all nominees would still go before the Senate, Gonzales appointed Griffin under that special authority.
When the furor about the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys, including Cummins and Lam, began in December 2006, Gonzales also stated that he was not involved in “any discussions” about the ousters and that the dismissals were not politically motivated.
When the released e-mails demonstrated that politics was a factor and that the White House had played a direct role in the dismissals, Kyle Sampson – Gonzales chief of staff – resigned. A growing chorus of senators also sought Gonzales’s resignation, especially after more records showed that the Attorney General took part in a Nov. 27, 2006, meeting to discuss the firings.
There was more Senate anger over the fact that the Patriot Act change had been exploited to avoid the confirmation process. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to rescind the Attorney General’s special appointment power, with the bill now going to the House.
On March 22, Griffin told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that he will not go through a Senate confirmation hearing if one is required.
“I have made the decision not to let my name go forward to the Senate.” Griffin said. “I don’t want to be part of that partisan circus.”
So, it may never be fully known what Karl Rove had in mind for his political protégé if the “loyal Bushie” plan had succeeded. Nor is it clear what else the White House may have had to hide that would explain why it concocted the scheme in the first place.
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