Timothy Griffin, a central figure in the U.S. Attorney scandal and a protégé of Republican political guru Karl Rove, reportedly has been hired to dig up dirt on likely Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

FirstRead, a political Web site of NBC News, cited a Republican source as confirming that Griffin was being brought onboard by the Republican National Committee to handle opposition research on Obama.

Griffin hung up on me when I contacted him at his home and asked him to comment about the report. An RNC aide told me he could neither “confirm nor deny the report.”

Griffin’s return to the RNC as an opposition researcher – a post he held during the Bush-Cheney campaigns – would seem to mark a return to a “dirty tricks” style of campaigning that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has vowed to avoid.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Griffin handled “oppo” on Al Gore and, according to several RNC staffers, hung a poster behind his desk that paraphrased a line from “Gladiator”: "On my command - unleash hell on Al."

In 2004, Griffin also performed opposition research for the Bush-Cheney campaign and participated in an apparent Republican scheme to trap voters who had possible errors in their registration forms, so-called “caging.”

A Rove favorite, Griffin then was installed as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas in 2006. His predecessor as U.S. Attorney, Bud Cummins, was one of nine federal prosecutors forced to resign in an unusual purge orchestrated by George W. Bush’s White House.

Griffin got the U.S. Attorney job via a little known provision slipped into the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2005, empowering the Attorney General to appoint emergency U.S. Attorneys without Senate confirmation.

However, after congressional Democrats – and some Republicans – complained about politicization of the Justice Department, Griffin resigned rather than face a regular confirmation process.

Griffin also stepped down as details began to emerge about his role in “vote caging,” a controversial tactic that has been used to suppress the turnout of minorities by having their names purged from the rolls when registered mail sent to their homes is returned unopened.

The Republican National Committee signed a consent decree in 1986 stating it would not engage in the practice after it was caught suppressing votes in 1981 and 1986.

More Caging

Documents released last year implicated Griffin and other Republican operatives in a broad effort to "cage" votes during Election 2004 in battleground states, such as New Mexico, Nevada, Florida and Ohio.

E-mails among Ohio Republican Party official Michael Magan; Coddy Johnson, then national field director of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign; and Griffin showed that the men received documents that could justify widespread voter challenges if the Bush campaign needed to contest the election results.

Johnson referred to the documents as a "goldmine.” Like Griffin, Johnson worked at the White House as a political aide to Rove.

The documents were lists of registered voters who did not return address confirmation forms to the Ohio Board of Elections. The Republican operatives compared the list with lists of voters who requested absentee ballots.

"A bad registration card can be an accident or fraud. A bad card AND an Absentee Ballot request is a clear case of fraud," argued Bush-Cheney campaign staffer Robert Paduchik.

”I have already tasked our IT [information technology] person with creating a match list between the Board of Elections return mail list and the Absentee Ballot request list,” according to an e-mail from Christopher McInerney, a Griffin colleague and a RNC researcher.

However, McInerney cautioned about having “GOP fingerprints" on the challenges.

"I would think we are less worried about ‘fingerprints’ if we have decent evidence that fraudulent ballots are being cast,” responded GOP strategist Christopher Guith. “I think the intent is to take the Board of Elections' list and challenge absentee ballots? At that point, isn't it more important to stop absentee ballots that we have a high certainty of fraud than avoid the hit?"

Griffin responded, "I guess we have to make sure we have bodies. It seems like it always comes down to bodies. Why don't you ask your peeps in each state at issue if they have the resources to do this? Then, I might/can put some resources in the states that are lacking."

Last July, in a letter to the Justice Department, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, and Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, protested Republican use of these tactics.

"Caging is a reprehensible voter suppression tactic, and it may also violate federal law and the terms of applicable judicially enforceable consent decrees," the Whitehouse-Kenney letter read.

GOP Strategy

In a forthcoming book, In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration, former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, one of the nine federal prosecutors fired, said Republican officials in his state were far less interested in election reforms and more intent on suppressing votes.

"But there was a more sinister reading to such urgent calls for reform, not to mention the Justice Department's strident insistence on harvesting a bumper crop of voter fraud prosecutions. That implication is summed up in a single word: ‘caging.’
 
"Not only did the [Bush] administration stoop to such seamy expedients to press its agenda in 2004," Iglesias wrote. "It had the full might and authority of the federal government and its prosecutorial powers to accomplish its ends."

The controversies over the prosecutor firings and the alleged “voter caging” led Griffin to resign from his post as acting U.S. Attorney rather than undergo a bruising confirmation hearing.

But the RNC appears to value Griffin’s political talents enough to bring him back onboard to look for derogatory information that might damage Barack Obama’s campaign.

Griffin is "one of the best political operatives in the country," a Republican source told NBC’s FirstRead.

Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org

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